NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 40 – CLOSE

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

40

Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJ Marshall Trust

In honor of a brother and his love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you say?” he breathes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E—li—sa . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, but—”

“Did you threaten her fucking family?”

“No—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“FUCK!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I really love that one.”

“I’ll recite it to you later.”

Later? So more embargo? “Promise?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His breath seems to suspend again. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lieutenant?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not yet; they’re still at work.”

“And Elisa—how is she holding up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love you, I mouth to him.

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

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

“That makes two of us, General.”

“Is this some wizard’s idea?”

A wizard? What does that mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Umm, we keep them close, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure, Just Jack, what do you need?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I will. Bye, Just Jack.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Us

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

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

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

“Should we try now?”

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

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

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

“Just in the kitchen. You’ll see.”

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

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

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

“Hi,” I breathe, smiling up at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only for me to stagger on the doorstep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow, us, somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m still working on that part.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And to leaving the past behind.”

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

“Let’s hear him out,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you feeling?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Name even one. And mean it.”

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

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

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

“Exactly. So name another.”

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

“So basically lying and competitive sports?”

“Basically.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 38 – MASTERS

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

38

Masters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That line . . .” he breathes.

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

“They were there!” he gasps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The DIA?” I interrupt, confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not—my—fault.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, don’t worry. That’s not a tear.”

“It’s not?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not.”

“Then what is it?”

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

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

He nods. “It has to be.”

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

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

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

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“But you believe it now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nods. “As much as I could.”

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

“Try what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You thought perfectly.”

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

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

“What does it cause?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aiden, love, if—”

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

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

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

“No, not even that.”

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

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

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

“Oh!” I gasp.

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

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

“Christ, Elisa, relax!”

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

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

“Mmmm.”

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

No answer, except maybe the glower becomes darker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be right here, dreaming too.”

“What will you dream?”

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

“It’s Mrs. Willoughby, right?”

“Right.” He chuckles again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a beautiful dream.

©2022 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 37 – STOP

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

37

Stop

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

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

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

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

“You know what I mean.”

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

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

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

“I’ve missed them too.”

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

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

“They like your pun.”

“I like their everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never questioned that.”

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

So that’s what I do now: pretend.

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

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

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

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

“You know, I can walk, Elisa.”

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

“It helps you with the calm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do they sing now?”

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

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

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

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

“It’s everything,” he finishes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elisa—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Depends on the word.”

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

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

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

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

But will it be enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were there!” he whispers.

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

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

“That’s not it,” he murmurs.

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

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

“What makes no sense?”

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

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

He frowns. “Why?”

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

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

“Hmm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, and I’m very late at it.”

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

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

“A good guess but keep trying.”

“Peace?”

“No, but it could have been.”

“Air?”

“No.”

“Coming home?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know, I was high.”

“All the better.”

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

My love, he is reading,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours,

Elisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it enough?”

“No, nothing is worth this pain.”

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

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

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

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

“Then what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“I finished the entire War and Peace.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss what?”

“Loving me that way. Without fear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why that one?”

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

Almost? Don’t you mean equal?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elisa, there you are. How is he?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never.”

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

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

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

“I’ll be right back, love,” I murmur.

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

“James, can you help me with something?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop!”©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 36 – FORTIS

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

36

Fortis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There, now we can set off into the night. How far to the pipes? Let them come. Laugh with Marshall because it stinks. Guide your brothers the way only you know how. Lead them out into the fresh air. I’m right there with you because we’re both untouchable now.”

Under me, impossibly the shudders double over his body. His neck jerks to the side, teeth vised together as if he’s saying no. I search through every space of my mind—it’s still clear, still holding—and I need all of it now. I need everything I learned and saw to get this right. “Is it the schoolyard? Don’t fight it. Look around in your memory, not just at Marshall. Look at the last place you were together, well and alive. Is it so different than where we are now? You said there was a market. Are there veggies, like the flowers here on Elysium? Bright tomatoes for poppies, leeks for daisies, eggplant for orchids, a hijab like this blanket. Where is the ancient Euphrates River? Is it flowing by you like River Windrush? Now search closer. What do you hear? Are there cars? Is there music like the willows? What is it singing?”

A sharp inhale of breath burns from his lips. Hotter and guttural. Can Aiden see what I saw, hear what I heard? Is his mind racing ahead like mine is? The chill of fear starts crawling towards my elbows.

“Let’s find Marshall together. I know it’s about to start. You can’t stop it, sweetheart, it’s already there. Waiting . . .”

Another gasp of breath. His chest jolts against mine—once, twice, three times with the IED that is deafening him now. I slide off gently to his side to lessen the weight and bring my lips to his ear. “Shh, love, listen to my voice, to Für Elise. Look past the smoke, past the broken little boy—what do you see? Anything familiar? Ignore the fiery sky; it’s just a hot sunset. And the black smoke is just like that boulder in the river. Both dark and deadly, but neither won in the end.”

Aiden’s heart is still thundering under my hand. And although the fists stay locked, his pupils start racing again. Searching or finding? Or losing himself even deeper in the terror?

“We’re almost to the end, love.” I keep going as the chill reaches my shoulders. “Let’s run inside the school where Marshall is waiting. You’re still his best hope, trust me.”

His thighs vibrate against mine like the imploding desert. His neck jerks again to the side as though he is trying to pull away.

“Take me upstairs with you, step by step, like Für Elise before bed. This is just another dance.” The ice starts biting my heels, frosting up my legs. “Here we are. Marshall is already there. You still have time together, fight again. Save Jazz. He’s stuck in the fires below, you know that. Search through the smoke. What do you see? Something old? Something new? You remember it. Now see it, hear it all—not just the horror.”

Another shudder ripples through Aiden’s body, another gust of breath. Because he saved his friend? Or is his mind weaving the memories together, giving him a new angle?

“The blank minutes are coming now. Let’s use them.” I stroke his heart, counting its thunderous beats as my chest starts throbbing. “Look around the classroom you remember. Let’s find the safe, the familiar in this place. It’s always there.” I scan through the images my mind captured. They’re still crystal clear but in the horizons, dread is rolling in like clouds. “Are there desks like dad’s library? What’s on the walls? And the floor? Is there a pattern there? Maybe like the chessboard you gave me or the rug of planets where you fell and came back again. Because you will come back from this, too. Trust me, trust yourself. Is there a blackboard like every classroom? Is there anything on it? Something different than the horror?” Yes, there is, the rose in chalk, I just hope he is able to find it. “Hold on to that, my love, as it begins. I’m right here.”

The tremor that runs through him shakes my very bones. It seeps through my skin as the chill spreads over my scalp. But the agony is chewing my heart, taking flaming bite after flaming bite. Will it not fade as fear sneaks in? A shiver scurries down my spine. I fight it back by curling next to Aiden’s body heat. Maybe my chilled limbs will cool him. Fire and ice—how will our world end?

“I know Marshall is suffering,” I tell him, peeking at my phone. An hour and ten minutes past the reel. How much longer is it safe? “Try to look away, that’s not where your fight is. Find the safe things you saw earlier. The blackboard, the walls, the floor. I know there’s blood, but something else is that same color, too. Something happy, something ours. The American Beauty roses we planted together in Portland at your house. They’re growing, just like our love.”

If he hears me, I don’t know it. His shoulders strain against the cables that are binding him, utterly unchanged. Another tremble flitters down my neck; the ice spreads to my belly. Quickly, the vast skies of my mind are shrinking, smaller and smaller.

“Aiden? Hold on a little longer, love. This is the hardest part. Turn to Marshall. Look at him now. Can you see his face? You said you know he smiled. Is he saying something?”

Not your fault, my brother. Not your fault, Marshall gasped, but could Aiden hear him as low as it sounded? And how can I tell him without him knowing what I saw? Already my memories of his words, the reel photos, and the video are blending into a macabre mosaic of horror.

“You know what Marshall would say even if you can’t hear him. He would say he loves you. He would say it’s not your fault. He is right, love. Listen to Marshall, to everything you have just seen in your own mind. Listen, then let him go.”

But if he is trying, the past won’t let him out of its jaws. The shudders are still rocking his body, unabated. His pupils are still racing. Have I failed already?  Did I make the wrong choice? Should I have let these last days run quietly to our closure? Can I still go back? But if I can’t bring him from this torture, what other chance is there? Each question claws at my brain as the shield of the protein starts to crumble.

“Aiden, love, it wasn’t your fault. Not your fault. Not your fault, sweetheart,” I repeat, blowing my wintry breath over his lips and scrambling for my phone. It slips through my no-longer sure fingers. I pull up the name, tapping away with one hand as the other cools Aiden’s burning forehead.

“Dr. Helen, you there?”

Her text is immediate, as if she was waiting by the phone. “Elisa, thank goodness. Did you start the reel?”

“Yes. Aiden still away. Over an hour. High fever. Not dropping. Why is that?”

Her answer is not immediate now. The three dots pulse on the screen once, twice, as another shiver trembles in my fingers. Then: “Is your protein holding?”

No, but I want the truth. “Yes.”

The three dots don’t hesitate now. “It sounds like psychogenic fever. It can happen when the mind is under severe duress. Particularly, if in his memory, Aiden is locked in the desert, with the fires burning for such a long time. Do you have anything cold nearby?”

Just my frozen body. “Yes.”

“Good, try to cool him as best you can. It should return to normal once he breaks free.”

But why does even a minute longer feel too far away? “How much longer before it’s unsafe?”

Another fire-quick answer as she thinks me still unbreakable: “Unknown. Theoretically Aiden’s memory can stay in the past forever. At this point, it’s all up to it.”

A shudder riffs through my fingers. The ice spreads to my throat. Forever? “No!” The savage denial clangs through Elysium. No, no, it can’t do that to him. I won’t let it.

On the screen blinks another text: “Elisa?”

I force my icicle finger to the phone again. “Not all up to it. I’ll text when he’s back.”

More dots race on the screen but I no longer have eyes for them. “Aiden, love, listen to me.” I press my cold palms to his cheeks, blowing on his lips. “Let Marshall be at peace. It’s not the goodbye you should have had. There shouldn’t have been a goodbye at all. So let’s have a different one now until you’re grey and ancient. Tell Marshall what you want to say. Tell him you love him. Tell him you miss him every day.”

Aiden’s breath rips and snags through his teeth as though he is suffocating with his own memories. I curve one icy hand over his forehead and the rest around his volcanic neck. “Tell Marshall he’ll always be your best man.” I keep going with every last brave breath I have left. “Promise him you’ll live. You’ll start playing his song more. We’ll have his favorite food. You’ll love the girl in the letters. Tell him he’s the one who gave you the idea. Thank him. Thank him from me, too. I’m so grateful he loved as he did in a war, writing to Jasmine with that flashlight in his mouth. Because without Marshall, I may have never been born in your head, giving you calm even then. He gave us that example, this dream we still have. Thank him, love, and give him a hug. Hold him as long as you need. And when you’re ready, tell Marshall to rest in peace.”

But Aiden’s body is still locked in chains. His heart is still mortar fire between us, ripping to pieces.

“Take my hand, love.” I force my voice to stay calm with every last whisp of the protein and wrap my chilled fingers around his fist where the new blood droplets are blooming. “Can you feel it? Take it and let Marshall go. You’re not leaving all of him, you’re keeping his soul, his love and courage. We won’t relegate him to the physical loss. Tell him goodbye and come with me.” I tug on his fist as though we’re walking. “It’s just us, down the stairs now, across the burning yard. Follow me. Let’s go for a walk along the Euphrates River like we do here.” I blow over his forehead like a breeze. “Take a handful of cold water, splash it on your face.”

I press my free fingers to his cheeks again. His skin is as hot as the scorching agony in my chest. The only spot in my body still burning. Oddly the flames are raging higher there, as if racing the ice that has spread everywhere else. But they will lose in the end as I become more and more myself. No more a super-hero or Cinderella in a fairytale. I’m just Elisa, the ballgown in rags, the clock is ticking to midnight, closer and closer to the moment both Aiden and I dread. Yet I’d take it, I’d take it a million times over only for the chance to bring Aiden back.

“Wash your hands in the river, love,” I continue bravely for as long as I can, grabbing a tissue from my purse and wiping the blood droplets from Aiden’s fists. “There’s no blood there. Not Marshall’s or anyone else’s. It’s just cold, clear water, cooling you after the flames. And then when you’re ready, the two us can come home. Not back to what we’ve lost, but back to what we’ll always have. Our love. Even if we can’t be together, you and I will always belong to each other. So come back with me, come back to our s—side.”

My voice breaks. And with a final gust of arctic air, terror finally reaches my chest. As though to escape the inexorable dread, my burning heart leaps in my throat. But there is no escape. With a racing thud-thud-thud, the ice fills my heart chambers. The boundless universe of my mind snaps back, rattling my skull. And with a mighty shudder that rocks me from my stomach to my fingertips, the last wisp of the protein blows out of my system.

Just like that, bravery is gone.

I know because its veil is ripped from my eyes and the world comes into its usual focus. The emerald sheen fades from the grass. The breeze cuts like December. Elysium is darker than I had realized, the sun long buried behind the hilltops. And before my frozen eyes, I see the true terror, unsoftened by the protein: Aiden’s torment. I thought I was seeing every stab of torture on his body, but I was wrong. I should have known the protein had blurred the agony to let me function. Without it, the image becomes incomprehensible. Even after five hours of burning, my unfortified mind cannot absorb pain like this. Every pore of Aiden’s face is flooded with it, every harsh breath trapped between his teeth. The fever is a lot hotter than I was feeling, the varnish of sweat like a second, liquid skin, dripping from his lashes like tears. Under the bluish dimness of twilight, he looks vigil-like, suspended in that infinitesimal fragment of time between beginning and end. Yet his beauty somehow stays the same—just as impossible, just as dazzling. Even throttled in terror I can see that. I try to move a single finger glued to his chest but the terror of all terrors freezes me beyond all capacity for thought or movement as if it revived every other fear that was erased from the past. I just stare in horror, unable to remember how to breathe or blink or stand.

But under my frosty hand, Aiden’s heart throbs faster, tolling out each beat like a death knell. Thawing me back.

“Aiden!” I wheeze through chattering teeth, scavenging for every crumb of strength left. “Aiden, love, I’m here. It’s over now. Marshall is at peace. Now it’s your turn. Let’s go back. Come home with me, please.” I try to sound calm, but my breath shatters into sobs. Glacial tears gush from my eyes. And once I move, my own body starts shaking violently in tandem with this. “Aiden, I love you, I need you,” I whimper, scrambling to call Doctor Helen but as my tears splash down on his lips, everything shifts.

Aiden’s chest heaves as if he’s resurfacing from drowning, and a ragged gasp strangles from his teeth.

“Aiden?” I cry, bolting up on my knees.

A long tremor shivers down his body. His muscles snap up like knives, vibrating as if he’s breaking through the cable chains, and a low snarl builds in his throat. It tears from his lips and becomes a single word. My name.

“Elisa,” he rasps, and the incredible eyes fling open. Darker than I’ve ever seen them, almost midnight, locked in undiluted torture. So hollow, like his very soul has died, but open and seeing again.

“Oh, thank God!” I bawl, collapsing on top of him, grabbing and kissing the first spots in my reach. His hair, his scar, his eyelids, the deep V between his brows. “There you are!” I sob between each kiss. “There you are, you brave, strong man! I’m here, I’m right here!”

His arm coils around my waist and he sits up unsteadily, covering me like a shield.

“Aiden, lie—” I protest, but one of his hands shudders up to my face, tilting it so his ravaged eyes can see me. Instantly, they widen with a terror that seems to break through his own bravery. “The protein,” he chokes in understanding. “When did it end? How long­­ have you been like this?”

“Never mind me!” I splutter, pressing down on his chest. “Aiden, lie back down! You’ve been through hell. You’re still in it.”

Another shudder rocks his great frame, but he doesn’t relent. “How—long—Elisa?”

“Shh, just a few minutes ago,” I reel off quickly so he can relax. “I’m truly alright, just worried about you. Please,you really need to rest.”

I don’t convince him. “How do you feel other than worried?” he demands, his eyes scanning me urgently. But as they search my face with visceral dread, the faintest speck of turquoise flickers in the tortured depths.

Such a small light—the farthest star in the darkest abyss—yet it brightens my whole vision more brilliantly than the protein even in the pit of terror. Not with the razor acuity that magnified every pixel, but with the supple softness of the whole. That togetherness that turns blades of grass into fields, notes into music, places into—

“Home.” I tremble with forceful longing, reality fully dawning on me only now that he is here, only now that I can tell him. “I feel home. Except home is so much better than I ever knew, with you next to me.”

His eyes see my truth even in torment—all my ability to hide things from him is gone. He can read me like his war letters, knowing every spoken and unspoken line. Exactly as I love it. I realize abruptly how much I had missed the world with fear, with myself, with Aiden and me, precisely as we were made. Was that another lesson dad wanted me to learn? That the emerald grass is not greener on the other side? That we are imperfectly perfect as we are?

“Oh, Aiden!” I cry again, locking my arms around his neck, burying my face there in his delicious, warm scent.

His shuddering arms tighten around me. “What’s wrong?” His hoarse, anxious voice is more melodic than Für Elise in my normal ears. The most perfect harmony, heavenly and mine.

“I’m just s—so glad we’re both back. I missed us s—so much.”

Another tremor rocks through his body. His breath is so shallow and fast, his muscles vibrating steel, but he pulls me closer and runs his fingers through my hair. “Shh, you never left, and I’m here . . . I promised you I would come back.”

I nod even though I know soon he will leave again, this time forever. But at least he’s back from Fallujah even if its flames are still scorching him, dragging him with their scalding fingers into the inferno. The vicious shudder that runs through him reverberates down to my bones. It snaps me back to my senses. What the hell am I doing? How can I give him one more second of worry? I wipe my face and clutch his feverish shoulders.

“I’m sorry, love. I really am fine, just deliriously relieved. It’s you we need to worry about. You’re burning up.” I press my cold palm gently to his forehead, even though I don’t need to. I can feel the heat waves emanating on my tongue.

“What?” He frowns as he registers himself at last. For the first time since they opened, his eyes drift to his own chest. Instantly, the turquoise light dies. His gaze seems to search inward as though he is trying to recognize his body but perhaps can’t. The weight of his arm suddenly presses down on my waist, heavier as if the torture of the last few hours—the last twelve years in fact—is crashing on him again. “Is this . . . heat . . . part of the protein?” His voice drops too. “My dose must be burning off faster than yours . . . I was terrified for you just now.”

I trail my fingers to his cheek. Even his beard is hot, the way my hair feels when I run it through a straightening iron. “I’m not surprised at all that fear is returning after what you’ve been through. The terrors you’re facing are a lot worse than mine. But I don’t think the fever is from the protein. I texted Doctor Helen, and she thinks it’s psychogenic fever. From the trauma. You were gone for almost two hours after the reel. How are you feeling?”

His eyes round in disbelief. “Two hours?” he staggers, finally blinking away from our heat dome to scan the area around us. Dusk has cast its velvet cape. The half-moon is glowing like Aiden’s lost smile, gilding his stunned face. That’s when he sees the blood on his blisters that I couldn’t reach. From the moonlight, the droplets shine silver like mercury. He turns back to me, eyes burning with that unspeakable agony, wiping a spot on my cheek. “I left you—alone for almost three hours—terrified and hurting?” His low voice is half-strangled again, sharpening in that sword-edge against himself.

“No, you didn’t. I was invincible until five minutes ago. You came back exactly when I needed you most.” I take his hands quickly, dabbing off the blood with my tissue. “I don’t know how you managed it, but you did. You’re braver even than the protein.”

He doesn’t seem to agree. He looks haunted, eyes drifting in and out of time and space. His shoulders rise and quiver, as if the invisible chains have bound him again.

“Sweetheart, please lie down. Give yourself some time so the fever can break.” I press on his chest, but he is still staring into the invisible terror, somehow both here and far. His irises seem to be tracing the rapid movement of his mind with a look of unmet expectation. “Aiden? What is it? What are you feeling?”

“I’m just . . . trying to process.” His voice triggers a memory of my own. It’s slower and adrift like the night Edison struck, after Aiden was wrenched awake by my scream. I taste panic in the back of my throat.

“Please, don’t! We can do that later. Just look at me—give yourself some calm. Everything else can wait for now.”

Maybe he is worn even beyond the limits of his immense strength. Or maybe it’s because he gave me his word. Whatever the reason, he rests his gaze on me. And in a few heartbeats, the turquoise light gleams back like his soul, trying for life again and again. So celestial that tears spring in my eyes.

“Shh, don’t cry, Elisa,” he murmurs, wiping them with his fingers. “Don’t cry for me.”

How can I not? He is my everything. But I mop up my eyes and force a smile.

“They’re happy-adjacent tears,” I mumble. “Even though you’ve banned that word.”

“How do I make them . . . fully happy?”

I swallow hard against a sob. “Just stay with me in this present moment.”

He must see my terror twisting into frantic need—or perhaps he needs it too—because he gives in and lies back on the blanket, pulling me against his chest. His clasp on my waist is bruising with urgency, his hold instinctive, familiar like my own breath. And for a precious, fleeting moment it feels like the old times even if they’re forever gone.  “Shh, Elisa” he whispers again. “Don’t worry . . . I’ll be alright.”

Will he? The shudders aren’t slowing at all. The fever isn’t dropping. He almost seems worse. What if it was a mistake to walk with him through Fallujah? What if it was a mistake to restart at all? My mind gives me no answers anymore. The inability to doubt myself is gone. All that’s left is terror and pain. I nestle into his body heat, trying to think of what I learned about how to cope with this. Try to stay only here with him, I suppose. Grip my faith with both hands even if all confidence, bravery, strength, and clarity have disappeared.

“Yes, you will be,” I tell us both. “You’ll be okay. You will heal. I know it. I know it.”

His heart is thudding more heavily under my palm. Its beat echoes in my ears like our bodies are hollow pipelines, carrying thunder from point A to point B, from glowing tents to blood-soaked classrooms and back again.

“Thank you,” Aiden murmurs after a moment, his voice still rough.

I prop myself up on his chest to peek at him. His eyes are still haunted. “For what?”

“For not giving up. For the faith it took to stand by me that entire time . . . For everything you must have done . . . I can’t seem to access it all yet . . . but I know this one was . . . hard.” He meets my gaze as he admits this out loud for the first time.

I want to ask what happened, if he could hear me, if he could follow, if he held Marshall’s hand and said goodbye, if Marshall spoke back, if any of it made any sense, if it helped or made it worse in the end. But I’d rather die here and now than have him think about that horror one more second. Maybe later, when the fever has dropped, if he ever wants to speak of it again.

“I will never give up on you. The protein fading didn’t change my faith in you at all.”

“I know . . .”

K-n-o-w. I hope he always keeps that knowledge inside him. “Try to think only of that faith and this present moment. We’re both safe, Für Elise is still playing, the stars are twinkling—”

“And you’re in my arms,” he finishes, pulling me tighter against him even though there is no more space between our bodies for air. But agony is flowing in his eyes as his memory tries to drown him back.

“And you still have your surprise waiting for you,” I blurt out, desperate to distract him.

It works. His eyes narrow as though he’s searching through the black smoke. “So you really did say something about a surprise . . . that wasn’t a memory?”

I cannot fathom how deep he must have been wading in the foundations of his psyche to be unable to tell a memory from the present. What has it done to him, merging the past and the present so closely?

“No, you’re right. I did tell you about it but it was early on. Do you want to see it?”

“More than anything . . . except your face.”

His voice, his words, so him, yet so far. My body blisters like the brave pain is returning to finish me off without the protein. “Well, you’ll have to look away but only for a few seconds. It’s by your feet. Or at least the first part is.”

That distracts him again. His eyebrows unfurl out of the worried V into surprised arches.

“There are two parts?”

I nod, wishing there could have been a thousand for what he lived through. He sits up on his elbows, still unsteady, holding me to his side. And then he sees them. The words I Sharpied on the soles of his wading boots like he engraved on my sneakers on our first date. The words that mean so much to us.

“He walks in beauty.”

His expression transforms into a prism of emotion, changing in that quick way that always leaves me a step behind. Surprise, longing, tenderness, settling at last into a ghost of the worn half-smile, so beautiful I almost start sobbing again.

“You know,” he says, and the kaleidoscope of feeling is in his voice too. “I think Byron is turning in his grave right now.”

“That’s okay. I’ve broken up with all poets except Dante.”

“Especially Shakespeare?”

“Don’t mention that charlatan to me—I’m banning his name.”

The frayed smile fights valiantly against the weight of his memories. “How do you manage to find a way to make me smile even now, Elisa?”

I push up the corner of his mouth to help the smile win. Every point of contact tingles with that same electric charge I felt during the protein, and for a blink, the diamonds of sweat might as well be the sparkling halo again. “The same way you healed me. We just add love. It works.”

“Yes . . . it does.”

His eyes linger on mine, ravaged and tender, then fall on my mouth. His grip on my waist tightens, a shudder ripples from his iron fingers into my flesh, and his sharp breath brushes my lips. Just a heated breeze but it catches in me like madness. A hallucination of halos bursts in my vision. His own lips part as if to taste my air. The dusk changes between us—charging with longing, desire, need, everything we have lost, everything we will miss. And just like that the reality of our shattered love rips through the flimsy gossamer layer of dreams. The impossible weight crushes us both, strangling me and bending Aiden’s shoulders with a new wave of torture. Agony over agony over agony—all of them untamed. When does it end? The fledgling turquoise light dies under the gravitational force of pain. It stops his breath. His blazing grip loosens and drops from my waist.

I take his hand in both of mine, barely finding air myself. “Aiden, love, come home. You need to rest. Everything else we’re feeling—that’s pain for another day. Tonight, all that matters is your health.”

He watches me with his burning eyes. “I never wanted to give you pain, Elisa . . . Not today, not any other day, yet I keep doing it over and over again.”

“No, my love, you don’t. You’ve never given me pain. But tonight, we can give each other some peace. We don’t have to go back to our bedroom. But you need to be with our other happy memories so you can heal, and I need to take care of you like you take care of everything for me. Then you can see the second part of your surprise, too.” I actually have it here, but anything to lure him back.

He doesn’t answer, still breathless.

“Think of it as another embargo,” I invent wildly, desperate for any scrap of argument before he manages to recover enough oxygen to protest. “A night with no plans, no decisions, no changes, nothing at all except rest. Please? Or I’ll stay out here with you, too. Because there’s no universe where I’m leaving you alone tonight.” My voice breaks twice as I try my best shot, my last chance. For I know in my heart that if he doesn’t come to our home tonight, Aiden will never find home again.

He is still looking at me with war on his shoulders, fire on his skin, bombs on his chest, shamals in his breath, but the faintest light kindles in his eyes at the memory of that first, perfect day of our love. Maybe it’s that memory or my threat to sleep outside. Or the sound of my pain and the palpable fear blowing out of me like the fever from his body. Or perhaps his own need has reached a level that defies even his strength. I don’t know which reason does it, but he doesn’t argue as I expected. He searches my face in his way of seeing everything and I gaze back in my way of hiding nothing. After an immeasurable moment, he folds our fingers together, warming my skin with his touch.

“Embargo then,” he agrees as he did on our first date, three months ago. “For tonight.”

Forever, I want to answer, but that chance is lost for us. “Thank you,” I say fervently, nearly collapsing again in relief. I lean in to kiss his cheek, as I did then, too. The thick beard tickles my lips, making me shiver. A heated sigh flurries in my hair at the touch. When I look up at him, his eyes are a little lighter under the anguish. “Let’s go, love. I think you’ll like the second part of your surprise. It’s not a Nikon camera, I’m afraid. Or flowers from every genus in the world.” I reference his gifts to me from our embargo, trying to keep the happy memories going.

“I don’t need a camera or every flower. I’m partial to only one.”

We rise precariously, mostly because now that I have to be vertical, my legs are shaking too hard for balance. Somehow, Aiden manages to stand before me, pulling me up and supporting my weight despite the shudders still roiling over him. But he is worn, more worn than I’ve ever seen him. His graceful movements are slower, heavier; his breathing harsh and labored. The fever has hooded his gaze. And every few moments, his eyes drift out of focus, deepening and hollowing, as if searching for something he cannot find.

I try to beat him to the evil headset, but he swipes it up before my fingers can tremble in its direction. As soon as he touches it, he gasps as though the metal zinged him. “Marshall Fortis,” he murmurs, flashing his wide eyes to me in shock. “Marshall the Brave.”

My heart kicks my ribs as I realize what he is remembering, but at least as triggers go, it’s not the worst, or at least not as excruciating as what came after it. “Don’t think about that right now, love.” I take the monitor from his frozen hand and hide it inside my parka before he can wrestle it back. “There will be time to revisit. You really need to give your mind time to rest.”

But he is looking at me in astoundment. “Elisa,” he breathes. “Is this real? You’re naming the protein after . . . Marshall?”

We almost never say the name—the torture is too raw for that—even though Marshall is always with us, in every heartbeat. But as Aiden utters it now, there is a note of wonder under the blistering agony. A note worth every sleepless night, every broken vial, every scorching minute of my own pain.

I reach on my tiptoes, caressing his scar. “Yes, I am, if you think he would have liked it.”

I can see memories play in his eyes—light and dark—but he studies the lines of my face. “I’m sure he would have. But do you? . . . Or are you doing this for me?”

“I’m doing it for both of us. I already named the nutritional supplement after dad, and I always thought I’d name the protein after you because you’re the bravest person I know. But now, after everything, I think we should give Marshall something good. Something he deserves. Don’t you?”

A million emotions flit in his expression, too deep, too fast for me to follow. I think I glimpse tenderness and pain and something else I can’t name. “Thank you,” he says after a moment, his tone subdued. “For honoring him like this. He does deserve it . . .  He deserves it a lot more than—”

“Don’t,” I put my hand over his lips to stop the words I know will come. A lot more than him. “You deserve it most of all because you didn’t live that horror only once. You live it over and over again without a break. But you deserve something else above all: peace. And if I ever manage a protein for that, I’ll call it Aiden Liber—Aiden the Free”

He doesn’t answer, but his lips press gently inside my palm. It’s a chaste, reverent kiss, yet firelets spark on my skin at the same time that tension bolts through him. With a clenched jaw, he removes my hand from his mouth, but doesn’t let it go. He just holds it, entwining our fingers. But something about that joining rivets him. He stares at our folded hands with that same searching look, as if he is seeing them for the first time. Why is that?

“Hey,” I squeeze his hand, inching so close my parka brushes his bare arm. “Let it go for now, whatever it is. Embargo, remember?”

He shakes his head, his inquisitive gaze flying to the blanket, still seeking, hunting for something he doesn’t seem to find. “It’s not that, exactly.”

“Then what is it?”

He squints again with a rare look of confusion, of an unanswered question. I can almost see his brain racing in the background. “I’m not sure. Something feels . . . different.”

“Different how?”

He blinks back at me, the tectonic plates in his stormy eyes shifting. “Hard to explain. My memory’s speed seems to have doubled . . . or tripled. Images are flying by faster, reshuffling before I can reconcile them . . .  It has to be the lingering effect of the protein. You said there is more space to process without fear.”

I nod, but an icy shiver flays my skin and I grip his arm for us both. Doubled or tripled? How is that possible? What do we do? We’re barely surviving the usual extraordinary speed of his memory. What hope do we have against this one that has been unleashed? I shudder again.

“Come, we need to bring down this fever and you need to sleep. Maybe things will settle in the morning.”

He nods, still looking unsettled. “I’m sure you’re right. Don’t worry about me . . . You need rest, too.” He throws the blanket over my shoulders, not missing the trembles, and hands me my purse and phone. Then we set off across Elysium, him carrying most of my weight, me trying do the same with my arm around his waist as we tread home together at last.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 35 – BRAVE

Hey, hey friends,

Thanks so much for your response to the last chapter and your good wishes to me. Love you all for your kindness and support. I know that last chapter was brutal, but I promise below the pain, there were a lot of clues. You’ll see why in the next few chapters that are left. Here is the next one. Brave. And that’s all I’ll say about that. Bear with me as these last chapters take a bit longer. They are harder as I tie up all the loose ends. Enjoy.  xo, Ani

35

Brave

It is very difficult, as I wait for Benson to pick me up at Bia, to convince myself not to sprint all the way to Burford on my own. The massive force of the protein buzzing in my muscles makes it seem easy, fun even. But my mind is still diamond clear and recognizes that, although I think I could sprint the twenty miles, wheels will be a lot faster. And I don’t have a second to waste. Oxford’s spires and domes are already glowing with the dipping sun. How much longer will bravery last in my system? How much longer can Aiden breathe without hope?

I grip the small vial in my purse, pacing on the sidewalk against the raw energy. Questions and answers drum like a chemical Für Elise in my brain. Am I right? Will this work for Aiden? What if I’m squandering our last chance for closure, for acceptance? But although the protein has expanded my mind to wonder, it allows zero space for self-doubt. I know when it wears off, fear will suffocate me again but, right now, my decisions are made. The battle plan for the reel is in place. I just have to implement it. And implement it, I will.

The black frame of the Rover glints down St. Giles Boulevard. As soon as I glimpse it, I hurl myself down the street to meet Benson half-way. Because in minutes now, I will finally see Aiden exactly as he is—without the distortion of fear, the limits of my imagination, or a camera lens. I will see the true wonder of him.

The Rover jolts forward the instant Benson must spot me running, and in seconds it screeches to a stop at my feet.

“Kid, what’s wrong?” he booms in alarm as I dive in the backseat. “What happened? Someone hurt you?”

“No, but I think I’ve found a way for Aiden,” I almost shout the words. “But we need to hurry please! I don’t know how much time I have left.”

“Oh shit!” His eyes pop wide, and he shoots off the curb like a bullet before my seatbelt clicks. “Is it the secret thing you’ve been working on?”

And everything else implicated by it. “Yes, but it’s so much more than that. I just hope Aiden cooperates. How was he today?”

“He was just finishing up at the riverbank when you texted me.” He frowns at the windshield, avoiding the real question. But I don’t need more to know every single second is more precious than the protein itself. As though Benson can hear my thoughts, the Rover plunges through two red lights while horns blare everywhere behind us. A single neuron registers how terrified I’d be at this speed without bravery. But not today. Today, it feels like a crawl compared to the race of blood in my veins. I lock all my muscles to stay in the backseat and not rip through the steel door and start flying.

As soon as we clear Oxford’s limits, Benson punches the petrol until the rolling Cotswolds hills become a green blur. The super-emotions start churning wildly. Unfathomably, they’re still growing. All potent, all at the same velocity, each bursting forward at the right trigger, each with its own sensations, force, and rhythm. Except I know them better now after the last three hours. Not how to soften them—only fear can do that—but how to endure. How to strengthen myself.

“Should I give a heads up to Mr. Hale’s parents or the Marines?” Benson asks as he swerves around Burford’s village center for the open country road. “They’ve been texting him happy pictures all day.”

I’ve already thought about this. “Not yet. I don’t want to raise their hopes until we know how it works for Aiden.” If I know anything—know it from my prickly scalp to the bouncing backs of my heels—is the power of hope to kill. And rebuild.

Far in the distance, my eyes capture Elysium’s brilliant dot. From the speed, it looks like it’s zooming toward us, not us to it.  The tires squeal to a stop by the garage in only sixty-five seconds. I fling myself out as soon as the wheels stand still.

“Is there anything I can do?” Benson pleads, half his torso out of the window. “Anything at all you need?”

I clutch his umbrella-sized hand that appears suddenly normal to me. “Take a red rose to my parents and play I’ve Got a Woman, please. Until Aiden and I can.”

If he is confused by my nonsensical instructions, he doesn’t question them. “You got it. And I’ll wait by the phone if you need me.”

“Thank you,” I cry over my shoulder, already sprinting. But the rose breeze engulfs me even from here with these new senses, and I stagger for a second. It’s as if I’ve never smelled it before. So ambrosial, so complex. Not like a perfume of indistinct roses, but like the aroma of each single bloom has blended into a bouquet of a million, both profuse and entirely itself. I inhale it deeply, and then I’m hurtling down Elysium again.

A topaz pollen sparkles above the wildflowers as I blow past the inkblot of the reel.

“Support him today,” I snarl at the flattened tapestry, flying straight to the willows.

I scan the area urgently, but Aiden’s unmistakable form isn’t here. The riverbank is all finished, its walls reinforced for the winter, the muscular logs and stones like a rampart for my protection. On the very top slab is the old stereo I left him, its batteries no longer playing Für Elise. But the willows are still lamenting. Louder in my new ears, ephemeral. And their song has changed. No more ashes, ashes or wishes, wishes. With a shiver, I realize what I’m hearing.

Marshall, Marshall, Marshall . . .

“I hope you’re resting, Marshall,” I murmur. “I hope you’re singing.”

The willows chant behind me as I blast down the riverbank trail. Where could Aiden be? Not at the cottage—I know he doesn’t want to taint it with more agonized memories. And all his tools are missing. Peripherally, I recognize how terrorized I would be by now—Is he hurt? Is he gone?—but bravery overrules all those thoughts and propels my feet forward with invincibility. The world vanishes as I streak by, searching only for his tall frame.

But it takes only five minutes to find him.

He would be hard to miss even without the protein. Standing thigh deep in the river, facing away, trying to dislodge the boulder that almost killed me. He has pulled down the straps of his waders, and his bare back ripples with the storm of his movement, the powerful muscles tense even without a shadow around him. Exactly as sculpted as in that Fallujah tent. Yet his grace now is a different grace. Not airy like shamal winds but dignified like the weathered hills. The sunset turns his skin a deep gold, almost the bronze of his desert youth, and gilds his obsidian hair into a million lustrous strands, each a thread of gravity that suddenly keeps me tethered to the ground. I stare at him with my new eyes, and the super-emotions implode with crushing intensity. My feet sink into the grass like boulders of their own. And all the words leave me.

. . . !!!  . . . !!!  . . . !!! . . .

He must sense the force of my gaze because he stops his attack on the boulder and whirls around. And at last, I finally see Aiden’s face. Even if chiseled in agony.

How many hours have I spent looking at it, awake or asleep? How many days and nights dreaming of its flawless shape? I thought I knew every pore and bristle on his cheek. I thought there was not a truer truth in my world than his beauty inside out.

I had been blind with fear.

Now that I can truly see, I cannot find the words for the reality of him. They don’t exist. Not for the satin of his skin or the curve of his lips or the otherworldly eyes that belong only to me. I watch with newborn awe as my calming effect illuminates their astonishing depths to a blue without name even as worry rushes over the impossible face.

“Elisa?” he calls in panic at my stunned appearance. “You’re back fast. What’s the matter? Are you all right?”

But I still can’t speak because I’m hearing the true sound of his voice as if for the first time. It’s not just musical—it has texture, color, taste. Dark and chocolaty. More harmonious than any melody. More luxuriant than any instrument, despite the layers of pain. It resonates from his vocal cords deep in my chest, right by my heart.

He moves then, hurling the shovel aside and bounding out of the river, his waders hanging off his hips. The symphony of his movement fills my vision despite the tension wringing his Atlas shoulders. He is next to me in a thundering heartbeat that would have fried Doctor Helen’s electrodes to cinder.

“Elisa, what is it? What’s happened?” he demands, scanning me urgently from my tangled hair to my Byron sneakers.

Everything, I want to answer. War, peace, pain, love, hope . . . but before I can manage a single blink, in his dread, he abandons our closure rules. His hand curls at my neck as it used to, feeling my pulse where it’s trying to break free.

And I feel Aiden’s touch for the first, fearless time. Heat whips over my skin despite the cool temperature of his fingers from the river water. Not searing like the agony; smoldering. But just as staggering, just as instant. It jolts through every nerve ending like an orgasm that renders all my new abilities null and void. I can’t even breathe as the warmth trembles in my stomach then bursts like fireworks on my skin. In the same heartbeat, a golden haze dances around the contours of Aiden’s face. At first I think it’s the sunlight, but it’s not. As he bends over me in alarm, it flows with his shape, diaphanous and glowing, as though it’s part of him. I force my eyelids into furious blinks which takes some strength as I don’t want to miss a speck of him. But the glow is still there, radiating from his skin. What is this? Is this Aiden? Or just desire without fear? Or him and me? My fingers flutter up to the lovely aura, trying to feel it, but there’s only air. A startled gasp huffs from my lips.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s voice breaks, his arm flying around my waist as if to hold me up. Electricity tingles on my skin at each point of contact, and the dazzling light intensifies. “Talk to me! What’s wrong? Are you ill?”

Only that dread in his timbre could reach me in this moment. Only the palpable terror in his eyes, as vivid as in that Fallujah classroom. Instantly, my mind clears. Not that the desire recedes—on the contrary, it combusts through my tissues sending every cell quivering—but like the protein blazes a new dimension, making more space for everything to coexist. Thought, feeling, and this inexorable compulsion to touch him. Somehow it compounds bravery, and abruptly I leave even invincibility behind. Under his hand, I feel immortal.

“Elisa, for the love of God!” Aiden chokes, his hand at my neck shuddering.

I wrap my fingers around his, holding his touch to my skin, and finally the words come.

“I’m alright,” I breathe, my voice low with wonder. “Better than alright actually. I’ve never been stronger or more amazed.”

His body doesn’t relax. If anything, it tenses more. “What? What do you mean? You feel very warm—do you have a fever?”

I look only into his eyes as they burn on mine and say the words I’ve been praying to tell him for so long. “It’s the protein, love. It’s finished.”

Shock sweeps over his face. The celestial eyes widen into perfect pools of astonishment, the tectonic plates in their depths stunned motionless. I take full advantage of his frozen form to feel the effervescent radiance around his face, watching it swirl intangibly like stardust around my fingers. And very lightly, I stroke his surreal cheek, testing reality. Instantly, the orgasmic tremor thrills in my belly. How can even this slightest touch feel like this? What would a kiss do? His taste? All this maleness? The golden halo flares around Aiden’s face as the smolder simmers in my veins.

As if it burns his skin, Aiden finally blinks. The phantom of his heart-shattering smile tugs at the corner of his lips. The first smile since the end. “Of course you did it,” he says at last, his philharmonic voice deep with emotion. “How could I be so surprised?”

We did it together.”

He shakes his head, still watching me in awe. “This was all you. My brilliant, forever love.”

And for the first time in ten days, Aiden folds me in his arms. Gently, away from the water dripping from his waders. Except the instant our bodies touch, BOOM! Desire explodes again. Wonder to yearning in a nanosecond. I throw myself at him, arms around his waist, face smack to his chest, fingers hooking into the silky perfection of his skin. His entire being overwhelms my senses and stuns my new mind. The cold river water soaks through my clothes, making me shiver in the same second that his flushed warmth seeps through my skin, igniting my blood. And his scent—his vivid scent, so concentrated compared to his faded cologne on my wrist, beyond any words created by or for any man. I crush myself closer, burying my nose in his pectorals, breathing him in. So lost and found in his embrace, in that four-letter word—love—that I haven’t heard in his voice for so long, that I can’t think of a single thing to say. Only feel more than anyone has ever felt.

“I’m so proud of you,” he says in my hair, his breath firing tingles down my spine. “Every horror that fate throws your way, you face it. With grace, intellect, and strength like no other.”

Except these words apply only to him. “I haven’t overcome anywhere as much as you,” I whisper back the most inadequate words ever formed. “Just when I think I can’t love you more, I do.” I press my lips on his fragrant skin, kissing his heart.

It takes me a moment, even with my new powers, to register the shudder that runs through him under my lips. And through the incandescence of my own body, I remember how painful this embrace must be for him. His muscles vibrate as if tearing asunder with both agony and need. Yet he doesn’t release me, no doubt sensing my longing. His arms tighten even as his heartbeats fall quiet.

That near-silence breaks through me. So similar to mine when I was burning in Fallujah’s fires alongside him and Marshall. I channel all the strength of the protein into my muscles, yanking and pulling until it permeates my limbs. And I manage to loosen my grip on his waist by an inch. Because no matter how primal my desire is, everything is secondary to him.

He must see the extraordinary effort because he mirrors it as if to help me, and gives us another inch of space. More agony, but at least now I can see his face again. The luminescent filter lingers over his skin, glowing above his L-shaped scar. Now that I have seen exactly how he got it, the healed ridge has never seemed more beautiful.

He takes a deep breath, and the pained fire in his eyes changes to curiosity. “What did the trick with the formula?” he asks.

“The code,” I answer quickly, eager to keep the pain away. “I was missing the forest for the trees. I just had to use sixty times the amount of oxytocin for serotonin.”

It works. Another worn smile lifts his lips. “Ah, five times twelve. Of course. Very elegant.”

“Very dad.”

“Very you.”

He looks at me like I am the heavenly vision on this riverbank. But the smile starts to wane slowly with his breath. The sight is enough to bring back the urgency. Instantly, my hand flies inside my purse for the vial. “Here,” I say, taking it out for him. “Take a look at our new tea—no rose petals I’m afraid.”

His breath catches at the sight. He takes it from me carefully, raising it against the setting sun. From the copper rays, the molten substance looks almost iridescent, but nowhere as luminous as the haze still shimmering around his face. He watches it with unconcealed awe.

“It’s beautiful,” he whispers. “Almost the color of your eyes. Of course, nothing can ever equal that.”

Except you, I think, but I don’t want to ruin his moment. He is still staring at the crystal vial. It casts a rainbow sparkle over his long fingers. Nothing like the shattered vial of my Romeo nightmare because bravery has vanquished such visions.

“It’s warm,” he muses, shaking it lightly. “And not solid like the hunger supplement.”

“No, I was wrong about that part, but this is easier and faster to absorb. The effect more immediate.”

He nods, and his eyes start to deepen in that unfathomable way that even the protein cannot comprehend. The smile stays but I sense it’s taking a lot of effort to keep it there. “Aiden, love, what are you feeling right now?”

“Don’t think about me. This is your moment.”

“No, it’s ours. Please tell me.”

He sighs. “Pride, joy for you for accomplishing this incredible triumph, agony that I can’t be with you the way I’m dying to be, grief for us, for what we could have been if I didn’t have this.” His shoulders tense at the unspoken reference to our enemy, too formidable even for the protein.

I understand then. How quick he is! He must have always known the protein will not heal the startle but let me hope and try so I could have faith. So I wouldn’t be even more terrified than I was already. So I could dream until I was strong enough to discover the truth on my own. Even now, he will not say the words, no doubt to protect me.

“I know now, my love,” I answer to relieve him of this silence he is keeping for my benefit. “I know it cannot fix the startle or keep you with me. I cannot tell you how much I wish it could. But it can give you what you need to fight the reel so you can . . . say goodbye to Marshall.” My voice drops with the name. Marshall’s last words echo in my ears: not your fault, my brother. “You both deserve it. You need to be together, just two brothers again, as you were before all the terror.”

The unspeakable agony strikes in his eyes, even deeper than this morning. Except it’s no longer nameless for me. I know it now—know it down to every scalding stab—as my own blazes automatically in response to his. The self-defense instinct fires, but not for me, for him. So much more potent than during the video. My muscles bunch and spring, ready to throw myself between him and the world, and decimate anything that gets close to him. In the same flex, my body angles next to him like a shield.

His eyes don’t miss it even as he reins in the pain. “Elisa, what is it?”

It takes only a second for my mind to regulate the sudden impulse to destroy. To recall that the danger is from the terror inside, not anywhere around us. As abruptly as it rose, the self-preservation instinct softens. My body relaxes out of its defensive posture. And my mind takes over. It’s time for a different kind of fight.

“Let’s get started, Aiden.” I inch closer until my Byron sneakers kiss his wading boots, as big and heavy as the Marine ones that treaded on that blood-soaked desert. “We don’t have time to waste. Let’s go get the reel. You can fight it with this, and win. I know it.”

I’m ready for his response. His eyes flash with an outrage fiercer than Doctor Helen’s. “Absolutely not. This one will be yours after it’s been vetted for safety. We can worry about me later.”

“A step ahead of you this time. I’ve already taken it. How else do you think I’m standing?”

I’ve shocked him again. Whatever blood he has left drains out of his skin, and his face contorts in horror. “You what?” he mouths.

“I took my dose. This is for you.”

He gasps, and his fist flies to his mouth. “You—took—it—without—any—clinical—trials?” he hisses through his teeth. “Elisa—what—the—fuck?”

He is clearly demanding an answer, but for a moment I’m derailed. Because under the dread, I hear a shadow of his former rage. Still alive, still enough of him left to save. Anger has never looked more beautiful.

And despite my control, I can’t help it. I reach up and stroke his shimmering jaw that has clenched into the familiar blade. He must be so shocked and furious, he’s unable to pull away.

“Don’t worry. I took the protein with Doctor Helen. She monitored everything. I promised you I would be safe, and I will.” There is no need to ever tell him about the earlier tests on myself. That might truly finish him.

He blinks once at the unexpected information but continues undeterred. “That’s just one test, Elisa! What about the long-term effects? If—you—risked—yourself—for—me—”

“I didn’t,” I interrupt before he finishes that sentence against himself. “Do you really think dad would ever leave me something that could harm me?”

He glares for a second, considering. So exquisite that it would have flattened all my brain waves without the protein. Then he shakes his head. “Of course not, but he might not have had time to test it. How could you possibly take this risk with your life?”

“There is no risk,” I answer with conviction. I know this, not just from the protein. I know it from the very core of my father’s character. “Dad knew I had access to the safe. He wrote it in the code he taught me. That was our way. He knew I would try it.” But he made it difficult, I add in my head. So I could learn its lessons and only use it when there truly is no other option left.

Aiden is still watching, but the lovely glower disappears. Leaving behind the staggering horror for me. I caress his jaw again, feeling the lustrous bristle of his beard for as long as I can.

“I promise,” I tell him. “And if you need more convincing, ask yourself this: even if I would risk my own safety, would I ever take a chance with yours?”

That question does it. The horror starts to soften. “No, you wouldn’t,” he sighs. “I shouldn’t have questioned that.”

Despite his pained voice, I feel a tingly sense of hope. Because Edison took everything, but he didn’t destroy this truth: Aiden will always know he is loved. Maybe that will help at the right time.

“How do you feel?” he asks, still too dazed to inch out of my touch, which suits me just fine. I revel in the feel of him—his fragrance, the inexplicable golden aura, his gaze deep with something other than pain for once. Even if it’s just worry about me.

“I don’t have the words. Every time I try to think of them, they seem so shallow and inadequate. Like the word ‘strong’ seems in fact weak or the word ‘beautiful’ is suddenly very plain . . .” But I try to concentrate now, choosing only the words that matter for the fight ahead. “I feel everything. Every single thing but fear. But the most dominant feeling is unshakable faith. Faith in myself that I can and will survive anything. And faith in you to overcome the past.”

I trail my fingers up to his scar. The tough L looks almost opalescent, bleached by time. He doesn’t speak, still staring in anxiety and wonder, but the shudder returns at my touch, rippling across his shoulders that, even today, are in chains. But perhaps the cables will not cut as deep when he is no longer carrying Marshall’s body over time and distance.

I drop my hand with brute force of will. “Let’s restart the reel, love. Because you don’t have to worry about me anymore. I’m ready. I have never been stronger than I am right now. I will not be afraid. There is absolutely nothing today that can break me.” My voice rings with conviction, and I’m fiercely grateful for the video that scorched me. What other test would have ever given me this kind of faith?

The worry doesn’t relent in his expression. “What about after the protein wears off, as I assume it does? Won’t the terror be a lot worse then if you experience more trauma today?”

My mind has given me this answer, too. “I don’t think so. In fact I suspect the opposite. I’m fear-proof from everything I do and see while the protein is in effect. Afterwards, I will go back to being afraid. However, facing a specific terror without fear should help make that terror more manageable in the future. For example, if we do the reel today, I wouldn’t be afraid at all. Tomorrow, it will go back to horror, but my hope is that I will have better tools to manage it because, well, I would have already done it. So with time, that specific fear should wane.” I choose not to tell him about the indescribable agony I will feel and remember. He would never agree and, worse, he will feel even more terrorized for me going in, increasing his own pain exponentially.

“But that’s still a theory. I don’t want to risk you being traumatized again, now or later.”

“It’s more than a theory. I know dad. He wouldn’t have created something that simply delayed a specific terror. He would have temporarily erased it so we could learn from it. I’m sure that was his intent.”

“All right, I accept that. But what about the pain? The reel isn’t just terrifying for you, it’s also extremely painful. You can’t tell me your father intended you to hurt.”

And there it is. I knew he would get there, sooner than I had ever hoped, but at least I prepared for this first and foremost. Because if there is one thing I have to get right today, it’s this. “Love, I will hurt either way, whether we do this or not, like Doctor Helen said. But at least now I’m stronger than ever, stronger than anyone I’d bet, until you take it. And this way, we will know we gave it our all. That will help more than avoiding the extra pain, especially when I am so full of faith. Now is the time. Trust me.”

A blistering geyser shoots in my throat as if to disagree but at that word—trust—a faint turquoise light enters his eyes. Not the turquoise I have seen with my fearful vision; this is inhumanly beautiful. I try to compare it to anything earthly but cannot. “I trust you implicitly, Elisa.”

“Then let’s go. Let’s fight together one more time.”

Time. Can he hear my voice not breaking on its vowels and consonants? Can he see only the faith as the protein shifts all the super-emotions? Can he feel bravery reinforcing my mind like fireproof steel?

Yes, he can. His eyes have never missed a change in me even without any sleep. I know because he nods, even if worry doesn’t leave his gaze, even if he cannot breathe the word “yes” to anything that exposes me to any form of pain.

I hold out my hand, following all the cues the protein is firing at me. “Come. Try not to think about how we will lose this touch. From this second until the reel is done, let’s stay only in this present moment together.” The only one we have left.

I expect him to argue more, even speechless as he is, but he doesn’t. Perhaps he doesn’t want to deny me this final hope. Or perhaps his own agony has become unendurable. Or maybe he is still shocked. Whatever it is, he hands me back the vial and twines our fingers. They fold together easily, sliding home into each other’s palms. A tandem shudder runs through us both and turns into current on my skin. I tuck the vial back in my purse and we leave the boulder and his tools behind, winding back to the cottage.

I can afford a second to skim the world now. The river gleaming green-grey-blue, the sunrays dimming over Aiden’s bare shoulders, the redolent breeze blowing toward us. But they’re all peripheral. In the very center is only Aiden moving with indomitable grace, deep in thought, his face still bathed in that strange suffuse light.

“How did Helen test the protein?” he asks, and I know he is still processing. Everything in my mind shifts. Of course he would pick the one question I was hoping would never come. But I’m ready for it.

“The same as she does with you. She wired me to the electrodes and monitored my brain and heart activity. It was incredible actually.”

The V folds between his brows, making my heartbeats shiver. “That’s the physical evidence of thought and emotion, but how did she test for fear?”

The secret to lying, the protein has taught me, is to tell as much of the truth as needed and fill the rest with conviction that you will be believed. I take advantage of my ironclad confidence before it runs out. “Well, as it turns out, it was rather obvious. I was so terrified going in that she couldn’t even get a baseline reading. But once I took bravery, everything went back to normal—better than normal actually—within sixty seconds. Doctor Helen was almost as amazed as she is when she looks at your brain. Of course, even the protein can’t equal that.” I leave out all the rest, surprised by how easily the half-truths are rolling off my tongue, how deep the secrets are staying hidden. A feat that would have been utterly impossible without the protein—I can never keep anything from Aiden. Still, I look ahead at the willows because I most certainly am not immune to his eyes that I can feel on my skin.

But his hand squeezes mine, stopping my feet. “Why were you terrified going in?” As I hoped, he focuses on what could hurt me. “Did something else happen or just me?”

“You are never something that happens, Aiden. You are everything.”

He ignores that. “Just answer me, please.”

I clutch back his hand, tingles flittering up my arm. “You know why I was terrified. And putting our best hope to the test only made it worse.”

He watches me a moment longer, nodding in understanding. Because he knows the terrors that would make my heartrate immeasurable.

“But I’m not afraid now,” I promise. “The protein works. All the terror is gone.”

“I can see that,” he murmurs, seeming pacified for now, and starts walking again. Our shadows float together on the grass that has an emerald sheen I had never noticed before. I try to stay only in this one moment, focusing only on Aiden’s hand. A few blisters have blossomed on his palm from all the hard labor. More fire lashes my throat, and I shift my fingers infinitesimally so they don’t even brush against the sore spots, but his hand clutches mine reflexively even though he is still lost in thought. He will catch up shortly even worn, exhausted, sleepless, agonized, and caught entirely by surprise. Which is part of the plan, why I have to act now. I pick up my pace even though a very loud part of me would rather tackle him and his waders down here on this grass. He matches my step instinctually, still deep in analysis when we reach the willows.

I allow my senses to truly capture them now. How alive they seem! As though their swaying garlands are breathing. And they’re not just one shade of green as I had always thought. They’re a thousand, each strand a different nuance. Eucalyptus, moss, basil, mint . . . all blending into a hue I don’t have a name for. Brave-green, that must be it. And their song. So heavenly, like angels’ harps. Marshall, Marshall, Marshall.

He’s coming, Marshall. Wait for him, sing together once more, then send him back. So you can meet again when he is grey and ancient. And you can say, “Motherfucker, at least I saw you be wrong. She was real, and you let her go.” Aiden will laugh then and answer, “I didn’t. I just kept her safe.” I hope you tell him he saved us both in his way. I hope by then, he will know you were right: he is the very best part of us.

“Has the song changed for you?” Aiden asks. The unearthly emotions must be showing on my face despite the protein.

I nod, reshuffling them quickly with the crystalline thoughts.

“What do they sing now?”

I look up at his breathtaking brave-blue eyes. “Friends, friends, friends,” I modify. But is it just for him and Marshall? Or also for us?

Another wave of torment surges in his eyes but he controls it for me even invincible as I am now. And finally unafraid to ask. “What about you? Has it changed?”

He nods, too, eyes turning to the brave-green symphony.

“What do they say?”

“Safe, safe, safe.”

Then, without releasing my hand, he takes a deep breath, and we step through the perfumed drapes. And abruptly the world stops again.

I thought I was ready to see the cottage with these crystal-clear eyes. I thought no sight, other than Aiden, could stump me. But the vision of home does, especially with his hand around mine.

The usually snow-white walls are glistening, but they’re not a white I know. It’s a veil of all the whites I’ve ever seen, sparkling together into this rarest stone. From our happy bedroom window, the linen curtain billows in the breeze as if reaching to touch us. The beech trees gleam with the sunset, brave-green and Aiden-gold. And the roses . . . Aiden estimates there are about a million, but these new eyes see all of them, taking in their resplendent brocade and each individual petal. Like the other colors, they’re no longer simply white, ivory, or pink. They’re a kaleidoscope of every nuance, tinting the air with a powdery blush. Their fragrance combines with the most beautiful perfume there is—Aiden next to me—and for a moment, I can only hold his hand and breathe. The mega-emotions spin again, settling to a feeling like magic.

“Are you all right?” Aiden’s voice is muted, too, with his own storm. His thumb strokes the inside of my wrist where my pulse has picked up.

I manage a nod. “Just the beauty of this place . . . it hits differently without fear. Almost like yours does. It’s impossible to describe.”

“Something to look forward to.”

Despite the fairytale kingdom before me, my eyes leave it easily for his face. But he is watching the cottage with a visceral longing, as visibly powerful as the one inside me, and he hasn’t even taken the protein. What happens when he does? The defense instinct jolts me again, total and absolute. But I refocus only on one truth: for the first time since we lost everything, Aiden is looking forward to something.

Suddenly, even another second feels too long to wait.

“I’ll go get the reel,” I tell him. “Do you need to change first?”

“No, I’m set.”

I open my mouth to argue but there is no time. So I whirl around, sprinting to the garden shed. The monitor looms in the same shelf as always. A layer of dust has gathered on its icy glimmer. At the sight, my stomach heaves in the same blink as fire claws up my throat as a silent scream. Revulsion and agony, magnified to the extreme. And for a split second, I waver, or rather my heart does. What if I’m wrong? What if this makes everything a lot worse? But the protein dismisses such questions, obliterating any hesitation. That immense energy roars in my body. My mind expands like a blast wave, and my senses range out ahead as they did during the video. Because the same exact horror is waiting in minutes. Not at all faded or less real for Aiden than the one I witnessed. Except now I can do something to help him.

I swipe up the monitor without needing to wrap it in dad’s blanket. Oddly, I want to touch it with these fearless hands. Touch it, pulverize it, but I can’t. We need it now as much as faith. I throw the blanket over my arm and duck out, wishing forcefully I had had time or foresight to prepare a surprise for Aiden for this reel. The reel when he will need it the most.

Aiden has transformed by the garden hedge. He has removed his waders and towers in the dry cargo pants he must have been wearing underneath and his wading boots. His body is back into the lethal weapon it becomes when he heads back into that Fallujah schoolyard. War maces for shoulders, mortars for legs, grenades for fists. Everything is carved into destructive steel, except his eyes. They’re still mine.

“I’ll miss the waders.” I gesture to the neatly folded miraculous fabric. “But the pants will be more comfortable. Thank you, I know you changed for me.”

He nods once, searching my face. “When did you take the protein?”

“About three hours ago.”

“Any idea how long it lasts? I don’t want it to run out on you while I’m under.”

“We don’t know yet, but it doesn’t feel like it will fade soon.” I search my body quickly, but that sense of power is still mushrooming everywhere. “Don’t worry. Look, I can even touch the monster without goosebumps, blankets, or shivers. When has that ever happened?”

His jaw clenches and his fingers twitch as if he wants to rip it away from me. “I noticed. You’re very calm. But perhaps you should keep my dose just in case. I can handle the reel on my own,” he offers, and I realize this is what he has been thinking: how to protect me even now. But bravery is finally a match for him, at least while he is shocked and sleep deprived for ten days.

“I’ll pretend you didn’t say the last part, but if it makes you feel better, I have more if needed. Dad left us three doses. Now let’s go, before this one runs out.”

It works again. At the idea of me having even one second without bravery, he kicks up his pace toward his own torture. I give him the moment and run through the plan in my head one last time.

At the reel’s spot, we spread out dad’s blanket as always. The flames of agony erupt in my chest. Raging sky-high, even hotter than in Doctor Helen’s lab because my worst terror—Aiden hurting—is about to begin in real life.

“Sit with me a moment,” Aiden says as he did that very first time we sat on this spot—his first morning in England when he was still so full of hope. He folds down, and I curl next to him as close as I can without our thighs brushing. Then he takes my hand again. His skin has chilled like it always does before the reel, but it still spreads warmth over me. Not blistering like the agony. A melting. How can I feel made of steel and liquid at the same time?

“Elisa, you still have to be safe during this, even with protein,” he says gravely, locking me in his bold, commanding gaze. “It won’t make me less strong physically or you less breakable from that strength. Are you able to recognize that with all the serotonin?”

Barely—I feel unbreakable—but my mind knows that, physically, he is right. “I’ll be safe,” I agree, even though it will scorch me alive. “I’ll stay in the safety zone until it’s over.”

He watches me in his intense way that, with these new eyes, seems to imprint directly into my brain. “Promise me, Elisa.”

What could make him doubt it now when even I don’t? “I promise. Please don’t worry. I’d never risk myself, knowing what it would do to you, no matter how brave I am.”

He manages the worn smile and turns my hand around. To my surprise, he presses a brave-pink petal from the hedge roses into my palm. “Here’s your petal.” He closes my fingers around it. “You may be infinitely braver than me, but you will always be my Elisa.”

Fire scalds my insides, licking up to my eyes. But no, not yet. “You will always be my Aiden. And I’m not braver than you. Everything you need to overcome this is already inside you. This—” I reach inside my purse with my free fingers and hold up the vial. “—will only bring it out. It will allow you to observe it all, not just the horror. It will sharpen your mind until your thoughts reflect reality. And it will give you faith that you can and will close Fallujah’s door. Not for me or your parents or anyone else. But for Marshall and yourself.”

He listens raptly, throttling back the agony at Marshall’s name. “Theories on how often we would need to do this for that door to close?”

At least he seems to consider that it might. But of all the answers the protein has given me, this isn’t one. “I wish we knew with your mind, my love. But however long it will take, I know it will happen in the end.” Hopefully before our end, so he can only carry one agony at a time.

He nods, staring at the vial with a ghost of life I haven’t seen in his gaze since Edison destroyed it. It’s as good a place to start as I could have hoped. I tuck the vial in his hand away from the blisters. “I’ll make you something for these,” I say, shoving down the lava tears. “But first, will you make me a promise?”

His fingers curl around mine instinctually. “What do you need?”

“Doctor Helen said I need to use whatever it takes to bring you back from this reel. I know this will go against your nature, but I would like your promise that you will listen to me without question, accept my calm and touch without guilt, follow my instructions, and when you’re ready, you will come back no matter what’s happening between us. Even if this present moment feels as painful as the past. Can you promise me that?”

I can see the resistance in his gaze—resistance to me doing anything painful or hard—but he knows there is nothing he can do to avoid that now. “I promise,” he vows, his hand tightening on mine.

An intense wave of relief rushes through my head. I’m abruptly overwhelmed by the depth of his trust in me, like that first night he slept by my side. Except even more forceful now.

“Thank you,” I whisper, my voice bending under the onslaught of emotion. Perhaps I should tell him more about how bravery feels to me, but instinct says no. Because I sense without knowing that we all have to discover our own bravery in the end. But I can guide him to that with every last weapon we have left: our love, his strength, my faith and calming effect. “Now, let’s start with you feeling calm. I think it will be easier if you come from a place of serenity than fear.” Yes, it has to be, I’m counting on that.

And Aiden keeps his promise. Instantly, his eyes find my lips, my jawline, my throat—the parts of my face that calm him the most—until the sapphire of his eyes brightens to the most translucent brave-turquoise. I gasp at beauty of the true color. I have never fully seen it before this second. It exists on an arc of the rainbow all on its own. As though all the blues of the world—from the sky to the ocean, from the Adonis butterflies to the gemstones—gave their most perfect sparkle for the sole purpose of becoming his sight. It takes the full force of the protein to keep my brain going.

He inhales deeply as though he hadn’t taken a single breath until now. “Every time,” he sighs.

“Because you gave me that power, as Doctor Helen says. Now hold on to it and take this.” I ignore the knives of fire as I break our joined hands and unseal the vial. “It doesn’t taste great, I’m sorry. Definitely not Skittle-flavored as I promised. I did modify it though—” I pause because his half-smile tugs lightly at the corner of his lips, almost stopping my heart. Like an echo of the Peter Pan grin in his war tent.

“Don’t worry about it. I’d drink bleach if it would help.”

“This will.”

“I believe it if you made it for me. To your bright future, Elisa.” And, trusting me again, he brings the vial to his lips and swallows in one gulp without a flinch. I watch on fire as the violet fluid slips inside him. One second. He presses his lips together manfully. “It’s not bad. A hint of grape?”

“Yes, a little grape juice. It’s all there was in the drink fountain to make it swallowable but keep the color.”

He nods, tilting his head to the side, eyes vigilant as if listening to his body. Nine seconds. His back straightens ramrod, the muscles start rising. “Oh,” he says, eyes widening. “Interesting.”

“What do you feel?” I ask, thrilling even though I know what he should be experiencing down to the second.

“Heat. Intense heat. From my tongue to my gut.”

“Perfect. That’s exactly how it starts. Now close your eyes and just feel.” I don’t want anything to interfere with the rush of faith. I want his first memory of feeling fearless to be combined only with my calm and his confidence. Nothing else, not even a poppy or a sunray that may carry other triggers.

He becomes a perfect statue more beautiful than Adonis, the golden halo still emitting from his skin. That’s when I take his hand again, following the map my new mind has drawn. He gasps as our fingers entwine but doesn’t open his eyes. I use all my strength to muster my body’s wild reactions to his proximity and lean gently into his fragrant chest.

“Elisa,” he breathes, and the sheer mass of muscle ripples around me like a seismic wave.

“Shh, love, don’t speak. Just listen to your body, your heart.” I fold his arms around my waist and rest my head on his shoulder, covering it with me exactly where the monsters punched him repeatedly. “You will know when you’re ready. Trust me.”

His arms tighten around me, his body shuddering and strengthening in the same breath, but he follows my direction. I let the flames scorch me by the thousands and rest my palm above his heart, feeling its thunderous thud-thud-thud. I don’t know how to interpret heartbeats, but it does not seem terrorized like mine was. Aiden’s heart sounds more powerful, more rhythmic. I want to caress his fragrant skin, kiss his tense jaw, the parted lips. So I lock down my body and count his heartbeats, wishing dad’s watch was working. But the protein gives me an inner sense of chronology.

Forty seconds now: Aiden’s cold skin heats, a mesmerizing flush tinting the golden filter. Forty-two: another inhale, this one longer, deeper. Forty-nine: a low sound in his throat, somewhere between a snarl and a sigh. Fifty-one: his muscles sharpen and expand, a sense of raw power emanating out of him. Fifty-five: the V disappears from his brow, his hands close into titanium fists. Fifty-seven: with another ponderous thud, Aiden takes a final breath in my hair.

“I’m ready,” he says, his voice new again. No note of worry or panic or dread. Just that invincible timbre I first heard in his Fallujah tent.

“Yes, you are,” I answer with all my confidence, unwilling to let any other tone blend with his faith. “Keep your eyes closed. Look only at what you see in your mind. It’s time.”

I curl my hands over his shoulders as he lies down, running my fingers gently along the invisible bruises. A low sigh leaves his lips. Then, with the pain of a branding iron, I pick up the headset of evil. I secure it over Aiden’s closed eyes, feeling like I’m pouring hot fiery oil on the golden lids. And that’s when the blistering tears scald my own eyes. When he cannot see them in his first fearless memory.

“I’ll see you on the other side,” I tell him.

“I still see you now.”

“See me well.”

“I will.”

My fingers hover above his lips. They are still shimmering in my vision, full and bitten-crimson. I’ve never wanted anything more than to taste them. Not even air while drowning in the river. Maybe just a little? But his warm breath washes over my fingertips, bringing me back. Reminding me of everything. I tremble in my purse for my rose oil and dab it on the flawless curve of his lips exactly where the monsters smeared Marshall’s blood. Even at that slight touch, the orgasmic current shocks my fingers. From his low gasp, it must jolt him, too.

“Ah, you,” he sighs. His teeth graze his bottom lip lightly, tasting the oil. I manage to stay upright only by the strength of the protein.

“I love you,” I whisper.

“Always.” His voice is husky. “Whatever else has changed, that never will.”

I bend to kiss his heart where the steel cables crossed, tracing the path of the vanished chains. Then, with a smoky breath through my charred lungs, I press the power button. And the fifty-fifth reel starts. Our fight to save him, not us. Aiden stills as the headset highjacks him, yanking his mind through the portals of his powerful memory into a different place, a different time. And even though he is still here next to me, I know he has left me far behind.

For the first peaceful fifteen minutes, I can’t move despite the raw energy spiking in my muscles. I just burn next to him, feeling like both iron and ash, watching the golden aura that still frames his face. My body echoes with the lack of the physical reactions I would now feel: short breaths, shaking, chills, nausea. They are all absent. In their place are all the mega-emotions. A Himalayan waterfall of love, a volcano of pain, a hurricane of desire, an abyss of longing. I remember when I used to believe that strong emotions last only ninety seconds. But science didn’t know about the protein then. I don’t know how long these emotions will rage either, but I know it will be a lifetime in itself.

Yet it would never be long enough. I would scorch here forever just watching the hypnotic halo, but my mind doesn’t let me. Somehow, while I’ve been in his spell, it has found new horizons of space to think and keep track of time. And Aiden’s peaceful minutes are almost up.

I try to think of a surprise I can do from here so he doesn’t come back to nothing. There isn’t much. I improvise with the contents of my purse, set my phone on Für Elise by his ear, and, in two minutes, I’m coiled back to my safe circle even though I could tango through the seven circles of hell, carrying Dante in my arms.

The second I sit on the wildflowers, Aiden’s agony starts. And mine. Unfathomably more vicious than during the video. Because I am no longer sheltered by a camera lens or a smoky screen—this is real, this is live. I can see every facet of the torment I had missed, each blow of anguish on the face I love. I can hear each gasp from his lips. I can feel each cable slicing his shoulders, each minute of torture ravaging the body that is my home more than any cottage will ever be. And all the words disappear again, there isn’t a human language brutal enough.

!!!

The more I see, the more the emotions scald, flay, tear, rip, saw, and stab. I want to simultaneously sob, thrash, shriek, and die. Yet not a single scream passes Aiden’s lips as he relives the torture the camera didn’t film—the torture no one alive knows except him. But the deeper he sinks, the more his agony changes before my cruelly clear eyes. A sheen of moisture is gathering on his skin like fever. His breathing becomes rapid and shallow as if he is drowning—not steady like mine. And his body is contorting a different way. As though the ripples over his muscles are coming from a vital organ that’s tearing apart.

The vacuum of horror sucks the air out of my lungs, filling them with fire. “No!” I choke as the defense instinct thrusts me to my feet. I will end this. I was wrong. It’s not working—it’s hurting him even more. But as I strike one step in Aiden’s direction, a sound reverberates through my head, more deafening than any IED. Because this sound is coming from inside me. Aiden’s voice is thundering in my own memory, amplified by the protein:

“PROMISE ME, ELISA.”

It locks down every burning muscle, from my fists to my thighs. I cannot move a single inch, imprisoned by my own mind. My thoughts become my steel cables, chaining me down with my vow. Because my mind is right. If I touch Aiden now, I will surely die. And although I can’t care about that in this moment, it will destroy him. The only thing that will help him now is if I sit here and wait. Wait and love him more than anyone has ever loved.

At the excruciating realization, the binds melt off my body. Aiden’s voice fades in an echo. Promise me, Elisa. The ember tears singe my eyes. So this is why he insisted on that promise. He knew even before I did that, without fear, I might not be able to stay away. And he agreed only because of his trust in me.

I drop back on the grass, burning. Across from me, on the blanket, Aiden’s torment reaches a level that almost blinds my new eyes. His body is arching off Elysium, sweat sparkling on his body like diamonds. The blisters on his palms are bleeding. Ten more, minutes, love. Just ten more, and I’ll bring you back. But back where? To a present that hurts just as much? Did I choose wrong? Should we have lived the last days in closure, hoping for the best? Should I have gone the other way? But faith is still firing incontrovertible in my system. No, Aiden can do this, I know he can. I knot my legs against the unreleased reflex, flipping through the raging flames like pages in a book, pulling up a blank one. And then I find the gushing waterfall behind the inferno and fill the blank page with love. Until it’s done. With a final, silent no! Aiden’s body arcs as if dragged up by his very heart. Then it slumps back on the blanket, breathless and unmoving as he was on the broken tiles of that classroom floor.

“Aiden!” I cry instantly, bursting to his side in a flash. But the horror of the sight might break through the protein.

Moisture has soaked his skin like the river water. Even without a single touch, I can feel the fever blowing out of him in waves. His breath is shallow spurts of air through his parted lips. The halo around him is fading in my vision. And the shudders are different, more sinister. Like the cracking earth of that schoolyard after the IEDs. And I know that without the protein, I would have never breathed through this.

But I do now. “Aiden, love,” I call him again in my calm, singing voice that would have been a scream this morning. I kneel next to him, one hand to his feverish face, one to his heart. It’s pummeling his ribs like nothing I’ve ever heard, not even mine. “I’m here, sweetheart. Right here by your side. We’re both safe in Elysium. Safe and strong and loved. Listen to my voice, to Für Elise. It’s over, love, it’s done.”

But his heartbeat is faltering under my hand. Like the crack of bones on Marshall’s chest, like the grenades. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Blowing us up, limb by limb—tiny bodies on this grass like in that Fallujah schoolyard. Because we are both just children now. Children before the vast, black abyss of the past. Reborn violently to that first held breath that we must either take or die.

My body strains for the dulling terror that my mind won’t give me. I claw for my phone to call Doctor Helen but, under my hand, there is a new beat. A relentless pounding, a vital sprint.

It’s the sound of a brave, fighting heart.©2021 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 27: T-I-M-E

Hey friends and happy last hours of the weekend! I hope it was a good and restful one for you. In case you’re looking for a good, cozy way to finish it off before Monday arrives, here is Chapter 27. We’re getting closer to the end now.  Oh, if you need a song recommendation for this, I had Wicked Games playing in my head. You’ll see why. Hope you’re enjoying the chapters and thank you to all of you who comment and write to me with your thoughts.  I love and read each of them. Talk soon, xo, Ani

27

T-i-m-e

I don’t stop running until I’ve cleared the last weaver cottages, looking over my shoulder like a fugitive in my own village. But because I’ve never been much of an athlete, my legs and lungs give out in ten minutes and I sprawl on the grass in the middle of a grazing field, gasping, spluttering, and clutching stitches at my sides. The evening breeze whips my sweaty face. I gulp it down, staring at the evening lights twinkling from windows in the distance.

How much does Aiden know by now? That I went to Javier’s room for the night, absolutely. Max probably texted him before I finished bolting the door. That I ran away? I don’t think he has made that leap yet or I wouldn’t be panting here alone. He is probably still packing up the stand, making sure there isn’t a single scratch on it. But how long will it take him to figure it out after that? I don’t know. If he decides to give me space, I have a few hours, maybe the whole night. If he checks on me, I have one millisecond.

I scramble to my feet, still huffing and shaking. But my sandals aren’t made for escaping. Their straps are already cutting into my ankles and toes, so I set across the field for the shortcut along the riverbank and its velvet moss. The night is falling fast now, settling over everything in shades of plum, ink, and silver. Not that I can see the colors. My vision is locked in the reddish filter of rage. For a while, the mishmash of emotion is so frantic, I can’t even understand it, let alone control it. There’s the acid of anger, the cleaver of pain, the hammer of fear, the bite of guilt, the blister of grief, each crushing, slicing, and eroding whatever part of me they can reach. Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong about that. Because I’m still pulsing with them as I tread away from the river and round the foot of the familiar hill. Instinctively, as I’ve done every few minutes, I look around into the burgundy night. Burford’s lights are twinkling far in the distance, but I’m utterly alone. Not a single psychopath, stalker, or enraged Marine is following me. The trail to the top is hard in my sandals. They slow me down when I want to run up to the peak, but that’s good. Because I’m not just visiting my parents this time. I’m also climbing for me. Coming to the only place that’s still mine, free of surveillance and the terror of the reel. How did a place of incomprehensible grief become a place of hope and now of solace? Is this what they mean by healing?

The tiny meadow is bright with moonlight. Not a single shadow on it except the cypress tree. The American Beauty sapling I planted with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier is growing a new bud. The tokens we brought them last time are still by the epitaph along with the vial of Aiden’s dog tags, exactly as we left them. They haven’t moved an inch, nothing is missing. I run my hand over the engraved names—the marble is as cold as my fingertips.

“Here you go, Mum,” I whisper, but the words flow with ease, more naturally than any of the other three times I’ve visited here. I set down the Rose Cup by her side. The silver stem does not sparkle as it does in the sun but it throws a slender shadow over the marble like a delicate, feminine arm. “They all remember you still. And love you so much . . . except Willoughby of course. He’s absolutely livid he lost again.” I smile, registering with some surprise that I’m able to do so here without Aiden next to me. But it’s definitely a smile, turning up my lips even if it disappears at the thought of him. “It was quite a day,” I sigh, taking the Elisa rose he tucked by my ear and setting it down under her name. It has wilted by now. Make this your day as well, he said. I scoff with irony. How can it be my day, my life when he’s not letting us live it? When every minute of every hour of every day, we are locked in a war inside the mind that’s bombing every aspect of our life?

I rest my palms on the marble. Are they still pink? I can’t tell—I’m still seeing red. But as I sit here finally alone, breathing in the cypress air, the snarl of emotion starts to soften and rearrange. Sorrow fades away, grief changes from a blister to an old bruise. And anger shifts far down, making room for pain, fear, and guilt at the very top. I can think through them all, I can add love, I can see the night free and clear. The pure white tomb glowing with a diffuse light. The veins of the marble forming figures like clouds . . . an eye, a heart, a river, a fork in the road. And emotions start to become thoughts and then crystallize into questions: what do I do now? How do I save Aiden from the reel when it’s stealing him from me no matter how grounded I try to keep him in the present moment? How do we win when every weapon seems useless against it and I’m still nowhere finished with the protein? How do we make happy memories when we barely have a moment alone? How do I salvage some stardust if we don’t survive?

He comes out of nowhere. One second, it’s just me by the grave and another he blasts to the crest like a shooting star.

“Elisa?” He thunders, drowning out my startled cry. He freezes when he spots me, a perfect silhouette against the moonlight, holding something in his hand. I think I hear a gusty sigh of relief in the hilltop wind. A moment passes while we gaze at each other—or at least while I stare at the shape of him. Is it vibrating with tension even from here? Then he glides noiselessly across the meadow like a dream. An old fear flickers once and I pinch the inside of my wrist to test reality. But I’m awake, it’s the real him. As he comes close, I finally see the thing he is holding. My pashmina. He hands it to me without throwing it over my shoulders as he usually would. My throat tightens. But it’s better this way, so I can process.

“Thank you,” I whisper, wrapping myself in the soft cashmere. I didn’t realize I was shivering until now.

He nods once and sits next to me in silence, eyes on the epitaph. Automatically, my body softens at his proximity, despite the anger still lurking underneath. I run through the periodic table twice but he still doesn’t speak, either too angry or relieved to say anything.

“So, you found me,” I finally start.

He looks at me then. His eyes are molten silver. “Does that upset you?” His voice is dark and low like the night.

Of course he would wonder given my escape. A few moments ago, I was wondering myself. I shake my head. “I knew you would. The only question was how long it would take you.”

“Too long it seems.”

I have no idea what time it is—I can’t trust my sense of chronology with him—but it feels like I’ve only been here about ten minutes. “No harm done. I was perfectly safe.”

His eyes close, and he pinches his nose. A subtle shudder seems to ripple over him. “Were you?” His question is so quiet, I’m not sure he meant it for me.

I answer it anyway because it’s at the heart of everything. “Of course I was. If anyone wanted to harm me, they could have by now. I was walking alone in the dark with the Rose Cup as my only weapon. I really wish you would drop this now.”

His eyes fling open, and he shudders again. He stares at the grave, his breathing harsher, his jaw flexing furiously, throwing dark shadows in the starlight. He doesn’t answer, and I can’t think of a single thing to say without a fight. I trace the veins in the marble with my finger. A period, a comma, a question mark . . .

“Do you still believe that?” he asks after a while. My eyes fly up at his face, but he is gazing at the epitaph still.

“Believe what?”

Amor vincit omnia—love conquers all.”

I think about that. When I first chose it for my parents, I thought there wasn’t a truer truth. When I returned here a month ago, I thought it was the most beautiful lie. And now . . . “We have to,” I answer honestly, my voice catching. “I’m starting to think it’s a choice.”

His eyes meet mine then, ardent even in the night. “And what do you choose?”

I try to think with his eyes on me, with him being so close, yet so far, but at least this answer doesn’t require a lot of mental power. “I choose to win with you.”

The shadow of his tense jaw lightens. I think I hear another sigh in the breeze. “Me too.”

“But I don’t know how, Aiden. Not when we’re fighting against each other again, like we used to in Portland. We’re not staying in the present moment, united against the reel. We’re divided: you living in fear for me, me running away at night, making your fears even worse . . .”

He looks at his dog tags now, the flawless panes of his face dark blades again. His hands interlock around his knees in a double fist. The knuckles glow a perfect white.

“I don’t blame you for being angry with me,” I add because it’s true. “I’m sorry I worried you.” And I am now that I’ve calmed down. I added to his stress instead of ease it as I’m trying to do.

He inhales sharply, and his eyes flash to me. “Angry with you?” The light flows over his face with his intense expression. “How could I be angry with you when I gave you no choice? When I took away every place of comfort you’re trying to rebuild? When I suffocated you to the point where you felt you had to run out at night and risk your—” He stops abruptly, closing his eyes and drawing another shuddering breath. His knuckles glint. “No, I’m not angry with you.” He shakes his head after a moment. “I’m infuriated with me.”

It’s as though his mind permeated mine as I was running and read all my thoughts. Yet the more fury he fires at himself now, the less anger I feel. There isn’t a single trace of it left in me. The only thing twisting my insides is hurt for him.

He is gazing at the epitaph again. Of its own volition, my body moves closer until our arms touch. I expect his fragrant warmth, but he has become a sculpture of ice. His breath catches though, and his eyes burn on mine.

“I know why you’re doing it,” I say, brushing my fingers over his diamond knuckles. They soften as does the point of contact between our arms. “You’re just trying to keep me safe with everything you have. It’s your way.”

“Yes, my way, and I’m making you miserable in the process. I cling with arrogant obstinacy to my idea of what will keep you safe, and all I do is break your heart over and over again.”

“Aiden, no—”

“Don’t.” One word, sharp and jagged like a knife against the self, yet his hand wraps gently around mine. Instantly, an old tension I didn’t know I was feeling blows away. He twists up my palm, perhaps searching it for pinkness but it’s bleached white from the moon like everything else. “The point is, I don’t trust myself with you anymore. So we’ll do it your way, Elisa. Starting right now.” His silver eyes blaze even in the darkness, while my mind goes blank.

“My way? What do you mean?”

“I’ll let security go. Max, Ferrars, the overnight guard—gone. Tonight. You’ll never have to see any of them again. Except Benson of course, but you don’t have a problem with him. And we’ll start again. The sooner, the better. This minute, in fact.”

Bloody hell! I stare at him in stunned disbelief. Am I hearing this right? Did he really say it? My heart is crashing against my ribs like Ferrars and Felix into the rose stand. “Does this mean you finally agree there’s no danger?” I blurt out, trying to make sense of the chaos. “That you’ll finally relax about this?”

His eyebrows rise with similar incredulity. “Of course not. I still think someone is curious or worse about you, but what options do I have left? I will not force you into more risky behavior like this. I will not continue to rob you of the new life we had just started. And I’m not willing to let this drive a wedge between us like it has been. So that leaves me with your option: I will protect you myself.”

My head is still spinning. “But why do you still think—”

He presses his finger to my lips. They tremble at his touch. “I will not have this argument with you, not now, not ever again. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No, because we’re doing this your way, not mine. Mine is usually wrong.”

He takes his finger away, which is good because my mind is still scrambled. This is exactly what I wanted to hear. Want it so much, I pinch myself to make sure I haven’t fallen asleep on the grave like the first time he visited this hilltop in my dreams. I’m fully awake. So why am I not relieved?

“But won’t you be worried about me still?” I argue anyway.

He shrugs as though this is the least of his problems. “Of course I will. That will never change, whether you have a security team of a hundred or none.”

“I know, but won’t it be worse if you remove security completely? You’ll be dreading that I’m going to get hurt all day instead of saving all your strength for the reel.”

A small smile lifts the corner of his mouth. “First, I sincerely doubt it can get much worse than it was tonight. If I lived through the five minutes, sixteen seconds of trying to find you, not to mention cutting through the festival crowd and the time you were supposedly in Javier’s room, I can probably live through death itself. Second, I’m not removing security completely; I will protect you myself, with Benson of course. And third, yes, I’d worry less about your safety, but more about your heart. So it’s all the same in the end.”

Except I don’t want him worrying in any way. Not under the kind of pressure he is. “Aiden.” I clutch his hand in both of mine. “Is there anything that will convince you I’m safe? Anything at all that will help you relax even a bit?”

The smile doesn’t leave his lips, but his answer sends shivers under my pashmina. “Time, love—the very thing we don’t have.”

No, we do not. Tick tock. Tick tock. But there must be some way that doesn’t involve bombarding the life we’re supposed to live or raiding his mind with stress so he cannot fight the reel. I search the meadow, the epitaph, the marble map for anything. He is the only one who answers. In one of his fast movements, his hand turns so it now covers both of mine.

“It actually might help if I’m protecting you personally, Elisa. Even with Max, I couldn’t rest when you were out of sight. I realized after today, I cannot trust anyone with you like I can myself.”

I cannot argue with that truth. Because I cannot trust anyone other than myself with his rest either. And this way, we’ll have more time together. I feel my own lips lift into a smile. “And I’ll protect you. I’ll make you the protein as soon as possible, you’ll see. And then you’ll never have to fear for me again.”

My favorite, lopsided smile flashes over his face, varnished in silver—so beautiful that my heart stutters at the sight. “Elisa, you already protect me from everything. From the moment I open my eyes with the reel until I close them to your song. It would be impossible to find any man more protected and loved than me.”

At least the reel hasn’t stolen this knowledge from him. At least l-o-v-e is still standing strong against it, his mind is still holding onto that truth like a shield. “Not one,” I agree.

His arms fold around me at last, like protective wings. I haven’t felt them since our doomed lunch, but of course it feels like a century to me. I worm myself into their circle, breathing him in. The air flows easily through my lungs—like sleep, like Für Elise. He is not icy stone anymore, just warm and fragrant steel. He sighs, and his lips press in my hair.

“Is it really going to be just us again?” I verify, still afraid that we will lose more moments alone in our remaining days.

“We already are, love.”

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“You compare a tiny rose to an entire jungle.”

The miniature roses around the epitaph gleam the purest white. Love conquers all. It must. The locket on my chest is pressed between his heart and mine. Help me solve the protein, help us win.

His opalescent arms pull me closer, tucking my head under his chin. He kisses my hair again, holding his lips there, inhaling deeply.

“What are you thinking?” I ask, tracing the vein on his warm neck.

“It might bring back the ire if I told you.”

“No, don’t worry. The wrath is long gone. I lost it with the pashmina.”

“In that case . . .” He breathes me in again. “Thank God you’re safe and thank God for pashminas.”

We chuckle together—his laugh beautiful and argent like the night, mine quiet but effortless for the first time on this hilltop. At the sound, a sense of lightness falls over me like the uninterrupted glow of the moon over the meadow. Something I never could have imagined feeling here. I curl into him totally content, marveling at how time—my Fallujah, my reel, my startle, my mortal enemy—can also be my ally. Because four years ago, this hilltop pulverized me into granules and spewed me across continents like ashes in the wind. Then a month ago, it gave me a purpose, then h-o-p-e. And now another beginning. T-i-m-e. Has it joined our ranks or is it a foe still?

“Do you want to stay here a little longer or go back to the cottage?” Aiden asks after a while. “Just us,” he emphasizes, hearing my unspoken question or perhaps remembering it from this morning. “We can celebrate your win with the others tomorrow on our picnic.”

I smile. “That’s exactly what I want.”

He kisses the top of my head once more and stands, lifting me along and balancing me carefully in case I topple and roll down the hill. But he frowns immediately at my sandaled feet. “Did they give you blisters coming up here?”

“Umm, maybe a very small one. Blister adjacent, I think. Please don’t punish my sandals. I really like them.”

He doesn’t breathe fire on them, but he does glare, not looking the least bit convinced. He picks up the Rose Cup, hands it to me, and swoops me in his arms. “Come on, let’s get those adjacent blisters on some petals. Mrs. Plemmons thinks they fix everything.”

“Aiden, no way!” I protest, trying and failing to wiggle out of his unbreakable hold. “You won’t carry me all the way down the hill. It’s too far.”

“Hah!” He laughs, tucking my scarf around me. “You wanted me to protect you myself instead of the security team. Well, this is the deal. Take it or leave it.”

“The deal is carrying me places?”

He’s already in motion, leaving the moonlit meadow behind. “Carrying you, driving you where you need to be, sitting across from Bia while you’re working, not letting you out of my sight until I fix this, and anything else required to keep all ten of these blistered toes safe.”

He is dragon-serious. There isn’t a single speck of humor on his tone despite the laughter. Except it sounds like heaven to me. I tangle my arms around his neck, kissing his scar. “I’ll take it. You can be my bodyguard anytime.”

He laughs again. “I’ll remind you of that when you’re calling Max and Ferrars in a week, begging them to come back.”

“In your dreams.”

“No, I have a lot better things saved for those.” His arms tighten around me like pearlescent fetters.

I watch his silver profile as he strolls effortlessly down the meandering trail, remembering precisely where a shrub is or a rock. It’s been so long since he has carried me in the moonlight like this. Not true of course. It’s only been a week, but it feels like a different life to me. A life we are starting again.

“So how did you figure out I had escaped?”

A shadow falls over his face as he passes by another cypress tree. “It wasn’t exactly CIA’s Kryptos to decode. Max texted me that you were staying in Javier’s room and that he’d guard you until I was done. Not that I was shocked; obviously you didn’t want anything to do with me. But I thought I’d give you space while I finished up with the stand and then come grovel on my knees. Well, as you can imagine, I barely lasted thirty-four minutes with that noble intention—just enough to dismantle the stand and secure it in Benson’s van. Once I went back to the Inn and knocked on Javier’s door and you didn’t answer, I knew where you had gone. Alone—in the dark—what if—” He chokes off in terror. From his shudder, I shake in his arms.

“Shh, I was all right. I’d never put myself in any real harm.” I stroke his scar, trying to think. He remains convinced I’m in danger. How can I help him with this?

His jaw is throwing starlit shadows with tension. I run my lips over it, back and forth, back and forth until it shimmers silver again. Except I can’t stop. I haven’t kissed him since this morning, and that’s a millennia ago. Besides, how can any mortal mouth be this close to such a face and not touch it?

He smiles. “You need to stop that if you don’t want me to trip.”

“You don’t trip. You’re superhuman.”

“Not when you touch me.”

I hold properly still to make this easy for him. It’s hard with all the tingles lighting up on my skin like fireflies—sensations I never thought I’d feel anywhere near this hill. But they’re there, blinking warmer and warmer. Already I can’t breathe right as though I’m the one trekking down the trail.

He is quiet for the rest of the hike, his breath coming out fast and fragrant. Yet his unconscious grace never wavers. And for once I think of Byron, not Shakespeare. He walks in beauty like the night. Aiden says that poem is mine, but as he descends in and out of moonlight and nightshade, now silver, now dark, I’m convinced it was written for him. I should write it on his Timberlands. Would he laugh if he woke up tomorrow to see it Sharpied on their soles?

He clears the hill with me in his arms faster than me climbing with the Rose Cup. The night is thick down here. I half-expect him to insist on carrying me all way back to the cottage, but out of the darkness morphs the black shape of the Rover. I don’t know why it surprises me. How else would he have gotten to me in exactly five minutes and sixteen seconds? He must have raced faster than a nitroglycerin combustion.

He scans the area immediately, and I search with him, rigid with contradiction: body fusing itself to him, mind racing to Bia. We already didn’t have hours to waste, now we don’t even have seconds. But he isn’t tense right now; he is relaxed, whether from the quiet night, my calming effect, or the fact that I’m safe in his arms, I don’t know. He sets me down by the Rover’s door and takes my face in his hands.

“Now about that kiss,” he says and his mouth captures mine. His lips are soft and warm, but his kiss is urgent and deep. I give him back everything I have, parched for his taste. A low moan rises in his throat. He presses me against the Rover’s door, his heated body forged to every line of mine, his fingers gilded in my hair. To my suddenly feverish skin, he feels like a flame. I shiver paradoxically between him and the door. A different mishmash of emotion whirls in me now at the bottom of this hill: the burn of desire, the vise of love, the ocean of longing, the breeze of relief, each healing and rebuilding every part of me.

Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong again. Because I can’t imagine this all-consuming love to ever end for me, even if I’m ash. I’m still incandescent with it as Aiden’s mouth slows, his tongue tracing my lips with a final sigh.

“Ah, Elisa.” His lips brush mine once more, and he pulls back, his breathing rougher than when he was trekking down the hill while I dangle in his arms, dizzy and gasping. “Come, let’s go home.”

H-o-m-e.  It’s one of the rare times he calls the cottage home. He may not realize it, but I certainly do. I’m counting each one.

He opens the Rover door and stuffs me in the front seat, checking my palms as soon as the cabin light turns on. The pink is fading, only a faint blush now the color of the Clares.

“They still don’t hurt,” I assure him quickly.

“If they’re not back to their perfect condition by tomorrow, we’re going to the doctor, and I don’t want any argument about it.” He gives me a stern gaze.

“I accept,” I answer without hesitation. I’d probably agree to a lot worse if he really would rest.

“Now, let me look at these.” He slips off my sandals carefully, hissing when he sees the two blisters on each big toe, one on each pinky, and another one on each ankle. “As I thought. Blister adjacent indeed. I’m banning that word, Elisa. Right now.”

“Yes, General.”

He glowers as he reaches in the glove box for our first aid kit because of course our cars are equipped with such measures. I think defibrillators and MRI machines are the only medical equipment we’re missing. He disinfects each blister with an ethanol wipe, blowing on it and muttering a string of profanities. Then he wraps a bandage loosely around them, blowing again to make sure air flows through. “You’re not wearing these for at least two weeks!” He orders and hurls my sandals in the back seat.

“Do you have something I can blow on?”

He glares in response, but his lips twitch with a restrained grin. “If you behave.”

The drive to the cottage takes only ten minutes at normal speed. Aiden steers with one hand, twining his other fingers with mine. The rose soundtrack is still on from our Aidonis trip, this time playing Love is a Rose by Linda Rondstadt.

“Do Max and the others know I escaped?” I ask, starting an apology in my head.

He chuckles. “I think it became quite obvious when they saw me bolt out of the Inn like a madman. They’re apoplectic as to how you pulled it off. Incidentally, how did you manage it? Did you take the back stairs?”

I hang my head, feeling guilty. “Yes, that’s why I went to Javier’s room and not Reagan’s. It’s closer to that door.”

In the blue light from the dashboard, his smile seems impressed. “And this is exactly why I need to protect you myself.”

“I didn’t get Max in trouble, did I? He did everything right—even checked the balcony.”

“Of course not. He’s excellent, I’m just impossible when it comes to you. But don’t tell me you’re already missing him?”

“Not in that way. But I do like him, he’s very kind.”

“Well, don’t worry. I’ll bring him back again with Cal and the others. Maybe in September.”

Tick tock. Tick tock.

Everything is quiet when we park in the garage, although it doesn’t stop Aiden’s peremptory examination. But it’s only a blink. He is at my door as I’m unclicking my safety belt.

“Are you tired?” he asks, taking the Rose Cup from me and draping the pashmina back over my shoulders.

Tired? I haven’t felt more awake all week. “Not even a little bit. Besides, I think you promised me a celebration this morning.”

He laughs, sweeping me off the seat straight into his arms, lest I attempt walking the four-minute distance across a velvet of wildflowers on bare feet. “Did I? I must have forgotten.”

“You don’t forget. You’re superhuman.”

“Not when you run from me.”

Elysium is brimming with moonlight as he carries me across it. The daisies are brilliant white with the rest of the wildflowers in grey patches like clouds. A heart, a fingerprint, the inkblot of the reel. Aiden tenses as always when we pass by it.

“Will you be okay doing the reel without security?” I kiss along his jaw again until it softens.

“That’s the wrong question, love. The correct question is will you be okay while I’m locked inside the reel. And I’m not going to wait around to find out. We’re moving the reel to daytime” There is no room for opposition in his voice. But I have none. Now that it’s just us again, I will do everything to calm him.

“That makes sense. And I’ll carry my phone on me in case we need Benson. And install a tracking app, too.”

His eyebrows arch in surprise. “I didn’t realize you were capable of being reasonable about your safety, Elisa.”

“It’s all part of the deal, Aiden. I’ll be reasonable if I have you all to myself. Take it or leave it.”

His arms grip me closer. “I’ll take it all, and I might never give it back.” Abruptly his eyes smolder even in the dark, vaporizing my very bones.

The cottage glows snowy white by the river—no guard shadows on its walls. Only the climbing roses and the black shuttered windows. All the roses are asleep lacquered in silver, dreaming rosy things. There isn’t a single sound in the silent night except our breath and the willows’ murmur. They’re here, they’re here. A tiny, peaceful bubble just for us.

I sigh from its beauty, from the longing I’ve felt for it to be ours alone again.

Aiden pauses at the rose hedge, perhaps letting me enjoy the moment, perhaps searching our very own snow globe for safety. I give him his minute too. It could last forever, I wish it would. Because here, cradled in his arms, happiness shifts again for the first time in a week. It now looks like our entwined shadows on the stony path, breathing in the smell of home.

“Welcome back, love,” he whispers, carrying me to the door. I don’t ask if anything looks different or if Jazz saw anyone suspicious today. I know there is nothing to see. And Aiden’s warm, relaxed stride spells the answer in twinkly, star-stitched letters. We are alone. At last.

But he still doesn’t let me cross the threshold first. As soon as we step inside the foyer and he switches on the light, his eyes sweep it corner to corner, his arms flexing around me like shields. Then in another moment, they relax again, but he doesn’t set me down. He rests my Rose Cup on the console and roams the entire ground floor, checking everything. It is his habit now to scan the cottage, roof to studs, before he leaves and scour it again the instant he returns, exactly as he does with me.  Half of my heart clenches at the sight because he has fallen in love with these little walls so forcefully and completely. But the other half shatters because I cannot begin to fathom the terror behind this new routine. I search my head as frantically as he does the cottage for anything that might help him.

“Everything seems as I left it,” he informs me, finally setting me down at the foot of the stairs with a relieved sigh. I can see his entire face in the light now. I haven’t seen it since ten centuries ago under the elm tree when I was accepting the Rose Cup. Impossibly, he has gotten more beautiful to me, even if veiled with worry. Abruptly an idea flickers in my head. Perhaps sometimes all you need to do is turn on the lights.

“Aiden, what if we hid a camera in the chandelier so you can see if anyone is coming in, would that help? That way you won’t have to search the cottage every time, love.”

His eyes pop wide with unexpected amazement—he looks like I just offered him a vacation from the reel. “You would do that?” he whispers.

“I would. And if no one shows up, then we will know once and for all.”

He watches me carefully, eyes narrowing at the corners. “Why would you do this when you’re so certain there is no threat?”

I wrap my arms around his neck where their shape is probably branded into his skin. “For the same reasons you gave up security for me. Because this is your home too. I want you to feel safe and rested here, no matter what I think. Just because I don’t want to surrender it to others, doesn’t mean I don’t want to share it with you. Every single stone of it.”

His eyes don’t leave mine, but they change—no longer surprised or cautious; they beam with a joy that takes my breath away. Stuns me, heartbeat to blink. “Thank you,” he says with feeling. Then his mouth finds mine and he swoops me upstairs with blinding speed.

Our bedroom door is closed, but he must be expecting it because that surreal beauty falls over him. He sets me on my feet, a smile playing over his lips.

“After you,” he says and opens the door.

“Are you sure I remember how to walk?” I laugh and pretend to wobble inside. And then I rock into such a sudden stop that I fall back into his arms.

“Apparently not,” he chuckles, but my lack of balance has nothing to do with my legs. It has everything to do with my sight. Because our happy bedroom has transformed into my very own rose stand right in front of my incredulous eyes.

Elisa petals carpet the wooden floor. More Elisas are on the nightstands with the dried poppies, our double-frames, and the photo of Aiden’s brain. Above the bed hangs a white runner with black lettering like the rose stand sign, except this one says:

Elisa’s Rose Gallery

And on the walls are photos of me from each rose festival, beginning with my first and ending with the nineteenth from this morning—an image of me sitting at the welcome table that Aiden must have captured from a distance. An unmissable celebration of me, not anyone else.

“Aiden!” I whirl around in his arms. He is all golden now, his face suffused with the bliss he associates with this room. “So you did remember.” Of course he did. Of course he made time for this even while running around, protecting me.

He smiles. “Congratulations on your win, my love.”

Mine. Exactly as he wanted this morning. But I think about the other prize I won today: bringing us back to us again. “Don’t you mean my wins?” I pluralize.

He chuckles. “I stand corrected: your wins.” His fingers weave through my braid releasing the wilted Clares, a serious but tender expression falling over his face. “Your roses.” He kisses the spot below my ear, inhaling deeply. “Your day.” His lips flutter to the corner of my mouth. “And now your night.”

So many mine’s. Except my heart, that’s irrevocably his. And my body, it’s already lost. Everywhere he touches, I feel a flash burn on my skin. I trail my fingers over his cheek. “And my Aiden.” I caress his lips. “My kisses.” I press my hand over his heart. “My love.”

He smiles. “You won all those a long time ago.”

“Yes, but they’re the still my best wins.” I wrap my arms around his waist, refusing to allow any space between us. Because he is my Rose Cup, my Nobel Prize, my Oscar, my everything. I don’t want any other victory if in the end, I don’t triumph with him. “Thank you. I love my celebration.”

He tips up my face, surprise obvious in the turquoise depths. “Do you really?”

“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because you’re so selfless. Usually I know immediately when you’ll love something, but I wasn’t certain this time.”

I scoff. “I’m actually not that selfless, Aiden. In fact, I’m very selfish when it comes to you. And the roses. And the cottage. And Elysium. And now Aidonis. And chemistry. And Baci. And clotted cream . . . loads more. I’m selfish about everything I love.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter before I have finished as though me being selfish is a happiness protein. But isn’t it the same for me? The more he loves himself, the happier I feel. “Ah, Elisa. You and your eight selfish things that aren’t even selfish. But I’m glad I made the list.”

“You’re at the very top.”

His eyes change swiftly again, in that way that leaves me a stunned step behind. From amused, they become liquid and warm, and then thoughtful as they burn into mine. His hands travel up my arms to my cheeks, leaving fiery trails in their wake. “Will you let me try to add something else to the list?” The warmth is in his voice too, but with a rare note of plea underneath.

Immediately, I’m curious—more about that tone than anything else. “What would you like to add?”

“A reminder.”

“A reminder about what?”

“You’ll see. Will you please consider it?” he coaxes again.

As if I could say no to that voice and those eyes. “Yes, but on one condition,” I bargain anyway.

What condition?” he asks confidently.

“Well, you accuse me of being selfless, but you obviously suffer from the same affliction. So, my selfish list is open to additions only if we add something to your selfish list as well.”

He laughs again. “Elisa, I’m so selfish with you, I’ve cashed it all in for the entire mankind, but fine, I agree because this should hit both our lists.”

“Oh!” I grin at the chance of being able to give him something he wants. He never asks for anything for himself. “All right then, let me hear this reminder.”

“Thank you,” he says as he did downstairs, except now I hear a strong emotion in his voice. He lowers me at the foot of the bed, his fingertips setting fires on my arms. “Wait here.”

I nod, breathless with his intensity and the curiosity now raging in my brain. For some reason, I expect him to leave the room, but he walks to the window and opens it wide, flashing a smile. “We can’t leave the roses out of your celebration. They’ll be offended.”

The rose breeze blows freely into the room, cooling my feverish cheeks. “Mortally. And they’re already insulted from this last week. You’ll have to grovel and kiss all their petals.”

“Just kiss? I had rather started to think they were partial to other activities.” He winks as he ducks into our small closet while I check my skin for fire. No, nothing is smoking. He re-emerges with a box about the size of a briefcase, wrapped in parchment, and sits on the bed next to me, setting the box between us. His hands reach over it and close around my wrists.

“Just a reminder of something you love,” he repeats gently. “Nothing more.”

My heart starts thumping unevenly from his voice, his touch, his words. Why do I need reassurance for this box? “Aiden, what’s in there?”

He inches the box closer to me. There is no audible movement within.  “Let me unwrap it. I don’t think we need papercuts in addition to irritated palms and blisters today.”

I nod, transfixed as he tears the parchment with a fluid motion, revealing a wooden box. It’s the color of melted butterscotch, polished to a gleam, with a distinctive grain that curls and twists into a mystery map of its own. Instead of a latch, it has a keyhole, carved like an open rose. A faint woodsy aroma wafts from the box. I run my fingertips over the smooth surface, tracing the dense grain, finding figures. A star, a sun, a moon . . .

“It’s so lovely. What is it?”

“It’s called briar wood,” Aiden explains. “A very durable, nearly unbreakable, and heat-resistant wood.”

I look up at him in awe, but not so lost as to miss the way his skin is reflecting the golden glow of the box. “What is it protecting?”

His eyes become very tender. “A part of your heart.”

Oh! The heart in question starts thundering like my brain. In his hand is already a small bronze key, shaped like a rose stem. He slides it into the heart of the rose and the box unlocks with a quiet click. He looks at me through his long lashes. “Just try to remember, love.”

And then his long-fingered hands lift the lid.

Everything changes in a single blink. I hear my gasp, I feel my heart battering my ribs, the shiver on my skin, the blood drumming in my ears. I feel them all, but they are on the periphery. My entire focus is rivetted by the sight in front of me.

Because nestled inside the briar case is the most beautiful object I have ever seen. A carved wooden chessboard set with thirty-two chess pieces, gleaming in the muted light of our bedroom. The dark pieces are deep burgundy, marbled with veins of rich chocolate and crimson. The light ones are golden with a honeyed grain like lacework. The carving is so intricate, the pieces look almost alive, from the flowy manes of the Knights to shimmering crowns of the Queens. Here and there on the chess squares is etched a tiny rosette, like a secret code. An astonishing perfume floats from the board, almost tasteable in the air. Like Aiden, like Aeternum, I have never smelled anything quite like it. It’s a bouquet of rose, musk, woods, and something else entirely. And at the very edge of the board are my initials: ECS.

Supremely magnificent in every way. Fairytale in its beauty.  All mine. Yet my entire being splits in half: my heart and mind hug the chessboard with fervor; my body freezes into its own carved piece of wood, from my eyelids to my hands seizing into fists on my lap.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s soft voice breaks through the thud-thud-thud in my ears. I feel his strong, warm hand around my fists, but I can’t blink away from my initials on the board. He tips up my head until my vision fills only with him. Tenderness marbles his face with its own exquisite grain. He cups my cheek and blows gently across the board over my lips. “Breathe, love.” He draws a deep breath with me, and I realize he, too, wasn’t breathing until now. We inhale the indescribable perfume of the chess set together until I can form sound. Even if only breathy and staccato.

“Aiden, I . . . I don’t have the words.”

“You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t ever have to play it. Remember what I said?”

I nod, realizing now exactly why I needed his reassurance. “This is just a reminder.”

“That’s right. Only a reminder of the game you used to love and that still has a piece of your heart.” He comes to kneel before me and tucks me into his chest, kissing my temple. “Like me, this is only yours and no one else’s.”

“Wow,” is all I can whisper. He is giving me this work of art only so it can be mine. Only so I can have the most beautiful reminder there is. I focus only on his lips and the way they brush along my cheek, as I try to remember the joy this game used to give me, the times I won, the thrill of strategy, sometimes higher than the win itself. I haven’t let myself visit these memories in so long. I didn’t think it was possible to recall them without pain, but apparently it is. Not that the pain is gone exactly, but there are other feelings stronger than it. I know it’s because of Aiden’s warm strength filtering to my very bones. And I start to thaw piece by piece. Except my fists. They remain resolutely clenched on my lap.

He feels my softening immediately, probably like I do for him. He pulls back only enough so he can see my face. I don’t know what he finds there, but he smiles. “Were you able to remember something happy?”

I nod, still stunned. “I was, because of you.” I try to pour all my gratitude into my voice; my vocal cords shake from it. “Thank you. For all of it. It’s so beautiful—no, it’s much more than that. . . ”  The chess set draws my eyes back. There is a feeling about it, like a whisper in the breeze or a breathy silence in a sacred place.

“Is it selfish worthy?”

“Oh, yes. It’s already above Baci and clotted cream. Maybe tied with chemistry . . .”

He laughs with a carefree sound. My eyes flit back to him. “As long as it doesn’t compete with me.”

“Impossible,” I whisper, unwilling to interfere with the music of his laughter.

“Do you want to know more about it?” he asks casually, no doubt trying to remove all pressure for me to answer a certain way. Except I’m curious about the thought he put into this most of all.

“Yes, please. Tell me everything.”

His eyes glint with the deep passion he feels for the game, and I realize this is the first time we will talk about chess in any meaningful, just-us kind of way.

He tightens his hold around my fists, and his other hand frames the board. “The aroma you smell is rosewood—a very rare, strictly regulated wood. You can’t buy it from ethical sources anymore so the only sustainable option is from Old World furniture. This particular one came from an antique piano dating back to Tchaikovsky’s days. It will smell like this for a very long time. But I thought it was a good representation of you: roses and woods and music. Beauty and strength and calm.”

I can’t even blink with the way his eyes deepen and glow when he says things like that. Like I’m his best win, too. “It’s perfect,” I whisper, stunned voiceless again.

“The rose motif you see on the squares repeats in a pattern. See if you can find it.” He grins at my wide eyes as I start scanning the board frantically by position number. While I search, a brain cell wonders whether he embedded so many secret details so I could look at this and find only l-o-v-e and never p-a-i-n, only w-i-n-s, never l-o-s-s. The yes in my brain clicks at the same time as the code.

“My birthday. Six times.”

“You’re quick. Can you guess why six?”

He stumps me here. I try to think of favorite dates, favorite chemical element, favorite number, but nothing fits. “Some help?”

“It’s for all the six opening notes of Für Elise.”

“Wow,” I marvel again at the depth—not a single detail without meaning, not a grain of wood left to chance.

“It was carved for you by an old Russian chess master, Asimov,” Aiden continues. “He rarely crafts anymore, but he liked the story for this.”

“What was the story?”

His piano fingers brush my white knuckles the way they flutter over the ivory. “The story of a beautiful, loving, bright woman who is trying to find her way across the chessboard again . . .” He trails off as if he just finished telling a fairytale.

And like a fairytale, it leaves both beauty and longing behind. I want to touch the gleaming pieces so much that desire becomes physical pain, almost as intense as the way I crave him. I try, I really try to move one single finger, but my fists are locked shut—the way my body used to be before Aiden awoke it. And the air starts to thicken with a sadness that shouldn’t belong here, but it slithers in like a tear at the corner of the eye. Because even though this piece of art was made exactly for me, it can never be truly mine. It will never complete its destiny. The young woman will never play again.

“Are you trying to feel it?” Aiden caresses my knuckles.

I look back at his face—worried now, the V chiseled like golden rosewood between his brows. I don’t want to say the words, but they spill out as always under his gaze, “I want to,” I admit, feeling carved in pieces. “I want to play with you. I want to touch it so much, but I can’t.”

He brings a fist to his lips. “Of course you can’t. But would you let it touch you?”

A whisper of warm goosebumps blows over my skin. “Touch me how?”

“Do you trust me?”

“I trust you with my life.”

He flashes me a wistful smile. “Quite literally in fact, but tell me, what was your favorite chess piece?”

“The Queen.”

His smile becomes true and dimpled. “Mine, too. In black?”

“How did you know?”

“Because it’s the harder win. And it’s something else we have in common.”

Such a small thing to say, yet sadness starts to waft away with the rose breeze. He picks up the dark burgundy Queen so fluidly that the moment they join, it looks as though it’s part of him, shining in his long fingers. As he brings it closer, a trace of rosewood floats between us. I lean in reflexively to sniff it, but my fists quiver on my lap.

“Not your hand,” Aiden says, not missing the movement. “Your heart.”

And slowly, without releasing my eyes, he sweeps aside my locket and touches the Queen’s crown to my fluttering chest.

“Oh!” My breath stutters as the satiny curves brush my skin. They’re warm from Aiden’s touch. A million tingles erupt on the spot. I brace for any pain—perhaps a sting or icy chill—but he presses his palm over my heart, holding the chess piece between my lifeblood and his hand. And I only feel everything his touch always makes me feel. The gasp of surprise becomes an ah of desire. The panting of fear becomes a sigh. And my heart splutters with a different rhythm: no longer anguished or terrified. Freed somehow, leaping over four years of loss, bounding above each jagged flashback, only to beat in his hand.

“Listen to that!” Aiden smiles, feeling the boom-boom-boom. “How does that feel?”

“I can’t believe it!” I murmur, watching the way his hand rises and falls with my breath. “How are you doing that?”

“I’m not. You are.”

“Yes, but because of you.” My eyes flash up to him. Even on his knees, he towers a head above me. His face is glowing like the rosewood, dazzling with triumph. But the win is mine. Because a wondrous being like this is with me, healing in a single touch.

He rolls the Queen over my skin, drawing an infinity loop. Then he bends his head and presses his lips to my heart. Kissing the same symbol. Always. The heat from his mouth is no longer a flash burn across my skin. It becomes a slow, deep ember, smoldering away all melancholy, all fear. My back arches on its own, bowing to his lips as they flutter along the neckline of my dress.

He pulls back, his eyes tender, yet somehow still scorching. “More, Elisa?”

M-o-r-e. “Yes,” I breathe, eyes on the Queen glimmering in his fingers. Where will he take it next?

He trails the Queen slowly up my throat and along my jawline, his lips following the same path until his mouth and the Queen come to rest at my temple. He rolls the smooth curves into a circle. “Your mind, Elisa. It guides the chess pieces more than your hand. It moves them even now. You never stopped playing, love.”

When he says it like that, it rings true. “I guess not,” I inhale a chuckle, feeling the caress of the silky wood, like a part of his hand.

As he did with my heart, he removes the Queen and kisses my temple, my cheekbone, the spot below my ear. “More chess?” he whispers, his breath sending a shiver of pleasure down my neck.

“More you,” I sigh back.

I feel his smile against my skin as his lips follow the Queen across my cheek to the corner of my mouth. “Your lips.” He traces the burnished crown over the contours. “Because they smile when you play, even when you don’t know it.”

The warm tip glides effortlessly like a second skin, the fragrance of rosewood a second breath. My head is twirling with his scent, the aroma of chess, and the rose breeze floating around us. For a second, I wonder whether the wood is heat-resistant enough for his touch, for the flame that is blazing in me again. But his mouth replaces the Queen before she catches fire. It’s too late for me. The moment I taste him, my blood ignites. It scorches like lava in my veins, incinerating any remnant of the past. My fists fling open, fly up, and hook in his hair as always, soldering him to my mouth.

“Oh!” I gasp, feeling my fingers run through his raven strands, eager and free.

“Elisa,” he moans, and his kiss becomes a force. Exactly that. Slow at first, in that way he has of stopping time, of making the present moment last forever. Then deep and powerful, like it’s capturing me inside out. His tongue traces the path of the Queen, then moves with mine in a game of its own. He wins all of it. My body falls open. Legs around his waist, arms around his neck, fingers knotted in his hair, mouth melded to his. Yet it’s not close enough for me.

“Aiden, more,” I whisper, pressing feverishly into his torso. More of him, of his gift, of the wooden figure I never thought I could feel again.

A throaty sound whirls in his chest and echoes in mine. It sets of a frenzy in us both. I grip him closer and he winds his arm around my waist, straining me to him. His other hand with the Queen curves around my neck, pressing the warm rosewood against my pulse. His mouth seizes mine in every way. I surrender to the swipe of his tongue, the dent of his teeth, the sting of his bite. His kiss brands itself on my lips, embeds in my neurons, right next to words like h-e-a-l and t-i-m-e. Behind my closed eyelids—tinted red with desire now, not anger—the world starts to spin. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin. They kiss along my jawline to my ear.

“You smell better than the rosewood.” He sighs, breathing the Aeternum spot. “But don’t tell the Queen.” He combs the chess piece through my braid, untangling my hair with his long fingers. I’ll have to take his word for it. I can only smell and feel him. My entire body starts to tremble in his arms. Then abruptly he stops; his mouth is gone.

“Aiden, no,” I whimper, flinging my eyes open.

He is glorious before me, his face exultant.  My eyelids flutter under his gaze, unable to bear the force of his beauty, yet unwilling to miss a blink of it. Fully open now, my hands reach toward him, clasping his face, trying to bring him back to my lips. But he takes off my locket and sets it by the chess set—masterpiece next to masterpiece at the hands of the most beautiful masterpiece there is.

And this work of art unzips my dress and hooks his fingers under the straps, slipping them off my shoulders, raising goosebumps with his fingertips. Shivering with heat—what a concept. The dress pools in a rose-printed cloud at my waist. He lifts me enough to slip it off, tossing it behind him. And then it’s just me, a wet pair of lacy knickers, and a crimson glow over my skin—a panting, quivering, flesh version of the chess Queen next to me.

“Ah, Elisa, all of this under your roses.” His gaze descends from my eyes to my curled, bandaged toes. How can a look burn like this? How can it tighten and twist every muscle inside me?

“My turn.” My fingers grasp the hem of his T-shirt eagerly—were they ever frozen?—and peel it off him. And there he is. A flawless, real, billions-times-more-beautiful embodiment of the golden chess King. But this perfect figure stands to help me. My hands are quick now, snapping off the top button and unzipping his jeans, ripping them off his sculpted legs, feeling the dusting of hair underneath my sensitized fingertips. And he springs free. A different carving from a rarer wood—no Old or New World can source him. He is entirely singular from the bubbles like diamonds on his crown to the familiar woodgrain of veins shimmering on him.

He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. “Still not used to it?”

I shake my head. “I don’t think that’s humanly possible.”

“Good thing we’re human then.” He smiles godlike and lays me across the bed. “Now . . .” He climbs between my legs and picks up the rosewood Queen, flicking it between his fingers. “Shall we play, Elisa?”

And he takes the Queen to my skin, as he did with the feather quill the first time we made love. Wherever the rosewood glides, his mouth follows. Down my throat, over my collarbones, to the hollow indentation in between. The Queen strokes, his lips conquer. A game of chess unlike any other. A game I can play. A game we can both win.

He circles the Queen over my breasts, drawing loops around the nipples with the curve of the satin tip, his tongue swirling in its wake in a dizzying pattern. Rosewood, lips, tongue, teeth, breath, kisses, sucks, licks. I can’t hold still. I’m a breeze, an Aidonis butterfly, a piano string, a flame, a drumbeat—gasping, trembling, and burning under him.

“Shh, love, there are more moves still left.” My insides reverberate with the sound of his husky voice. And the Queen continues its advance down my belly, along my waist, over my hips. Strolling breath to breath, goosebump to goosebump like cellular chess squares on my flushed skin. Spelling words on me as he did on our first night. Some are the same, engraved there forever: I, mine, A.H.  Others are new: yours, love, Elisa. His mouth follows them like punctuation, a lick for a comma, a kiss for a period, a nibble as an exclamation mark. By the time he reaches the band of my knickers, I feel like a poem, like art, a war letter, a pleasure map, a chess game with only victories. The trembles become foreshocks, gathering like a storm at the epicenter of my body. My hips try to jolt off the bed for relief, but he has secured them to the mattress.

“Aiden, now,” I say his name like a plea, trying to find the breeze.

“Soon, love.” His nose skims down the lace of my knickers, inhaling in that way that makes my eyes roll to the back of my head. “Mmm,” he sighs. “There’s no rosewood that compares to this.” Before either my blush or shudder is over, the Queen rolls on the lace.

“Oh, God”! I cry out, looking down, bewildered. How can something I cannot even touch feel like this? I know the answer to that one, even crazed and shaking. Because it’s in his hand.

“Not God.” He glides the Queen over the lace again. “Just you and me and a game we love.”

He presses the rosewood into the lace, up and down, increasing the pressure until I topple back on the pillow, gripping the quilt, gulping the air, trying not to faint. In delirium, I feel his finger dip into the lace and pull the knickers to the side. The breeze cools my wet skin. The vibrations inside become violent. I can’t muster any part of my body—if I still my thighs, my hands are clawing at the sheets, if I grip his hair, my hips start writhing for his mouth.

“Aiden, please,” I give up and beg, quivering everywhere, voice to fingertips.

“Not yet, love. You have a game to win.” He blows on the tingling skin and slides the rosewood over the length of me. “Your Queen to my Queen.”

Then his mouth closes around me, starting a chorus of Aidens and Gods and cries and moans. At least my voice is free—no one to hear, just us. Each flick of his tongue is an advance, each suck a domination, round and round, circling me into a checkmate until I break, both winning and losing this game. Winning because pain became pleasure, fear became bravery, and chess became a love play. Losing because I shatter into a million pieces—like a waterfall, like stardust, like spirals of rosewood whittling away to form a new, shining queen. The last conscious thought I register is Aiden’s hushing kisses drawing an infinity loop over the trembling folds. And then I disappear.

But he finds me, brings me back as always. Filling my lungs with his breath. Restarting my heart with his hold. Wakening my mind with his words. I open my eyes and he is lying on his elbow next to me, one long leg parting mine, his steely lines welded to my melted curves. Everything about him is on fire, the sharp angles tensed and hard. Behind him, the white curtain billows with the breeze as though trying and failing to touch him. From my orgasm, his beauty seems to shimmer at the edges.

“Hi.” I take his face in my hands, feeling as though my whole universe is between my pink palms. He shudders once.

“Hi,” he answers, his voice low, his breath rough and fast against my lips.

“That was some game.”

He chuckles, his pectoral muscle flexing like a blade. “Is it over?”

I get lost in his primal, smoldering eyes. “No, it’s your turn to win.” I bring him back to my mouth and kiss him with the full wonder he makes me feel. A groan rumbles in his throat. I reach down and grasp him the way I know he likes. “Play, Aiden. Play like you want to.”

He growls my name. The deep sound vibrates from his throat to my core, and my body starts building again. My leg hitches around his hip but before I can grind against him, he grips my waist and rolls with me on the bed until I’m on top of him.

Your game, Elisa.” In his fingers, the Queen flashes like a beacon. “Touch me with this?”

One question, one fiery gaze, and everything changes again for me.

Would I be able to even consider it if he weren’t burning? Would my hand stay open if my body wasn’t quivering again with my overwhelming desire for him? Would my skin endure it if he hadn’t caressed every part of me with chess, bringing me to orgasm, not tears?

He sees the yes in my eyes before I know it. His smile is victorious, blinding as if he has already won. He takes my hand and kisses it—it falls open at his lips, a tremble flitting here and there on my fingertips, but not with anxiety. With desire for him. Then, light like air, he runs the Queen along my lifeline. My breath stops. The feeling is indescribable—like loving him, like coming home, like touching an Elisa petal in the garden.

“Your Queen.” Aiden smiles and surrenders it on my palm.

“Oh!” I gasp as the smooth weight of the rosewood rests on my skin.

“It looks beautiful on you.” The words sound natural in his voice, but I hear again that strong emotion underneath. He lifts my hand to his mouth, kissing the fingertips, the knuckles, the wrist, the palm, until I only feel his lips and my need to touch him. My fingers close instinctively around his jaw. Then he slips away and my hand wraps around the Queen.

“Hello, you,” I whisper, touching it for the first time in four years. Yet I know it will be even longer before I can play with it as it was carved to do. Suddenly, the Queen weighs more, like iron or lead, not rosewood. My arm feels weak with it. I know nothing has changed except in my mind. But Aiden is waiting for me, rippling with need. And the weight lightens. Because to touch him, I would carry anything.

I lift the Queen—hand trembling—to the corner of his mouth. His breath catches, fogging the rosewood with his heat. His lips lift into a smile as I kiss the spot, and a low moan whirs in his throat. Like the click of the briar wood lock, I grasp now exactly how much he likes this. Not just for me, but for himself even though he will never demand it. Sex and chess. This is what was in his selfish list. The realization marks a transformation, wipes away all my trepidation, the very weight of the chess piece. Because to please him, I would do anything.

Even hooded with desire, his eyes don’t miss my change. “Your move.” He nods and I’m unleashed.

Without hesitation now, I trace his sculpted lips with the Queen. They part with a gasp, his delicious fragrance and the rosewood making my head spin. I swipe the tip of my tongue along the contours, moaning at his taste. And a race begins between the Queen and me, which of us can kiss or touch him first. My fingers roll the rosewood over his golden skin, his jaw, down his throat, over his heart, as he did with me. Sometimes my mouth goes first, sometimes my tongue falls behind. I feel him shudder under me, each golden angle and bronze pane of him like a sentient chessboard of my own. His hand closes in my hair, his chest swells and dips with speed, but he doesn’t rush me. He lets me play over his body at my own pace. I get lost in the perfect ridges, racing the Queen with my lips over the carved valleys and peaks.

“You’re dangerous with that,” he murmurs, tensing with restraint under me. He watches me through his heavy lids, his gaze scorching in every way. His erection is pressing at the small my back.

No, he doesn’t rush me, but my own body does. My heart starts pounding in my ears, my throat, between my legs—everywhere I feel, there is a frantic pulse. I race the Queen down the V-shaped Adonis muscles between his hips. And finally, the queen reaches her king.

“You’ll finish me, Elisa.” He chuckles with a breathless sound and grips the headboard.

“Not before you win.” Then, slowly, I circle the rosewood around the crown and run my tongue over him. “Your Queen to my King.”

A guttural groan rips through his teeth, fingers tightening in my hair. I roll my tongue on him again and his hips tilt up, pushing into my mouth with a hiss. The Queen slips from my fingers; I only have touch for him. I take him in my hand and wrap my lips around him, sucking the glistening crown.

“Fuck, Elisa,” he growls. “Slow, I want to be inside you.”

I try to slow down like he wants but the taste of him . . . saltwater and honey and spice and heat, a bouquet that’s entirely him.  So much better than—

“Oh!” I gasp, jolting up.

“Perfect,” he sighs and pulls me up until I’m straddling him. “My turn to win.”

“No, Aiden, wait!” I cry out because above his incomparable body, as if spelled on his skin, strange things are happening in my vision, numbers, symbols, blurring and spinning.

“Elisa?” I feel him move under me, maybe a hand on my face . . . “Love, are you okay?”

“Shh, I’m having an epiphany!”

“An epiphany? About my cock?”

“One second!”

The images transform over the perfect shape of him, flashbacks now, a very recent memory. “Oh, my God!”

“Elisa?” His strained voice breaks through and my vision clears. Only now I see the scene before me. Aiden is sitting up, tense, eyes anxious, forehead lined, arms around me as if he is trying to protect me from dangers he cannot see. The King towers imperiously between us—even in my utter amazement, I can’t miss him.

“I’m okay,” I smile quickly to calm him. “But I think I just solved the protein.”

It’s instant. The tension wipes off his face and his eyes widen. “Christ! Is that what’s happening?”

I nod, still dizzy with my discovery.

“How?” he marvels, hands vising my face as if to shake me out of my stupor.

“Do you remember—of course you do—but last Saturday, when we were in the Room of Firsts, you said I mumbled ‘orgasms are oxytocin but taste better’?”

“Yes, that was one of your best comas.” He chuckles with the memory.

“Well, it’s been bothering me all week. I kept having this tip-of-the-tongue feeling, like I’m forgetting something, you know?”

“No.”

“Of course you don’t, but it happens to the rest of us and I finally figured out why.”

“And?”

“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before! Doctor Helen practically told me. She said my calming effect on you is like a shot of serotonin to your nervous system.”

“A powerful one.”

“Exactly, and it makes you calm, it erases your fears. Well, at the time, I focused only on the CREB part to help me sort out which oxytocin we needed. But I completely missed this! I have to add serotonin, too—the other form of love! Love for ourselves.”

“Love for ourselves?” His brows knit in confusion.

“Yes! Serotonin is a different love hormone than oxytocin. It’s a hormone related to confidence and self-esteem. And I make you feel it. I make you love yourself, like you do for me. It’s not just one kind of love that dad meant to add to the formula. To fight fear, we have to have faith in ourselves. That’s why the protein isn’t staying solid. It’s missing self-love! It’s missing serotonin!”

He has inhaled every word. The dimpled smile breaks over his face with a look of pure adoration. “All right, I’m caught up. But how does my cock in your mouth fit in, no pun intended?”

“Because, oh, it’s so perfect—”

“Thank you! I’m very attached to it.”

“No,” I laugh. “I mean yes, he is, but serotonin is not just the self-love hormone. It’s also tied to taste. People with low serotonin have lower taste thresholds. Conversely, when you’re happy, things taste better. And that’s what happens to me when I taste you. You said it yourself during my self-love game, only I didn’t realize it. We taste good to each other because we’re happy when we do this. And so my brain must have used that part to make the connection, but then I passed out after my orgasm and didn’t remember it until now that—“

“You were tasting me while more coherent, and it triggered your memory.”

“Exactly!”

He shakes his head with a look of unfettered, existential pride. “You’re unbelievable, you know that? You figured all that out from going down on me?”

I shrug, still dazed. “Apparently. But I think the King deserves a lot of credit.” I nod at the catalyst of my epiphany who is standing there absolutely livid at being ignored in such a manner, undoubtedly a first for him.

He laughs with my favorite sound and kisses me until I’m dizzy and the chandelier above is swiveling. “So you know the moral of the story, don’t you?” he asks when I can breathe again.

“What?”

“You should always, always have my cock somewhere inside you.”

Our laughter presses our bodies closer, leaving no space for anything else between us except the untamed k-i-n-g.  “Now for my win, Elisa.” His eyes become blue fire and he tosses me on the bed, laughing at my squeal. I’ve barely landed on my stomach when he lifts my hips up in the air, smacking my behind. “Your King to my Queen.”

And he slams inside, conquering every square of me, moan after moan, cry after cry, in our very own version of chess where we both play and we both win.

Later, when the lights are off and my chess set is sleeping on the dresser, I count Aiden’s breaths as he drifts off to Für Elise. In the moonlight pouring from the open window, his beauty is silver again, like a dream. Was it this same moon that shone while I was running from him? The same velvet night as the hilltop? T-i-m-e warps again, squeezing lifetimes into hours, days into blinks. Friend or enemy, healer or malady?

But tonight, it was an ally, a time of wins. I curl on my side, careful to never startle him from sleep, ticking our victories on his breaths like I used to count our self-defense weapons on the poppies. The Rose Cup, a place for solace that used to bring grief, a game of pleasure that used to bring pain, a new, old love back on my selfish list, a rare gift, a step closer to the protein, and the biggest triumph of them all: bringing us back on the same side of the fight. Just him and me.

My heart inflates, filling my chest, flowing up my throat, flooding my eyes. Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong again. Because I have hours of happiness in me.

Outside the window, the garden is quiet, the cottage only ours. The willows murmur, they’re here, they’re here. The r-e-e-l is waiting for us in the morning, but in this present moment, all is well. 

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 26 – ROSE THIEF

Hey gang and happy Fourth of July to all my U.S. peeps! I hope you’re all having a great long weekend with family, friends, or just a good book, however you want it to be. And to help with the weekend feel, here is a chapter for you. I took two weeks because it’s an important one, IMHO. And for those of you who read the snippet on Facebook, you might guess why. Hope you enjoy it. Lots of love, xo, Ani

26

Rose Thief

Everything is ready even though it’s only seven in the morning on a Saturday. But when you have an entire Rose Army at your disposal—as Stella has named Aiden, the Marines, and our security team—it takes only an hour compared to the ten it used to take mum, dad, and me to set up for the festival.

And now, after four years under a tarp behind the Plemmons’ shop, mum’s rose stand blooms in the heart of Priory Street as it did for the eighteen festivals our family blossomed together. I stare at it under the sunrise, resisting even a blink.

Dad built it in the shape of the cottage for mum. Just three lattice walls and a peaked roof with wooden slats, painted the same white as our home. Over the roof stretches a canvas of damask roses she bought on their honeymoon, their former pink now faded to the blush of the Clares. Woven baskets hang on the lattice like windows, brimming with roses from the garden: the Elisas in ivory, the Cecilias in cyclamen, the Reagans in magenta, the future Marias. But only the Clares are competing today. Their bouquet—forty-four stems, one for each year of mum’s life—bursts from her favorite vase on a beechwood plinth like a front door. And inside the trellis walls are eighteen rose wreaths with a photo of her from each summer she attended this festival, wearing the same rose-printed dress I’m wearing now and the same roses braided in her hair.

Her smile in the photos turns liquid in my vision.

“Is that a happy tear or a sad tear?” Aiden’s arms fold around my waist, and he kisses the droplet off my cheek as if we are entirely alone, not with a Rose Army around us or vendors throwing furtive looks at mum’s charm from a distance. Mrs. Willoughby seems to be weeping from her champion stand of speckled roses. I wrap my hands around his, eyes on the chime bells tinkling from the picket eave.

“Happy adjacent, I think.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Just because I miss her.” I shrug. “But also happy because I think she would have liked this.”

“Of course she would have. How else do you explain the pink clouds?” He turns me in his arms, his eyes caressing me in ways his hands cannot here. His fingers brush the roses woven in my hair as if the petals are my skin. “You look so beautiful,” he murmurs.

But how could anyone be called beautiful standing next to him? His surreal face eclipses everything, even if it’s still pale from the reel almost three hours later. The images hold him longer now—it takes a few extra minutes each week to bring him back. But he is still here for me, invincible and unwavering.

I trace the circle below his eyes with my fingertip. “How are you feeling?”

He smiles. “Happy adjacent.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Because I’ll miss you and your hair full of roses in a few minutes. But also happy because I have something that might help you with the adjacent part.” A glow falls over him, and the pallor disappears. His usual golden warmth infuses his skin. And even though the edges of the wound start burning at the countdown, I smile back.

“Does it involve a bomb shelter, a new security battalion, or body armor?”

He chuckles. “Not today.”

“All right, go on then. What is it?”

He nods once at someone behind me, and I look over my shoulder in time to see Benson turn the corner to Ivy Lane while the rest of my Rose Army spread out and occupy themselves in an apparent effort to give us privacy.

“So where will you be today while I’m showing off the roses?” I ask him, dreading the long day apart.

“Close enough to have my eyes on you in this dress and with this hair.” His heated gaze descends over me.

“That’s hardly fair,” I grumble. “You get to see me, but I don’t get to see you.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll leave breadcrumbs.”

“Breadcrumbs?”

“Something like that. Here comes Benson.”

Benson is striding toward us like our personal Big Ben, carrying a tall, thin cardboard box under his arm. “Here you go, sir.” He hands it to Aiden, winking at me before joining Max and Ferrars at our welcome table and promptly showing them a map—no doubt the battle plan. Aiden is still looking at me in that fiery way, a smile playing on his lips.

“Allow me?”

“You better. Papercuts are highly dangerous. Why didn’t you hire me a personal surgeon for this?”

“Don’t tempt me. I might throw in a second bodyguard and a bullet-proof vest. Although it would cover the best parts of this dress, I’m afraid.” His eyes linger on my décolleté. I’m about to suggest he builds us a private bunker where we don’t need clothes at all, but he opens the box with a pained sigh, and my snarky remark dies on my lips. Because he takes out a white sign with black letters like the cottage’s shutters:

Lady Clare’s Rose Gallery

“Oh!” I gasp, fingers flying to the painted words to caress the letters. Lady Clare—the name I gave the rose we planted together in mum’s honor at the Portland Rose Garden. “Aiden, did you do this yourself?”

He shrugs as though that’s not the best part. “YouTube and me.”

I throw my arms around him and the sign, hugging them both. “No, it’s just you!” I breathe him in through his T-shirt. “Thank you! I love it and I know mum would have loved it, too.”

He chuckles. “Well, I couldn’t very well leave you with a nameless rose stand. Mrs. Willoughby might have claimed it as her own.”

“And you with it.”

“Not me. I’m taken. I have a thing for Mrs. Plemmons.” He tips up my face, winking at our secret nicknames for each other. Will he always stun me like this? Or will there come a day, whether we win or lose, when I’ll get used to him? The answer might as well be a sign on my forehead: no, I never will.

He hangs the sign under roof, hammering the nails carefully into the slats. I try not to ogle at his arms flexing with the motion but fail quickly and absolutely. Thankfully he finishes before I do something obscene like drag him behind mum’s rose stand for a different kind of hammering with his parents six feet away. He rattles the sign to make sure it doesn’t move an inch.

“Perfect,” he says, regarding his handiwork and pulling me to his side.

I watch his profile, feeling his granite lines against me, inhaling his freshly showered scent.  “Yes, it truly is,” I agree.

He sets down the hammer and gazes down at me, but the familiar hesitancy before we part flickers in the turquoise depths. And the magic bubble pops. We’re back on Priory Street, surrounded by our army, the seconds ticking by. My chest starts to ache under my locket.

“Do you feel it still?” he whispers.

“Feel what?”

“The pain here.” His index finger taps the glowing sapphire.

I nod. “Only when you leave.”

“Me too. But do you remember what I think then?”

“What?”

He caresses a Clare in my braid. “This is just a petal,” he reminds me.

His love-making mantra makes smile despite the countdown. “That’s right, I forgot! The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“Exactly. Think about that with me, and before you know it, the day will be over. And we can celebrate your Rose Cup which I’m sure you’ll win.”

I can tell by the playfulness in his voice that he’s trying to cheer me up. But why is it harder to separate today? I go to work every day and I’m able to crawl out of the car without this kind of devastation. Is it because it’s mum’s favorite event and I want him here with me? Or because I know he’ll be close but stressed, trying to protect me? Whatever the reason, it seems to be harder for Aiden, too. His eyes don’t leave me for long, his body shifts closer every time I move.

“Celebrate how?” I ask to distract myself and him. “Just us?”

I know he hears the desperation in my voice because he smiles. “Oh, I never tell. But will you do something for me?”

“Anything you want.”

He plucks an Elisa from their basket and tucks it above my ear. “Wear something of yours today, too. Make this your day as well.”

He caresses my rose, lips parting, clearly wanting to do more. As do I. But things change quickly then. The horn of the Plemmonses flower cart blares at the end of the street, striking Aiden’s shoulders like a thunderbolt. His eyes harden as he scours the lane that starts bustling at the signal. People are already crowding at the gate. The street vendors start shouting final orders at their own armies. And the local band clangs their cymbals and tests the trumpets. Reflexively by now, our arms fly around each other’s waist—shield and talisman.

“You should go, love,” I say, each word a thorn in my throat. “I’ll be fine with your parents and Max and Ferrars. I wish you’d go fishing or hiking with the Marines, but I know there’s zero chance of that.”

He tenses as if ready to throw himself between the world and me at any moment. “Zero,” he agrees. “But don’t worry about that. Celebrate your mother and have fun.”

His words seem to act as a command to the Rose Army who have clearly been watching him. They spring into movement, even Robert and Stella, forming circle around us, awaiting his orders. Aiden shifts me against his side without releasing his hold on me.

“You relax and enjoy this, too,” he tells his parents. “It’s supposed to stay in the mid-seventies, but if you want to go back at the Inn for a break, Ferrars will take you.”

“Not a chance. We’re staying with Elisa. We have spots in the shade,” Robert assures him. Stella simply kisses him with her eyes. I can’t help but notice a trace of sadness in her smile. If I see it, Aiden certainly does because he bends to kiss her cheek before turning to Max and Ferrars.

“You know the drill. Stay close but inconspicuous. No mistakes. Elisa’s safety first.”

“Yes, sir.” They nod in their casual attire that blends in with the locals and start helping Robert and Stella heave the ice coolers of rose lemonade to our welcome table.

James, Hendrix, and Benson don’t seem to need orders. Like Aiden, they’re wearing more utilitarian clothes: jeans, breathable shirts, Timberland boots. They don earpieces in unison, already scanning the street, their expressions intense even behind their dark sunglasses. At their alert postures, my own spine becomes rigid with nerves.

“Is Jazz back at the cottage?” I guess.

“Yes, he’s betting someone will show up there, but you’re worrying again.” He pinches my chin as he does when making an important point. “Nothing will happen to you. All this is so we can find out what we’re dealing with, fix it, and get back to our life.”

I nod, but I still can’t calm the sudden shivers. Because it’s impossible to look at the lethal men around me and not feel that war is starting on Priory Street. And wars have casualties. What if someone gets hurt? Even worse, what if it’s not me? And what if mum’s day is tainted with this? I have no doubt there is no real danger here. I’m more afraid of what seven men trained to kill will do at Aiden’s direction if he perceives danger.

“Aiden, please be careful,” I beg him.

“Of course, I will. I told you, we’re built for this.”

I glance at the army quickly—hard, vigilant, destructive—and pull him aside by the bouquet of Clares. One of her roses brushes against his forearm like a kiss. “That’s my point love,” I whisper. “You’re trained for war, not this. We’re in Burford, not Fallujah.”

He is too tense to smile but he tries. “As stunning as you are, I still know where I am, Elisa.”

I take his hands in mine, caressing the jagged knuckles. “You know what I mean. It’s just a little country festival. Petals, not threats, love. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for danger. Please?”

He’s nodding before I’ve finished. “I will. Now go, play, let me worry about the rest.”

Before I can formulate a response, he arches me against his granite chest and presses his lips softly against mine. And then he is gone. Waving at his parents and bolting away from me after Hendrix and James, Benson at his side.

“Be safe,” I call after him, clasping my locket.

He looks over his shoulder with my favorite dimpled smile. “The breadcrumb is in the box.” His voice wraps around me, warm and velvet. I blink and they vanish into the rose-scented air as if they were only ever a dream.

The wound rips wide open, as livid as when I used to chase after him in my sleep. But my phone buzzes in my dress pocket instantly. I wrench it out, almost dropping it as I read his text:

“Breadcrumbs, not worries.”

Can he see me? I spin around, scanning the sidewalks and rooftops, even stupidly the sky. But I can’t see any of them. Not even our Big Ben or James’s tangle of red hair. Yet as much as I want Iraq’s ghosts away from Mum’s roses, my chest is burning. I almost tear the box that held the sign to search for my breadcrumb, but a folded piece of paper slides out easily in Aiden’s assertive handwriting:

First Time. December. Bring love.

I grin at the words, fighting the urge to kiss the note with his parents, Max, and Ferrars around. He didn’t make it hard for me to decode: Room of Firsts, at noon. A rush of heat flashes over my skin. It will be just us for lunch at least. I tuck the note in my dress and text him back immediately: “I can’t wait.”

But our date is four long hours away, and these hours belong only to mum. As she apparently still belongs in Burford’s heart. They haven’t forgotten her in the last four years. The moment the Song of Windrush kickstarts the festival, a long line of Cotswoldians forms at the end of the street, smiling and pointing excitedly at our stand with its brand-new sign. “Blimey, Clare’s roses are really back!” shouts someone. “I knew it!” answers another. “Mama, it’s the roses you liked!” squeals a little girl.

Everything else fades then as my throat closes abruptly with a different kind of tears. An acidic mix of grief and remorse. How did I erase Mum from this day? How could I have taken her away from them like she was taken away from me? I run my hands over her dress—so many sorry’s, I love you’s, and I miss you’s left unsaid. But that’s not what she would have wanted today. I skip at our welcome table with Robert and Stella by my side and wave at the crowd who cheers and shuffles forward as soon as the song ends.

“Good heavens,” Robert marvels, pouring mum’s rose lemonade frantically into paper cups. “There must be at least three hundred of them and it’s only the start.”

“She was so loved,” Stella croons, all thumbs and laughter.

But across the lane, Max and Ferrars are in a battle stance. They split up: Max moves between the incoming line and me, Ferrars strides parallel against it searching each kind face for danger behind his sunglasses. If I look closer, I can see their earpieces and quick lips coordinating with each other. A metallic taste builds on my tongue at their vicious expressions looking at the well-wishers who are waiting to welcome mum back and seeing nothing but threats.

“Max, please!” I hiss at him under my breath. “Let them enjoy this. They’ve waited a long time.”

He peers at me through his aviators. Or I think he does—only his furled eyebrows are visible above them. I have no idea what he is thinking but he nods once and crosses the street, strolling casually and looking more like a merry goer. Down the meandering lane, Ferrars starts doing the same. I take a deep breath and smile at the ribbon of faces winding through all the other rose stands for ours first. At the very front, Mr. Plemmons is leading the charge in his crocs and cane, wearing his straw fedora crowned with garden roses. Everyone slows for his hunched frame, tipping their hats at the festival’s official tsar for the last fifty years.

“Rose!” he rejoices when he reaches me, taking my hand in his knobbly fist and shaking it in the air like I have already won the Rose Cup. “Bless me soul! The stand looks beautiful—righ’ like yer mum did it. She’s proud up there, she is, I tell yeh.” He leans his head back, admiring the stand, a tear trickling in his mustache while I try to exhale. Other than me, the Plemmonses are the only two people alive who know exactly how much mum loved this. Over my parents’ hilltop, the pinkish clouds are floating like petals across the sky. Are you smiling, Mum?

“Ah, all the roses are perfect!” Mr. Plemmons declares. “An’ look at them in yer hair, Rosebud. Josephine will like this. She’s with Emma an’ Harry, they’ll stop by. Felix, Lavender, and Lily are here from London, too.” He grins under his bushy mustache at his grandchildren’s names.

“That’s wonderful, Mr. Plemmons,” I shout, handing him a cup of lemonade. “I’d love to see them again.”

He turns to Robert and Stella, whom he calls his good Yankee mates. “Good of yeh to be with Rosebud today, jolly good. Come by our stand for some nosh—Josephine has made canapes . . . but where is Adam?” He squints at the space between the three of us, his fluffy eyebrows furrowing like sheep’s wool at this new transgression committed by Aiden in addition to staying with me at the cottage albeit in the garden shed.

“He’s fixing a pipe at the cottage, Mr. Plemmons,” I scream, flushing as the whole line listens in about the mysterious, beautiful guest, while Robert and Stella nod fervently, their smiles too wide. “But he got me the sign for the stand, see? Isn’t it brilliant?”

That distracts him immediately. He totters closer to the stand, hitching up his spectacles as he squints to read it. “Adam did tha’?” His eyebrows and mustache wiggle with a smile—perhaps the first smile in the same sentence as Adam.

“Yes, he did! And he hung it himself,” I yell proudly as several necks crane up to see the sign too with admiring hums.

“Ah, tha’ is beautiful, tha’ is. Will save him a canape, Rose. See yeh three in wee bit. Stay out o’ this blasted sun and sprinkle the roses.” He waves and turns to face the line of cheery Burfordians, stomping his cane on the cobblestones for silence. They all fall quiet. “Today,” he wheezes with significance. “We welcome back one of Burford’s best roses. May she bloom like spring. Let the festival begin.” He blows his whistle and teeters back to his famous pony cart stand, harrumphing at all the clapping that follows him.

The whole line jolts forward with energy then, louder than the band. Max and Ferrars radiate waves of anxiety pacing across the lane, ready to hurl themselves at me as my hands get passed like coins handshake to handshake in a torrent of welcomes and cheers that gives me barely a second to breathe in between, let alone say anything other than “hello Mrs. So-and-So” and “thank you.”

“Elisa-pea! Welcome back! Happy Rose Day to beautiful Clare!” Mrs. Potts, the town’s grocer, cries as I hand her a cup of mum’s lemonade and a sachet of dried petals which she uses to dab her tears.

“Oh, how I’ve missed these wee baggies for me dressers. Voting for Clare’s roses, I will!” Mrs. Sterling, the stationer, cheers as she takes two sachets from my basket.

“No better-smelling roses in all of England.” Mr. Jenkins, the chemist, grasps my hand next. “Happy Rose Day, Elisa! Proper chuffed to meet you, Elisa’s friends.”

“Ah, to see Clare’s stand blooming again. Blimey, it’s like she’s here. Look, everyone, look at her pictures!” Mrs. Ashbrook, the milliner, claps her hands and grabs her lemonade cup.

“You look right like your mum in her dress, Elisa.” Mrs. Dawlish, the town’s hair stylist fixes a few roses in my braid. “Well-met, Sir. You have lovely hair, Ma’am. Dear me, I can see where your son gets his looks from—all the ladies bump their gums about him in my salon.” She laughs and shakes Stella’s hand, admiring her perfect chocolate waves. “But don’t worry, Elisa, I told them off. I said he already has the prettiest rose in town.”

Robert, Stella, and I are still laughing when Mr. Willoughby, the archnemesis competitor of Plemmons Blooms, steps up and takes a cup of lemonade. “Good luck, Elisa.” He gives me an icy smile and is the only one not looking at mum’s roses. From the corner of my eye, I see Max zip closer, pretending to admire the Elisas. “May the best rose win.” Willoughby nods curtly at the two beautiful souls next to me without waiting for an introduction and marches back to his champion stand where last year’s Rose Cup is gleaming in the shape of a silver rose stem. I clutch my locket at the sight. The Cup used to rest in our foyer, year after year. Let Mum’s roses win. Bring it back to the cottage for her, please. Above the hilltop, the pink clouds have burned off into a gossamer blue sky.

“There’s an oddball for you.” Robert frowns at Willoughby’s retreating figure with a stern gaze, which he obviously passed to his protective son.

“He’s an envious sort,” I explain. “But not dangerous. At most, he’d knock off a vase and mumble that it was an accident.”

It goes on like this for over three hours. Streams of Cotswoldians rush by the stand, babbling with their excitement about mum’s roses until her very name fills the air as if she were still here. Clare, Clare, Clare. Each time it’s uttered feels like her soft laugh tinkling in the breeze. By the time the torrent slows, we are long out of lemonade, sachets, breath, and tears, and Robert and Stella have met every single Burfordian except Willoughby, their families, and their guests, and have been invited to two weddings and four luncheons. Even Stella’s immaculate hair is fluffed Plemmons-style from the frantic greeting. My fingers hurt from all the hand-clasping. And Max and Ferrars look like they have aged at least ten years during the ordeal. A few stands down, I spot Hendrix who must have descended on Priory Street at some point for reinforcement. Flushed and dabbing their foreheads, they’re all reeling off something into their sleeves, no doubt reporting to Aiden and the others that not a single psychopath, pervert, stalker, or thief has managed to pluck one petal off a rose, let alone hurt me. Exactly as I said it would be. If they’re in this shape, I cannot imagine Aiden’s state. But at least he will be able to relax after this. As Hendrix and Jazz said, if someone was trying to hurt me, they would have shown up here today. Yet, the worst thing that has happened in three frenetic hours is Willoughby’s half-smile.

“That was something else!” Robert blows out a gust of air, folding down in his bistro chair and wiping a bead of sweat from his temple. “But I can’t say I saw anyone suspicious, did you?”

“Heavens, not one!” Stella laughs, plopping next to him in the shade and pinning up her hair. “We’ve made more friends in a week here than a year in the States.”

“They all love you.” I grin with pride, filling their cups with rose iced tea. “Except the Willoughbys, but that’s because she’s in love with Aiden, and he’s in love with the Rose Cup.”

“Well, good luck to her with Aiden.”

We burst out laughing while the object of the female obsession in town sends my phone buzzing next to my thigh.

“Are you plotting your security’s demise?” Aiden texts. I look around giggling, knowing I can’t see him, yet unable to help myself.

“Always,” I respond. “But I have a feeling I won’t have to plot long.”

“I sincerely hope you’re right.”

“I am. If anyone wanted to hurt me, I’d be mince by now.”

“Hilarious, Elisa.”

I can almost feel his glare through the pixels. I should know better. Nothing that suggests harm to me in any way is funny to Aiden. “I’m sorry, bad joke.” The three dots hesitate on the screen—sighing, I imagine. “I’m perfectly safe,” I assure him, wishing he were here so I could smooth the V away. “Except I miss you.”

He doesn’t hesitate now. “Miss you too.”

“I solved the breadcrumb.”

“Of course you did.”

“I’ll bring love.”

“I’ll take all of it.”

Am I imagining the sad tone in his text? “How are you feeling?”

“As I always do when I’m away from you.”

Yes, with a throbbing chest and a bitter mouth and a hollowness that erodes the flesh like acid. I know because all the smiles and warmth of the last three hours haven’t changed that. The wound still rages and burns. “Me too.”

“Just a petal, love. See you at noon.”

Noon feels too far away even if it’s only in forty minutes. I pluck an Elisa petal and tuck it in my pocket with the breadcrumb. “Love you.”

“Always.”

His text is immediate as his answer would be if he were right here, brushing my cheek. I stuff my phone next to the petal and duck inside the stand to prepare the love I’m bringing him. Across the lane, Max and Ferrars are relaxing on the sidewalk, but I’m sure their eyes don’t leave us. Hendrix seems to have disappeared. But soon we all will have their lives back. I can almost smell the freedom with the roses.

“Knock, knock.” A familiar voice wafts through the lattice walls. My head snaps up, gasping at my new guests. Edison and Graham are standing by the table—Graham no longer sickly green but still carrying the Encyclopedia and Edison holding the pot of miniature yellow roses that mum gave dad, which has sat in his office ever since.

“Professor Edison, I mean, Nigel! Graham!” I cheer, rushing out of the stand. “What a wonderful surprise!”

“Is it?” Edison smiles. “I used to stop by when Clare ran the stand. You don’t remember?”

“Of course, I do. You and dad played football once using the stand as goal posts.”

He laughs. “And what a lambasting we took from Clare. It never happened again.” He hands me the pot of roses. “I thought this little fellow might like to be at the festival, too. See some of its species for once instead of dusty textbooks and a dour professor.”

“Thank you.” My voice catches as I sniff the tiny rosette. “I’ll introduce it to some friends and bring it back on Monday.”

“No matter. You’re welcome to keep it—it was Peter’s after all.” His eyes fall on Robert and Stella sitting next to me, looking like patron angels of all roses. “Ah, these must be your guests visiting from the States?” Edison guesses.

“Yes, these are Robert and Stella Hale,” I introduce them, heart crashing against my ribs at a part of dad’s life connecting with Aiden’s parents like this. “And this is Professor Nigel Edison and his Chief Researcher, Graham Knightly. They’re my supervisors at Oxford.”

“A pleasure to meet you both.” Robert stands and shakes their hands. “We’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Uh oh, nothing confidential, I hope,” Graham half-jokes, half-panics.

“Not at all.” Stella smiles at him. “Only that you were close with Elisa’s father and how supportive you’ve been of her now that she’s back.”

“Oh, that’s not entirely selfless, I assure you.” Edison chuckles. “We’re hoping she stays this time.”

They all laugh while my heart rips in two as it always does when geography comes up. Especially with Aiden’s parents around. Because how can I take Aiden from them now that he’s back in their lives? But how can I ever abandon this festival again?

“How long are you staying?” Edison asks them.

“Only one more week, unfortunately,” Robert answers as Stella’s smile fades. I’m not the only one who detests the ticking clock.

“Ah, you’ll miss Peter’s bench ceremony then. Elisa is supposed to speak. I’m looking forward to her remarks.”

I feel blood drain from my face at the prospect. On the upside, it distracts me from the mangled ways in which my stomach is twisting at the thought of maps and transatlantic distance even if Aiden and I win. “Don’t worry, you won’t miss much,” I tell Robert and Stella, trying to force a smile. “My remarks will be: Hello. Thank you for coming. Here is Professor Edison for more.”

They laugh as I wanted them to, but I see earnest regret in their eyes. I know because it’s similar to mine. Like Reagan and Javier, they already feel so natural here. And because of that, my chest throbs faster. I usually lose those I love most. My hand flies to my locket. Make me strong, make me brave.

“Elisa, will you show us the roses that are competing this year?” Edison gestures to the stand.

“Of course. It’s only the Clares this time. The others are here for emotional support.”

“So everyone votes for their favorite rose and the one with the most votes wins?” Graham clarifies.

“Yes, but mostly they just walk around, eating, drinking, and smelling the roses.”

He looks utterly perplexed that anyone would want to spend a Saturday like this instead of in a lab. A lab where I desperately need to be without him. “Here, Graham, try it.” I give him a Cecilia to smell. “According to a recent study by the University of Freiburg, the smell of roses while learning and sleeping increases memory and learning skills by thirty percent.”

“That explains Professor Snow then.” He laughs but almost inhales the petals off the stem.

“Exactly. Keep this by your nightstand and sleep until Wednesday. I’ll bet you solve the protein by then.”

He tucks the Cecilia inside the Encyclopedia, while Edison laughs. “I better take one, too.” He chooses an Elisaand threads it in the loop of his tweed vest. “Bring the Rose Cup by the lab when you win it, like Peter used to.”

They cast their votes for Clares, drop them in the ballot box on the stage with the band, and leave shortly, wishing Robert and Stella a pleasant flight.

“How kind of them to come.” Stella looks at their figures as they melt in the crowd toward the car park.

“Very kind. Mum and dad would have been thrilled.”

She and Robert don’t mention Edison’s comment about me staying in England, and neither do I. But have their sharp eyes already seen the conflict in mine? If they have, they simply smile. Only when Stella turns to water the roses do I see a flicker of something in her face that I don’t think I’m supposed to see. It disappears before I find a name for it. But Robert must know it because he picks up the other spray hose and splashes her once.

“Bertie!” She squeals out of the way. “My hair!”

“Your hair is lovely—the town hairdresser said so,” he answers, reminding me of Aiden again.

They laugh together, but I’m no longer here. Because it’s almost noon, and my feet are already scrambling away. I grab the love I’m bringing Aiden and tuck it in a basket, covering it with my pashmina. “Stella, do you mind watching the stand for about an hour? I have to meet Aiden at the Inn.”

She is laughing at a drenched Robert. “Of course darling. Will Max be walking you?”

As if to answer her question, Max materializes at my side. “Looks like it,” I sigh. “Poor Max. You should be having a pint and enjoying the festival, not worrying about me.”

He laughs with a tired sound. “Worrying about you is my job, Elisa.”

“I know but it doesn’t have to be.” I grin at him as we set off. “Even you have to admit, there’s nothing and no one suspicious around.”

His smile is reluctant. “So far. But the day is only half over.”

“The other half will be just as safe, you’ll see.”

And Aiden and I will finally be alone again. I almost break into a run to the Inn. But as soon as we turn the corner onto Ivy Lane, I see him. Striding out of the Inn, hand through his hair, searching the quiet alley with urgency, no doubt for me.

“Aiden!” I sprint at him and launch myself into his open arms. He catches me in his iron grip, crushing me into his chest.

“Elisa! Thank God!” He murmurs in my hair, breathing me in as though he hasn’t drawn much air in the last four hours. Which is probably exactly the case.

“You haven’t been spending the last four hours imagining horribles, have you?” I kiss the spot above his heart, inhaling the scent of him, reveling in the feeling of air flowing in my lungs wound-free.

“That’s an understatement.” He sighs in profound relief, holding me closer and kissing the top of my head.

I wiggle in his steely hold to frown at him with disapproval. His turbulent eyes are clearing quickly as they roam my face. “Aiden, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re breaking Corbin’s rule. I was perfectly safe, even without the seven of you around.”

He chuckles. “I know you think that, but none of us expected the three hundred people that swarmed you. Not even me, and I know exactly how lovable you are.” He nods at Max behind me. “Well done, Max. Take a break. God knows you’ve earned it.”

He swoops me in his arms, basket and all, scanning every part of me as is his custom. But we don’t get far. His eyes widen when they reach my hands. “What the fuck happened here?” he snarls.

I see what he means. Sort of. My palms are as pink as the Reagans, but they make me laugh despite his obvious anxiety. “I think this is a combination of three hundred Cotswoldian handshakes and working in the dirt with roses. Don’t worry, they don’t hurt at all.”

He doesn’t look convinced. He carries me inside the Inn with speed, blowing up the stairs to the Room of Firsts, the creaky lift obviously too slow for him. The door must have been unlocked as he cradles me in one arm and opens it. I don’t even have time to register if anything has changed in our beloved room because he streaks to the domed restroom and sets me down on the counter.

“Now,” he breathes, and just his smell makes me more light-headed than his velocity. “Let me look at this.” He places my basket on the floor and takes my hands gently, blowing on my palms. The soft breeze of his breath makes my eyelids flutter. “Does that burn?”

“No.” I smile, caressing his tense jaw at my fingertips. “But it’s starting to burn in other places.”

He glares, still holding my hands like soap bubbles. “Be serious. Does it hurt when I do this?” He brushes my palm lightly with his pinky.

“Mmm,” I moan, and it’s not even fake.

His finger stops stroking mine. “Elisa, so help me God, answer or I’ll drive you to the hospital right now, festival or no festival.”

He is absolutely not joking. “All right, all right, calm down. I told you, they don’t hurt all. They’re just a little pink.”

“Just a lot pink. What about prickling? Do you feel anything else at all?”

“Oh! Yes, actually.” I pull back one hand, leaving the other in his. “It really tingles here.” I point at my mouth. “And here.” I trace my fingers down my throat to the rose in my décolleté. “And here.” My hand skims down my waist between my hips. “What now, Doctor Hale?”

His eyes follow the trail of my hand with a fiery hunger that tightens the muscles at the bottom of my belly. A slow, heated smirk lifts the corner of his lips. When he looks back at my mouth, his bold gaze turns my entire skin pink. “I will deal with you in a minute,” he threatens, and just his dark, husky voice sends my blood hammering. “Now, please,behave or the hospital it is.”

I hold still, trying to calm my pulse as he opens the faucet and runs my hands under the cold water, washing them gently with the rose soap, massaging little slippery circles on my palms that make the tingles bloom into full trembles. “It’s not going away.” He frowns, rinsing my hands.

“I’m sure it will.” I pull them back and switch off the faucet. “Just leave them alone and touch some other parts of me as soon as possible and they will be good as new.”

He smirks again and takes a fluffy towel from the rack. “Is that so?” he asks, patting my hands dry.

“Absolutely.”

He tosses the towel on the counter. “I see. So you’re adamant this redness is from too many handshakes and playing with dirt?”

“Of course I am. What else would it be?”

He looks at my hands, eyes narrowing at the corners. It’s not until I see the way the tectonic plates shift in analysis like they did the night of the supposed break-in that I realize what he is thinking. What he is concluding. “Aiden?” I choke, the warm trembles turning instantly to chills. “You’re not thinking this was some intentional act by someone to hurt me, are you?”

He doesn’t answer. He just turns my hands this way and that.

“Are you?” I demand, yanking them back.

He takes a deep breath and meets my eyes. The turquoise depths are pensive underneath, clearly still locked in inner analysis. “I’m just considering all options.”

“And these options,” I press, my voice rising with panic. “They include a theory that someone did this to my hands?”

His jaw flexes while his mind continues to process with blinding speed. “They have to.”

I stare at him in horror. He is not seeing less danger after today as I had hoped, as I was just dreaming; he is seeing more. “Why?” I whisper, losing all volume. “Why would you think that?”

“I don’t like thinking it, but it’s probable.”

And I try. I try very hard to control the spew of emotions that erupts inside— dread for him, grief for our life, panic about the end, sorrow that this is happening on mum’s day, anger at him for refusing to see things any other way—but they spin out like Bia’s centrifuge, rattling my skull until they settle on anger with a mental clang. It hijacks my body, and I hop down from the counter, blood flooding my face. “Probable?” I hiss, glaring at his eyes that are seeing yet another baseless threat. “You mean hypothetical at this point, right? Because there is zero evidence to support this one. Not even a crooked frame or fallen petal this time.”

He shakes his head in his defiant way, and I know I’ve already lost. “Of course there is. You work with dirt every day, and I’ve never seen your hands do this. It has been at least twenty minutes now since your last handshake and the redness has not faded. Yes, it’s possible you have an allergy to something, but you have no burning, itching, pain, or other sensations that go with contact dermatitis or sunburn. Therefore, I have to consider other alternatives, including the option that someone did this in some way for some reason I obviously cannot explain but intend to find out.”

I break then. Every speck of this last week—the hours of dread chasing an intruder who doesn’t exist, the constant surveillance, the relentless rampage in the name of safety, the mental war that has erupted in our cottage, the theft of privacy, the invasion of every nook and cranny of the life my parents built, this shadow over mum’s day—combine, overwhelming me with their force. And I can’t form words. Not because I don’t know what to say. But because nothing I say will make a difference. All my counterarguments—no matter how logical and reasonable—will mean nothing in the end. Once we resolve a threat, his mind will find another, and another, and another, trapping him in war. And me with him. A wave of terror crashes over me.

“This is never going to end, is it?” I whisper.

He blinks at me, shock flickering over his face. “Of course it will. As soon as—”

“As soon as you solve this,” I finish for him.

“Yes.” His answer is resolute, his eyes unyielding. He will either destroy the reel or the reel will destroy him. But in three weeks, despite his strength, the reel has already claimed our new lives, our peace, our happy memories, and now stifling even the fragile tendril of h-o-p-e that blossomed by my parents’ grave. Abruptly, I want to leave. Go back to mum’s day with memories and pain I know how to live with.

“Elisa, I will fix this. I promise you that.” He tips up my face as if to reassure me, but nothing can do that right now. Not even his touch.

I manage a nod as I squeeze past him out of the restroom. The gallery of our firsts spans around me with all its beauty. Everything is as we left it a week ago, except the garland of roses is gone and a small table in the open balcony is set with lunch and a Clare for what would have been our date. In one look, the room transforms from a mosaic of our beautiful firsts to a museum of our happy lasts before the reel ruined everything.

He is behind me, so close I can feel his body heat. “Elisa, what are you doing?”

“Leaving.”

He is in front of me in one second, his arms out as if to stop me. “Why?”

“Because I want to go back to the festival.”

He takes my still-pink hand.  “Love, come on. Let’s not fight about this. We’ve been fighting all week. Let’s celebrate your mother today.”

The reference to my mum on the day when she saw only goodness is too much for me. I pull back my hand—it balls up like his fists. “Celebrate her with you? When you only see danger and threat in the people she loved? You must be joking.”

A bolt of agony strikes his face. “Yes, with me. Who else do we have to celebrate her with, but each other?”

“Everyone else apparently,” I spit out, tears gathering in my eyes. “There are at least three hundred people on that street who loved her who aren’t enemies or intruders or poisoners or psychopaths or perverts or whatever other label you want to slap on them. They just miss her like I do. And right now, I want to be with them, not here with you debating yet another life-threatening scenario because my hands are a little pink.”

His arms drop to his sides as if I just shot him. “Elisa, it’s not—”

“Please, stop. Just stop! I can’t do this on her day. I just want to go back to the festival and be with her in my heart. Can you at least give me that?”

All expression drains from his face, leaving nothing but a beautiful, ashen barren land behind. He watches me frozen, his eyes shifting and aging with an ancient sadness. But he nods at last and opens the door, as I knew he would. “I’ll walk you out,” he whispers as I pass through.

He follows me in silence down the stairs to the lobby where Max is already waiting by the door with Benson. Of course he would be.

“So security stays after today then? Despite all the proof that there’s nothing wrong?” I verify, looking at their intense expressions as they dissect the ivy-covered lane.

Aiden’s hand curves gently around my elbow, turning me to him. I look up at his face reluctantly. I don’t want to see the staggering sadness in his eyes that still won’t change his determined gaze. “Love, it has to, until—”

“Don’t!” I interrupt him, pulling back my elbow. The point of contact shivers as though it wants to stay in his touch. “I don’t want to hear your reasons because they’re not reasonable anymore. This will hurt us, Aiden. I promise you that.”

I march past him to the door. He watches me leave with unfathomable eyes.

But with each step away from the Inn, my anger softens even with Max by my side. This is not how I wanted to say goodbye. Because the wound is festering, the clock is ticking, our lives are still entwined, and I already miss him. I almost go back then, but Hendrix and James are ducking into the Inn, talking to Benson, their faces set with warlike intention. Yes, I want to go back, but it wouldn’t change anything. We are now prisoners to the reel.

Priory Street is feverish when Max and I get there. Band clamoring, couples dancing, children giggling, and swells of people flooding the lane like River Windrush. Yet, I feel cold, as though the sun that’s glazing the stones no longer beams on me. From a distance, I see mum’s stand, glimmering like snow. The new sign pops with its black-and-white elegance against the bright colors of the roses thronging the lane. And the Hales are sitting at the table with the Plemmonses and the Jenkinses, laughing and eating canapes under Ferrars’ watchful eye. I change treks, unable to face them in my current state.

“Max, I need to walk around for a while. Just up and down the street.”

His eyebrows knit above his sunglasses. He has been quiet since we left the Inn, obviously seeing the jungle of emotion on my face. “No problem, whatever you need.”

I watch the jigsaw of rose stands, as familiar as the freckles on my hip or the lines in my pink palms. “The thing is . . .” I hesitate. “I’m not sure how to do that with a bodyguard around all of mum’s friends. They’ve known me since I was in nappies. They’ll think it’s mad.”

“Ah.” Max nods in understanding. “Why don’t you start ahead, and I’ll follow from a distance? Will that help?”

I nod woodenly, even my joints feeling stuck at the idea. But what else can I do? I start treading down the lane, stiff with opposition, half of me stuck back at the Inn, the other half here for mum. But this hour after lunch was the hour I had alone with her. She used to take my hand and say, “ice cream and roses, love,” and we would weave through the rose stands, picking our favorites and eating ice cream, just the two of us. Above the hilltop, the sun is glowing like a halo. Ice cream and roses, Mum.

The first few steps down the lane are hard with the pain in my chest and without her sandals on the cobblestones next to mine. But as I stop by our favorite stands to say hello like she would or buy a candle she liked, it gets easier. Each vendor gives me their signature rose for her—a cheery yellow, a fiery orange, a pure white, a bold cyclamen, a shy pink, a hearty crimson, a pensive lilac—until by the middle of the lane, my arms are overflowing, my hands are sore from all the clasps, and the tears have dried before they spilled. But my heart throbs exactly as it did when I left the Inn. How can a street with hundreds of bodies feel empty? How can the stones miss the heavy Timberland boots that never walked on them as much as they miss mum’s kitten heels? Perhaps the phrase “heart of stone” has a different meaning. Perhaps it doesn’t mean a hard, cold heart. Perhaps it means a heart that loves so much, it has become petrified. Frozen with terror of losing its love.

I buy mum’s favorite gelato—honey and rose—from Mr. Flaubert and weave my way through the crowd back to the stand. Only Aiden’s parents are there now, sipping chilled rosé.

“Sweetheart, look at all your roses!” Stella laughs, rushing to take some of them from my arms, but her smile falls when she sees my face. The walk must not have masked the snarl inside. “Oh no, is Aiden being a bear?”

I wish. Bears and dragons, I know how to deal with. The reel I do not. “Not at all,” I answer, forcing a wide grin and dropping the roses in a pail of water. “He’s just worrying about me when he’s supposed to stay in the present moment and not imagine awful things.”

“Ah.” She relaxes, smiling again. “It’s because he loves you, darling, and he doesn’t know what to do with it.”

“That, and it’s a bit of a Hale trait, Elisa.” Robert chuckles. “He gets it from me.”

Stella laughs again, taking me by the arm back at the table and pouring me wine. “It’s true. When I was pregnant, Robert didn’t get a full night’s sleep for nine months. Even the few hours he managed, he slept on the floor in case I’d roll off the bed.”

“Is he worried about your hands?” Robert guesses with genetic accuracy, gesturing at my palms.

I nod even though that’s not exactly true. Aiden is worrying about someone intentionally hurting me. And that’s why the stories about the Hale gene do not calm me. Because there is a difference between l-o-v-e and the r-e-e-l. Aiden’s love does things like move across the world and mobilize the CIA and the entire U.S. Congress to save my family. Aiden’s mind creates danger that robs us of our very life.

“I saw them too but thought maybe the dirt, the sun, and all the handshakes,” Robert reasons. And here is another difference: the Hale gene notices, understands, and protects. The reel notices, terrorizes, and destroys.

“Here, try some aloe vera,” Stella suggests, digging a small tube from her purse. “Save yourself a headache and Aiden a coronary.”

I rub the cool gel on my painless hands, trying and failing to see anything there that could make Aiden dream up a nefarious act. Who would do such a thing? Why? How when I’ve been surrounded by security? And more importantly, if someone was trying to harm me, why would they make my palms blush but not hurt, tickle, or burn in any way? When I think of it, why my palms at all and not some other part of me? I shake my head to dispel the dark, paranoid thoughts. Because today is mum’s, and she saw good—not evil—in everything.

The endless stream of people flowing by the stand don’t let me forget it. Some familiar, some strangers I’ve never met. Most with their favorite story of her, all different, yet all the same. All about her kindness and the way she made them feel. I string their memories of her like a lei, jotting them down in her old guest book, letting my mind get lost in her world. The rose oil she gave that girl to clear her skin, the hybrid she helped that old man cultivate after his wife passed. Story after story, until for a while it’s just mum and me, even with Max and Ferrars pacing, the countless guests filing through, and the sniper gazes I sense on me. Above the hilltop, the sun is starting to dip like a fervent kiss.

The church clock tower booms with a deep knell then, making me jump. In the same chime, from the stage at the top of the street, a line of trumpets pierces the air with their bright jingle.

“Is this it?” Stella shouts over the din as trombones and drums join the carol.

“Yes,” I yell back, bolting to my feet. “It means the votes have been counted and now they announce the winner.”

On cue, the crowd bursts into song, bellowing Rose, Rose on the Wall, Who Is the Fairest of Them All. But before the second toll clangs again, Max and Ferrars streak to my side with blinding speed, forming a wall of muscle in front of me as the throng starts to jostle along the narrow street. So much for being inconspicuous. I grit my teeth, trying to squeeze through the crevices of their backs to watch Mr. Plemmons who will be carrying the Rose Cup up to the stage, but it’s impossible.

“Max,” I scream over the clangor, tapping his shoulder as the clock peals again. “I can’t see!”

“What?” he roars back, pressing his fingers to his earpiece.

“I—can’t—see,” I cry again, and he finally hears me, pulling me in front of him as Ferrars, Stella, and Robert line next to us. But at least I can see Mr. Plemmons now, wobbling with the sparkling trophy in his hand, his mustache quivering as he laughs, his cane teetering on the stones, and his beloved Josephine at his side. The gate of bodies thunders with applause as they pass. My throat catches at the sight—how many festivals do they have left? As if to echo my question, the clock tolls again. I clap as hard as I can, not caring if my hands will throb or blister after this.

The crowd swells, following behind the Plemmonses, tugging me along. Max’s hands grip my shoulders to keep me from falling while Ferrars looms large next to Robert and Stella. The clock tolls again and, with a suddenness that knocks me breathless, I miss a different set of iron hands on me. But even though the horde is swarming the street like Aiden’s worst nightmare, my phone doesn’t buzz in my dress pocket. I cannot imagine the sheer life it’s costing him to give me the space I need. Except I don’t want space from him—I only want space from the effects of the reel. The idea of him in terror sends my hands flying for my phone despite my anger and our fight. I have to lean against Max to be able to thumb a text with the juddering horde around us:

“I’m perfectly safe. Max is right next to me.”

The clock’s bell reverberates in the stones under my sandals at the same time the phone vibrates in my cyclamen palms. “Don’t worry about me. Try to enjoy this.”

When the clock tolls again, it throbs through my chest, pulsing inside my ribcage like the wound.

“Roses and friends!” Mr. Plemmons shouts into the microphone from the stage when the pealing stops. I look up, startled that I missed the last minutes of his parade. I force myself to focus only on him and Josephine now, and their bushels of white hair above the podium covered with rose garlands. Mr. Plemmons sets the Rose Cup on it with a firm thud. It gleams exactly as it used to on our console where mum would tap it on her way out. My hand claws around my locket. Let mum win, please, bring the Cup back to the cottage for her.

“Can yeh hear me?” Mr. Plemmons wheezes and the crowd sings back, “Yes, we can.”

“Jolly good, because I can’t.” He waves at the throng that titters. “Another festival—gone! ‘Twas our biggest ‘un yet, and very special ‘t was too. ‘Un hundred and twenty more votes, we had. Five more competin’ roses. And two thousand tickets sold fer our school. Well done, Burford, well done!” The crowd whoops while my throat roils with emotion. “And now, before we’re sloshed an’ knackered at the pubs . . .” Mr. Plemmons splays his hands in the air with significance. “As me wooly ‘ead remembers it, the Rose Cup needs rewardin’. Like all me years of doin’ this, our rosebuds counted the votes thrice. But this year wasn’ close like other times. And yeh voted with yer hearts and yer eyes and yer noses, as yeh should. Makes me heart happy to say tha’ this year, the Rose Cup—” Mr. Plemmons pauses, his whiskery voice catching and starting again while I stop breathing. “The Rose Cup goes back home tonigh’ with Elisa Snow fer her mother’s rose, our kind and beautiful Clare.”

The crowd explodes in cheers, while I stare open-mouthed at Mr. Plemmons stomping his cane in applause and Josephine clapping and searching the crowd. I heard it right, I know I have, because Max taps my shoulder with a whoop, the horde starts chanting, “Clare, Clare, Clare,” and Stella and Robert pull me into a double hug. “You did it, dear. You brought the cup back to your mom.” Stella cries, kissing my cheek.

“She did it herself,” I whisper, eyes on the silver rose. Am I imagining the sunbeam shining directly on it? Abruptly the scene transforms for me. I see mum climbing the stage, beaming, a tear like a diamond in her eye, hugging Mr. Plemmons, waving the Cup, looking straight at dad and me and blowing us a kiss. This is for Elisa and Peter, she used to say. Behind the curtain of my tears, she dances off the stage and disappears with a faint pop in my heart.

“Rosebud?” Mr. Plemmons calls into the microphone. “Where are yeh? I can’ see yeh. Open up fer her, yeh lot.”

Stella gives me another peck, fixing up the roses in my braid. “You look beautiful. Go, get your Cup, darling.” She places her warm hand on my shoulder, nudging me gently as the crowd parts grinning at me, clapping like castanets, singing Clare, Clare, Clare. But suddenly the lane empties in my vision despite the hordes of bodies flooding it. And the hollow tunnel of homesickness blows through me like cold wind through a vacant crypt. Not homesickness for mum—she feels closer than any other time since she’s been gone. Homesickness for Aiden, to have him next to me even if angry and worried and terrified.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!”

Fragments of hundreds of voices rejoice, yet I don’t feel their cheers. And I know why. Because Aiden was right. Cheer is not cheer if I don’t celebrate with him. Nothing fills the void the way he does. I swallow all kinds of tears now—happy, sad, in the middle and adjacent to everything—and shuffle toward the stage, feeling more ghost than human. Max and Ferrars walk parallel on each side of me, Hendrix appears ahead. But at least there are no nerves. I know everyone, and country festivals don’t require speeches.

“There she is!” Mr. Plemmons claps as I climb the stage stairs to the chorus of Clare, Clare, Clare. They both teeter to me, glowing and sparkling with tears, carrying the Rose Cup. “Finally,” Josephine lullabies as she pulls me into her canape-and-roses hug. “The Cup goes home after such a long time.”

“Keep it there, Rose, keep it righ’.” Mr. Plemmons rasps gruffly. “Don’ go leavin’ the roses again.”

What can I say? That I love this little village so much I would bleed for it if it meant my blood could grow the roses forever? Or that I love a man so much my heart couldn’t even pump blood without him? “Thank you.” I hug them both—they’re so tiny, it only takes one arm. “I know she is giving you all her love.”

Their white heads turn up to the sky in unison, grinning at it. I turn to the crowd as mum would, waving the silver rose as she did, skimming over the faces because the three dearest ones are not here. And that’s when I see him.

He would be hard to miss even in the shade of the elm tree behind the crowd, flanked by Benson and James. Leaning against the trunk like a sculptural Adonis carved in golden marble. Every angle of him is hard with tension as he thrashes with his most violent demon to be here, but his eyes beam on me as if we are utterly alone. Even from this distance, his gaze heats my skin. I’ve never seen anything more life-affirming. And right now I don’t care that I am supposed to be angry with him. I don’t care that I’m terrified. Because I can feel the cheer now, I can feel the joy for mum, and every part of me is brimming with life, not pain. He’s here, he’s here.

The corner of his lip lifts in a knowing smile as my cheeks flush. He mouths something I can’t decipher from this far, but then he tilts his head at the crowd as if to remind me I’m gawking at him on a stage. But I still can’t blink away from him—here, despite his deepest fear, to share this moment with me, knowing exactly how much it means. He winks now, pointing at the crowd with urgency.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!” They are apparently still singing, breaching just enough through the spell to release my voice.

“Hello!” I speak in the microphone, startled by my magnified voice. Is that me? It sounds like mum. They all fall quiet, perhaps hearing the same note. “Thank you for remembering my mother and choosing her roses after such a long time.” I smile at the sea of faces, spotting Stella and Robert filming with their phones and Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix rippling around the stage. Nerves start to prickle but I know my only line—I heard it for eighteen years. “This is for Mum who loved this day so much.” I clutch the Rose Cup to my chest that feels full but well. “And for Aiden who made it possible for me to enjoy it again.”

A low ahh flitters over the crowd and they burst in applause as if I just gave the most riveting of TED talks, not utter exactly four sentences. Under the elm tree, Aiden shakes his head with a private smile and claps in a this-is-Churchill-the-orator way. And for the first time today, I feel like we got this right, like mum would have liked this festival as much as all the eighteen others before.

I almost run across the stage, trying to get to him as fast as possible but the moment I hop back on the street, a deluge of clasps and pats rains on me. The faces are a haze of grins as I sweep through, Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix storming around on all sides. Yet nothing happens to me, as I knew it wouldn’t—just a chorus of Clare, Clare, Clareblaring in my ears along with the festival’s closing jingle. I shake Mr. Flaubert’s hand last and clear the crowd, heading straight for Aiden under the elm tree. But as I pass our rose stand, a gusty hug from behind almost knocks me off my feet.

“Rosebud!” a familiar voice shouts, and that’s all I grasp. Because as I blink back at Felix—the Plemmonses’ grandson who went to high school with me—a massive shape whooshes past the corner of my eye, rams into him, and his arms tear away from my shoulders with a loud grunt. I whirl around, watching in horror as Felix plunges onto the stones under Ferrars’s body weight, and they skate together in an unstoppable collision course with the rose stand.

“Felix!” I shriek, launching myself into their path as Aiden’s voice reverberates under the clamor, “Elisa, don’t!” and Max yanks me out of the way. And I can’t stop it. Felix and Ferrars crash into the vase of Clares, shattering it into a million pieces and slamming against the rose stand with such force that the wooden slats shake to their bolts and the rose baskets and wreaths plummet to the ground in a mulch of petals, bark, moss, and leaves.

It’s utterly silent for one blink then a throng snaps around us with panicked cries. In the chaos, I’m vividly aware of Aiden’s terror for me as he must be trying frantically to break through the horde to get to me without triggering the startle. But of more immediate urgency are Felix and Ferrars still on the ground.

“Aiden, I’m fine,” I scream even though he can’t hear me in the bedlam, and rip out of Max’s hands, kneeling on the stones next to Felix as Ferrars jolts away from him with frenzied apologies. “Felix, Felix! Are you okay?” I splutter, checking to see if he hit his head. But he didn’t. He fell on his side, there is a gash by his elbow, but the rest of him seems all right. He blinks around, shocked and startled, and scrambles to his feet while I almost collapse on the ground sobbing in relief.

“What the bloody hell was that?” Felix blurts out, clearly not connecting Ferrars to me. Despite my remorse, I let him believe it because underneath my terror, something clicks with a silent roar. This was no accident, was it? It was intentional. Ferrars must have thought Felix—my sweet old classmate, born the same week as me—was about to hurt me.

“I’m so sorry, mate!” Ferrars blusters. “I tripped and crashed into you. Are you hurt? I can drive you to the surgery if you need.” He is checking Felix all over for injuries, proving my hypothesis. And dread turns instantly to anger, pulsing hot and livid, scorching all the joy until I taste iron on my tongue.

“No, I’m fine.” Felix swings his arm around as if to check its radius and turns to me with a smile. “Sorry about the stand, Rosebud. But it looks absolutely bangers still, only the roses fell.”

At his needless apology, the blistering rage blurs my vision with a reddish haze, making me dizzy with it. “It wasn’t your fault at all, Felix. Please, don’t even think it.” I manage to form words, wiping his cut with mum’s handkerchief. His blood stains the lacework, and I fight against my gnashing teeth so they don’t break through my tongue. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” And I am. How much worse could it have been? What if he had cracked his skull? And my frail Plemmonses, what would have happened to them then? I shudder. “Let me get you some bandages, Felix, come sit down. Want some water or iced tea?”

“No worries, it’s just a scrape. I’ll pop up at Gramps and change my shirt anyway. Congrats, Rose.” He gives me the hug he started so innocently, and the reddish blaze flares in my vision. “Chips and ale next week? We’re coming back at the weekend.”

“Absolutely, bring Lily, too. And be careful. Are you sure about the bandage?”

“Positive.” He chuckles, still breathless, and traipses through the lasso of people that loosens for him with angry glares and exclamations at Ferrars who turns to apologize to me. Has anyone connected him with me? And why should he apologize? Can I blame him when he’s only following strict orders to protect me from dangers no one else can see? No, there is only one man to blame for this, and he must be straining desperately to get to me. Was it only minutes ago that he righted my world back on its axis? Now it feels as though he’s razing it to the ground, turning each person into an insurgent and each place into a dessert of terror.

“I know you didn’t mean to, Ferrars,” I answer a little late. “I’m glad you’re not hurt either.”

He starts to mumble something, but his voice fades as does everything else when I finally dare to turn my eyes to the rose stand. The Elisas, Cecilias, Reagans, and future Marias have spilled everywhere like floral arteries on the cobblestoned hearts. The wreaths have survived, but some of Mum’s photos have cracked across her beloved smile. The shards of her vase glimmer on the ground like tears. And all the forty-four stems of her life are smeared on the stones, their blush petals like droplets of some magical blood.

Hot tears spring in my eyes. I start gathering the bruised blooms one by one, some thorns pricking my still-pink hands, some glass slivers nipping my skin. I wish they could lance my neurons instead so I couldn’t feel any of this. Nor the p-a-i-n, or the f-u-r-y, or the f-e-a-r—maybe not even the l-o-v-e.  None of the four-letter words that are wrecking our l-i-f-e. Tears splash like rain drops on the crushed petals as the sun starts to dive behind the hilltop, lighting it on fire, turning the street scarlet behind the reddish glare of my vision.

I sense him before I see him. I don’t know how he managed to cut through the crowd so fast, but the hum behind me falls quiet with the astonished silence that only he inspires. His scent blows in the breeze more beautiful than the dying gasps of my roses. And his tall, tense body crouches next to me on the stones. I don’t look at him.

“Elisa, love?” His murmur is breaking as he tries to take my hands away from the broken glass. “Let me do this, you’ll cut your hands.”

The reference to my hands—the trigger that started all this again—slices through whatever thread is keeping me together, and I start shaking with anger. A smashed Clare slips through my trembling fingers as if its first injury wasn’t bad enough. He sees it. He knows it, because his hand swoops down and catches it before it hits the stone. Then it wraps around both of mine. I wrench them back, blisteringly aware of all the eyes and ears around us. His parents squatting to save the blooms too, the Marines and Benson towering to guard Aiden’s back, and even worse, mum’s friends, admirers, and well-wishers muttering, “ah, that’s too bad,” “that bloke was bang out of order,” “poor Felix,” “poor Elisa,” “she’ll be all right, it’s just the roses,” “it’s lovely she has the Rose Cup again.”

I can’t look at any of them. I clench my teeth against the words I want to hurl at him and pluck all wisps of strength from all crevices of my mind so I don’t cause an even bigger scene.

“I’m fine,” I hear myself speak, but my voice doesn’t sound like mine. It’s just a sing-songy mask my mind must need right now. He hears it. He knows it, because he pulls back his hands that are reaching for mine again and his fingers reappear with a folded map as he starts sweeping the broken shards away from me.

“Sir, I’m very sorry,” Ferrars starts on Aiden too, sounding absolutely wretched, but I see peripherally Aiden’s hand fly up. I tense, expecting him to torch Ferrars alive right here, right now, but he surprises me even in my state.

“No need.” His voice is clipped and hard now that he’s speaking at normal volume. “This is on me.”

At least he knows it. Of course he does. Even without his brain, he could have decoded this one. I told him. I tried reason, logic, science, allies, heart, but he wouldn’t listen. He did this with his security and paranoia, not Ferrars. I move away from him, picking up mum’s broken photos, feeling his eyes on me constantly.

“It’ll be all right, sweetheart.” Stella is there, helping me tuck the frames in my basket. “I know your mom still would have loved this. I think she’s very proud of you up there.”

I nod because she is probably right. Mum found goodness in everything. She might have even laughed, but I can’t. The pressure inside my skull is becoming a cleaving headache. I am utterly unable to calm the gale of fury inside. All strength is going to keeping my face together for every set of eyes that are looking on with sorrow, pity, confusion, or any other expression I didn’t want for today.

The vendors start packing up their stalls now, and the crowd is waning toward the pubs. “Well done, Elisa!” “Stop by The Lambs Inn, Elisa-pea, we can toast your win.” “Ah, look at the Cup by Clare’s stand again, how brill.” I wave at them, a smile plastered on my lips, even for Willoughby who is watching me with a curious smirk that lifts his upper lip into a sneer. He seems even colder than this morning with the Rose Cup snatched away from him. I tuck it in my basket too in case he nicks it back.

As the horde thins, our guard all start helping pack up the stand. I see their hulking silhouettes from the corners of my eyes as I stack the wreaths. The broken glass is all gone.

“Where is the stand going tonight?” James asks as Aiden starts dismantling it himself.

“Elisa?” His body turns toward me, but I can’t look up. If I see his face or his tormented eyes, I will cry or scream or implode in some other way.

“Behind the garden shed at the cottage, please,” I answer, one brain cell wondering whether my voice will ever return back to normal. The rest of my mind is powering frantically to get me through the next few moments. But through to where? There isn’t a single place left in my world where I can just be. Every wedge of my life is under surveillance. The cottage, the garden, the garage, Elysium, Bia, Oxford, the open fields, the very people I respect and love, my very skin. Every single part of me. I grind my teeth against the sudden claustrophobia and start sweeping away the debris, trying to breathe petal to petal, trying to think.

But everywhere the broom turns, there is a muscular frame or a set of eyes or a question waiting. “Same for the table and the chairs?” “What about the sign?” “The coolers?” Aiden takes over, knowing everything, but abruptly, I can’t even breathe. Just one more smile, just one more nod, please. And then what? The stony lane tilts a fraction. Of course he doesn’t miss it. He is in front of me in a blink.

“Elisa?” His finger flies under my chin to tip up my face, but I step back automatically. I can’t handle his touch right now—the touch that makes me do anything. “Look at me please.”

It takes every last fiber of strength to resist his voice. I manage only by looking at the trashed Clares in the bin. “I’m fine,” I repeat, but even the strange voice is fading into a whisper. “I have to finish this.”

“I can do that. Why don’t you go sit?” He takes the broom from me. “Or do you want to go back to the cottage? I can finish up here—we’ll be very careful.”

The cottage? Our happy bubble that has been invaded by security more than any intruder? I start to shake my head, but a bubble of space opens up in my hermetic world as I try to look anywhere but at him so I don’t explode in the middle of mum’s favorite street.

“Actually . . . ” I grasp the bubble with all my mind, the contours of a plan forming. Because I need this, I need it for air. “I’ll go back to the Inn for a bit if you don’t mind.”

His answer is immediate. “I’ll walk you.”

“No,” I say quickly, knowing I don’t stand a chance if he comes with me. “I need you here.”

He doesn’t speak. His body is so close, his Timberlands are nudging my sandals. I try not to think of the way his bare toes look when they dance next to mine on the bedroom rug. Those moments no longer feel like our life. “Look at me,” he whispers at last, so quietly I’m not sure I really heard the words. I know he wants to say more. I know from the way his hand is closing in a fist that he wants to touch me. And for once I’m glad we’re not alone.

“Not now, Aiden,” I mouth back and turn away from him before he sees everything in my eyes.

I know he will never let me walk alone, especially now that it’s getting dark. I skim past all the faces around me—Stella tearful, Robert and Benson concerned, the Marines tense, Ferrars remorseful—for the only person I want to find. My choice surprises me as much as him. “Max, can you walk me to the Inn, please?”

“Of course!” He comes to my side immediately. “Do you need me to carry anything?”

“Just the Cup, mum’s photos, and dad’s plant, please.” I hand him the basket carrying it all.

“I’ll get the rest,” Aiden says behind me, and a look passes between Max and him. Max nods once, probably obeying whatever new order he just received.

“The hospital trolly will come for the wreaths and what is left of the roses,” I remind him needlessly and turn to thank the rest of them, even Ferrars, for helping today. Despite the way it ended, none of it is their fault. In a different universe, we could have gone to celebrate, I’d have given them my thank-you gifts that I prepared, but that’s simply beyond anything I have left.

“I’ll see you in a bit.” I wave at them, feeling guilty for the lie.

They all smile back in their own way—“Congrats, Pest, you kicked Willoughby’s shriveling ass.” “Don’t worry, Trouble, we got this.” “I’m sorry again, Elisa.” “Well done, kid.”—but Robert and Stella decide to return to the Inn with Max and me. Whether they’re tired themselves or worried or both, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter, they have their own room.

The Inn is empty and silent when we arrive, as I knew it would be. Stella gives me a silky hug in the lobby. “It was a beautiful day, sweetheart, even with this little fiasco in the end. Try to remember only the best parts because you can.”

“And the hard parts will pass, too,” adds Robert, patting my shoulder.

I think about that as the lift doors close behind them. I know they will pass—they always do—but what will survive? My parents’ favorite memories? Aiden and me? Our life? Or just the reel, not even stardust this time?

“Up to Mr. Hale’s room, Elisa?” Max prompts.

“No, Max. I’m staying in Javier’s old room tonight. I can take it from here.” His eyebrows arch in surprise, but it’s the only habitable place that holds a dear part of me and hasn’t been invaded. And the only room I know here that can give me what I need. Max still insists on walking me up, whether on Aiden’s orders or his own worry, I don’t know. As soon as we open the door to the familiar room, he sweeps it corner to corner, even the balcony despite the fact that we’re on the third floor. The room has been cleaned since Javier left. I manage the first deep breath, sniffing futilely for his homey peppermint and paint smell, but it’s long gone, like him.

“It all seems in order,” Max assures me, not knowing how wrong he is. Nothing is in order anymore, but for purposes of my physical safety, it’s true enough. He sets my basket on Javier’s dresser and leaves, asking me to lock my door even though he’ll be just down in the lobby and Ferrars with him. But I don’t argue. I thud the bolt home with a loud ding, listening to Max’s footsteps fade down the hall.

Finally alone now, I could cry or scream or curl on Javier’s pillow or call him and Reagan or work on the protein or just stare at the spot on the rug where Aiden held me a week ago as I was sobbing, telling me he would stay in England with me. But those are not the only reasons I came here, because this isn’t where I want to be. I grab the Rose Cup, and slide back the bolt quietly, millimeter by millimeter. When I crack open the door, the hallway is empty. I can hear Ferrars and Max’s indistinct voices from the lobby. I tiptoe down the corridor to the door behind the velvet curtains that leads down the old turret stairs where Felix, Lily, and I used to play hide-and-seek when mum and the Plemmonses would deliver roses to the Inn. As soon as I reach them, I leg it. Scurrying down the limestone steps, bursting through the back-alley door, leaping over the low hedge of briar roses, and darting around the corner to Swan Lane. Everything is quiet and empty—the whole town is in the pubs or lingering on Priory Street—but I still can’t help looking over my shoulder as I creep on the mossy cobblestones until I reach the riverbank and the protective canopy of oaks and willows. And then I break into a sprint. My heart is galloping at the same speed, but my lungs are pumping fresh air without effort. I glance back a few times, but there is no one behind me. I’m utterly alone. Bounding across the open fields that are turning inky with the early night, finally free.

Above the hilltop, the moon is glowing.   ©2021 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 25 – SCAR

Hey friends, happy Sunday and woe begone to Sunday scaries.  If you’re feeling them, here’s a chapter to help with that. As always many thanks to those who are reading and commenting. I love hearing your theories about what is happening to Aiden. Wonder what you think after this? Lots of love to you.  xo, Ani

 

25

Scar

Chronology has stopped making sense again. The Friday before the Rose Festival comes only six days later, but it feels like another lifetime to me. Both familiar and foreign in the same week.

Familiar because some days look more like my old home movies. The cottage has parents around who cook and pack my lunch. The fridge has homemade leftovers of our favorite dishes. The phone rings, the doorbell jingles. Our constellation is expanding again tonight with all the Marines descending on Burford from River Spey. And Aiden and I are back to our rhythm, trying to live present moment to present moment, reel to reel.

Yet it doesn’t feel like my life. Because under the familiar is the strange—new elements more intrusive than the intruder they’re trying to protect me against, rubbing against our days like a blister in a shoe or an eyelash in the eye. We no longer have a security guard, we have a security team: Benson, Max, and Ferrars who is assigned to Aiden’s parents. One of them is always outside the cottage, which is a compromise for the cameras Aiden wanted to install in the rose-covered limestone straight into the cottage’s flesh (“Why don’t you just drill them in my heart and forehead, Aiden, because that’s how it would feel.” He didn’t argue with me after that). And Aiden still picks me up and drops me off at work, but Max remains stationed at Café Vault across the street during my workday, which is an improvement from Bia’s lobby as Aiden wanted (“I’ll quit before I have a bodyguard in my dad’s second home around his closest friends and colleagues, Aiden!” “That’s an overreaction, Elisa.” “This whole thing is an overreaction!” “Fine, the coffee shop!”)

But worse than all these, there is no more love-making in the garden; no more sunrises skin to skin; no more blissful moments of just Aiden and me without someone’s shadow always around; no more rose bubble at peace. They are gone before they truly settled in.

And I miss all of it. The festering wound has doubled in size—once when we’re apart, once for losing the way we were. But I’m not giving up. I’ll try again today, even if it will mean another fight.

“So, are you almost ready for Professor Snow’s bench ceremony?” Graham’s voice startles me out of my planning. He’s been poring through the third volume of the Encyclopedia for the last five hours and looks slightly cross-eyed.

“Ugh, don’t remind me or my hands will start shaking again. I haven’t even written my speech.”

“Your fossil mates been keeping you busy, have they?”

“Not at all. They’re the model for ideal visitors—homemade food, strolls, quiet nights.”

“Oh, I see, you’re a fossil yourself. Everything makes a lot more sense now.” Graham laughs, rubbing his eyes and the deep purple shadows underneath.

“Graham, you look exhausted. Have you left Bia at all in the last week? I’m worried about you.” This is true. As I am worried about time to test the protein if he continues to usurp the lab.

“Of course I’ve left. How do you reckon I’ve been getting lunch?”

I shake my head at him, starting the centrifuge, but sweat dews in the back of my neck. This would be my life if Aiden had not come to England. This might be my life still if we lose, assuming I survive at all. “Maybe you should take a break this weekend,” I suggest. “Come to the Rose Festival tomorrow, get some fresh air—”

Edison blasts in Bia then at his typical sprinting pace, making me jump as usual. “How is the afternoon?” he asks before the door has closed behind his billowing lab coat.

“Abysmal. Eliser is trying to convince me to abandon my post and attend the local rose soiree. The nerve!” Graham chuckles but an enormous yawn overtakes him. He looks nickel green.

“Ah, yes, the Rose Festival.” Edison smiles, but his eyes sweep over Graham and the lab. “Elisa is right, Graham. You need to leave stat. You’re no help to yourself or the protein in your state. Pip pip!” He knocks on Graham’s desk as if to prompt him to blink and turns to me.

“You too, Elisa. I can finish testing today.”

I stare at him, trying to think. I desperately need the lab alone, but I wouldn’t have it with Edison here. “Are you sure, Professor? I can work until six.”

“Nigel, please,” he corrects me for the nth time. “And I’m quite certain. I know the Rose Festival meant a lot to Clare. She would want you to have time to set up.”

I lose all argument then. Because he is right—this was mum’s favorite event and I abandoned it for four years. Not to mention two hours with Aiden before the Marines arrive, hopefully without Max or Benson around.

“Thank you, P—Nigel,” I answer, feet already shuffling toward the door.

“Not at all, not at all.” He waves me off and, without a second glance at anything else, turns to the molecule of fear.

Max is waiting at his usual table by the window at Café Vault when Graham and I traipse outside. He stands immediately when he sees me two hours early, but to his credit, he gives me time to say goodbye. His sharp eyes follow Graham as he shambles under the weight of three tomes to his white Fiat. And even after he drives off at Mr. Plemmons’ pace, Max waits until he disappears around the corner before escorting me to his newly leased bullet-proof Range Rover.

“Would you like Mr. Hale to know you’re out early?” Max smiles as I climb in the back seat. One week in, and he already knows what to ask. Still, it doesn’t make his presence easier.

“No, he’ll like the surprise.”

“I’m sure he will.”

I watch the familiar St. Giles Boulevard flash by behind the tinted windows. My parents’ bus stop, their favorite bakery, Oxford’s golden tones all turn dark under Rover’s filter, as though I’m looking at them through the black veil I wore at the funeral. I lean my head back and shut my eyes. The trip is easier if I don’t look at the charred, smoky colors of my new life.

“Did anyone give you trouble today?” Max checks as he does every day.

“Some vials broke. Does that count?” My sarcasm is ruined by the thick sound of my voice.

“I didn’t notice anything strange around the building either.”

“Maybe because there’s nothing to notice,” I mumble to myself, but Max must read lips in his wide-angle mirror.

“There could be. We don’t know that for a fact.”

I flush but don’t answer. Because what’s a fact in a situation like this? With trauma so vivid, it becomes real, and reality so beautiful, it becomes a fairytale? I clutch my locket for bravery, trying to guess which sheep-dotted field the Rover is darkening.

“Seven minutes out,” Max informs me, clearly knowing my routine by now.

“Thank you, Max.”

“Is there anything I can do to make this easier?”

“No, you’re exceptional. I’m sorry if I seem ungrateful. And I’m sorry you’re spending your vacation in a coffee shop, staring at a lab.”

“I truly don’t mind. Mr. Hale is being very generous.”

Yes, generous, protective, and stubborn to a fault. And the toll is costlier than the bill. The toll on him, on me, and on the beloved hallmarks of my parents’ life. I run through my arguments in my head, trying to pick a winner after two lost battles.

“One minute,” Max announces.

Immediately, I open my eyes and roll down my window, unwilling to see Elysium or the cottage in shades of black and gray. The brocade of wildflowers is brilliant under the July sun except the inkblot at the border, like a scar. Even from here, I can see Benson standing guard by the willows. I inhale deeply, finding the first whiff of rose breeze that no longer blows through the cottage at night. As soon as Max pulls over by the garage, I wrench open the armored door, probably giving myself a bruise, and hop out.

Yet as soon as I step on the flowery tapestry with Max’s boulder shadow next to me, the field of my childhood looks forlorn. I know nothing has changed on it—the daisies, orchids, poppies, and forget-me-nots don’t know the difference—but the change feels real to me. I break into a run down Elysium’s bowl, leaving Max’s shadow behind, craving nothing but Aiden and me alone. I have no hope of outrunning Max, but he lets me go. After all, how much danger can I be in with three trained fighters within hearing distance? I wave at Benson without stopping and dash through the rose hedge, heading straight for the door, but there he is!

Sitting at the garden bench, his back to me—the only place in the world where Aiden allows his shoulders exposed. He is flipping through a thick binder of documents at eye-watering speed. His waves flutter in the breeze, longer than when he first stood in this garden. His sculpted arms glisten under the short sleeves of his white Polo shirt. And immediately the wound shrinks. Yet I’ve never missed him more. I wish I could sneak up and truly surprise him, but I can never do that to him.

“You shouldn’t sit alone like this,” I call across the garden. “The intruder might be Mrs. Willoughby. Have you considered that?”

His head whirls around in alarm. “Elisa?” He bolts to his feet and flashes to my side, scooping me in his arms before I have taken three steps toward him. “Love, are you okay? Did something happen?” His hand flies to my forehead and he scans me head to Byron trainers.

“Of course I’m fine,” I assure him quickly, locking my arms around his neck. “Edison let me go early for the festival.”

Tension drains out of him immediately and he tucks me closer with a relieved sigh. A dazzling smile wipes the worry lines from his face. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have picked you up.”

I kiss his cheek—it’s warm from the sun. “Because I wanted to surprise you.”

“What a great surprise.”

He nods at Max who has arrived at the hedge and strides back to the bench, eyes glittering.

“How was your day?” he asks as he drapes me over his lap, one arm tight around my waist.

“Very long and gray. Yours?”

“Interminable and pitch black until now.” His hand curves around my face, and he brings me to his mouth. “Welcome home,” he murmurs against my lips.

“Mmm, that sounds nice.” I sigh, tangling my fingers in his soft hair, breathing in his sunshine-and-Aiden scent. My lips shape themselves around his possessive mouth, folding to its pressure, now gentle, now hard. His arm strains me to his chest, and a current of warmth surges through me. I know there are important things I need to say, but his smell and his feel and his tongue moving with mine . . . I crush myself closer, moaning at his taste. Then Benson’s deep laughter drums over the blood that’s hammering in my ears, and I remember.

“Aiden—” I whisper through the kiss.

“Our bedroom.” His husky voice reverberates inside my mouth. I almost moan yes, my breath is already too fast and loud, but Benson laughs again.

“Wait . . . please . . . talk.”

His lips pause on mine—wet and delicious—but he doesn’t release my face. “Talk?”

I nod, trying to settle my breathing.

“All right.” He leans back, still cradling my cheek, but the V forms between his brows, crumpling my resolve. Because I know it will deepen as soon as I start talking. The smoldering light in his eyes will fade. And friction will enter the warm, velvet space between us. “What is it, love?” he prompts. The anxiety in his voice only makes me waver more. But Max’s cough drifts from the willows now, and the words tumble out.

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too. I wasn’t joking when I said my day is black without you.” His thumb strokes my cheek as he frowns in confusion. “Is that what’s bothering you?”

“Not exactly.”

“What is it then?”

“Will you keep an open mind?”

He tenses around me. “I’ll give it my best effort.”

I choose my words carefully. “I miss being with you—the way we were a week ago. We had just begun this new life, and now it feels like the old one, with rules and dangers everywhere we turn. We’re not doing the opposite, love, we’re doing more of the same, maybe worse.”

The light burns out in his eyes the second he realizes the topic of conversation, as I knew it would. His hand drops from my face and he takes a deep breath. “Elisa, this part won’t last forever. I’ll take care of the problem, and we can go back to our new life. I miss it, too.”

“But how long will it last? It’s been a week without any incident of any kind.”

“Until I’m convinced you’re safe. I won’t take any chances with your life—you know that.” His voice is resolute and unwavering.

“I know you wouldn’t, but what will it take to convince you? Max has been watching me every day. He admits he hasn’t seen anything odd at all. Neither has Benson or Ferrars. And you’ve been searching the area twice a day. There is nothing, love. You have to let this go now.”

He starts shaking his head before I’ve finished. “A week is too short a time to conclude that. If someone is intent on hurting you, he—because I don’t think it’s Mrs. Willoughby—may not return right away.”

“But Aiden, you heard Doctor Helen. She agrees with me. She said the reel is pushing your vigilance to the extreme, priming you to see and fight danger at all times. Corbin thinks so, too.”

He closes his eyes and pinches his nose for patience. “Elisa,” he begins slowly, no doubt trying to keep from roaring. “For the fifth time, Doctor Helen didn’t agree with you. She said your theory is more likely, but she didn’t say mine is impossible, either.”

I will never win with him if I start arguing probabilities with my safety. I change tracks instead. “Okay, let’s assume you’re right for the sake of argument . . .” I pause, waiting for him to open his eyes. He does with a deep sigh from the effort to stay calm. “Why do we need a security team and bullet-proof vehicles? Who could ever get past you and Benson? Please, let Max go home and give us our happy cottage back.”

Shock flashes over his face despite his calming measures. He stares at me like I belong to the padded corner room of Burford Dementia Centre. “With the festival tomorrow?” he demands in disbelief.  “With hordes of people around, in the only place where I cannot protect you myself? Have you lost your fucking mind?” He shudders with tension at the mere idea.

“All right, all right,” I say quickly, stroking his scar to calm him even though the thought of security shadows darkening mum’s roses burns my throat like acid. “Not tomorrow but Sunday then, assuming the worst that happens is dropped ice cream cones like every year.”

But he shakes his head again, unyielding. “This isn’t a joke, Elisa. I can’t do that. I don’t know what we’re dealing with—I’ll be the first to admit it. And until I do, Max stays.”

“But—”

“No, no more buts. It’s too soon. Later, when it’s safe, I promise I will let security go.”

Later. Tic toc, tic toc. When did s-a-f-e become a dangerous word? “But we may not have until later, Aiden!” My voice rises in panic even though seconds ago I was trying to calm him. “This may be the only time we have, and you’re wasting it with this.”

I’ve shredded the last vestige of his control. His jaw clenches as his eyes harden into blue slate. “Waste?” he hisses through his teeth, fury descending over his face like thunder. “Nothing is a waste to me if it keeps you safe. Absolutely nothing. I—will—not—take—more—risks—with—you. Full stop.”

There is no compromise in his voice, no room for any more arguments. He glowers at me in a way that only Aiden can. I try to glare back, but I can’t find my anger. It vanished somewhere between each second ticking away. Instead of anger, I feel something else. It takes me a moment to find the name for my throat closing, for the windy tunnel in my chest, for the strange hollowness in my stomach. Homesickness. It grips me now, like it did on my parents’ hilltop. Homesickness for us, for how we were, and how we could be. On their own, my fingers knot in his hair, pulling him closer.

“Please, Aiden?” I whisper, giving up on logic. “I miss us on the petals. I miss looking at the colors outside without bullet-proof windows. I miss having the cottage to ourselves at night without worrying who hears us. I miss making happy memories alone with you. I don’t ever want to lose that, and definitely not before our ninety days are up. I think that’s just as dangerous, if not more. Please?”

While I’ve been pleading, he’s been breaking. Ashen, mouth set in a grim line, rippling around me with tension. I hate the war I’m causing in his eyes, wounding a precious part of him whichever side he chooses: risk his peace or risk my safety, risk our happiness or risk our harmony?  R-i-s-k.  But I hate losing t-i-m-e with him even more. That will harm us more than any intruder, real or imagined. If I know anything down to my DNA’s double helix, it’s that.

He’s still strangled in conflict. With a deft movement, he slides me off his lap. “Give me a minute,” he says, his voice almost hoarse.

“Aiden, where—” But his fingers brush my cheek once and he streaks across the garden inside the cottage.

I stare after him, frozen on the sunny bench, heart in my throat. Did I win? Or did I make everything worse? Jittery with nerves, I jump to my feet and start pruning wilted petals from the Reagan, reciting the periodic table in my head. When I’ve run through it four times, he comes out—calmer now, no longer blanched, eyes clear, my rucksack on his back.

“Aiden, what are you doing?” I run to him immediately, crashing into him by the Clares. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry—”

He catches me and folds me in his arms, pulling me into his chest. “Of course you didn’t. You just reminded me that I can’t protect your safety at the cost of your heart. I have to figure out a way to do both.”

I should have known he’d find a way to make it harder on himself. I press my lips to his shirt over his heart. “You don’t need to do more, love. You need to do less.”

I feel him shake his head in my hair and he drops his arms but takes my hand. “Come with me.”

“Come with you where?”

“You’ll see.” The sparkle returns to his eyes and, with a gentle tug, he starts towing me down the stony path.

“Aiden, wait!” I pull on his arm, breathless from the abrupt change. “What about our conversation?”

One warm hand frames my face. “Elisa, I heard your arguments. The ones you made and the ones you didn’t. And right now, we need to do this.”

“But James and the others are coming in three hours. I have to get ready and—”

He places his finger over my lips. “We’ll be back by then. My mom has already marinated the steaks. And you’ll have me, Max, Benson, Ferrars, Cal, Hendrix, Jazz, and my parents to help you set up the rose stand exactly as you want. But until then, you are right. You need to be with me and I need to be with you. Just us and no one else in the world, making a happy memory. Will you come with me?”

And he unleashes the full force of his beauty on me. It grows in that surreal way, lighting him from within, until it stuns every thought and nerve into oblivion. He takes full advantage of my open mouth and closes it with his. The moment our lips touch, my resistance crumbles. Not because I’m giving up. But because this is exactly what I want right now too, what I’ve missed. To be alone with him.

He feels my change. “Perfect,” he smiles against my lips. With a gentle breeze over my face to restart my brain, he releases my mouth and takes my hand again, striding down the garden path while I wobble next to him trying to find things like feet and knees.

“Sir?” Max and Benson stand from the willow shade in unison when they see us.

Aiden raises his free hand. “Just us for now, gents. You have the cottage. We’ll be back by seven.”

I think they nod but I’m not sure. My eyes are fixed on Aiden as we set across Elysium just him and me with no shadows around. Can the daisies feel this difference? I think they can.

“So where are we going to make this happy memory?” I ask, not that it really matters to me. He could take me into a ditch on the side of the road at this point and I would be happy.

“I don’t have a name for it. That will be your job.” His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile.

He doesn’t take the bullet proof beast when we reach the garage. Instead he helps me in our Rover and sets the rucksack in the back seat.

“What’s in there?” I look at the overstuffed nylon that seems about to explode as he backs out of the garage, scanning the area around us.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” He winks as he repeats my own words to me from two weeks ago.

Then we’re off. Driving South down the country road slower than his usual speed. And my chest heals—as though the wound never existed. A sense of wellness floods my airways, and I breathe in the luxuriant feeling.

“Look at the colors, love,” Aiden says, rolling down our windows. Wind blows in, flinging around my hair and playing with his curls. But even though I griped about seeing the world through dark windows, now that they’re open, I turn on my seat and look only at him. How happy he looks right now—eyes on the open road, sunshine over his face, dimple in his cheek. He weaves his fingers with mine and brings my hand to his lips. “I’m sorry about the bullet-proof Rover. I didn’t think about the black windows. I can see why that would be depressing to you. I’ll check if they have one with clear glass. If not, I’ll live with a regular one.”

My heart starts sprinting an exultant rhythm. “Thank you,” I breathe. “Does this mean you’ll give up on the other things, too?”

He chuckles and rests our joined hands on the console. “Things? I didn’t realize you had other objections besides armored cars and a security team. Please do tell.”

“Well, if there’s no reason for bullet-proof beasts, then there’s no reason for a guard outside the cottage when we’re home. It’s upsetting the roses. They’re not used to this.”

He laughs the first carefree laughter I’ve heard in a week and glances at me. “Please tell the roses the overnight guard and the daylight one for that matter are there to protect them from the rose thief. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

The victorious galloping of my heart slows. “I really doubt it. They’re highly logical plants. Shall I tell them anything else?”

“Yes, tell them I love them very much. So much in fact that I’m willing to be scratched by their angry thorns on a daily basis to keep them safe.”

I cup my ear, pretending to listen outside the open window. “They say thank you but they miss their happy bubble and will not compromise.”

“My, my, stubborn little plants, but neither will I. Do they have any other objections besides private security, bullet-proof beasts, and cottage guards?”

“Yes, they’re very offended by the closed windows at night. They think you no longer like the way they smell.”

“Oh, that is grave indeed. Do assure them I’m going to prove shortly how much I like their smell. In fact, I miss it right now.” He lifts our joined hands again and inhales my wrist. The bottom of my belly tightens, trying to imagine what proof he is planning. “Do they know some of the windows stay closed because a certain someone can’t be quiet during certain activities we can’t name for the roses’ ears?”

I flush. “Yes, but that certain someone wouldn’t have to be quiet if there wasn’t an overnight guard.”

“I see. Well maybe that certain someone’s mouth will need to be silenced somehow. Tell the roses I will consider it.”

A sense of buoyancy floats inside me like the rose breeze. “They say thank you and they love you too.”

He chuckles. “They’re very welcome. Do they have any other demands that don’t involve compromising their safety?”

“No, other than these they’re very happy little plants.”

“They’re perfect, which is why I have to protect them even if they don’t like it,” he answers with a dazzling smile and presses a button on the wheel. “In their honor.” Kiss from a Rose floods the car, as harmonic as his laughter. I watch him spellbound as his lips move to the lyrics in a low murmur. Neither of us will surrender today. But I tuck all that aside for now, sinking in this present moment of us alone. Beyond his profile, the shamrock hills rise and fall like an emerald heartline.

He kisses the back of my hand when the song is done and turns down the volume. “So how was your day aside from your grievances with me? Is Graham still occupying the lab?”

“He was, but Edison ordered him home. I hope he’ll stay away this weekend so I can test the new oxytocin dose after the festival.”

“Are you excited for the festival now that you’ve chosen the roses? I think you’ll win the Rose Cup.”

“More nervous than excited, I think.”

He glances at me with the worried V between his eyebrows. “Why nervous?”

“Because it was mum’s favorite event. I want it to be perfect for her.” My voice drops, but he still hears it. As he hears the words I didn’t say because his hand tightens around mine when he answers.

“Don’t worry, love. We’ll be discreet. No one will even know we’re there.”

“But I will know. And I’m worried it will feel like a war instead of the cheery, happy event she would have wanted it to be.”

He strokes my palm with his thumb in reassurance. “Elisa, I think your mother would have wanted you to be safe above anything else. I don’t owe this just to you, I owe it to her too for what she did for me.”

How can I argue with him when he says things like that no matter how much I hate the thought of deadly Marines stalking the festival? And even worse, how can I tell him that the wound will rage tomorrow no matter how well the festival goes because he can’t be with me? I can’t—he would hate himself even more for his startle reflex then. “Fine, but if a single rose stem breaks, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

“Very sensible.” He laughs and turns up the volume as another rose song starts. The Making of You.

It makes me laugh too, sliding tomorrow away. “Have you made a playlist for roses like you did for ICE in Portland?”

“Well, we can hardly have a rose festival without a rose soundtrack. What would the Plemmonses say?”

I curl up in my seat, listening to his compilation for me, perfectly content if this entire happy memory is just this drive of the two of us, hands knotted, wind in our hair, and that smile on his lips. But it only lasts for three more rose songs.

“Here we are.” Aiden veers to the side of the road at the border of a grassy expanse like a jade sky, with oak and beech families clustered together here and there in their own earthly constellations. River Windrush glimmers through them like a liquid Milky Way. There is no sound except the arias of skylarks and song thrushes. And not a human silhouette in sight.

“I love National Trust Land,” I inform him, hanging my head out of the window and breathing in the clover air. “Do you know they have about 1,600 wildflower species here?”

He chuckles. “Well, we’re not going into Trust Land right now, but I think you’ll like this, too.” He climbs out of the Rover and picks up the rucksack. I strain to listen for any clues to its contents but it’s utterly quiet. “Will you be okay walking for about ten minutes?” he asks as he opens my door. “Or shall I carry you?” He looks eager for the latter.

“Hmm, tempting, but I think I can handle it. Who knows what you might need to save your strength for?”

“Oh, all manner of activities, Elisa. Arguing about your safety, making you faint, silencing your mouth—these require every ounce of strength a man has.” He takes my hand, leading us across the swaying field.

There are some things I’ll never have proper words for. His beauty, for one. His kisses for another. The way he makes love. The whole totality of him, in fact. But somewhere in the list is the experience of walking with him in open space without a ripple of tension. It’s as though he never takes a single step for granted. Where the rest of us put one foot in front of the other without thinking, focused on where we’re arriving instead, Aiden seems to treat each stride as its own destination—flowing in his graceful way step by step through this elusive freedom. I shiver when I think of the reasons behind it and hook my arm in his as he strolls at my pace, lifting me over a shrub or branch and scanning the verdant grassland.

He stops as we approach a thicket of beechwoods, oaks, and yews, and tips up my face. “Will you humor me with something?”

“Anything you want.”

“Then wait here. You’ll be very safe.” And he lets me go, bounding toward the trees.

“Anything but that,” I call after him, but I only hear his carefree laughter as he plunges through the woods. While I wait, I run an experiment on time by setting the chronometer on dad’s watch as I search the ground for four-leaf clover. Aiden emerges from the thicket only three minutes later, but my hypothesis is correct. Emotionally, it felt like twenty minutes to me.

“What was that about?” I ask, trotting toward him.

“You’ll see.”

He lets me lead to the trees, following quietly. I hear the click of his iPhone as he takes a photo of me, but I ignore the chill that trickles down my neck when he does this because the lopsided smile on his lips is worth a million ice pricks. From the canopy of leaves ahead filters a spicy scent of wild roses and sweet water. It propels my feet faster and I zig-zag through the ancient trunks into the most beautiful tiny meadow I’ve ever seen, second only to Elysium. It’s a perfect circle, smaller than the cottage’s garden, wreathed with pink wild roses. In the very center is a spring of water in the exact shape of the bluest of eyes. A pair of Adonis butterflies—the male blue, the female brown—tango in the hazy sunshine. But all this beauty is not the reason why I feel moisture in my eyes. It’s our blanket and pillows spread under the shade of a sweetbriar rose, along with the empty rucksack. A silver Baci chocolate twinkles on my side.

“Aiden,” I whisper, spinning around for the blue eyes of the Adonis standing behind me. He is watching me in that way of his that absorbs every pixel from the moment.

“Like?” he smiles.

“Like? I love. However did you find this?”

“When I was searching the area yesterday. Even you can’t object entirely to my security regime if it led me to this.”

“Yes, this one part is tolerable . . . but only this one.”

He laughs and pulls me by the waist into the molten meadow. But as we reach the blue eye in the center, the laugh gentles away and his expression becomes intent.

“You wanted us on the petals.” He tilts his head toward the wild roses and our blanket. “You wanted to make love without worrying who hears us.” He gestures to the dense trees. “And you want us to keep making happy memories.” He waves at the crystal spring. “I know I can’t replace the cottage or the rose garden but for the next two hours, will you settle for this?”

I push aside the wisp of homesickness for our bubble and press myself closer to him. “Well, that depends.”

“On?”

“On what name we choose for this place so we can make it ours. That’s my job, remember?”

The lopsided smile turns up his lips. “Of course it is. Any ideas?”

I have to look away from his mirage face to think. I should fear engraving him all over England with our dwindling days, but I don’t. The less time we have, the more I want him spread like pollen on every blade of grass or moss-covered branch, as he already is in every molecule and cell of me. So he can live on here somehow even if we don’t.

The two Adonis lovers are fluttering over the wild roses. “Well . . .” My eyes fly to him again as I make my choice. “I have Elysium. And now you have Aidonis.”

His eyebrows arch—Aiden would never expect anything named after him—but the surprise turns quickly into a chuckle.

“For the myth of him being Aphrodite’s lover?”

“No, for the myth of his own beauty.”

His eyes smolder. “Let’s christen it then,” he murmurs, and his hands seize my face. But the meadow disappears as soon as his mouth touches mine. I feel only our hands ripping off our clothes. I see only the shimmering planes of his body in the gilded air. I hear only the free sounds of our love. And I taste only his incomparable flavor as he pulls us into the sapphire water.

 

He keeps his promises, I have to admit—whether to make our first swim a memory worthy of the Room of Firsts or to keep us on schedule when I forget my own name, let alone the time. We make it back to the cottage with exactly seven minutes to spare, hair dripping, my legs still shaking, while Aiden strides in his self-assured way as if he didn’t just transform an adult woman into a trembling mass of Adonis butterflies.

“Status?” he asks Benson and Max who are setting up a long table and chairs for dinner on Elysium. Professionals that they are, they don’t comment on our sodden state, although Benson’s lips press together in amusement.

“All quiet, sir. Max rounded twice. The Marines checked in at the Inn and should be on their way. And your parents are with the Plemmonses but will be over for dinner with Ferrars.”

“Thank you. See you both then.” Aiden wraps up quickly, feeling my fingers twitch with nerves. I cannot possibly face James dribbling again, not to mention Hendrix and Jazzman whom I’ve never met before. What was I thinking letting Aiden drag me into that spring a second time? I wasn’t, that’s the problem. His mouth—with its lips and tongue and taste and words—is the real danger, not any intruders.

I’ve barely finished toweling off my hair in our bedroom when the Marines’ raucous laughter clamors from Elysium.

“Bloody hell, Aiden!” I groan, scrambling into the first dress my hands touch—my blue maxi apparently. “Why did you have to go back into that water? I’m a mess.”

He laughs unrepentantly and helps me zip up despite the fact that he is still shirtless. “I recall no objections from you, Mrs. Plemmons. In fact, I’m certain I and the entire National Trust Land heard at least four Aiden-don’t-stop’s.” He kisses my cheekbone that’s blushing. “And you’re the opposite of a mess. You’ll devastate their brain cells for the next decade. I should know. I saw you in a painting once and now I need fMRIs.”

I shake my head at his absurd, Javier-filtered image of me.

Behind him, on my nightstand, the dried poppies tremble at the ponderous footsteps treading up to the cottage like a stampede. “STORM!” James thunders from what sounds like the willows, and it’s impossible not to think of Javier again. “DROP WHAT GOD GAVE YOU AND COME TO THE DOOR!”

“Hurry!” I whimper, throwing on my locket while Aiden continues to gaze at me in the same way that got me into that spring a second time. Another bass voice booms from the hedge.

“Are you sure he lives here, Cal? It smells too good to be his place.”

“Put on your shirt!” I hiss at Aiden. “Now!”

He laughs again but wisely obeys. Then he gives me a quick kiss— “Mrs. Plemmons, I adore you”—and swoops me in his arms, blowing down the stairs with me as James’s fist rattles the door, making all the frames dip. I raise my eyebrow at Aiden as he smirks and opens the door.

“Fuck, Cal, you’re breaking the cottage!” he growls, but they’re both laughing as they fist-bump each other. A familiar sense of wonder fills me as it does when I watch Aiden—so extraordinary, he’s feels magical to me—do normal things like this.

“Hey, pest!” James grins at me, or at least I think he does. He looks even wilder than when I last saw him. Only his hazel eyes are visible in the jungle of ginger hair that’s exploding out of him in every direction. His vast height is blocking Hendrix and Jazzman behind him.

“Hi, James, welcome back.” I hug his branch-like arm that saved me.

“Someone fucking with you?” Through the auburn tangles, his sniper eyes flash with danger.

“No, just your brother.”

He barks another laugh. “Oh, well, he can’t help it. It’s in his nature. Here, check this out.” He pulls out his iPhone and shows me his screensaver—it’s a photo of his massive hands holding a silver salmon the size of my leg. My dad’s fly is hooked inside its mouth. “Caught him on the first cast—made your pops proud, heh?”

“Yes, you did, James. Well done.” I smile at the fly, heart in hooks, wondering if dad didn’t send that salmon swimming up that stream once his fly was floating again.

“Cal, get the fuck out of the way, man! You’ve already met her.” The bass voice grumbles behind him while James ducks past me with another ringing laugh, revealing Hendrix—I recognize him from his photo in the reel. He is long and lean where James is bushy and hulking, with bristling chestnut hair and chocolate brown eyes. He locks hands vertically with Aiden in an alpha way and tilts his head toward me. “Is this the trouble?”

Aiden glows in the most embarrassing way possible. “Hendrix, this is Elisa. Elisa, this is Ryan Hendrix, but we haven’t used his first name since our Crucible when the drill sergeant unwisely started calling him Ry-cry.”

“Nice to meet you, Hendrix. Welcome to Burford.” I smile at him.

He regards me with amused deliberation. “How can something so small wreak so much havoc?” he demands of everyone.

“I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately.” I sigh only half-joking, and they all laugh in understanding.

“Don’t worry, Trouble. If anyone fucks with you, he’ll breathe his last.” Hendrix winks at me, and I don’t think he’s joking. But they seem to find the idea of taking down my supposed intruder hilarious and satisfying. It sounds like James is cracking his knuckles in anticipation as Hendrix squashes himself past Aiden and me. But my eyes are rivetted on the threshold where I finally see Jazzman—the Marine I have most wanted to meet. The one whose life Aiden saved in his final act before being knocked unconscious and changed forever.

Aiden tried to prepare me for this. But, like the reel, no amount of preparation could have immunized me to the sight before me. Lankier than the others, Jazzman is two entirely different men in one. Half of him is handsome in a Paul Newman way. The other half, from his bare scalp to his left calf visible below his shorts is covered in livid burn scars, ash-grey and raised above his skin as though he has been woven out of a macabre fabric into a living flag for what these four men lived through. But his marred beauty is not why I can’t blink despite my preparation. It’s the way his eyes lock on Aiden before anyone else, and Aiden’s eyes on him. For a long, quiet moment, memories flow between them. I know from the agony on Aiden’s face and the reverence in Jazzman’s expression that they’re both remembering the same moment: when Jazzman was burning in that Fallujah schoolyard under gun fire and Aiden saved him with his last shot.

Behind me in the foyer, James and Hendrix are silent too. They must be used to this wordless exchange that inevitably occurs when Aiden and Jazzman first set eyes on each other after a long separation. I take my cue from them and remain quiet but lean closer to Aiden so my arm touches his. At our contact, he blinks and his lips lift in a smile.

“Hey, Jazz.”

“My brother.” Jazzman steps up to Aiden and hugs him. Just one arm barely touching Aiden’s shoulders, but they still tense. Yet, Aiden doesn’t step away as he would with others. He lets Jazzman hug him like he does with Stella. And that’s when I see the depth of their unique bond. Two brothers—disfigured from their former selves in such different ways—who are willing to relieve their most excruciating moment over and over again for their friendship.

Gently, I rest my hand at the small of Aiden’s back to help him, and his tension drains away. Jazzman must feel it too because he releases his savior and his eyes—one bright blue, the other glass—flit to me with a smile. “Aha! You are obviously Elisa with the calming effect. I’m Jazz.” He holds out his scarred hand. I take it, both careful and curious to feel his skin. Its texture is like starched lace and very warm, as though he’s been resting his hand on a space heater.

“I’m glad to finally meet you, Jazz.” And I am—not just him, but all of them who have saved Aiden as much as he saved them. Exactly as Stella said.

“I gotta say, I thought Storm dreamt you up at first.”

“So did Storm,” Aiden agrees, and they all laugh together. When Jazz laughs, the terrifying scars seem to fade even if they pull the right corner of his mouth down into a vicious grimace.

“Can you calm other people too? Is it like a superpower?” Jazz holds out his hand again, fluttering his fingers in invitation.

“I don’t think so.” I laugh, meeting his fingertips. “But I can definitely put you to sleep with chemistry lectures if you want. Or rose tea.”

Aiden chuckles, swooping my hand in his. “Stop trying to touch my woman, Jazz. Get your own.”

“Right you are, brother. You found one, how hard can it be?” Jazz’s laughter reverberates through the foyer that’s about to collapse. He squeezes around Aiden and me, ruffling my hair in his passage, and follows Cal and Hendrix into the living room to give Aiden space.

As soon as their trainers vanish around the corner, Aiden’s hands close around my waist, pulling me to him. “Thank you,” he whispers even though his words would never carry through the boisterous baritones echoing from the living room.

“For what?”

“For calming me so quickly. It made it easier for both Jazz and me.”

“He seems very kind, Aiden. I love seeing you all together.”

He chuckles. “Why don’t you wait to decide until we’ve been up until midnight, drinking? You might change your mind after that.”

“I really doubt it.” I stroke the scar above his eye. Its toughened ridge presses against my fingertip, cool and smooth, so different from Jazz. Abruptly, my mind starts bartering with the universe again, like it does during the reel. What if it had been Aiden stuck in the fire and Jazz tortured in the classroom with Marshall instead? Would I rather that Aiden had livid scars on his skin? Or as he is now with the scars within, marring the peace of his mind?

“What are you thinking so hard about?” he murmurs.

“How glad I am that you made it. That you’re here.” I run my fingers down his flawless cheek.

I can see from his eyes that he knows what I mean. Not just here in my cottage, but here-here—a star on earth. “Me too,” he smiles.

Me too. Such big little words for him. Two months ago, Aiden would have never thought them. Two months ago, he wanted Marshall’s place, not this. I find an odd peace with the universe then—an acceptance I haven’t felt since before the reel, since Aiden told me about Marshall at the Portland Rose Garden. Because it doesn’t matter to me where his scars are. I’ll always want him exactly as he is. What matters is that he finally wants to live.

“Elisa, is Storm’s dick blocking your way?” James bellows from the living room right as Aiden lowers his head to kiss me, and I burst out laughing. “Stomp your foot if you need help.”

“You’re still never getting anywhere near my dick, Cal. No matter how much you want it,” Aiden calls back, kissing the corner of my mouth. “Come. With some luck, my dick will be blocking other things tonight and we can keep the window open.”

I follow him to the kitchen, flushing while he takes out dad’s whiskey glasses and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc for me. He knows scotch is like chess: too painful to sip.

The living room furniture is in danger again. James takes over half the sofa. Hendrix is hunched in one armchair, his knees almost to his chin. And Jazz—while the smallest star in their stellar quadrant—is still overflowing in the other. They have already opened a bottle of Glenlivet from Speyside and fill the glasses as Aiden takes the other half of the sofa, propping me exactly where I want to be: on his lap. I lean into his iron chest that feels more comfortable than a feather mattress to me, ready to enjoy the waterfall laughter that will spring once James starts to speak, but James chooses to destroy every tingle of warmth I’ve felt since Aidonis.

“So what’s happening with the perv? Any sign of him?”

Aiden’s fingers press gently on my hip—don’t scratch Cal, he’s saying—but he shakes his head quicky for my benefit. “No change from my first recon.”

“Sneaky fucker.” Hendrix sneers, his dark expression positively alarming. Like Benson and Max, they seem to accept Aiden’s theory without question. And why shouldn’t they? They have relied on his mind for decades in everything, whether to guide them through the fire maze of Fallujah and save their lives or to build an empire so vast that none of them ever has to work again if they choose. Who would question such a mind? But they don’t know about the reel. Doctor Helen, Corbin, and I are the ones who know and the only ones who remain unconvinced.

“So what’s the battle plan for tomorrow?” Jazz looks at Aiden for direction, but Aiden’s fingers draw soothing circles at the small of my back.

“Well, the festival was very special to Elisa’s mother and to her,” he answers. “So rule number one is non-interference. I’ll walk you through the strategy later.”

All of them nod once in unison with identical serious expressions as though they are receiving military orders. And tension wrings my insides. What strategy? What will they do to mum’s happy day? I open my mouth to ask, but Aiden turns to me, sensing my alarm. “Don’t worry, this just means we won’t intervene unless you’re in danger. Otherwise, we’ll simply watch and you won’t even know where we are, except Max and Ferrars who will stay closer but receive the same orders. That way you can enjoy the festival as if this didn’t exist. Or as close to that as possible under the circumstances.”

I nod as I finally realize why he is keeping the details from me. But how can I enjoy it without him? I force as big a smile as I can manage to stifle the question. Because no matter how much the wound will burn, fester, and throb at his absence, I know it will pale to his agony that he cannot be there next to me. And I’d rather give up some of our remaining days than cause him more pain.

He doesn’t buy my enthusiasm. “I won’t be far,” he comforts me, his voice controlled but I know it too well to miss his anguish underneath.

“Maybe if I know where you are, I can sneak away for a bit.” I try to cheer him up, keeping my smile on my face, but it no longer feels forced at the idea.

Something twinkles in his eyes but before I can ask, James rumbles. “I hope the fucker is dumb enough to show tomorrow.”

“Of course he will.” Hendrix is supremely confident. “Open, crowded space where no one can notice him lurk. He won’t be able to resist.”

“I agree. He has no way of knowing we’ll be waiting for him . . .” Jazz drifts off with a lethal smile that makes me shiver. As if missing Aiden tomorrow is not enough. As if his mental strain doesn’t already terrify me as much as the reel does. Now the festival is a military operation too, instead of the precious tradition that brought mum perennial joy.

And even though I barely know James, Hendrix, and Jazz, even though I already tried today with Aiden, abruptly I want to run through all my arguments again. One by one, right here, right now so that the festival can be how it was when mum loved it, so that Aiden can rest and we can get back to our reel of brilliancy for the time we have left.

But I can see from their faces—James’s determined eyes, Hendrix’s set jaw, Jazz’s grimaced smile, and Aiden’s steely arm around me—that no matter what I say will make a difference. Tomorrow, while roses bloom on the cobblestoned lanes of my childhood, seven lethal beings will find only danger. Make the festival happy for mum, please. Give Aiden peace. Bring us back to us.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 24 – CIRCLE

Happy Sunday, friends! It’s been a dreary, rainy weekend here in Portland, perfect for moods and writing. Wanted to thank all of you who read and wrote to me about the last chapter.  I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Real v. Reel? I can’t answer that, but I’m loving your comments and theories. Here is another chapter. Hope you like it. Lots of love, Ani

 

24 

Circle

Chronologically, a sunrise lasts only two minutes. Emotionally is another matter. Because right now, waiting for Aiden, the seconds between the first glow above the horizon and the first rays scattering across the sky ooze like congealed blood from an open wound. Each willow murmur sounds like footsteps, each lark song like a familiar melodic voice—but there is nothing. He’s not here, he’s not here.

I jump to my feet, unable to sit on the garden bench without him a second longer. Max’s alert eyes follow me from the hedge as I dash to the hybrid rose behind the shed. Chills prick my skin like thorns at the reel’s proximity. Does the evil inside know it hasn’t been unleashed today? Will it avenge itself on Aiden later? I shiver and force my mind to scour my work bench for any disturbance. But nothing is missing here either. My brain stutters to produce any differences—is that pot of dirt closer to the edge? Has the Elisa graft moved an inch? I stare without blinking, yet I can’t decide if I’m seeing differences or missing them.

Then things strike fast like the sun bursting over the hilltops. Max rumbles, “Good morning,” Benson’s voice booms through the air, “News?”, and I break into a sprint.

“Aiden!” I shriek, rounding the shed, jumping over a Clare, losing a slipper, and launching myself at him the moment he streaks through the garden hedge. His gasp whooshes in my ears as he swoops me in his arms and tucks me in his chest while I run my hands frantically over him to make sure he’s okay. He is—not a single scratch on his beautiful head.

“Hey, hey, I’m fine,” he assures me, but he’s doing the same with me, scanning me from my hair to my bare toes. His shoulders sink in relief when he sees everything is the exact mess he left it. “Elisa, what the hell are you doing up?” he chides, tracing the circle under my eye with his fingertip. “I thought I told you to go to bed.”

I lock my arms in a stranglehold around his neck, blubbering in his throat. “But you—not here—worried—I couldn’t—”

“I also told you not to worry.” His exasperated voice has never sounded more like music to me. “You don’t really think someone can hurt Benson and me, do you?”

“No, but—you’re tired—and stressed—and—”

“Shh, it takes a lot more than that to take me down.” He cradles me in his arms and kisses my hair, all anger seemingly forgotten—or vanished I should say, for him.

“I’m glad you’re home,” I sniffle, crushing myself closer to him and inhaling his scent.

“I’ve told you this, too.” He sighs again, but his lips stay in my hair. “I’ll always come back to you.”

The cottage door flies open then. “Aiden?” Stella cries and hurtles down the path, Robert on her heels.

“Oh, fuck, does no one listen to me?” Aiden mutters under his breath, setting me on my feet without releasing his hold around my waist as he turns to reassure his poor parents. I peek at Benson in his usual spot behind Aiden. He winks at me, but there is a shadow of worry in his brown eyes.

“Are you okay?” I mouth at him behind Aiden’s arm as Aiden keeps saying I’m fine to Stella.

Benson nods with a smile.

“And him?” I tilt my head slightly toward Aiden.

“Worried,” Benson mouths back and the smile disappears.

I tighten my grip on Aiden’s arm, resting my head against his stony bicep. It softens at the point of contact, but I still don’t let go of him or he of me as we troop back to the cottage. His eyes devour the garden corner to corner, and he crouches at the Clare to pick up my fuzzy slipper.

“Here you go, Cinderella.” He slides it back on my foot, his exhausted smile more dazzling to me than the new sun. Then he squints across the rose bush at the garden shed and the hybrid behind it.

“I checked,” I say immediately so he doesn’t have to wonder or spend any more time on his feet.

The V appears between his eyebrows. “And?”

I shake my head, aware of all the eyes and ears on us. “Everything is there, but I can’t tell if they moved an inch or two. I’m so sorry.” My last three words stun us both. Until they slipped out of my mouth under his gaze, I didn’t know I preferred a real intruder to giving Aiden this news.

As if he heard that thought, a trace of the same hurt flickers in the turquoise depths, and he stands, taking my hand. “Don’t be sorry. I’d rather be wrong than have you in more danger.”

And I’d rather be in danger than have him be wrong. But worse than that is that four-letter word—m-o-r-e. No doubt he used it because he believes the first and foremost danger is him. “I’m never in danger if you’re with me,” I answer, knowing he won’t argue with everyone around us.

And he doesn’t—the only sign of protest is his clenched jaw.

Inside the cottage, Stella has been busy while I was staring at empty fields and cluttered working benches. The smell of fried eggs is wafting from the kitchen, but she herds us into the living room, where she has set out coffee, rose water, scones, jam, cream, strawberries, and mum’s soup tureen full of scrambled eggs on the coffee table that’s creaking under the weight.

“Eat something, Aiden. Benson, Max—you too. Elisa, darling, I’ve got your tea right here, in this pretty cup. There you are!”

It’s not until I see the food that my body registers hunger. Or maybe it’s because Aiden is home, and I can feel something else other than my throbbing chest. We all load our plates and scatter on our old seats from the night, Aiden folding on the sofa next to me, except now our arms and legs are touching.

“So what happened, son?” Robert asks when Aiden finishes his scone. “Did you find anything either way?”

Aiden blows out a gust of breath, not touching his coffee, while a shiver whips over my skin. “Many and nothing,” he answers, his voice controlled. If I didn’t know it so well, I would have missed the faint hard edge underneath. “There are tire tracks on the roadside gravel by Elysium but, as Elisa is no doubt thinking this very second, that’s not surprising because it’s the main road to town.”

He nods at me, as if to say I’m considering your theory. I vow to do the same for him. “What else did you see?”

“This was by the garage,” he answers, taking something from the back pocket of his jeans and handing it to me. It’s an After Eight mint wrapper. “It wasn’t there this afternoon when we pulled out of the garage to go to the Inn,” he explains as I pass it around. “But it could have ended up there in any number of ways. Someone could have tossed it out of a car window for all we know.”

“Does it mean anything to you, Elisa?” Stella asks, sipping her tea.

“No, After Eights are popular around here. I’d wager every cottage in town has them. My dad used to love them, but I haven’t bought them since . . .”

Aiden takes my hand, hearing the unspoken day in my drift. There are shadows under his brilliant turquoise eyes, his skin shimmers less, and the ray of sun beaming through the window fractures over his drawn cheeks. Yet he is still here, caring for me.

“Aiden, love, why don’t you get some sleep?” I plead, clasping his fingers. “We can finish this later. You’ve been up all night.”

He shakes his head. “We’re almost done. Benson, show them what you found.”

Benson sets his clean plate on the floor and digs in the liner pocket of his jacket. His massive hand covers whatever it is, but he tosses it at me. I see as it somersaults through the air that it’s a tiny ball of crumpled paper. It lands in my open hand with uncanny accuracy. I smooth it out, looking at the random doodles like concentric circles.  Five necks crane to peek at it with me.

“Any thoughts about this one?” Aiden prompts.

“Umm, not really. It looks like scrap paper. Anyone can doodle like this.”

He nods with a deep sigh. “I had the same thought. I’ve seen you draw circles like this, and seventy-eight other people in my life. It’s in blue ink—also your usual choice—but blue pens are hardly unique. I can’t prove this came from the cottage or was meant for it. There’s nothing unusual about the paper either—just a generic lined notebook.”

I look at it again. I have notebooks like this. As does Reagan. As does the town’s stationer, Mrs. Sterling, and probably everyone who buys notepads there. The doodles are symmetric, it’s true, but I see nothing in them to link them only to me. “Where did you find this?”

“Down the road toward town.” Aiden gestures the direction with his thumb. “Why? What are you thinking?”

I shrug. “Just trying to consider your theory as fairly as mine. This does look like something I would draw but, as you said, so could anyone.”

Aiden runs his hand through his hair in frustration. His eyes zoom on the empty fireplace like last night, the tectonic plates shifting back and forth, back and forth as if he is looking at a chessboard.

“Did you see anything else?” Max wonders, gulping coffee.

“Random details, equally ambiguous,” Aiden answers, his eyes not breaking the inner analysis. “There’s a broken rose in the climber by the garage door, but that could have happened when the door closed behind the car. There’s a cigarette butt further down the road but it could be anyone’s. There are no footprints because, of course, it’s been dry.” Then his eyes flit to Max. “Did you check for footprints under the windows?

Max nods with vigor. “As soon as it got light out. There’s none in the dirt or the rose beds.”

The faithful V forms between Aiden’s eyebrows, and something quick passes between him and Benson.

“If there are no footprints where there should be, that means either they swept them or we’re left with the key theory,” Benson rumbles.

“Or mine,” I offer, looking only at Aiden, feeling like we’re stuck in a circle. I’m about to ask him to stop this now and go to sleep, but he takes my hand.

“Elisa, I know you have serious doubts about this, and if I only listen to logic, I have them too. But I can’t shake off this instinct that I’m right. So, I’ll ask you one more thing about this that you will hate, and then I promise I’ll be done for today. Will you please call the Plemmonses and ask them if they ever gave the cottage key to anyone else? They’re usually up by now, setting up the shop.”

I’m about to say “no bloody way” but the lines of worry on his beautiful face stop my tongue. How can I not give this to him if it helps him sleep and fight the reel later today? How can I not give him everything after the story his parents told me? Exactly as he would do for me.

“If I do this, will you go to sleep?” I ask, brushing his knuckles.

“I promise.”

“And you will stop worrying?”

“I can’t promise that, but I promise I will drop the subject for today.”

“What about security? If the Plemmonses say no, as I’m sure they will, can we let Max enjoy the rest of his vacation? He’ll get so bored guarding me from doodles, he’ll have to steal roses himself for entertainment.”

He shakes his head before I’m done. “I can’t do that—not until I figure out what we’re dealing with.”

I watch his set jaw, knowing this is the best he can give right now. As he must know from my eyes that this isn’t over. I nod, reserving all my arguments for when he’s rested, and pick up my phone from the sofa corner, where apparently it’s been sitting forgotten all night.

“Thank you,” Aiden says simply as I dial.

Mr. Plemmons answers on the seventh ring, and it takes several different shouting volumes to establish the right level of bellowing for him to hear.

“Is summat the matter with the roses, Rose?”

“No, Mr. Plemmons, but I have a quest—”

“Wha’ ‘bout the Festival?”

“I’m all set, Mr. Plemmons, but—”

“Did yeh like the garland, Rose?”

“It was beautiful, Mr. Plemmons, thank—”

“Is Adam being a gentleman? I told him, I said, ‘only because yer parents ‘ull be here, Adam, but yeh keep yer hands off our Rose! An’ we ‘spect to meet them, we do. Didn’ I tell him, Josephine?”

“Yes, you did, Harold. You scared him right off. The man promised he’s sleeping in the shed.”

The first chuckles of the day susurrate around me, Stella’s in a pillow, Benson’s on his knuckles, Max’s in his elbow, and Robert’s in his palm. Aiden is too stressed and tense to laugh or do anything but pinch the bridge of his nose and breathe deeply with his eyes closed for strength.

“Mr. Plemmons, I have a question,” I yell at the top of my lungs into the receiver to delay the stroke that is surely coming for Aiden.

“Wha’ is it, Rose?”

“Did anyone ever borrow the cottage key when I was in Portland?”

“The wha’?”

“The cottage key, Mr. Plemmons!”

“The key? I don’ think so, Rose. Josephine, do yeh remember anyone ask fer the rose key?”

Some silence on the other side presumably as Mrs. Plemmons scratches her head with her knitting needles. “No, I don’t remember anything like that,” she wheezes after a while then her voice rasps closer to the receiver. “Has something happened, Rosebud?”

“Nothing at all, Mrs. Plemmons. Not a thing. I’ll bring by some roses and Aiden’s parents later. They’re coming to the Festival.”

“Oh, how wonderful! On with you, Harold, on with you! I have biscuits to bake for Aiden’s parents.”

“Stop calling him Edmund, Josephine. His name is Adam.”

They are still arguing about Aiden’s name when Mr. Plemmons hangs up without saying goodbye.

“Feeling better?” I ask Aiden as his parents, Benson, and Max are catching their breath from laughing.

He runs his hand over his thick stubble with a deep sigh. “How much can we rely on their memories, Elisa, really? The man believes I’m sleeping in the shed.”

I caress his tense jaw. “And you might well end up sleeping in the shed if you don’t drop this right now like you promised. Now on with you, Adam, on with you. Go to bed and sleep this off.”

The first real smile since the Suite of Firsts lifts his lips. “Oh no, not the shed.” But he stands without further argument, and everyone stands with him.

Fifteen minutes later, after his parents leave with Benson while Max insists on staying guard outside until we wake up, Aiden and I finally climb the stairs to our happy bedroom. With each creak of the old boards, the terror of the night starts to dissipate. First as a wink of a smile at the corner of Aiden’s mouth when he steps on the fifth stair, then as a sigh in my throat when his hands curve around my hips, until the moment we cross the threshold of our room, we both transform. The glow returns to Aiden’s face, warming his ashen skin back to gold. His jaw relaxes, the V releases his eyebrows, and every wisp of tension floats away from him until his long, graceful body moves with his patent fluidity, half-water, half-man. And every debris of fear and anguish disappears from his eyes until they gleam the clearest shade of turquoise.

As for me, I’m back to the drooling state I started this night with.

“Are you having déjà vu?” Aiden smiles as he closes the bedroom door.

“How did you know?”

He flows to me and wraps his arms around my waist. “Because I’m having it, too.”

“Déjà vu to what?”

“To entering our Room of Firsts. You?”

“Me too.”

“Mmm.” He lowers his face to mine as he did last night, pausing an inch from my lips. “Can you make us a protein to turn back time?”

“I wish.” My voice turns to vapor under his heated breath.

“Let’s try to repeat it then.” His eyes become molten and descend over me like fire. I have exactly one second left for thought. Already my body is arching toward his.

“Oh, no!” I lean away, pushing against his chest. “Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Plemmons. There will be no female nudity of any kind. You’re here to sleep.”

He laughs with that waterfall sound as I quote his words to me from Oxford’s University Park but doesn’t release my waist. “But I sleep so much better with female nudity around, Elisa.”

“Well, maybe Mrs. Willoughby can oblige.” I push weakly against his chest again, but he brings his lips to my ear.

“I don’t want Mrs. Willoughby.” His hand trails up my spine. “I want your hair . . .” He sweeps aside my tangles. “And your skin . . .” His fingers trace my throat. “And your smell . . .” His nose skims along my jaw. “I want everything of yours on me.” He molds me to his shape as his lips brush mine. “If I have all that, Elisa, no one on this earth sleeps better than me.”

His words stop but it’s not silent. My heart is thundering, my blood is hammering, my breath is hitching. He blows gently over my lips to open my eyes I didn’t know I had closed. “Can you still give all that to me?” he asks as soon as I blink at him. “After everything I put you through last night?”

It only takes that change in his voice—from amused to tender to uncertain—to clear my mind. “They’re always yours.”

The dimpled smile sparkles on his cheek. “Then may I have this dance?”

We have danced together to Für Elise fourteen times now, once before each sleep. I know his steps by heart, yet each time feels new. He takes off my clothes and I take off his, and we sway together, skin on skin, each piano note as vital as a heartbeat now that I know how it became the soundtrack to our dreams.

“I’m sorry, love,” he murmurs, his voice more melodic than our lullaby. I look up at his incandescent eyes—there isn’t a single trace of fear, hurt, or anguish there now. Only peace.

“Why are you sorry?” I whisper back, letting the melody reign over us.

“For getting angry when you were only trying to reason with me. For worrying you. For making you lose sleep. For being unable to drop this like you wish I would.”

“Shh.” I press my finger on his lips—he kisses it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. I know everything you’re doing is to protect me. I’m the one who should apologize.”

His raven brows arch in shock, and he stops mid-turn. “What do you have to apologize for?”

“For hurting you when you were only trying to save me. For yelling at you. For not believing you like you wish I would.”

‘Shh.” He smiles, pressing his finger on my lips—I kiss it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. You did the right thing. I need you to challenge me. Always, but especially now.”

He picks up the dance, nose in my hair, as Für Elise plays on. I debate whether to tell him I know how he found it, but I don’t want any painful memories to enter this bubble. ‘I can’t be anywhere else,’ he told his parents the night I left him. I lean into his body before chills whip my skin. What happens this time if we lose? Or if the reel takes him from me before time does? Will there be any place left in this earth for him or me now that we are so deeply entwined together I no longer know where I end and where he starts? I press myself closer to him, inhaling his pure, vivid scent that keeps the goose bumps away.

Für Elise ends with its last poignant note and starts again. We curl into our cotton bed that smells like us, and he takes his anti-nightmare pill while I pray for the protein. Make him brave, keep him whole.

“How long should we set it for?” he asks, programming my song.

“Don’t—sleep as long as you need. We can do the r-e-e-l whenever you wake up this time.”

He doesn’t argue or flinch like I do. Still invincible, still braver than me. He wraps his arms around me and pulls me to his front, every curve of me to every angle of him. I can feel his desire, but he keeps his promise. He just buries his lips and nose in my hair, breathing me in. “Don’t worry, love.” His fingers trail down my arm. “I’m built for this.”

“But it’s different now, with all the trauma you’re revisiting.”

A deep sigh flows through him and washes over me. “I know . . . same answer.”

From the beech tree outside the window, a lark starts to warble, harmonizing its song to Für Elise. “Is there any part of you that thinks the r-e-e-l might be causing this?” I whisper, not wanting this question to interfere with either melody.

He caresses my arm, back and forth like piano keys. “Maybe I’m afraid to think it,” he whispers, too. “The idea of not being in control of my own mind . . .”

I turn in his arms, placing my hand over his heart. “You are in control. You’re just learning new ways of thinking. Don’t doubt your mind. Only your reactions to stress. I’m sure Doctor Helen will agree. You should talk to her about this.”

He nods, weaving his fingers with mine, looking at our joined hands. His lashes cast long shadows over his cheeks. “Will you answer something for me? The full truth, no diplomacy or sparing of feelings.”

“Of course,” I answer, surprised by the uncharacteristic request. His eyes usually see my truth before I even know it. But right now, they’re locked on our folded hands as he speaks in a slow, deliberate voice.

“If the reel fixes the startle but breaks my mind, would you still want to be with me?”

His question makes me gasp, but not only because of the heart-wrenching words. I stop breathing because I finally realize why he is afraid. It’s not fear of losing his mind, it’s fear of losing my heart.

“Aiden Hale.” I lift his chin as he does with me so I can see his eyes. They’re steady and bold, except that flicker of pure hurt that now I fully understand. “I will want you no matter what the reel does—whether it changes your mind or not and even if it doesn’t fix the startle. I know you don’t like hearing that, but you asked for the full truth. I’ll always love you, and no distance, or time, or reel can ever change that.”

He has inhaled every word, breathing them in like air. And I know he believes me. I know because the painful question clears from his eyes. “So, it’s not just my brain that you’re attracted to?” he smiles, gesturing to the photo of his brain and heart waves on my nightstand.

I grin back. “No, sorry. It doesn’t even make the top five.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” he chuckles. “But I’m curious now, what are the top five?”

“Oh, that’s easy. Your heart, your character, your strength, your laugh, your mouth—”

I’m about to continue, but he kisses me with a low throaty sound. “Mmm, this mouth business seems to be important.”

“Very.”

His fingers braid into my hair and he strains me to his shape until I can feel his heartbeat on my skin. The moment I taste him on my tongue, I realize that until now my own mouth tasted bitter, but it wasn’t the night. It was the hours apart. His lips brush away the acrid residue until I only taste his honeyed flavor.

“Ah, Elisa,” he sighs, freeing me for air, but his breathing is almost as uneven as mine. He turns me around—all iron and silk—and presses his lips in my hair. “Our top fives are the same, you know . . . except mine also include your faith in me and your patience and your humor and . . .”

I’m about to point out that this is more than five, but a deep breath of cinnamon air swirls in my hair and his weight becomes heavy around me. I peek around, and he is asleep, his lips parted in a soft smile.

“Like cookies, my love,” I whisper. I lie here as always, counting his breaths, and happiness shifts again despite the night. It becomes his puffs of sleep to my song in our humble bedroom with the dried poppies of our weapons in this fight: our love, his strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love, our families, the team of scientists, my calming effect, Für Elise, hope, laughter, and, if I can finish, the protein. I still don’t know if they’re enough to win against Aiden’s past. And after today, I no longer know if they will be enough to see us through the reel.

Abruptly, sleep vanishes, and I feel wide awake. More than awake—drumming with nervous energy and fear, making my feet and mind twitch. Instead of poppies, I can only see Bia and the protein’s formula in my head. It’s no longer just urgent—after last night, it’s imperative. I can’t afford to lie here when I can calculate Oxytocin Twelve doses instead. I finish counting the one hundred and fifty breaths that it takes for Aiden to drift into deep sleep, and inch out of bed, jittery and tense.

Dad’s library is filled with sunlight when I tiptoe there. The gauzy curtain billows with the rose breeze, and Max’s reflection plays on the windowpane, sipping his coffee by the hedge. Was it only five hours ago that I stumbled in this room shuddering in terror? Now the idea of an intruder sitting on Dad’s armchair or touching our unfinished chess game under the glass case feels fuzzy, like a distant nightmare that has left only its startle behind.

I switch on old Bod, wishing I could run to Bia instead, but there is no point in testing until I understand exactly how much O-12 I should add and why else the formula didn’t hold yesterday. I’m blurry eyed with calculations when Skype’s jingle dings loud enough for Max’s head to snap up toward my window. Reagan! I answer it immediately, not wanting to wake Aiden.

“Top o’ the morning, Rose.” Reagan’s curls explode on the screen and her feigned British accent chimes through the library. As soon as I see her sparkling smile in her pajamas, an urge to hug Bod overpowers me. I blow her a kiss on the screen.

“Hey, Reg—how was the flight? Did you find everything okay?”

“Oh yea, okay and empty and boring. I’ve decided rhododendrons are highly overrated compared to my rose.” She glares at her window where our old pink rhodie is blooming. “I miss England already.”

“And England misses you. How was Javi on the flight? Any progress?” Between meeting Aiden’s parents and dealing with real or reel intruders, I’ve been itching to ask her since Aiden found the sketch of her eyes at the Inn.

She blows a ringlet off her face, and her smile disappears. “Well, we fought for half of it so no—unless you define ‘progress’ as conversation in which case, yes, it was an improvement over the dour silence that filled the other half.”

“What did you fight about?” I ask even though it doesn’t matter. The real reason is Javier being invisible for all his formative life and now he is unable to see when he is seen.

“Everything—no matter what I say or do, I seem to aggravate him. I don’t know, Isa, but I’ve thought a lot about it. I have to let him be . . .” She wipes her eyes with her sleeve.

“No, Reg, don’t give up yet. Javi loves you—he just doesn’t know how.” I trap my tongue between my teeth, so I don’t mention the sketch. I can hear Aiden’s voice, even asleep, thundering through his synapses to tell me to keep my mouth shut. And as much as I hate to admit it, he is right.

Reagan just shakes her head, mopping up more tears.

“I’m serious,” I tell her, clutching the screen as if it were her shoulders. “Let Javi open the gallery and get some confidence, like Aiden said, and I think he’ll come around.”

She wipes her nose this time and nods. “He’s very excited about Solis Art—he’s named it already. But enough about me or I’ll cry all night. How did it go with Aiden’s parents?”

I want to keep talking about her and Javier, but I can tell she needs the space. And I can’t even berate her for not warning me about the fact that Aiden’s parents make the Beckhams look like garden compost. “They’re so sweet, Reg. I wasn’t prepared for how kind and supportive they are.”

“I know, right? They’re exactly who I would have picked for you. Stella already posted a picture of your roses on Facebook, quoting Shakespeare, ‘Of all the flowers, methinks a rose is best.’ Here, look.”

Reagan holds up her iPhone to show me Stella’s profile, but I stare at it without seeing as shivers scrape my skin at the mention of the charlatan. Does he creep up on other people’s lives like this or is he only haunting mine?

“I have to hit the pillow, Isa,” Reg says after I manage a nod. “I’m still jetlagged, but I have to go to work tomorrow. Who invented jobs? Horrible person.”

Probably Shakespeare. “Love you, Reg. Sleep well.”

“Love you, too. Say hi to our dragon. Tell him to prepare in advance because in September, I might even hug him.”

She hangs up with a laugh before she hears the whisper that hushes out of my lips of its own volition. If we have until September . . .

I listen for any sign of Aiden upstairs, but there is nothing. Hopefully he is dreaming of cookies while I stare at my lined notepad waiting for a stroke of brilliance. That odd sensation I felt in the Room of Firsts, like a tugged thought, flutters again now for some reason. What was I thinking about when I first felt it? Oh, yes, I had mumbled “orgasms are oxytocin but taste better” in my sex coma. And there it is—the same curious feeling, like a tip-of-the-tongue hesitancy . . . I try to analyze it but can’t find any clues in it. It must have been because I tasted the protein earlier at Bia and it didn’t taste as good as Aiden. But why did it fizz away?

Outside the library window, Max’s pacing shadow rolls over the roses. And on my notepad, my pen draws concentric circles over my calculations without a single answer.

©2021 Ani Keating

 

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 20 – GIFT

Happy Sunday, everyone! Hope you’ve had a great weekend. Here is a chapter close to my heart for a lot of reasons, including that it is one of the last times we see Reagan and Javier in the books. Thank you to all for reading, and especially to Wattle Ido, HN, Liz, Linda, Darla, and all the others who are writing to me. Your good cheer and love of this story means a lot. xo, Ani [credits: Chatsworth Estate; viator.com.]

20

Gift

I never used to give much thought to happiness. I either had it and took it for granted or I lost it so deeply that thinking about it wouldn’t help. But I think a lot about it now. Not about what it means, but rather about it is. And I notice how different it looks each day, each hour, even minute. An hour ago, happiness looked like two bodies wrapped together in twinkly lights, bursting like halos around each other’s sun. Then it looked like hunting condoms hidden under petals in a rose garden while drinking coffee mouth to mouth. And right now it looks like Aiden and me watering the roses together, waiting for Reagan and Javier for our overnight trip to Pemberley, or rather Chatsworth Estate that Jane Austen immortalized as Mr. Darcy’s abode. Of course to me, Chatsworth is happiness for an entirely different reason: my own Mr. Darcy and the surprise that awaits him.

Happiness is a shapeshifter.

“Well, I’m disappointed,” my Mr. Darcy says, watering the Cecilias in a fresh white shirt and grey jeans while I label the cyclamen floribunda rose I’m dedicating to Reagan. “The woman who breaks chemical protein codes while kissing only managed to find five of my hidden condoms fully caffeinated. That won’t cover us even for tonight.”

“We’re not all CIA-trained analysts, Aiden. Some of us need clues.”

A smile ignites his eyes until his face lights up with that surreal beauty it takes on at certain moments, like when he asked me to meet his parents. My brain couldn’t solve a clue right now even if he gave it to me. He drops the nozzle on the grass and takes the three steps between us, holding out his hand. “Fair point. Close your eyes.”

“That sounds even harder,” I grumble—why would I want him out of sight?

“Come on. I’m trying to be romantic. Don’t ruin it for me.”

“Fine,” I sigh, closing my eyes. “But if you’re being romantic with condoms, you better hurry before Javier comes. We’re really pushing his aneurism.”

He chuckles but cups his hand over my eyes. “No snooping this time.”

Whatever plans he must have for this condom must be hazardously good. He leads me down the path by my waist in the direction of the garden shed, his body brushing against the cerise summer dress he brought me back from Portland. He stops us a few steps later and frees my eyes. “Everything you need is here.”

We’re at the workbench behind the shed where I’ve been trying to cultivate a new rose—a hybrid between the Elisa and the American Beauty I bought from Mr. Plemmons. Not that I’d ever admit to Aiden I’m trying to breed our roses. My excuse is that I’m preparing for the Burford Rose Festival, which is technically true. But maybe he guesses anyway if he put a condom here. I search through the bench mortified, my face matching my dress. “Umm, I don’t see it,” I mumble, looking under my tools and in the plastic pots of dirt, but then something in the Elisa bloom I’m using for grafting catches my eye. “Oh, wait—what is that?”

It’s not a condom. Condoms do not sparkle. There, nestled in the heart of the ivory petals, something blue is shimmering. I inhale a low gasp, fishing it out. Dangling on a fine gold chain is a filigreed locket embedded with a brilliant sapphire the color of his eyes. “Oh my God, Aiden!” I whisper, looking up at him. The delight in his face dims even the radiant gem in my hand. “Is this . . . this is the surprise that will make my heart melt!”

He smiles casually, but I sense a strong emotion underneath. “In part. Open it.”

I stroke the engraved lid, noticing the filigree is an intricate rose vine. “It’s so beautiful,” I murmur, lifting the clasp. A small roll of paper is tucked inside in a message-in-a-bottle kind of way. I pick it up carefully so I don’t drop either it or the locket with my shaking hands.

“Allow me,” Aiden says. He takes the locket and clasps it around my neck, sweeping my hair to side. His fingers brush my collarbones, raising goose bumps in their wake. “Now you can read the note.”

I unroll the strip of paper—it’s longer than it seemed—and I lose my breath again. It’s his assertive handwriting, albeit much smaller—I’d know it anywhere after reading his war letters. But this is not a love note. It’s a list. A list of the oxytocin options that meet the CREB test for the protein. “Good heavens, Aiden! You already solved them?”

He shrugs as though that’s not the most astonishing part. “It’s still long, love, I’m sorry. No matter how many combinations I tried, we still end up with ninety-seven. But I’ve listed them in order of potency—hopefully that saves you some time. I’ll keep working on it if you have other id—”

He never gets to finish his sentence because I throw myself at him, dangling like a locket over his own heart. “Aiden, this is everything! I thought we’d end up in the two hundreds still. Do you realize what a huge leap we just made?”

His arms fold around my waist. “It’s still a lot to test on time. There must be something else I can do.” The V forms between his eyebrows, and abruptly I see how much he wants this now. Why is that? Is it still to help me sleep or is the torture draining more of him than he lets on? I hold him closer to fight a shiver.

“You just did in a week what would have taken me months. Let me worry about the rest. One way or another, I’ll make this for you, I promise.” I try to smooth away the V, but he shakes his head.

“I don’t want it for myself, Elisa. I want you to have it every morning since you insist on staying with me.”

And there it is, the reason why the protein has become just as vital to him as it is to me. I kiss him, unable to find words—they’ve melted away with my heart as he promised. The strong emotion in his eyes is in his mouth too, the way it moves with mine in ninety-seven different forms of love.

He has to break the kiss when I start hyperventilating—there’s no question of me being able to pull apart—and at last I find some words. “Maybe we can share the protein. Like we do with Baci or your coffee?”

He chuckles. “Well, if there’s anything that will convince me to take an ounce of it for myself, it would be your mouth.” He takes the long ribbon of paper, rolling it back into its papyrus form. “I have this memorized just in case, but I tried to think of a way for you to carry it around without anyone suspecting.” He tucks the list back inside my locket and secures the clasp.

“It’s perfect.” I pat the sapphire, not wanting to imagine how much it cost. “Wherever did you find it?”

“The antique shop you told Reagan you liked. Obviously jewelry is not my expertise, but I thought it was a good fit for this. A locket for a secret. And the roses for you.”

“And the sapphire for your eyes.”

He shrugs. “If you want.”

“You forgot the most important part.”

“What’s that?”

“It rests on my heart, like you.”

His eyes gaze at the spot like a caress. “What a great place to rest.”

There are a million other things I want to tell him. How the gold reminds me of his heart, how its strength reminds me of his character, how someday I want to give it to our daughter. Instead of embarrassing or terrifying him with any of that, I just rest my head on his chest and say, “Thank you. I’ll love it forever.”

Benson drops off Reagan and Javier only fifteen minutes later on his way to London to pick up his mate, Max, whom Aiden is flying over for a few days to keep Benson company. Reagan is wearing the most resplendent hat for Mr. Darcy’s home. It’s an ivory wide disc with a coral silk rose blooming underneath the brim. The rest of her glows in a matching linen dress as she practically runs up the garden path to me.

“Reg, you look like art,” I tell her, choosing the word for Javier.

“Never mind me. What’s that on your neck?” Her emerald eyes widen when she spies the locket.

I caress it as I’ve been doing every few seconds. “Aiden got it for me.” Even I hear the gloating in my voice. He shakes his head next to me with an indulgent smile.

“Well-done, Aiden,” she grins at him. “Very Mr. Darcy of you.”

“I’m assuming that’s a high honor.”

“The highest,” she says, lifting her chin. “Speaking of Mr. Darcy, where the hell is your hat, Isa? You promised you’d wear it for him.”

“He’s not real, Reg.” Javier laughs behind her. “It’s not like he’ll be there.”

“He’s real to us, Javi,” she retorts. “He’s gotten us through hell. And now Isa won’t even wear a hat for him! We’ve been waiting for this day for four years!”

“Reg, calm down,” I laugh. “I have my hat inside. But first I want to show you something.”

All indignation disappears from her face and she smiles. “Oh, whew, I thought you had lost your mind. What is it? Did Aiden get you a tiara, too? Because that would be even better than a hat.”

“No, this one is just for you.” I take her hand and nod at Aiden. He pulls out his phone to record the moment for me.

Reagan looks between us with a grin. “Oh, this must be good. Is it a present? Wait, how does my hat look?”

“Better than Duchess Kate,” I assure her and lead her up the path past the Cecilias, the Clares, and the Elisas to the magenta floribunda bush by the bench. And even though this is her moment, suddenly it feels like my own throat is full of petals. “Here it is,” I smile, holding out my hand toward her blooms.

She blinks at them confused, but then her eyes fall on the rosewood plant marker stuck in the dirt. Reagan Starr, it says in mum’s calligraphy. “No way!” Her hand flies up to her mouth, and she curls down on the petaled grass, stroking the bright blooms. “Isa, is this for real?”

I kneel next to her. “Of course it is. Every woman in my family has a rose in this garden. And now you do too.”

Her hug almost knocks me flat on the grass as Aiden and Javier chuckle above us, now both recording. “I love it so much!” she blubbers. “It’s my spirit plant.”

“And it’s the kind of rose my dad gave to my mum on their first date. It brought them nothing but luck in their love.”

A knowing smile sparkles in her teary emerald eyes—she understands why this is the rose I chose for her.

“You need luck in love, Reg?” Javier pipes up, still recording.

“Duh!” she answers without looking at him. “I’ve been in England for a week and I haven’t seen Gandy yet.” She gives me another hug, this one gentler like all the vulnerability she must be feeling. “Thank you,” she sniffles. “Do you think it will do well in Portland? What am I saying—your green thumbs can grow anything.”

“It will do beautiful in Portland,” I answer her question, unable to touch her assumption. But the petals in my throat just turned to shards of glass at the idea of leaving this garden or being away from any of my three stars. In a blink, their brilliant constellation goes dark. I feel Aiden’s unerring eyes on my face along with the phone cameras and smile the widest smile I can manage. “All right, here’s a Reagan to take with us.” I snip off a bloom and tuck it in her hat. “Now let’s get going. It’s a two-hour drive.”

If Aiden saw the way my heart just ripped in two, he says nothing. He just takes me by the waist as we climb up to our bedroom to pick up our suitcase—just one suitcase, my knickers with his boxers, our socks balled up with each other, our toothbrushes together for our first overnight trip.

“That was a beautiful thing you did for Reagan,” he says as he zips it up.

“She deserves it.” I shrug and pretend to make the bed, glancing at the picture of our kiss and the wilted poppies on my nightstand. Why is fear punching so hard now that I’m carrying the key to the bravery protein in a locket right next to my heart? Can fear sense its end is coming? Or is the end coming for me?

Aiden’s hand covers mine as I am smoothing the pillow, trying to fight the sudden shivers. How many times has he kissed me on this pillow by now? How many times are there left still? He pulls me around and tips up my face. “What’s wrong, love?”

The peaceful beauty that floods him in this room has a shadow of worry, like stubble over his dimple. But the moment his turquoise eyes meet mine, abruptly the shivers start to recede. “I broke Corbin’s rule,” I admit. “I looked ahead instead of at the present moment.”

His hand curves around my cheek. “It comes out of nowhere sometimes, doesn’t it?”

“Yes! For you too?” It’s a terrible thing to give me relief, but it still does—like we’re together even in fear.

“Oh, yes. Sometimes, the more beautiful the moment, the harder it hits.”

“That’s exactly it. I couldn’t understand why it happened just now until you said it. We had the most beautiful morning and then . . .”

“Here, try something with me,” he suggests, folding me in his arms. “You’re better at this than I am, but I’ll start. You’re in my arms, too beautiful for words, with your head on my chest, exactly where I want you to be. Now your turn.”

“Okay.” I smile as I realize what he is doing: bringing me to the present moment. “I’m wearing the locket you gave me, the dress you gave me, the knickers you gave me, and the perfume you gave me. I’m wrapped in you.”

“And we are in the happiest bedroom in the world.”

“And there are only six days and fourteen hours of condoms left.”

He chuckles with me, now continuing out of fun, not fear. “And there are three more condoms in the foyer for you to find on our way out.”

“And you still have your surprise to see.”

“And you still have yours.”

That derails me. “You already gave me mine.” I clutch my locket as evidence.

“I said I gave you part of it. The best part is still ahead.”

“The best part? What could be better than bravery?”

He presses his lips to mine. “Love, Elisa,” he whispers. “Love.”

And just like that, happiness shifts. It becomes this present moment in a tiny bedroom with a white bed, wilted flowers, and a worn rug where we dance.

“OI!” Javier hollers from the garden. “I’M BECOMING AN INSTAGRAM PHOTOGRAPHER DOWN HERE. CAN YOU HOLD IT IN FOR LATER?”

It never ceases to make Aiden laugh. He picks up the suitcase and glances around our bedroom. “You know, despite Chatsworth’s luxury, I’d still rather be here tonight.”

Abruptly I miss this room and we haven’t even left it. “Me too,” I say, grabbing our pillows on a whim.

***

Visiting Chatsworth is not something you are supposed to get used to, no matter how often you do it, and I have visited twice. The magnificent house glows in yellow stone surrounded by hundreds of acres of lush gardens and serene woods, with the Emperor Fountain like a liquid mirror reflecting the opulence of both nature and man. History flutters in every leaf, glimmers in each drop of dew, flows through River Derwent, and settles like pollen over the emerald expanse of the parkland.

But visiting Chatsworth with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier makes all that history feel new, the grand house a bit like home, and Mr. Darcy just a hero in a book. Not because Aiden has reserved the public part of the house for the afternoon and booked the exclusive Park Farm Estate for the night—I know now that, underneath the lavish expense, these are nonnegotiable safety measures and that, deep down, Aiden dreams of being able to visit such places in a crowd as much as a tourist might dream of being him. No, today is breathless for an entirely different reason: because today my life is better than the fairytale. And happiness has changed shapes again. Now it looks like Aiden, Javier, Reagan, and me plopped on a picnic blanket under an ancient alder tree at the farthest border of Salisbury Lawn. The park is quiet today despite the Saturday sunshine, perhaps because soon the house will be closed to the public for us.

“I just can’t get over it,” Reagan says, downing the last drop of her bubbles from a paper cup. “A week ago, Javi was in jail about to be deported, Isa was here in hell, Aiden—I don’t have the words, and I was visiting a jail. And now, we’re all here together, waiting to visit that palace in private, and I have a rose named after me. Anyone else think they’re dreaming?”

“I was, until Aiden started kicking my ass,” Javier answers, frowning at Aiden’s chessboard where is he ensnared in the Budapest Defense and his king will be mated in five moves.

I haven’t been able to look away from the hand-carved mahogany board since Aiden set it up, despite the plush gardens around us. It’s the same board I saw in his library on our first night together. A rich scent of musk and cigar wafts from it with the woodsy breeze. The chess pieces glow even under the alder’s shade.  How many times have Aiden’s fingers touched them? Hundreds, thousands from his seventh birthday when his parents gave the set to him until now.

I haven’t touched a chess piece since my father died, since that unfinished chess game that sits in the glass flower case in the cottage’s library. But even if I could move a finger to stroke the curves of Aiden’s queen or the sharp angles of his knight, I wouldn’t dare. Because Aiden playing his favorite game is formidable. He seems to play entirely in his head, gazing at the board only to see what mistake the mortal in front of him makes next. I’m certain he is letting Javier persevere out of chivalry—he could have ended this game on move six.

Every so often I sense his eyes on my face through the birdcage veil of the fuchsia fascinator I’m wearing for Reagan. Aiden knows what this game means to me. Yet he has never once asked me to explain my decision to lay it at rest. And for that, impossibly, I love him more.

“Some help?” he invites casually, raising a perfect raven eyebrow at me.

I shake my head. “If I help anyone, it would be Javier.”

“Perfect.” His voice is still casual but something warm filters through his eyes like the sun through the alder leaves. He controls it immediately but it was enough. Enough for me to see what he is doing. What he really wants but will never ask. A game with me, even if only through Javier.

I try to picture moving my hand for him, wrapping my fingers around Javier’s bishop to fall for his queen, so Javier’s king can die a dignified death. But I can’t. My hand closes into a fist. It will not open no matter how much I want to give Aiden everything. Apparently even though my body could give him the forehead kiss, it cannot overcome this.

“Sorry, Javier,” I say, straightening the veil over my cheeks. “May your king rest in peace. Reagan and I have to go see Darcy’s stairs.”

“Now you’re talking,” she hops up, arranging her hat.

I pick up my picnic basket—the other reason why I’m leaving, to set up Aiden’s surprise—but his hand wraps around my fist as I stand. He says nothing but presses it to his lips. One light quick kiss, but I know what it means. I saw you. I feel his eyes on me as Reagan and I stroll away toward the great house.

“So any progress with Javi?” I ask, pretending to look at a wild orchid by the rock I’ve been eying to hide a clue for Aiden.

Her delicate snort distracts me from my subterfuge. “As if. Sometimes I think he’s looking at me, but then I look at him and there’s just . . . nothing there.”

I tuck my arm in hers. “Maybe it’s not nothing. Maybe it’s something he’s too afraid to see.”

“Or maybe I’m not his kind of rose.” Her hand strokes the Reagan bloom still in her hat.

“That’s not true. This is an issue Javier has with himself. That’s what Aiden thinks, too. He thinks Javier needs to feel more secure before getting involved.”

“Oh hell, Aiden knows too?”

“He figured it out on his own, I didn’t say anything.”

“Of course he did. The only one who doesn’t want to see is Javier himself.”

“Just give him a bit more time,” I coax her. “It’s only been a week. And if he doesn’t wake up, Aiden said he’ll help us.”

She giggle-sniffles. “God help Javi if Aiden enters the ring.” Then she looks at my basket of roses. “What are you doing with that?”

“Oh, I’m setting up a scavenger hunt for Aiden and I’ve hidden the clues under the basket liner so he couldn’t see. Come, help me plant them.”

She giggles despite the melancholy in her eyes that seems to have become part of her. “Oh fun, what are you giving him?”

I caress the small gift under the liner—it doesn’t give but it’s hard and warm, like sunny marble. “It’s just something small. He’s impossible to buy anything for. It’s really more the game he’ll like.”

We curve around the grand palace where the last groups of public visitors are filing out for our private tour later this afternoon. The baroque facade is gleaming honey-gold under the molten sun.

“So, how are you doing with all of this?” Reagan asks as I tuck my next clue in the grass by the reclining statues of the Emperor Fountain. “I’m worried about you.”

I shrug, marking the clue with an American penny. “We’re just living moment to moment—it’s too hard otherwise.”

“And if . . .?”

Just two small words and the wound rips wide open so abruptly that it makes me gasp. “Oh, Isa! I’m sorry I brought it up. Take a deep breath, sweetie, I’m here.”

I clutch the locket, trying to stay in the present moment. The Darcy stairs are ahead, the bravery protein is literally in my grasp, Reagan’s arm is around my shoulders, Aiden and I are still together, there is beauty, there is love.

Reagan rubs my arm. “It’ll work out, Isa, you guys love each other. One way or another, love has to win, right?”

“Right.”

How can I tell her it’s a lie? How can I tell her about the Romeo nightmare at night even though Dante walks to me each dawn? She needs to believe love always wins for her own happiness right now. But love doesn’t always win. In some cases—some rare, once in a big bang cases—love even kills. Not with daggers and poisons and accidents and bullets. Love kills with beauty, with loss. I clutch my locket again, pressing it against the throbbing spot between my lungs. Make us brave, make us last.

“What a pair we are, huh?” Reagan says, her tone lighter as we stroll up the boardwalk and climb Darcy’s stairs to meet the housekeeper. “My Darcy just got out of jail and yours has a violent startle, and they’re determined to hate themselves while we’re determined to love them. Maybe I should just move here, and you and I adopt a pair of corgis instead.”

“They’re definitely more obedient.” I laugh, keeping my eyes on the gilded fairytale doors for the present moment, for reality. We have family and friends who love us. There is laughter, there is pleasure, there is hope still. For at least eighty-two more days.

The doors open, and the housekeeper comes out. “Miss Snow?” She looks at us both unsure who is the woman who pleaded with her on the phone for this.

“That’s me, Mrs. Redmond. Thank you so much for allowing this.”

“Oh, not at all. The public area of the house is yours for the afternoon.”

“Here, these are for you.” I give her the bouquet of roses. “I’ll be very careful, I promise.”

By the time we make it back to our Darcy’s, happiness looks like handwritten clues, each a quote from our happiest memories, for the man who forgets nothing.  I try not to run to Aiden but don’t do a great job of it. It’s more like a leap and a trot. He pulls me close with similar urgency as I curl next to him in a blanket.

“Oh, good, right on time to watch me beat Aiden.” Javier laughs, clearly dying another painful death on the chessboard, while Reagan folds by him, swallowing the last grape.

“Speaking of beating,” Aiden says as he executes Javier’s knight. “The IRS is auctioning off Feign’s properties to cover his tax bill.”

“Good. Fuck him.”

“Including Feign Art.”

Javier blinks and loses his bishop. “Really?” His voice softens as though unable to hate the only place in the world he was able to do what he loved, even in misery.

Aiden nods, looking at the chessboard as though he is studying it, which of course he isn’t. “I bought it,” he adds in a casual tone, advancing his queen.

Three gasps meet his announcement. “You did what?” I ask, while Javier and Reagan watch him with identical open mouths.

“Correction: I rescued it,” he says in that same casual tone, looking up at me.

“Why on earth did you that?”

“A few reasons, but the main one is that Feign Art is where I first saw you, where your painting hung. I wasn’t going to let it fall into the hands of some other asshole or become a soulless thing like a parking lot.” Through the rosy tint of my veil, his face takes on that surreal beauty it held this morning when he gave me the locket, and I recall his words. Is this the other part of his surprise? The glow in his eyes is a clear yes.

“So you own it now?” Javier’s voice is full of the same awe I feel, while Reagan still hasn’t closed her mouth.

“Technically we both do, if you’re interested,” Aiden answers, and I gasp again as I realize the full extent of his surprise—better than a gift to me, it’s a gift to Javier.

Javier is beyond blinking. “Come again?”

“Well, I can’t paint.” Aiden shrugs, advancing his knight. “But I’d like the gallery to stay what it was—a place of art, the place that brought Elisa to me. That’s where you come in.” Finally, the reason for his casual demeanor becomes obvious to me. It’s to entice Javier to say yes or to keep the significance of this gift modest so Javier doesn’t feel indebted.

Javier finally blinks. And that’s all he does while Reagan starts bouncing next to him, chanting, “OMG, OMG, OMG.”

“Aiden, I don’t know,” Javier hesitates but his voice is soft, almost like he’s in a dream as Reagan said earlier. “This is too much.”

“Is it? For a place that abused you and Elisa, that can finally allow you to do what you’re passionate about and makes everyone who loves you happy?” Aiden’s eyes flit to Reagan, and I register another layer in this gift. He’s giving Javier confidence, not just a dream. “It doesn’t seem like too much to me. But, if it makes this easier to accept, you have my word I bought it at a steal. The IRS doesn’t sell for profit.”

For the first time in this conversation, Javier’s eyes squint as they do when he is sketching the first lines, seeing the finished masterpiece in his mind long before his talent brings it on canvass. “How would it work?” he asks tentatively.

“You would run the place. Paint, commission, distribute—your prerogative.”

“And you?”

“My only interest in this endeavor is that it stays a gallery and you finish Elisa’s painting that you started. Other than that, you’re a majority owner.” Aiden’s voice is still casual but something about his words pulls at the edges of my memory. From the time he offered to be a passive investor in my supplement so I would be free of him. Is that what he’s doing now? Giving me distance if we don’t win? A chill whips through me, and I scoot closer to him, clasping my locket.

“Deal, partner?” Aiden asks Javier, holding out his hand.

Javier meets his eyes for a moment, then looks at Reagan and me. Her face is pure bliss; I can’t even feel mine. “Deal,” he answers, shaking Aiden’s hand.

Reagan loses it then and hugs Javier with her usual exuberance. “So happy for you, Javi.” I don’t realize I’m crying until Aiden’s finger wipes a tear with my veil. A single tear as happiness shifts in the shape of an eave above a door, saying Solis Gallery—Fine Art in elegant script. Still shocked, Javier takes me in his minty hug. “How about that, amorcita? We couldn’t even use the front door and now look at us.”

“No, look at you.”

“Can’t wait for you to come back, and we can all be together.” Javier speaks softly, but his voice rings like a gunshot over the gardens for me, cleaving me in two—one part by this pond of lilies, the other across the transatlantic pond. I can feel my blood draining out of my skin, filling the entire ocean with it. I hide my face behind his full beard.

“Love you, Javi.”

“Love you too, kiddo. Is everyone calling me Javi now?”

“Yep, it’s stuck.”

I stay in his hug a few seconds longer—all the years with him at Feign Art flashing like its own reel in front of my eyes. How can I not see Javi every day? How can I stay eight thousand miles from him? A camera clicks, and I meet Aiden’s gaze, his quiet strength fortifying me. I smile, willing the pixels not to show the chill that just whipped through me.

“Pip pip,” Reagan cheers, and a shower of Reagan petals sprinkles over us like confetti as she shreds her rose for the occasion. “Aiden, forget what I said earlier,” she laughs. “This is your most Darcian thing.”

“Darcy is overrated, Reagan. Elizabeth Bennett was the star.” He takes another photo of me, his eyes full of things too big for me to understand.

Mrs. Redmond emerges on the other end of the lawn then, beckoning us toward the great house. And the future—suddenly so bright for Javier, hopeful for Reagan, and utterly unknown for Aiden and me—disappears.  There is only this present moment of giving Aiden a beautiful memory.

“You guys go first,” I say, winking at Reagan. She drags Javier away faster than I can reach inside my picnic basket.

“Finally,” Aiden says, but he doesn’t stand. He pulls me onto his arms. “A minute just with you.”

He looks surreal again, in his white shirt as bright as the futures he creates. “Thank you for what you did for Javi. You were right, it’s better than even bravery. I’m afraid your surprise doesn’t compare to this.”

His lips lift into my favorite lopsided, dimpled smile. “Ah, yes, my surprise. I’m sure I’ll love it if you prepared it.”

“We have to walk around for a bit, but the grounds are almost empty.”

“Hmm . . .” he tilts his head side to side, pursing his lips, and my heart freefalls—did I miscalculate?

“It’s okay if you don’t want to.”

“Well, it depends.” I think I hear an undercurrent of humor in his voice, but his eyes are smoldering.

“On what?”

“Will you wear this hat?”

I giggle breathlessly in relief. “If you like.”

His lips brush along my jaw, following the trim of the veil to my ear. “I don’t like that it hides your face . . .” He kisses down my throat. “But I like the way it makes me feel.”

“How does it make you feel?” The veil flutters from my quick breath.

His nose skims my collarbone exposed over the neckline of my dress. “Forbidden.”

“You’re never forbidden for me.”

“Not even from making love to you right here, right now?” His mouth presses at the hollow of my throat.

“Oh, that.” My voice shakes. “Yes, nudity is strictly prohibited in the park.”

“Hmm.” His lips hunt up to my chin and stop on the other side of my veil as it wafts back and forth from our breath. “Then show me my surprise, Elisa, so we can go to the Park House where nudity is most certainly allowed, in fact required.” His mouth presses on mine over the veil. It takes all my power of concentration to form words.

“Okay then.” I push against his chest with difficulty—I can’t think with his lips on me. He chuckles and gives me space as I reach in my picnic basket and hand him the first folded clue. “Read it.”

He unfolds the scrap with that same boyish curiosity he had when he was solving the riddle for the twinkly lights. “What are men to rocks and mountains?” he reads, sounding perplexed.

“It’s your first clue. We’re doing a scavenger hunt. You have to guess each clue, until you find your surprise.”

Unrestrained joy breaks over his face as the tectonic plates shift. “I haven’t done one of these since I was ten,” he grins, looking back at the clue while I bounce on the spot—he loves it! “So this clue is obviously Elizabeth Bennett’s quote that we paraphrased when I was giving you a tour of my library on our embargo night.”

“Correct.”

“A very happy memory.”

“That’s the idea.”

The only times I’ve seen him move faster is when he picks me up to make love. He cleans up our picnic spot in seconds. Then we start our hunt, basket with the chessboard in my arm, folded blanket over his. The grounds of Chatsworth are so open and vast that Aiden’s ever-tense shoulders are not rippling, the bands of muscle at his waist are not straining. They’re in their permanent vigilant setting that doesn’t release him even asleep.

“So I’m looking for a rock,” he says, scanning the Salisbury lawn. I almost start skipping because now his vigilant eyes are searching for something fun, not threats.

“My lips are a locket.”

“Your lips are a magnet. Oh, Elisa, what is this? I believe it’s a rock with a purple flower on top.” He found it in two minutes despite the countless mossy boulders dotting the border of the lawn as it slopes into wilderness.

“That’s a wild orchid, and it brings luck.” He tucks the first clue in his shirt pocket and finds the folded note under the rock with an impatient sparkle in his eyes.

“‘We can’t mess with luck,’” he reads, and the plates shift as he summons his memory of this quote. It takes three seconds. “Another happy memory. The fountain at the rose garden in Portland on our first night. You wanted to make a wish to bring you luck, and you wished for another day with me.”

“This is too easy for you,” I grumble, but loving every bit of it.

He brushes my collarbone with the orchid. “That’s not the term I’d use.”

“What would you use?”

“Beautiful,” he answers, and his face beams with a most unAidenish playfulness. “So the fountain next then?”

I nod, but he doesn’t move. “Will you let me add something to the hunt?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Each clue I guess right, we hike this little veil an inch higher.”

“A millimeter”

“A centimeter.”

“Half.”

“Deal.”

He drops the orchid in my basket and lifts the veil half a centimeter, kissing the dip below my lower lip. Then drapes it back down, and we stroll to the Emperor Fountain although I am already wobbling. The spectacular jet stream shoots up three hundred feet in the air today. Aiden’s quick eyes scan the perimeter. This should be harder—the fountain’s lake is a water mirror of eight acres, framed with another lawn of blooms and grass. It would take me an hour to hunt around this. But Aiden knows the way my mind works better than my own. “I have a feeling this clue is hidden by the reclining statue, Elisa, because it looks like it’s lying on a bed, albeit a very uncomfortable one, and you love bed with me.”

I watch in awe as he searches around the sculpture and, in exactly fifteen seconds, he spots the clue on the grass in front it. “Well, well, well, what’s an American penny doing at Chatsworth?”

“Seeking asylum?”

He chuckles, tucking the rock clue in his shirt pocket, and picks up the folded note under the penny. “‘I’d like to discuss an unconventional proposal,’” he reads his own words to Kasia at Feign Art. “Ah, of course! You were eavesdropping.” He looks ridiculously happy about it. “Another good memory—commissioning my full painting of you. So next we go to the gallery in the Painted Hall?”

“Yes,” I smile, raising my face for him to lift the veil by another half a centimeter. He kisses the corner of my mouth with a sigh and drapes it back over. “I should have stayed strong at one inch. Can I throw the penny in the fountain and renegotiate?”

“No, they don’t allow that either.”

“Tyrants. No nudity, no coins in the fountain—how do they live?” I’ve never seen him more playful. He tosses the penny in my basket and tucks my arm in his as we climb the Darcy stairs that are now empty.

The Painted Hall of Chatsworth was built to take breaths away. And in both my prior visits it has stumped me, but not today. Today, the black and white marble floor gleams less than Aiden’s chessboard in my basket. The vivid demigods and nymphs adorning the staggering ceiling are dimmed by Aiden’s seraphic face flooded with the sunlight pouring from the high windows. We are all alone in this gallery of classical art, but the real masterpiece is framing me with his arms.

“It’s not my favorite painting,” he says, eyes on the frescoed ceiling. “But it’s certainly impressive. Now where would the next clue be?” He roams the hall, his footsteps ringing on the marble floor, gazing at each mural and antique. But the clue isn’t in the crimson settees, the delftware vases, or the marble busts. “Difficult,” he murmurs. “Very difficult—I like it.” His eyes absorb the scene with hunger, his mind focused on solving this happy clue, not reliving horrors.

I know exactly when he has found it because his eyes zero in on the spot in an almost audible way. “Aha!” He strides to the gilded staircase, lined with the burgundy velvet tapestry. “The fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“Yes!” I twirl as he jogs up the stairs and digs the clue from under the carpet, laughing his waterfall laughter. I skip to him and snap a picture with my iPhone as he unfolds the note.

“‘La Virgen. Are you sure you want to do this?’” His voice is soft as he reads the question he asked me in his bedroom before making love to me for the first time. But there’s nothing soft about the blue fire in his eyes as they meet mine. “My favorite painting, my favorite night.”

He lifts the veil another half centimeter, his teeth grazing my lower lip exactly as they did then. I hang in his arms, knees like air under me. Why did I hide so many clues? Why couldn’t I have ended it here so we could go back to the Park House and set fires there?

“The Sculpture Room next then,” he says, solving this clue. He tucks the stair note in his shirt pocket with the others—they’re starting to look like a paper boutonniere of happy memories—and sweeps me in his arms, the basket dangling from my elbow.

“Aiden, no! They’re not used to this here, we’re supposed to be modest and respectful.”

“We’re being both,” he answers, climbing the sweeping staircase. “This is modest compared to what I want to do. And it is respectful because there’s no one here and I have compensated them generously to give us privacy.”

What’s the point of arguing with him—I’m exactly where I want to be. He carries me down the splendid empty hall that he memorized from a map, his footsteps ringing in sync with my heartbeat.

“This is it, I believe.” He stops at the next gallery and sets me on my unsteady feet. We weave through the marble sculptures, Aiden more carved and graceful than any of them, until we reach the kneeling Vestal Virgin, her white veil flowing over her marble face as she guards the sacred flame of her temple.

“Do you think the flame she’s guarding represents her desire?” Aiden asks. “Or her life?”

“Both.”

“There is no difference sometimes, is there? When you want something so much it could kill you if you lose it.”

I grasp my locket, forcing myself to stay in this present moment as he picks up the clue on the floor before the virgin, his expression no longer playful. “‘She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies,’” he reads, and the Virgen’s flame is in his voice too. “A lot of happy memories there.”

He pulls me close and lifts the veil another half a centimeter to the part of my lips. His tongue traces it slowly, his breathing as rough as mine. “How many clues are left to burn me?”

“Umm . . . only two.” The tip of my tongue meets his.

He folds the veil back in place—it flutters and billows with my breath—and the playfulness returns to his face. “The library for Byron next?”

“Yes, but you have to behave there—we were told not to sit on the sofas.”

“What makes you think I would misbehave?”

“Your mouth.”

Shh, Elisa, you’re scandalizing the virgin,” he chuckles and leads me out of the room. As soon as we clear the delicate Sculpture Room, he lifts me in his arms again, basket and all. I’m sure the dignified portraits that adorn the corridor are as horrified as the virgin at our behavior, but I don’t see any of it. I only see the angles of his profile as we wind through the empty splendid halls. Briefly I wonder where Reagan and Javier are—I hope this gallery sparks something for them now that Javier owns his.

“The library,” Aiden announces, setting me down at the door.

The library is not part of the public tour but apparently at the right price, the exclusive doors open to a fortunate few. The stunning room has two floors, like Aiden’s in Portland. About thirty thousand leather-bound volumes line the walls with ladders leaning against the shelves. The precious emerald velvet sofas frame the marble fireplace.

Aiden glares at them as he strides to the carved pedestal on the corner for the library catalog. He flips through the pages quickly until he finds Byron. “Case six, shelf fourteen,” he grins, taking my hand. “Where will you lead me next?”

He finds the clue under the cover of the Venetian red leather volume only seconds later. “‘The most beautiful place in my life,’” he reads his words to me from a week ago when we were snuggled together at Oxford’s University Park. “Our bedroom,” he solves it without hesitation. “The happiest memory there is.”

“You’re impossible,” I laugh as the library clue joints the paper boutonniere and he tucks Byron’s volume back in the shelf.

He lifts the veil another half centimeter, exposing my upper lip, and presses his mouth on mine. The picnic basket feels suddenly heavy on my limp arms. He blows over my lips and folds back the veil with a pained sigh. “To the state bedroom, God help us,” he solves the clue.

As soon as we clear the library, he picks me up again, marching down the hall to the state bedchambers built for William and Mary. The bedroom is dominated by the bed, hung with curtains of crimson and gold and cordoned off in case there is any doubt whatsoever that we are not to lay on it.

“As I said, absolute tyrants,” Aiden says, but his arms wrap around my waist. He walks me backward to the wood-paneled wall until my back is against it and his body is pressed against every line of mine. My breathing is too fast, making the veil flutter as his lips take full advantage, kissing each sliver of exposed skin. I try to settle my lungs but it’s impossible with his mouth on me. The royal bedroom starts to spin.

“Aiden . . .” My picnic basket tumbles from my hand. “Be good . . .”

“Isn’t this good?” His mouth presses at the corner of mine as the veil blows open from my gasp. “I think it is.” Another huff, another fit of the veil, this one exposing my lower lip. He captures it with his teeth. “So good, Elisa.”

“Please?” I breathe. “They’ll make a fuss.”

“They’re not here . . .” His fingers skim my thigh lifting the hem of my dress and he plays hide-and-seek with my veil that doesn’t stand a chance against his mouth. His lips flutter over my jawline to my ear. He nips my ear lobe and trails his mouth down my throat and over my collarbones, kissing my skin as he would another part of me that is on fire. My head is whirling with his tongue. He dips it at the hollow of my throat, pressing into me through the thin fabric of my dress.

And I collapse.

“Elisa?” he asks alarmed, holding me up.

“Yes,” I gasp, shaking my head.

“Are you all right?”

“I think—your kissing—lightheaded.”

“Christ.” He pulls back a few inches to give me space but his arms don’t release me. He blows gently on my lips. “Hydrogen, 1.008, helium . . .” he starts. My giggle comes out shaky and weak.

“I’m okay,” I assure him, reaching a finger to smooth the worried V. “You’re just too good at this.”

He chuckles, still holding me up. “How can you nearly faint from kissing but handle everything else we’ve done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to sit? Or some water? Or fresh air?” He feels my forehead and I have to laugh.

“No, I’m fine. I get dizzy when you touch me all the time. Besides, we have your last clue.”

He watches me for a long moment as though to be sure I’ll live to tell the tale of his kissing. When my breathing finally evens out and my legs stop trembling, he chuckles again and releases me. “I think it’s this damn room. I better find this clue fast.”

He is probably right. There’s no telling what I would do if we stay in this room much longer—cordoned off bed or not. Besides the next part is guaranteed to cause more breathing problems. He scans the bedroom quickly, searching for anything resembling a clue. “Tricky,” he says, his eyes alighting on the off-limits bed, the dresser, the vanity, the porcelain vases, but there is nothing there. “Where would you have hidden—?” And then he smiles. “You wouldn’t have hidden this behind a painting, would you? Say, a painting of a river and grass and woods? A panting that looks a bit like the University Park where I told you our bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life?”

“You’ll have to find out.”

He strides across the room straight to the painting and peeks behind it at the small scrap of paper I wedged there. I hold my breath as he fishes it out because the happy memory he’s reading now is not ours. It’s his.

“‘When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.’” He reads his mother’s words from April 12, 1987—his first visit to Oxford—with a thick sound in his voice. A deep emotion enters his eyes and for a moment I worry I’ve triggered a horror. But he gazes at the scrap of paper with something like longing that I hadn’t seen in the dark park. “A happy memory from my life before you,” he murmurs.

I pick up my basket and teeter close to him, wanting to take a picture but not daring to ruin on the moment. “You’re done,” I say. “Kiss the first girl you’ve kissed, and you can see your surprise.”

He places the clue in his shirt pocket—the final scrap in the paper boutonniere—and pulls me against him, his eyes deep. “Can you handle this kiss?”

I nod even though I don’t know. I can barely handle his gaze. He hesitates a moment as though to prolong the memory and lifts the veil all the way this time, folding it over the rose on my fascinator. Then his hands curve around my face and he brings his mouth to mine.

I have lost count of how many times Aiden has kissed me—how each kiss feels both home and new, some slow, some urgent, some gentle, some hard, some deep, others light like air. But I’ll always remember this one. It’s like his mouth is combining all the kisses he has given me into this one, a boutonniere of lips imprinting everything he must be feeling on my tongue.  When he pulls away, too soon so I don’t faint again, I’m not the only one gasping.

“Thank you,” he says, each word sliced by his harsh breathing. “Whatever the surprise is, I will always remember the hunt.”

“You always remember everything.”

“Not by choice. But I choose this. If I could forget, I’d still never forget this.”

I reach under the liner of my basket, hands shaking, lungs in shreds, heart in my throat, and pull out the little journal. Its yellowed cream cover is embossed with roses.

“Here is something you remember but don’t know,” I say, handing it to him. As soon as it touches his skin, a wave of warmth spreads over me and I’d like to think it’s a hug.

He must see my emotion because he doesn’t ask anything even though curiosity raging in his eyes as he opens the aged notebook. “Clare Emilia Brighton,” he reads my mother’s maiden name quietly. “Is this your mother’s journal?”

I nod. “She kept a journal all her life. Go to the page I’ve marked.”

He lifts the silk tassel and inhales a sharp gust when he sees the date. “April 12, 1987.”

“Read it,” I whisper, leaning over to read with him even though I know it by now.

April 12, 1987

What a day today, dearest! Only six months at the Ashmolean, and I already wonder what on earth was I thinking! Had I listened to Mama, as you know, I would be gallivanting the world for a while before settling. And had I listened to Katherine I would be dating Fawkes—perish the thought. But instead I chose this. The job of a lifetime, the dream —you know all about that, of course. Oh, but how difficult it is! All day, I am squished in this cupboard of an office in the bowels of the museum with only pipes around me and not one window. My chair, I am convinced, used to be a torture implement under King Henry VIII. But I do not mind. It is the Old Beards who are difficult—the senior curators of the Grand Ash. They still will not entrust me with anything older than 1970. I knew as a fellow I would not be allowed to touch the artifacts—it should take years for me to do that. But can I not handle at least something more than gluing ripped textbooks or dusting the shelves? Must I be treated like a schoolgirl, not the scholar I am? Yet I despair that is all they see in me. For months, I have been wondering whether I am foolish to hope I will ever be allowed to restore anything of value. Why, it did not seem like that would ever happen, did it? Until today. It was quite brilliant, as you will see. A neuroscientist came to our dining hall before supper, Doctor Helen Brahms. She is quite respected at Oxford already although not forty yet. She marched straight to the Old Beards sitting together in their grandeur (I am not invited to sit with them, for which I count my blessings—Old Sturgis is positively medieval with his chewing). 

“I need Ashmole 611 restored by the end of the week,” she said. “I just took it out for a consult, and it’s in tatters, an absolute disgrace for the earliest study of human memory.” 

She seemed mortally offended. The entire hall was watching. But the Old Beards peered down their noses at her although she stands taller than six feet. “That cannot happen,” cackled Old Sturgis. 

“It can and it must,” she argued. “There’s a little boy who needs it.”

They ignored her, returned to their pea soup. 

“Did you hear me?” she raised her voice. “There is a seven-year old boy who cannot forget anything, and that manuscript might have something to explain it.”

Not one of them looked at her, dearest. Six feet tall and brilliant and still not good enough while a little boy needs help. I could not bear it. So I jumped up and said, “I’ll do it. I will restore Ashmole 611.”

The Old Beards were apoplectic, shouting and telling me off. “She hasn’t touched a page older than 1976,” yelled Old Sturgis. “She will not touch Ashmole 611.”

“Well obviously neither will you,” Doctor Brahms snapped at him. 

I admitted it was true, but said, “I’m good, and I will do it for you.”

More shouting—Old Sturgis spit his soup on his beard. But she smiled at me.

“I shall speak with the director. He is a close family friend,” she said loudly for them to hear, and they all fell quiet then. “You will restore Ashmole 611. What is your name?”

“Clare Brighton,” I answered, a bit church-moused now that I realized how well-connected she is.

“Well, Clare Brighton, let’s leave them to their pea soup, shall we?”

And that was it, dearest. She arranged with the director to move me to a proper office and I have been repairing Ashmole 611 until now. The little boy is here with his parents from the United States for the week. I must finish it by then. Can you imagine how that must feel? To never forget? A fearsome power to behold, I reckon. I do hope Doctor Brahms can help him. Meanwhile, she helped me. I have a window now and a director who agreed to mentor me. It was a good day. Goodnight, Diary! 

By the time I finish it, I know the seven-year old boy who grew up has read it multiple times. But when I look up at him, his eyes are still on the page despite having already memorized it. A tear gathers in my eye but I dash it off while Aiden still reads. I give him time until he is ready. When his eyes meet mine, they are unfathomable.

“I can’t believe it.” His voice is low and husky.

“I know. I’ve been searching through her journals ever since Doctor Helen told us the date, and I finally found it. I read through her other journal entries for that week. You can read them next if you want. They’re just about her gluing up Ashmole 611 and giving it to Doctor Brahms. Here, see?”

He flips through the pages, reading them in seconds. “She barely slept that week to help me.”

“Yes, but you helped her too.”

He watches me for another long moment. No words, eyes unfathomable still. “Good surprise?” I ask. He nods, still seeming unable to speak. “What are you feeling right now?”

“Happy . . . terrified . . . I don’t want to hurt her daughter . . . or lose you.”

I place my hand over his thundering heart. “You won’t. And you cannot lose me, I’m yours.” For as long as he will have me.

He closes the journal, and places it carefully in the basket. Then he takes my face in his hands and he brings his mouth to mine. So we add love, kiss after kiss— we have learned this trick now—until fear recedes. Because sometimes happiness can look like a monster but it never is. Right now, happiness morphs, looking like Aiden and me in a foreign bedroom with guardian angels above us in the frescoed ceilings and a locket of bravery beating by my heart.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 19 – DAWN

Hello all, and happy Tuesday instead of Sunday! Computer troubles are always a pain in the tonsils as a good friend here would say, but during a pandemic they’re more akin to strep throat. Hence my delay. Hope you enjoy this chapter, and thanks as always for reading and writing. Lots of love, Ani.

19

Dawn

One week of war. The most beautiful war there has ever been. Every day is a new reel of brilliancy—one blissful moment to another, all blending into a catalog of happy memories counteracting the reel of torture. Each night is a sheet of music—Aiden’s waterfall laughter, the sounds of our love, and Für Elise rebuilding his memories note after note. And Aiden and I have never been closer. Even our internal clocks have synchronized, melding together in a united front. How different love feels at war. It’s as though each cell dreads love’s absence and therefore magnifies its presence a million-fold. Each touch feels like a hundred touches before, each kiss like a thousand of the ones pre-war. Or maybe our cells have not changed—maybe we’re simply living more. Every day, every hour is a new life, even the darkest hour of them all: right now, at dawn.

Because this is the hour of the reel of torture. We tried other times for it—before supper, afterwards—but the waiting was its own torment, at least for me. Only this small hour wedged between the blissful moment of waking up together and the blissful moment of watching the sunrise in the garden has been survivable.

“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep in today?” Aiden asks as I throw on my pajamas. He is still in nothing but star-gold skin and midnight hair, glowing under the soft light of the bedroom chandelier. He pulls me into his chest. “It is Saturday after all. You deserve a day off.” His eyes are overwhelming, his voice a lullaby willing me to drift. I have to use all my strength to resist them.

“I’ll take a day off when you take a day off,” I answer, caressing his scar.

“It’s not the same, love.”

“You’re right. You have by far the hardest job.”

He brushes my cheek with whisper-light fingers. “I don’t think that’s true. I know I’d rather go back to that school in Fallujah every hour than watch you do it once, let alone every day as you’re doing with me.” The music of his voice misses a note at the mere thought, as it does every time we have this argument.

“But even worse than that is not being there at all.”

“You would still be there for the recovery part. You just don’t have to be there for the gore.”

I place my hand over his lips. In a few moments, their warmth will disappear, their vivid plum color will bleach away. “Aiden, we’ve been through this and through this. It’s the only option I can live with. I have to be there.”

He kisses my palm and moves it to his cheek. His eyes hold me for a moment, their depths unfathomable. “I love you,” he says. “It’s a selfish reason for you to deal with this, but it’s still the truest thing in my world.”

Before I can say I love you back, his mouth captures mine. His lips are gentle but his tongue is deep, as though he is trying to kiss me inside out. I give him back everything I have, drinking him like an elixir for strength. Because without his taste, I cannot live through the forty-five minutes ahead.

He breaks the kiss with a sigh. “Come on then. Let’s get this out of the way.” He looks around our happy bedroom one final time and takes my hand.

The moment the bedroom door closes behind us, Aiden transforms. The warm glow of his skin vanishes, and he expands—taller, Herculean in his stance. It’s as though the more this war takes from him, the stronger he grows. A flame is lit within him, finally unleashed to raze his past to the ground.

But every war exacts its toll, even the beautiful kind. Not like a big bang—this cost is insidious. It’s in the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights that Aiden has planted like landmines throughout the cottage for my safety—which are an improvement to the Tasers and bear spray he wanted. It’s is in the laundry cupboard where each morning after the reel Aiden washes and stores his battle uniform—the same dark jeans, blue shirt, and grey boxers he wore for the MRI because he will not taint any other item of clothing with his memories of terror or allow those memories to linger inside the cottage even if only on cotton fibers. He dons his uniform now, his eyes darkening except that flicker of turquoise that will continue to gleam as long as I’m in his sight. Because there are live landmines inside us, too. They’re in Aiden’s longer silences and the far-away stare at certain moments. They’re in his touch and mine—the way we hold each other as we pause in the foyer.

“What will you remember during this?” he asks, throwing my mum’s parka over my shoulders.

“This is just a petal.”

“And what does that mean?”

“That the worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“That’s right. And what is our reward today?”

I smile even here on the threshold of our bloodiest battle. “We’re going to Pemberley with Reagan and Javier, and you have a surprise for me that will make my heart melt.”

He traces my lips with his thumb. “I do. I want you to think about that for the next forty-five minutes. Think only of the good things ahead.”

“I have a surprise for you, too,” I tell him, kissing the pad of his finger.

His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile—his last true smile until I bring him back. “You do?”

I nod. “I know you can’t think about that in the next forty-five minutes, but just keep it here.” I rest my hand above his heart. The blade of muscle flexes under my fingers.

“I will.”

Abruptly, I wish we could skip the next hour, climb in the Rover, and drive so he can see it now, so the dimple can stay. It’s almost impossible to surprise Aiden, but I think I’ve managed it this time.

He sighs as though he is wishing the same thing and bends to slide my socked feet inside my Wellingtons. Then with a last glance at my childhood photos, he opens the front door. Because we both knew from the beginning we could never do this inside the cottage or even in the garden.

The sky is still dark when we step outside. The roses are fast asleep under the moonlight, but their fragrance is always awake, healing our lungs. I hear Aiden take a deep breath at the same time that I inhale until my ribcage hurts. Stay with us, Mum.

He is quiet as we cross the garden, and I give him the silence he needs to harvest his strength from every corner of his mind. I do the same but tuck my arm in his and rest my head on his stone bicep. The spot of contact is softer than the rest of him now entirely carved in granite. His knuckles brush the Elisa blooms as we pass them.

We stop at the largest landmine of them all. The garden shed where the headset of torture lives, pulsing with evil. I duck inside to pick it up, ignoring the snap of his teeth in wordless protest. He knows by now this is another argument he cannot win. I crave the pain it gives me to touch it so he doesn’t have to hold it a single second more than he needs. I wrap it inside the woolen blanket dad used for camping, drawing strength from mum’s gardening tools. I am steel like them. I’m the shears slicing off each cable that bound him. I’m the rake flaying the skin of everyone who touched him, the spade digging their graves. I tuck the other item in my pocket, having zero sense or science for it, and come out. “I have a good feeling this comeback will be easier,” I say, trying to make him smile again.

He does, but there is no dimple anymore, no light. “They’re all easier with you.”

As soon as we leave the garden, his stride picks up, tension snapping like armor over him, ready to demolish and be demolished. The opposite happens with me. Even though I battle to stay with him every dawn, suddenly I want to slow to a crawl or even better go back under the sheets with him and hide him in my hair for the next eighty-two days.

But the spot in Elysium where we do this comes too fast. It’s the spot where we sat together exactly a week ago after I had left him a second time. These are the only blades of grass in Burford that hold an initial painful memory for him. We spread out the blanket together while I straighten the corners, prolonging each last second. An ancient grief enters his eyes as he watches me and I know in this moment his only wish is for me to leave, to run away as far as possible from this. No matter how much he wants me.

“I’ll be right here,” I say, forcing my voice to remain steady.

“Only during the safe time.”

“I know.”

“After that, you’ll go straight to the safe zone until it’s over. Promise me.”

“I promise.” It’s the hardest promise to make, the hardest to keep, but the most vital one not to break. Because he needs to trust this to get through the rest. His eyes arrest me, burning intensely, but I don’t blink so he sees the truth in mine. He nods once and sits on the blanket, folding me with him in the fortress of his arms. I rest my head on his chest for a final moment, listening to his heartbeat, drawing his fragrance inside me like a tonic.

“Here,” he says, and I can tell the effort is costing him to keep his voice light. He pulls an Elisa petal out of his cuff and presses it into my palm, closing my fingers around it in a fist and bringing it to his lips. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

“I’ll be waiting,” I whisper so my voice doesn’t break. He reaches for the headset but I beat him to it for once. “Let me do it. I know how.”

His jaw clenches again but he doesn’t argue. He lies down for me even though how he sits doesn’t matter. The white headset is icy like my body heat or dad’s woolen blanket never touched it. I fight my shudder as I look into Aiden’s eyes. In the dark dawn, I feel more than see the turquoise flame go out.

“Think about your surprise and stay safe.” His final words are low, tension twisting the music of his voice into a hard command.

“I will.”

His hands cover mine, pulling the evil over his beautiful head. I secure the strap around his soft waves and snap the buckle at his temple, swallowing my tears. If Aiden doesn’t cry through this, neither will I. I kiss his lips—they’re cooling already. “I love you,” I tell him.

“Always.”

With more strength than it took to attend my parents’ funeral, or to board my flight back to England, or to visit their grave, I press the white button in the center. The sinister red dot gleams immediately like a sniper point at his forehead as the reel starts. Aiden’s body becomes motionless with a soft gasp. And I know even though he is here on the blanket with me, he is now gone. Traveling places, decades, years, days, even hours of the thirty-five years of his incredible life.

I know each minute of the reel by heart—Aiden walked me through them painstakingly second to second to prepare me now that I get to see him, even though we both know no amount of preparation will ever inure me to this. But the first fifteen minutes are the easy ones. Just neutral or positive images from Aiden’s life, including me. I use them to prepare for his arrival. It makes no sense to do this whatsoever—as soon as Aiden reenters the present time, we will want to leave this spot as soon as possible to start our life. But I still decided yesterday to make each comeback new, different somehow. Not because it will make any minute of this hour more livable. But maybe it will make his return easier. I take out the spool of fairy lights from my pocket and tiptoe around the blanket, unraveling it while drawing deep, slow breaths like Aiden taught me to conserve air for the hardest part. I flip on the battery switch and his still form is surrounded with a hundred bright little stars, twinkling under the indigo sky. His face below the headset looks warmer under their glow, like he is sleeping, even if soon it will turn to ice.

“You’ll like this,” I whisper and trot to the safety line he has marked in the grass for me some twenty feet away where I imagine the rose shield starts. The easy fifteen minutes are almost up. I sit on the meadow where I first crawled and wrap my arms around my knees, counting the seconds in my head, eyes never leaving Aiden’s form encircled with lights.

I know exactly when he enters that schoolyard in Fallujah. I know because his restful body becomes rigid, chest jolting upward as his shoulders press against the ground.

“Thirty minutes, love,” I mutter, clutching my petal. But what thirty minutes they will be. In Aiden’s world under the blistering Fallujah sun, the IED just exploded as his body shudders here on Elysium while the shock reverberates through his mind equally deafening as that fateful May morning, unmuted by time. Yet not a single sound escapes his lips. The picture of the little boy’s ruptured torso strikes him now, and Aiden’s throat bends like he is choking on bile. I breathe like he taught me, but the dust and the little boy’s blood are suffocating him. His breaths become gasps as he tries to find pieces of the boy while a helmet full of brains strafes his retinas. But despite Aiden’s gasping, I don’t want the next minute to come. I’d rather asphyxiate here and now for him than have him live through it, but come it does. Aiden’s chest heaves with another shattered breath as the image of the school flashes on his screen and the Marines become surrounded by insurgent fire. He retreats inside the school with Marshall for cover, his body taut on the woolen blanket.

“Twenty-five minutes, love.” I press the heels of my boots in the meadow.

The photo of a young Jazzman blasts Aiden now, as he reaches the second floor, crossing the classroom I wish they had never entered, to save Jazzman and the others who are under fire below. Go low, Aiden signs to Marshall. Cal and Hendrix are upstairs. I grip my own arms and lock all my muscles in place despite Aiden’s flat and alert body on the meadow, because his hand just closed in a victorious fist. He just fired his last shot, the shot that saved Jazzman’s life. Then Aiden’s head jerks violently and slumps to the side as the back of a rifle cracks his skull.

For the next ten minutes—the only minutes Aiden doesn’t remember—his body is inert on the blanket, his mind utterly dark. I should use these minutes to breathe for the horror ahead, I should use them to think of Aiden’s surprise and mine as I promised, but a different darkness enters my own mind. In thoughts of the worst kind. What if Aiden had never tried to save Jazzman and the children? What if he had gone to the third floor with Cal and Hendrix instead? Worse still, what if Aiden had not woken? What if he had never seen what happens next? I clutch mum’s sleeves, rocking in place, each what if pounding like a crack to the back of my own skull.

But no amount of bartering lives with the universe can stop time. Aiden’s mind reconnects with his body, and he comes to with a strangled gasp. And the torture begins.

No one touches Aiden here on Elysium, yet he starts writhing in silent agony. His head jerks side to side, and he cringes against the blanket, shoulders rounding forward then suddenly convulsing as he tries to tear through the steel cables that now bind him. But he can’t break though. His body contorts in pain right here before my eyes, but not a single scream tears through him, not one cry, as he is throttled from behind.

I jump to my feet then, clenching my jaw to stop my own screams, clutching my head to keep it from imploding like that schoolyard. If I could only get closer, if I could only touch him, hold his anguished face, bring him back now. But I couldn’t—I know that—he is locked in the darkest flashback of his life, his eyes seeing only his best friend being tortured alive. He will need the reel of my pictures before the danger passes for me to get close. I can never betray him now.

On and on Aiden strains in universal agony and I start pacing, shuddering up and down the safe half of my childhood meadow, eyes on him. Because for these ten minutes I am just a child, just a girl who has never once felt pain like this. My parents’ crushed Beetle, their broken bodies, their coffins in the grave together—although big bangs to me—they’re tragedies happening every day in life. They’re not the kind of horror that stuns history and stumps science. Their massacre of the soul does not compare to this.

“Six minutes,” I gasp through my teeth. “I’m coming, love, you just have to hang on for six more.” And he does. He burns in soundless agony, his fists shaking at his sides. “Five minutes. Five petals, Aiden, and we can be together.” Between my fingers, my own petal disintegrates, and I stifle my sob. Because the worst images are still ahead.

Abruptly, I’m furious. With a red-tinged haze over my eyes, Elysium looks different. Nothing has changed—Aiden is still burning on dad’s blanket inside the wreath of lights under the cobalt sky—yet the scene transforms for me. I’m no longer the orphaned girl, the muse in a painting, or the woman who waits for the letters at home. I’m not a warrior or a survivor. I am the war. I am his peace. I summon all our weapons like a shield over me. Because I cannot stop the next four minutes, but as soon as the reel ends, I will need to be as invincible as him.

I stop where I am, steadying my mind, quelling my lungs as the seconds tick away and the sky turns sapphire. “Three minutes, my love. Just three more, and I’ll bring you back. I won’t let anything touch you then.”

But the end does not come easy for him—it never does. If it were for myself, I’d shut my eyes and ears. But I’m here for him. I plant my feet, shove my hands in my pockets to warm them for him, and brace for his visceral low snarl that reaches me here. Chills run from the crown of my head to my heels, but I flex every muscle as Aiden taught me so I don’t move an inch. The torment on his face impossibly doubles, whether with his own agony or Marshall’s or both he will never tell me. Then suddenly he stills, he breathes, because in this image the insurgents have agreed to release Marshall in exchange for Aiden’s life. Go, pretty boy, they’re sneering at him because he is no longer the handsome, young Marine I saw in the photo. His face without lips, nose, or ears is scorching Aiden now. Strangled sounds are ripping from his teeth, as he begs Marshall to leave him behind.

And Marshall listens. Aiden’s ribcage rises and falls quickly as the picture of a blood trail sears his eyes. I watch without blinking as Marshall crawls to the classroom door in Aiden’s flashback. I know because, even drowning in pain, Aiden smiles. Just a small smile watching his best friend leave, no regret for having traded his own life for Marshall’s freedom.

Then with a sudden gasp, Aiden’s torso jolts and his smile dies. Because one of the insurgents fired the first bullet, ending Marshall’s life. Then another jolt and another—like a defibrillator shocking Aiden’s heart—seven times, one per each bullet riddling the corpse of Marshall that is flashing on the screen now. A guttural sound of agony rips from Aiden’s chest, and his lungs give out. It’s the single most harrowing thing I’ve ever heard. His body slumps seeming lifeless in the same position he was then—shoulders contorted and shuddering throat to fist. Under the warm glow of the fairy lights, his mouth is parted in a silent no.

And then it ends. The torture is over even if Aiden is still in its grip. Yet, the chills leave me as I stand here shaking and silent. Because in five seconds, my photo will caress his eyes. My sleeping face, my rose, the stave of my music, my favorite chocolate— the small things that calm him, that make him happy—will enter his mind.

“Almost home, love,” I whisper, swallowing more tears. “I’m coming, Aiden, coming right now.” I step over the safety line, timing my steps to each image.

I would know the second my photograph hits the screen even if I weren’t counting. I would know because he draws his first breath and his arms settle naturally on each side of him. My rose softens his throat. But he is still gasping, his shoulders are still convulsing, his fists are iron hammers at his sides. Then my face kisses his retinas again, over and over, breaking the steel cables and slowing the convulsions of his shoulders. By the time I cross the fairy lights, the tremors have become the familiar ripples that, until I witnessed his torment this week, I had thought were earthquakes. His seraphic face is ashen under the fairy glow, but no longer contorted. The red light on his forehead goes dark. I can touch him now, even if he is still locked away in the aftermath.

I sit next to him and wrap my warm hands around his fist as Doctor Helen taught me. “Aiden,” I call him, pouring all my love, faith, and pride in my voice. “You’re through, you brave, brave man. You’re right here on Elysium with me.” The fist skips a quiver but remains closed. His breathing is still harsh as strangleholds of tension strain him. “You’re safe, I’m safe, and we’re together. I’ll take off the headset so you can see when you’re ready. Feel my hands, love, I’m touching your face.” I tuck his fist between my knees so it stays warm and cradle his face. The sharp panes are cold. I shove back my Romeo vision—this is Dante, he just walked through hell for me—and massage his jawline gently in little circles. “Do you feel that? It’s my fingertips that you kiss each morning.” His jawline flexes, like a hello. “Hi, you,” I greet it back. “You’re strong, you’re loved.” I trail my fingers to his temples and release the small buckles that secure the evil thing. It’s warm now with all the life it has drained from him. I pull it off, immediately finding Aiden’s eyes. They’re closed as I expected them to be, his pupils still racing under the lids in flashbacks. I lower my face to his and kiss them like petals. “We’re on dad’s green blanket, my love, with wildflowers around us. Daisies and forget-me-nots and orchids and poppies.” I kiss his eyelids on each flower name, but there is no change in him. “The sky is lightening, almost lilac-sapphire like it’s mixing the color of your eyes and mine. And in a bit, we’ll watch the sunrise like every morning, just you and me. Can you hear the skylarks and the nightingales? They’re starting to trill.” The fist softens between my knees, but shudders are still running through him. “Do you know this present moment right here is probably the seven thousandth time I’ve sat on Elysium? I can’t remember most of them, but I’ll always remember this because this is when you come back to me. And I have a little something for you when you open your eyes. It will make you smile. What could it be, you might ask . . . ” The ripples are not slowing. “I’ll give you a clue: ‘love that moves the sun and other stars.’ How about that, Dante?” His eyes remain closed, and his breath is still ragged. I press my lips to his and blow inside his parted mouth as he does with me. “Let’s breathe together, love. Your air and my air and the rose breeze. We can smell the roses even from here. They’re awake, waiting for us.” For a moment I start to panic that it’s taking longer to bring him back, but then a familiar sigh warms my lips. His gasps slow as his lungs synchronize to mine, and Aiden kisses me back. Just a gentle brush of his lips, but he is here. “Hi!” My voice breaks in relief and I clutch his face so I don’t collapse on top of him. “Welcome back.”

His eyes open at the same time as his fist. They are dark and ravaged still, but the turquoise flame starts to flicker the moment he sees me. “I missed you.” I smile at him, ribcage swelling at his arrival.

He doesn’t speak but, slowly, lifts his head for my mouth. I mold mine to his, keeping him inside my hair bubble because he likes the way my hair smells. On clue, he inhales deeply. His fist leaves my lap and his arm winds around my waist—it feels weighty, as it does when he falls asleep. He holds me to him, breath to breath, mouth to mouth, as the last wave of ripples disappears. I feel him test his body for response, and I know exactly the moment when control reverts back to him. The weight of his arm eases but he doesn’t release me, and his lips fold with mine. “I missed you, too,” he says as soon as he can speak. His voice is worn and hoarse as though his silence under torture scrubbed it more than a scream would.

I pull back an inch to watch his now-clear eyes. As soon as they meet mine, he smiles. An I-crossed-the-desert-for-you smile, but it lifts up his cupid lips. I will never tire of this smile, ravaged and exhausted though it is. It’s as precious to me as his dimple—because this is the smile that brings him back to me.

He brings his hands to my face—they’re steady and warmer. “How are you?” he asks, searching my eyes, feeling my forehead.

“I’m fine, sweetheart. Safe and happy and so proud of you.”

“As I am of you,” he says. “You did beautifully.”

The word sounds backwards when he says it—like it was made only for him, no one else. “I worried it was taking a bit longer this time,” I admit.

“I’ll always come back to you.”

He pulls me back to his lips here inside my hair bubble and I kiss him back with hunger. Like his worn smile, this languid kiss has become life to me. Second only to his very first kiss because it vanquishes the last dregs of tension and brings him back to him. With each brush of his lips and stroke of his tongue, Aiden comes to life. His mouth takes on its brand of possession, seizing the present moment inside mine. Then abruptly he stops. “Love that moves the sun and other stars?” he asks as all his memories and synapses reconnect. His voice is gaining back its music.

I smile, suddenly feeling as girlish as I was when I first did cartwheels on this field. “Yep. Solve it and you get to see your present moment in full.”

The dimple puckers in his stubble more beautiful than the fairy lights outside my hair curtains. Not that I need their cover—he hasn’t looked away from my face once. “Is it Baci?” he guesses reasonably since that was the first quote Baci gave him in England.

“No, that was to trick you.”

I love watching his eyes shift with childish curiosity, not horror. “Is it one of Dante’s books?”

“No. You’re thinking too big.”

“Something small then . . . that you could fit in your pocket so I wouldn’t see . . . that has to do with love and the stars and the sun . . .” he muses while I almost bounce next to him because he is not thinking of Fallujah now. “A condom?” he asks, and I laugh at his boyish grin.

“No, sorry. But soon you won’t need those anymore.”

Apparently that thought works better at revival than riddles. Pure delight bursts over his face like the imminent sunrise. “In exactly six days—”

“And seventeen hours.”

I’ve never seen his eyes torn with better conflict: desire and curiosity splitting him in half. They both win and lose. He pulls me on top of him, rippling with a different kind of hardness. “I give up,” he says against my lips, pressing into me. I press back, sweeping my hair to the side.

“For you, Dante.”

He blinks in the sapphire dawn where the fairy lights are still twinkling. His grin becomes a soft, good gasp and that flicker of shyness gleams in his eyes, like an echo back from seven-year old Aiden. He sits up, holding me to him, and gazes around at the circle of lights speechless. “I did it during the safe time,” I assure him. “They were shining on you, like our bedroom chandelier.”

It’s a testament to how selfless he is—how little he accepts for himself from others—that even this smallest of gestures stuns him. If this is his reaction to some old lights, what is he going to do at Pemberley today? He feels my excitement in my bounce and looks at me, his eyes brighter than the twinkly lights. “Thank you,” he says with so much feeling that my chest tightens. “I love my surprise.”

“Oh, this isn’t your surprise. You’ll see that later. This is just our present moment.”

He smiles with a strong emotion in his eyes. “Leave it to you to find a way to make even this beautiful.” And he brings me back to his mouth.

By the time we reach the rose garden to catch the sunrise, the hour of torture feels far away, a different life. How can all the terror of the last hour fade so quickly? Add love, just the right kind. Aiden strips out of his clothes at the threshold immediately and leaves them in a pile with the blanket and the headset, but throws the twinkly lights over his neck—his mind already disassociating them from any pain. At the sight, even the sunrise doesn’t impress me anymore. A flash of heat whips my cheeks. He swoops me in his arms and strides in nothing but lights and golden skin to the garden bench.

“Are you warm or is it my male nudity à la Oxford?” Aiden teases as he sits on the bench with me across his lap.

“Oh, more of one and less of the other,” I answer, eyes on his erection pressing firmly against my thigh.

He chuckles and slips off my Wellingtons and parka, setting them carefully aside. Then he turns me on his steely thighs so we can both see across the river, past the field of epiphanies, and over the rolling hills where an orange flame very similar to the one on my skin is kindling the horizon. Magnificent and utterly ordinary compared to the face behind me. Or the erection now pushing against the small of my back.

“Maybe this will help with the male nudity part.” Aiden’s lips are at my ear, sending tingles down my spine.

“Definitely not helping.”

“No?” His lips press at the Aeternum spot below my ear and brush down my neck. “What about this? Does this help?”

“Not at all.” My voice quivers like the rest of me. A marigold halo bursts through the sky.

“And this?” His hands slip under my pajama top, peeling it off a step ahead of the sun. Wherever his fingers touch, my skin catches fire despite the sultry morning and the rose breeze.

“Huh-uh.”

“My, my, male nudity seems positively dangerous. How about this?” He cups my breasts, and I fall against his chest with a sigh, reaching behind me to grasp the male nudity in question. “Oh, this won’t do, Elisa.” He twines my arms over his neck with the twinkly lights. “Male nudity is distracting you from the sunrise. Maybe something stronger?” His fingers blaze their own fire-trails over my breasts, and his teeth graze my shoulder. My sigh turns into a moan. “Sounds like this is helping.”

“Hmmm . . .”

“And this?” A smooth glassy tip circles my breast, and my eyes fling open. Two twinkly lights are flickering around my nipples as sunrays scatter over us. Every nerve ending in my skin becomes a spark. “Does this help?”

“Mmm . . .”

“More help?”

“Please . . .” The sssss blends with the willows. He draws orbits with the lights on my breasts like they are his suns and his hands revolve around them. The lights gleam on my skin as streaks of heliotrope, saffron, gold, and honey flare across the sky. But the only color I crave is turquoise. The familiar ember in my depths starts pulsing with life. I press my thighs together for some relief and roll against him.

“Looks like we need reinforcements,” he murmurs, kissing the spot just under the corner of my jaw. Before I can think, before I can concentrate on his words over the blood thundering in my ears, he starts winding the string of lights over my breasts, across my ribs, and around my waist like a glimmering thread tying me to him.

“Oh!” I gasp, mesmerized by the little stars blinking on my skin as dazzling as the new sun, as bright as the heat within.

“Helpful oh?” Aiden’s lips brush along my cheek to the corner of my open mouth.

“Yes,” I breathe, turning my face for his kiss. I get lost in his mouth as his hands slip under the waistband of my pajamas. He slides them down my legs along with my knickers until they fall off my feet. Hot as a sunray, his tongue traces my lips at the same moment that he entwines his long legs with mine, spreading them apart as the full sun blazes across the sky. I gasp again, and he frees my mouth.

“Feel, love,” he murmurs, his arms and legs encircling me like the lights, his fragrant body heat engulfing me with the sun. But on the hottest, wettest part of me, I feel only the cool rose breeze. Breathless and trembling, I clutch his hand and press it between my legs.

“Here, please,” I beg shamelessly. It would only be embarrassing if I didn’t know with certainty that he wants me as much as I want him.

One warm finger traces the length of me. “This helps more than this?” he asks, thrusting into the small of my back.

“No . . . but . . . condom . . . far.”

His finger trails back up, making me hiss. “Oh, Elisa, you’re not the only one with tricks.” Before my moan fades, his hand leaves me and reaches under the bench. I’ve barely managed to focus my eyes when he taps the foil of a condom inside my thigh.

“Wha—how?”

He chuckles. “I’ve hidden these everywhere. You have six days, sixteen hours, and forty-five minutes to find them all and ruin them with me.”

He turns me around quickly so we face each other again. And for a moment the world stops for me, even the rapid pulsing inside. What are sunrises compared to him? The blue fire in his eyes smolders, his skin gleams, his lustrous hair like a black corona over his impossible face. Half of the twinkly lights are still draped around his neck, the other half sparkling all over my torso. He looks at me the same way—as though I am his sun.

Just one moment, and the world starts again. I launch myself at his mouth, starved for his taste, his feel, gripping his face, inhaling his scent. Over the rushing in my ears, I hear his moan and the foil tearing. Then he lifts my hips and pauses, waiting for me to open my eyes. I do—how could I miss a single fleck of him?

“Love that moves the sun and other stars, you said, Elisa?”

At my gasp, he lowers me onto him, twinkle after twinkle, inch after inch, moan after moan. Then he takes us both over the horizon until our bodies start to fracture like the sunrays on our skin and a new reel of brilliancy begins.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 18 – FIGHT

Happy Sunday, friends! Time for another chapter in Aiden’s and Elisa’s story. I hope it wraps up your weekend with a smile and that you are are all enjoying some rest and relaxation.  Thanks as always for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

18

Fight

By the time we drop off Reagan, Javier, and Benson at the Inn, it’s nine o’clock and the terror of the day is winning, settling like sediment in my brain crevices, my ears, my eyes. Each time I blink, Marshall gazes back at me. Each time the Rover purrs, I hear monitor beeps. Each time I wade through my thoughts, Aiden’s pain lances through me, sharper than my own.

“You’ve been quiet,” Aiden observes next to me as he turns left off Ivy Lane toward the open fields.

“Just thinking about it all.”

“It has been an interminable day.” He hits the gas as we zip through the only country road to the cottage. My day is only half-over, but I can’t bring myself to tell him I’m going back to Bia tonight to test the idea Doctor Helen just gave me. How can I add even one more grain of worry to the incomprehensible weight he will be carrying for us, for me?

We reach Elysium in two minutes. Across it, the cottage’s peaked roof rises like a beacon against the brilliant moon. Aiden parks the Rover in the shed at the edge of the field that dad converted into a garage when he and mum bought their Beetle.

“Almost home,” Aiden sighs. He tucks the box with the torture headset quickly under his arm, as if to hide it from me, but even in that glimpse a shudder jolts down my spine. I pat the polaroid of our kiss in my purse and get out of the Rover as quickly as I can. He takes my hand, pressing his lips at my wrist, and we set off across Elysium. In a few steps, mum’s rose shield will fall over us, over him. Guard him, Mum. Take everything from me and give it to him.

The perfume of the roses intensifies, as if they smell the arrival of a new kind among their own—the rare Aeternum oil that Aiden realized for me. Like he did all my other dreams, like he is trying to do for my ultimate dream of being with him. The cottage and the garden come in full view, silvery white. Aiden is quiet, too—perhaps he senses my urgency to get inside the rose bubble, perhaps he feels it too. But the second we reach the garden threshold, he stops, halting me with a gentle clasp of his fingers. I turn, unaware that for the first time I remember, I had been walking several steps ahead of him. He sets down the box of torture outside the garden threshold and takes my face in his hands.

“Please tell me what you’re thinking. Before I lose my mind.”

What can I tell him? That I’m afraid even as I believe in him more than I’ve ever believed in anyone? That the present moment is as terrifying as the future and as fearsome as the past? Or the hardest thought of them all?

His face gleams with moonlight. No wires in his hair—just soft onyx waves, swept with the breeze.

“Elisa, please!” Urgently now, and his eyes seize me the second I lapse and gaze into them. The secret thought blurts out with irrelevance.

“I don’t think I’m worth all this pain . . .”

His soft gasp washes over my face, rendering all roses redundant. But I can’t breathe it in because I see the flicker of agony my words caused him. “This is my fault,” he says. “You’re so extraordinary to me that I forget you’re still only human. You have your own doubts and insecurities just like me. I’m sorry, love. I won’t miss that again.”

I try to look away, shaking my head, but neither his eyes nor hands let me. “I’m not looking for compliments . . . It’s not just me who is not good enough. Nothing ever could be worth you living through this.”

“Ah, Elisa, my fault again.” He releases my face, but takes my hands. “I haven’t explained this right. You say I brought you to life, but it’s the other way around. If it weren’t for you, I’d be stuck in Portland but living in Fallujah still. There would be no brilliancy, no beauty, no love. Just guilt and self-hatred. But you came in—not just as a fantasy or a painting, but so real, you eclipsed everything. All my rules and pretenses and structure and control. And suddenly there was light; there was life. Then you were gone. You did exactly what I forced you to do, but you turned off my sky. There was no more light, no more reason for anything—I couldn’t even go back to my old rules. I didn’t want to because you had made me want to live. That’s why I’m going through all this, for a chance to live. If my life, my health, my dream—and you are all three—are not worth this, then tell me what is.”

My life, my health, my dream . . . listening to him is like hearing my own life in words—it sounds beautiful in his voice. So beautiful, I don’t want to ruin it with mine.

“Do you see, Elisa?” he asks intensely. I nod because when he puts it that way I agree. Only he himself is worth this. But what happens to him if we don’t win?  He sees my shudder even in the balmy night. “You’re scared,” he says, a statement, not a question.

“Yes, but not because I doubt you.”

“I’m scared, too, my love. Do you believe that?”

“You don’t seem scared of anything anymore.” I remember his strength and resolve today—the utter absence of fear when he learned the battle plan.

He smiles without the dimple. “Wrong again. I’m terrified of losing you. But you know what? I know from experience, the fights you’re the most afraid of tend to be the worthiest fights.”

He doesn’t promise me we will win. He cannot. All we can do is fight in every way we know, with every weapon we have left.

I reach on my tiptoes, pressing my hands against his face that still feels like a fairytale. “Make love to me then. Make us forget all this fear, and remember only why we’re doing this.”

His eyebrows arch at my sudden change in direction, but he smiles and the fire ignites in his eyes. “Now there’s the fight I’m talking about. Straight to the fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“No. Make love to me here, right now. Let’s not bring any of this inside the cottage.”

He doesn’t even blink. He sweeps me into his arms over the garden threshold as I knot my fingers in his hair. “Should the roses be watching this? I seem to recall being told not to say ‘fuck’ in front of the roses once.”

“Of course. Roses love love.” I pull him to my mouth. “They just don’t like dirty words. You’ll have to save those for the fifth stair.”

He chuckles, striding into the garden straight for the Elisa roses without breaking our kiss. He sets me down on the petal-blanketed grass, right at the spot he waited for me in my dreams, the spot where he stood when he came back to me.

“Stay,” I whisper, meaning so many things. He becomes utterly still except his hands clutching my waist. I start unbuttoning his shirt—not like he did at the lab, but the way we do together, slowly, eyes on each other—and slide it off his shoulders, down his arms, on the petaled ground. The gold of his skin is silver with the moon, free of the electrodes’ metal discs. I run my hands over his chest, kissing each spot where the discs were. Above his heart, on his sternum, at the pulse on his neck. “Kisses, not electrodes,” I say, reaching on my toes to kiss his temple. His heated gasp enflames my skin.

“You, not memories,” he answers and pulls me hard against him, molding his mouth to mine. His kiss is so overwhelming that I hang in his arms, fingers knotted in his hair. The fear shudders recede. A different kind of tremble starts at my knees, and he tightens his arm around my waist, knowing by this point I have trouble standing upright.  His lips flutter, soft as petals, over my jaw to the hollow below my ear where I dabbed the Aeternum oil. He inhales hungrily there, and good shivers flurry all over my skin. “God, the smell of you.” He sounds pained, like the ache gathering at the bottom of my belly. “It brought me back today, Elisa.” He kisses the Aeternum spot and kneels at my feet, taking off my Byron sneakers and socks. “And these wiggling toes.” He smiles, kissing the tips that curl. “They made me smile in hell—I couldn’t believe it. Just these tiny, itsy bitsy toes, able to lift all of me.” He nips my big toe but sets my foot back on the petals when he notices the wobble of my knees. “Strong, love, we’re just getting started,” he murmurs, running his hands up my legs, over the jeans. I wish I could speak, but I can barely breathe. Was I feeling afraid before? Now I can’t feel anything but the fires he is lighting everywhere with his touch, like fireflies in this garden. He unbuttons my jeans and unzips them with his teeth, peeling off the denim slowly, his lips following the trail of his fingers over my exposed thighs. The cool breeze tickles his hot, wet mouthprints.

“Aiden,” I sigh. His name has become synonymous with so many things. Help, save, love, live, home, kiss, hold—so many good four-letter words.

“I know, love.” He kisses the inside of my thigh. “But you wanted to forget. Forgetting is hard work, I ought to know.” He slips off the jeans completely and tosses them aside. The breeze whirls around my shaky legs as his nose skims back up. He clasps my hips as he inhales the lace of my knickers with the same hunger. I close my eyes, unable to watch when he does that, but I see fireflies even behind my closed lids. He does it again, pressing his nose firmly and I don’t know if this is my moan or his.  “This here,” he says buried in the lace. “This is the reason why the roses don’t like dirty words. Because they’re jealous.” The movement of his lips sends a tremor through me.

“Aiden—I can’t—” I breathe, tugging his hair.

“Yes, you can. You’ll see.” He kisses the lace again and slides off my blouse, lighting more fires with his fingers around my waist, over my ribs, tracing the cream lace of my bra. His mouth wraps around the nipple hidden underneath. “It was nippy there today, wasn’t it?” His tongue wets the lace, but it feels like liquid flame to me. “That made me smile, too, Elisa. Was that a pun?”

“Ah . . . I . . . can’t . . . remember.”

“Good.” Another wet circle of fire, then my bra melts off and I’m free only to realize I’m bound to his mouth closing on my breasts. Whoever said hell burns has never been to heaven. His lips, his tongue, his teeth—they strike like firebolts through me, and my knees give out, but he catches me and lays me on the petal blanket. The petals are cool against my feverish back. I sigh with some relief and am able to open my eyes. He is lying next to me, propped on his elbow, moon and stars and roses above him, one long, denim-clad leg between mine. His eyes cascade like molten silver over my breasts and he brushes them with his knuckles. Such a light caress but the effect on me is gravitational. My back arches toward his hands for the faintest touch.

“Yes, the roses are definitely envious . . .” He plucks an ivory Elisa petal and flutters it over my lips. “There’s no comparison.” And he kisses me over the petal. What a kiss this is. The redolent petal as a thin veil, molding like silk with the pressure of his lips. I kiss him back, feeling the warm tip of his tongue through it, caressing mine. From my sigh, the petal flits back to him. He blows gently, tapping it back against my lips. The petal flutters between our mouths, kissing us both, breath to breath, moan to moan. And the throbbing begins. Not slow and steady as usual, but heavy and fast from the start.

“Your jeans . . .” I murmur through the petal, reaching to unbutton him. His mouth never misses a volley but he grasps my wrists above my head. Fistfuls of petals tickle my fingers.

“Soon. But first you wanted to remember why we’re doing this.” He leaves the petal on my lips where it promptly blows off from my jagged breath, and plucks another one, this for the center my forehead. He kisses over it—his wet mouth sealing the petal on. Another petal at my temple, another kiss. More petals in my hair, weaving with his fingers through my strands as I realize he is placing petals on me wherever there were metal discs on him. “Roses, not electrodes,” he smiles his lopsided smile, now kissing a petal over my cheek, and another at the corner of my lips, a trail of them down my throat, each pasted with the wet heat of his mouth. Petals and kisses rain over my chest, around my breasts, fluttering over my nipples until every spot where his tongue seals a petal is quivering. I’m lost on my own skin—cool breeze, hot breath, soft petal, fire lips—but he doesn’t stop. He drops petals down my belly and over my waist, kissing them in. I try to press myself against him but he hovers just a breath out of touch—only his lips and tongue through the petals on my skin. And the throbbing becomes painful. Not a rapid pulse anymore, but an achy hook, reeling me to him with a flaming pang.

“Touch me,” I whimper, fireflies blinking here and there in my vision.

“Soon, love.” Another petal along the lacy band of my knickers, and then the garden starts spinning because he hooks his fingers into the lace and rips it off, his knuckles brushing my skin. My hips tilt toward him as always, but he drops more petals over my pubic bone, inside my thighs, and at last presses a single petal with his lips right on the center where I need him the most. Another jolt of my hips but he is ready—they drop straight into his hands and he pins them back down on the petal blanket. And then the torment starts with the petal in the center. He blows on it and it flutters against me; he taps it with his tongue and I flutter against it; he kisses it and the ache becomes a deep, radiating thing; he licks the petal and my breathing stops. “Aiden, now.” It’s more of a cry than a plea.

“Just a little longer,” he answers, his voice strained with the same tension that is wringing me.

“Why?” I gasp, a hand pulling his hair, another grabbing petals on the ground, legs coiling around him.

His lips press the petal against me again and again. “Because if we’re strong enough for this . . .” He wraps the petal around me with his mouth. “If I can live through one more minute of not tasting you and you can live through one more minute without my touch, we can live through anything.” The petal circles me driven by his tongue, and tears gather in my eyes. “That’s what you really wanted to know, Elisa, isn’t it?”

How did he know that’s what I wanted before I did? I try to say yes, I try to say I love you, but all that comes out is a garbled, agonized moan. The petal of torment is wet, sticking to the fieriest part of me, and the achy wavelets ripple everywhere.

“See, this is torture too, love, just a different kind.” He slides the petal up and down with his tongue, as I try to find the breeze, the sky, the ground. “Your taste, your feel, your orgasm, mine, all just on the other side of this petal, and we can’t have them yet.” His lips press the petal hard against me, making me hiss. “It hurts, it feels like one more minute will finish you, doesn’t it?”

If I answer yes, I don’t know. I hear nothing but him.

“Me too, love. Right now the need to be inside you is so painful, it could kill me right here on your namesake roses . . . but then I think . . . this petal will fall apart. Any second now it will disintegrate from my tongue, from my hatred of it, and on the other side is you. And on this side is me. Doesn’t that help, Elisa?”

A tear trickles in my hair—a tear of pain, a tear of pleasure—as my scattered mind finally catches up. I moan to agree, clutching more petals on the ground at the next nudge from his hidden lips.

“And that’s all this is, everything you’re scared of, love, is just a petal. Forget all else and remember this.”

“I will.” Somehow the words form—a breathless jumble, but still words—and I start fighting through the petal with him. His tongue presses it into me, I thrust gently back; his lips fold it over, I rub myself against it; his mouth wraps me with it, I grip his hair and push toward his mouth.

“Perfect,” he sighs, breathless like me. “Fight, Elisa. Because through this stubborn, cruel petal is the biggest pleasure there is.” His lips twist it around me one more time and his tongue rips through. His mouth swoops on me, free and clear, and I explode instantly. My cry drowns his pained groan. I writhe with his lips, his tongue, pushing into his mouth, his face, any part of him I can find as waves of release crash over me so violently that fireflies burst in my eyes and tears spill over, Aiden after Aiden, God after God. His mouth knows me by now—knows exactly when to pull, when to kiss—and it sees me through to the other side, sodden, shaky, a mass of limbs and moans and tears on the petals, but alive.

“My turn,” Aiden says immediately before the shakes have subsided. By the time I manage to open my eyes, he is ripping off his jeans. Every aspect of him is raw with need. He springs free, but I barely see the bubble glimmering like a diamond because it disappears behind the condom. Before I can register I forgot to arrange my pill, he kicks apart my legs and slams inside in a blinding exquisite thrust. For the first time, his cry drowns mine. He freezes for a moment, eyes shut, jaw strained, teeth clamped over his lower lip, shudder after shudder running through him as I try to muster my own shaking, my own lungs. I don’t know if it’s the aftershocks of my first orgasm or a new one but it sets off the deep ache again—as if it wasn’t healed, only numbed. He is pulsing everywhere—ponderous spasms that make my own insides contract with him. His deep moan mingles with my sigh. I kiss his lower lip, releasing it from his teeth so I can bite it myself. The moment our lips touch, he is unleashed. All of him, bubble to hilt, relentless with no blinks in between, each thrust harder than the one before, hitting the deep ache head on. And the harder he moves, the harder I want. I cling to him with everything—my teeth, my arms, my legs, every muscle tightening inside. But his thrusts leave all my grips behind. And each time he moves, the ache disappears. All that’s left is the delicious tension building, magnifying every cell waist down. I know exactly when the pain leaves him too because he smiles, melding his mouth to mine, locking our fingers together, whispering his words of love—now dirty, now sweet—so the roses don’t hear. And pleasure comes for both of us at once in waves of warm tingles surging over us in lockstep, seizing our bodies with its singular tension. We fly at the same time, mouth to mouth, skin to skin, moan to cry—it lasts forever, it lasts a blink, it doesn’t matter because we float back on the petals on the same heartbeat. Gasping, shaking, laughing, weightless and tangled like vines. From the earthquake of our battle, little hurricanes of petals are swirling above, raining down on us as though his thrusts shook the roses root to stem. Maybe they did, maybe it was my cries. Whatever it was, there is no pain or fear—only my own body teeming with life.

He rolls off me onto his back, chest rising and falling like mine. “We survived,” he chuckles, catching one of the petals before it lands on his cheek.

“Either that or we died and this is what our heaven looks like.”

He looks at me, heart-stoppingly beautiful, carved moonstone with sharp angles of silver and shadow, and white petals in his messy hair. “It wouldn’t be a bad way to go, Elisa.”

I turn to face him, more petals gamboling off my skin with the movement, and rest my hand on his cheek. It’s warm and flushed. Even in the moonlight, I can see his calm, blissful eyes.

“Did I complete the brief?” he asks, turning to face me too, and dropping a fistful of petals over my head.

“What brief?” I laugh, brushing the deluge off my face.

“You charged me with making us forget the fear and remembering only why we’re doing this.”

“Oh, yes, with flying petals, I might add.”

His eyes soften, but his face intensifies. “The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side. Will you remember this when it gets hard?”

I curl into his chest, breathing him in—covered in my roses, his own fragrance is even more impossible than the Aeternum. “I will.”

“I’ll remind you,” he says, and I sense something in his voice but I don’t know what it is. I try to look up at his eyes but he tucks me closer, trailing his fingers down my spine.

I could stay here in this present moment forever, just adding love each time either of us feels a frisson of fear. But the night is deepening, his memories need sleep, and dawn is coming with a fresh reel of terror waiting for him. I cannot let him live through that horror with only a twenty percent strong remedy even if it feels stronger to him. I need to fight at night in Bia so he can have an easier day.

“Come on, love. It’s past your new bedtime,” he says, no doubt seeing the prospect of the night dawning on me and attributing it to exhaustion. “I’ll make you my special scrambled eggs and we can sleep.”

“Tell me about these special scrambled eggs.”

“Oh, the secret is salt.” He grins and rises fluidly, lifting me with him. Torrents of petals pour from everywhere. His gasp draws my eyes up to his face, and I’m certain the wonder in his eyes is a mirror of my own. “You’re stunning,” he murmurs and, in this moment, I believe my effect on him. Or rather the effect of Mum’s roses. Who isn’t stunning when wrapped in magic? He picks up our clothes and takes my hand, heading straight for the cottage’s front door. Neither of us looks at the box of the headset of torture by the hedges at the garden threshold. I suppose it will spend the night there tonight—it’s certainly safe. Unfortunately no one will steal it around here.

Thirty minutes later, fed and exhausted, we make it to our bedroom. I walk straight to the bouquet of the twelve wilted poppies of our weapons on my nightstand, and rest the picture of our kiss against the vase. He smiles—all dimple and turquoise from the happy memories he has in this room. “Will you please explain to me what the deal is with the wise-not-dead poppies when you have about a million roses outside and probably as many petals in your hair still?”

I shrug, shaking off the petals and putting on my night oil so his eyes don’t see my insane plan on my face. “I like them. Now off to bed with you, Mr. Plemmons. You need sleep at your old age.”

He laughs, swallows his anti-nightmare pill, and turns on Für Elise. “Our dance, first. We have to follow the first night’s routine, remember?”

I do now, and for the next few minutes, I forget my plot. Because dancing with Aiden is fourth of my favorite things: only his laughter, his lovemaking, and sleeping together rank higher on the list. He lifts me by my waist and slides his bare feet under mine as he did two nights ago, wiggling his attractive toes with a grin. And we sway, petals floating to the floor with each turn. He holds me tight against him, plucking more petals from my hair as I memorize the steps to his lullaby. I remember most of them already. Three languid rights, two quick lefts, turn, turn. He dips me over his arm on the final note, kissing at the end of my jawline.

It only takes a second Für Elise for him to fall asleep tonight, wrapped around me, nose in my hair. If that doesn’t betray the toll of torture, nothing else does. I know how many puffs of happiness it will take for him to sink into deep sleep. I keep very still and count each waft of cinnamon breath as his weight gets heavy and he rolls away, lying on his back. On puff one-hundred-and-fifty-two, I move one inch at a time—not afraid of him, but afraid of getting caught. He would be a dragon, it’s true, but worse than that, he wouldn’t let me go. He would camp at the front door and probably have Benson, Javier, James, Hendrix, and Jazzman guard the cottage windows at night so I could get enough sleep. But I need every minute I can get with the protein to test the idea Doctor Helen gave me. If Corbin was right today, having me in bed adds two hours of sleep for Aiden, which means, without me, he will wake around four. I must be back here before then and pretend to wake up to go back to Bia. I recognize it is a downright mental plan based on one single supposition by a single therapist from one single night that could be entirely wrong. And I’m fully aware I cannot keep this up, but I’ll do it for as long as I can. If need be, I’ll take power naps in the library.

It takes ten excruciating minutes to crawl out of the bed, heart pounding and barely breathing. I tiptoe to the door, lungs stopping every time a floorboard creaks, but Aiden stays asleep. Thank you, Beethoven. Another three minutes to open the bedroom door just enough to squeeze through one limb at a time. But when I’m almost out, I cannot move, I cannot look away from the sight of him, peaceful and asleep under the moonlight. I know the wound will start festering as soon as I leave. I almost go back, I almost curl right next to him to watch him all night. But the reel of terror is quite literally waiting outside. Sleep well, my love. I’ll be back before you know it.

Torso aching, I get dressed in my old bedroom, in my old high-school clothes, and sneak down the stairs, skipping the creaky ones, smiling at how much he loves them. I leave a note on the fifth stair, hoping he never sees it but not wanting to worry him if for some reason he wakes before four. Although he shouldn’t—Corbin and he have been testing Für Elise for over two weeks. It has worked every night, with or without me.

I had an idea so I went to Bia. I’ll be back soon. I love you.

Mrs. Plemmons

I pick up the Rover keys he left on the console, shake off more petals, and steal outside. But I don’t run right away. I wait on the threshold, fretting that the door woke him, half-expecting his beautiful head to peek out of the bedroom window, shouting enough fucks to scare all the roses. But he doesn’t. I glance at the petal angels we left on the garden and break into a sprint, not looking at the box of torture as I leap over it, plunging down Elysium to the garage. Every few moments, I look over my shoulder like any fugitive, but he is not behind me. Guard him, Mum. Keep him safe until I’m back.

I turn on the Rover as soon as I throw myself inside, but despite the gentle purr of the engine, I still jump, squinting in the darkness. But no light switches on at the cottage. I drive down the country road carefully until I reach town. Then as soon as I clear Burford’s border sign, I hit the gas, eyes on the road, mind on Aiden’s waterfall laughter, hands on the wheel exactly where he rests his.

I reach Bia in twenty-four minutes, chest blistering in pain. I have five hours left before Für Elise wears off. A few researchers are huddled over piles of books in the lobby as always, but Bia is dark and empty. I run straight to the bookshelves to confirm the idea I got from Doctor Helen. She said my calming effect decreases Aiden’s fear by reducing the CREB protein in his neurons. So, theoretically, if I can identify all oxytocin options that reduce CREB, I should be able to find the right one. The trouble is I have no clue which of the four hundred and thirty oxytocin formulas decrease CREB and which ones increase it or leave it unaffected.

I wrench out every textbook on neural chemicals and sit at the corner desk to read. It’s hard, tedious work on three hours of sleep and the day we’ve had. I would do much better if I was mixing oxytocin instead, but I need a way to identify the right one before I start. The hours pass, chapter after chapter, mumbling to myself, muttering to Dad, looking for any scribble of his on the pages and finding none. But at two-fifteen in the morning, as my eyes are itching and panic is setting in with jitters, there it is in bold font: a list of compounds that impact CREB proteins. All eighteen hundred of them. I almost vomit on the page. I almost crawl to the vent for air, but I don’t have time for meltdowns. I select the top one hundred with the highest potency in reducing CREB to start with. It will take weeks, maybe the whole summer, to eliminate even these from the oxytocin options, but it’s the only path I can see. I take a screenshot of the list and start compiling an inventory of all the ingredients in the four hundred and thirty oxytocin ampules in the cooler to compare them against the CREB list. I scrawl them in my notepad, not wanting to leave any computer traces in Bia. It feels like I’ve catapulted back to pre-historic times but computers can’t keep secrets. At least this part is mindless—just copying down chemical names—it’s all the calculations afterwards that will break my brain. I scribble name after name in mum’s writing to fight off my heavy lids, smiling at her and dad joining this way while Aiden’s waterfall laughter plays in my head. Almost like a family all of us together here in this present moment . . .

The slam of a door startles me. I jump up, almost toppling off my chair, realizing with dread I had fallen asleep. I glance at dad’s watch in panic, but then I see him. Aiden is towering by the lab door, in jeans, a T-shirt, and my dad’s lab coat over his arm. How he got in I don’t know, but I do know no wall or door would have stopped him because the fury and anxiety emanating from him are so palpable they could shatter all the vials and ignite all the combustible chemicals. It is beyond anything I imagined. He is not the Dragon, whom I’ve tamed. He is whatever fear itself is afraid of. He doesn’t speak but, from the way his jaw is set, his teeth must be clenching so hard they could pulverize the building walls. He is glaring down at me, either beyond all powers of speech or still choosing his words. Yet despite his fury, the wound in my chest—festering even while asleep—disappears. I scramble to speak first, with zero formula or plan.

“Hi there,” I start, my voice high enough to break a few beakers on its own. He doesn’t answer in any way, but his jaw flexes once. I look back at Dad’s watch even though I already saw it’s four forty. “Looks like Corbin was right,” I continue in bat-ear frequency. “Did you sleep well? I sure did . . . this desk is so cozy.” Still no response from him whatsoever. “I was going to come back before four but—ah—I’m so thrilled you came here instead because I can show you my—umm—workstation.” That earns me a blink. “Oh, good, you’re thrilled, too.” I hold out my hand, teetering to my bench scrubbed spotless with not a single item of interest on it. “So this is me . . . and over there is Graham who will be here in an hour and a half . . . strong emotions near his beloved 2-AG will give him an aneurism . . . and over there are some beakers . . . oh, have you ever seen a Bunson burner? I think you may be cousins—”

“Enough!” His voice is low and hoarse, yet it silences me more than his dragon roar. He doesn’t move, but his hands clench in fists. “Do you have any idea how it felt to wake up and not see you there?” The question is a strangled whisper. “Any idea at all how worried, how sickened I was?” A shudder runs through him. “I thought I had hurt you in my sleep. I was searching the sheets, the floor for any drop of blood only to find your ridiculous note and then worry more that you were out driving at night stressed, with no sleep, not answering your phone—what if you had gotten hurt?” He shudders again and throws the lab coat on the desk, breathing hard.

I, on the other hand, can’t breathe at all. How did I manage to torment him when I was trying to protect him? How did I cause the exact fear I’m trying to heal here in this lab? How could I have added even one minute of pain to the horror he already lived through yesterday and the horror he will live through again today?

I run straight to him, wrapping my hands around his fists. “I’m so sorry, my love. I fell asleep and didn’t hear my phone, and even worse, I was reckless. You have every right to be furious.” His fists soften in my hands, and his breathing slows. “I’ll never put you through that again,” I promise, leaning my head on his chest.

He takes a deep breath and wraps his arms around me. “Do you know what you mean to me, Elisa? What you would have done to us both if something had happened to you?”

I nod against his T-shirt that he barely must have thrown on. “I do because I know what you mean to me.”

“Then why did you come back here last night? What was so important that couldn’t wait until you got some rest?”

I look up at his anxious eyes, and the words I never wanted to weigh on him spill out. “It’s the protein . . . it’s failing. I had an idea about how to save it, but even that I don’t think I can solve on time now. I know you don’t want me to stress about it, but I can’t do that, Aiden, I have to try. I want us to have every chance and every weapon we can get. But I’m losing this one. Losing it for you, losing it for my dad . . . ” As soon as I say the words, they become real. The truth and exhaustion break through, and the tears start, splashing down my cheeks like his petals. Was it only seven hours ago that we were tangled together under the roses?

“Oh, my love.” He folds me into his chest and carries me back to my chair, sitting with me on his lap. “You’re not losing anything for us—this isn’t your fault. How could it be, loving and brave and bright as you are? Shh, don’t cry. It’ll be all right. We’re fighting together now.” He tips up my face, brushing away my tears. His forehead is lined with worry like his heart line at the lab. That brings me back to my senses. Haven’t I caused him enough grief for a day? For his whole life? I wipe my nose, trying to smile.

“You’re right— we are together, and I don’t want to waste another minute crying. Let’s get some fresh air for a while before I have to come back for Graham and Edison. I’ll be better about sleep tonight.”

He cups my cheek, shaking his head. “Show me the problem, love. Show me what’s upsetting you so I can see if I can help.”

“No, you have enough on your plate, you don’t need to learn chemistry, too.”

“I don’t give a fuck what’s on my plate if you’re hurting. Show me before Graham comes. ”

“But you don’t want anything to do with the protein.”

“I want everything to do with you. And if I can’t convince you not to worry about it, then at least let me help.”

“Really?”

“Really, but only if you give me a real smile. I can’t stand seeing you in pain, Elisa.”

His lips lift into an automatic smile in response to my own, except his is a lot more beautiful. I kiss the corner of his mouth and tell him everything. It feels like it did by my parents’ grave—like the moment I tell him my problems, they split in half or we become double-strong. I show him the four hundred and thirty oxytocin ampules and the one hundred compounds that increase CREB proteins. “So, you see, we need the protein to emulate my calming effect on you so we can boost its power—maybe instead of twenty percent, we can make it forty or fifty. But the problem is there are too many choices. So I need to cross-reference these CREB compounds against all the ingredients in the four hundred thirty ampules and eliminate all oxytocin formulas that contain any compound that increases CREB proteins. And hopefully the options I’ll need to test will be more manageable then.”

He has absorbed everything—names and concepts that took me entire semesters. “Sounds like a perfect job for my brain.” His eyes are already scanning the labels of the ampules, capturing the ingredients list. “I won’t be any help with the experiment, but combinatorial calculations are my thing. That was going to be my specialty at the CIA.”

“You really think you have time to help me with everything else you have to do?”

He nods, eyes racing over the CREB list—no notes, no screenshots, nothing but his own mind. “How many ampules can you test per day while still getting at least seven hours of sleep?”

“One, two at most before Graham comes in or after he leaves.”

“So we need to narrow down the options to about eighty and we need it stat so you have the rest of the summer to test?”

“Ideally even less than eighty, but if you do this, it frees me up to research other ways to identify the right oxytocin and how much to add.”

“And to sleep.” He strides straight to the cooler of oxytocin and starts turning the ampules so he can see the ingredient list for each.

“Aiden, Graham will be here in an hour. We can come back tonight.” I glance at my watch, a new worry gnawing at me. The last thing I need is for Graham to catch us here.

“We’ll be gone by then,” he answers with confidence, never looking away from the ampules.

“But—”

“Give me fifteen minutes.”

I fall silent, watching him mesmerized. I realize until now I’ve never truly seen him work. Everything I’ve seen him process—from complex financial documents and stock analyses to the books he reads in hours, sometimes minutes—must be as effortless to him as the periodic table is to me. But now that I see him really use his mind, I’m awed. He is memorizing about twenty ampules per minute, slowed only by the time it takes to turn them over for his eyes to photograph the ingredient list and place them back in their previous position. And I finally witness the processing speed that so astonished the Edinburgh scientists—it is not something anyone can envision without seeing it in action. He stops exactly in fifteen minutes as he predicted.

“There,” he says. “Now we can leave.”

He smiles when I just stare with an open mouth, unable to form any words. “There are some benefits to my mind, I acknowledge that.” He grabs me by the hand and helps me put back the books and erase all evidence of my work—he of course left nothing behind. In five more minutes, we’re done. He throws my dad’s lab coat over my shoulders and rushes me out of the lab as I finally manage to find some words.

“So how did you get in? Can you secretly walk through walls, too?”

He chuckles. “Nope, I innocently told one of the researchers in the lobby that you forgot your father’s lab coat. As soon as he saw its initials, he let me in.” Of course, easy as breathing, provided that you have his brain under pressure and remember everything. I stumble next to him, stunned and wordless again, and in another two minutes, we’re out in the parking lot, not a single Graham or Edison in sight.

But Benson is there in his rental van, waiting for us, puffy eyed and in pajamas. I shouldn’t be surprised to see him—of course he would have driven Aiden here since I took the Rover—but it still takes me off guard. A new wave of guilt washes over me. “I’m sorry, Benson. I messed up your sleep, too.”

“Don’t worry, Elisa. I’m still jetlagged,” he lies with a sleepy smile.

Aiden opens the van’s back door and brings out my blanket from the cottage. Even in his panic and anger, he thought ahead for me. The tears almost start again, but I fight them off while he sends Benson back. “Thanks, Benson. I’ll take the Rover back, you get some rest.” He starts towing me toward the Rover before Benson has turned on the van’s lights.

“Where are we going?” I ask him as he tucks me in the front seat and secures my safety belt in case I find the task too onerous in my state.

“University Parks so you can take a nap.”

Despite the exhaustion that suddenly crashes over me, I smile—it will be just the two of us together for a while longer. He backs out of the parking lot and whips right on South Parks Road. I can’t look away from his face—here, caring for me while internally his brain must be already processing. “So how many ingredients were there?”

“Three thousand four hundred and forty seven,” he answers automatically. “You were right, this will take some time.”

“Bloody hell!” All the relaxed feelings disappear. “How can we possibly eliminate them on time?”

He’s racing down the empty road. “That’s my job now. Your job is to relax before you have to go back there. I’d tell you to call in sick but I don’t think you will listen.”

“You would be right.”

He sighs in a way that could only mean give me strength. In minutes, the brakes skid to a full stop at the secluded corner of the park, by River Cherwell. I grin, peering out of the window. “Did you know down the path here is where the dons of Oxford used to go for male nude bathing away from delicate female eyes?”

He chuckles. “Don’t get any ideas, Elisa. Your no-longer-delicate eyes are here to sleep. There will be no male nudity of any kind. And that’s a promise.” He gets out of the Rover quickly lest I rip off his clothes, which is entirely possible even with my current heavy limbs. By the time I unbuckle my safety belt, he is already at my door, wrapping me in the blanket like one of Maria’s empanadas. He carries me as always, striding across the soft grass to the shrubs by the river. A déjà vu of him carrying me across his Alone Place in Portland hijacks me, and I kiss his neck.

“What was that for?” he asks.

“I love you.”

“Are you after male nudity, Elisa?”

“Always, but I don’t think you will listen.”

“You would be right.”

He sets me down by a tall cluster of salvias that are blooming a deep inky purple against the still dark sky. The shrubs and stalks hide us completely as the grassland slopes toward the river. “Sleep now, love,” Aiden says, lying next to me directly on the dewy grass and pulling me in his arms.

“No, you’ll get wet. Come inside the blanket with me.”

He chuckles again. “Elisa, this is a feather mattress compared to Fallujah. Sleep.”

“We’re not in Fallujah. We’re in a quiet park together and I’m not sleeping unless you’re inside the blanket with me.”

Another deep give-me-strength sigh, but he crawls inside the blanket that stretches like a hug around us. He brings me in his chest, and his fragrant body heat envelops me, blowing the scent of the park’s lime trees into oblivion. “Happy now?” he murmurs.

“Yes.” I bury my face in the spot above his heart, knowing there are salvias, cedars, and mugwort blooming around but smelling nothing but him. I feel his nose in my hair, perhaps inhaling me too. His body relaxes like another blanket over me, as if we are back in our bedroom, but abruptly I panic.

“What is it?” he asks, sensing my tension.

“Did I ruin your happy memories of our bedroom tonight with my stupidity?”

“Of course not. That bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life. And it wasn’t stupidity, it was love.”

I want to tell him he is the most beautiful place in my life. Whether among petals or in his primordial oak or his sky-high craggy mountaintop or here in a sleepy park—nothing compares to him. But not because he has the face any angel would become a demon for. Because of all the beauty he has within.

“Are you asleep?” he whispers.

“Not yet. It feels like a dream, though.”

“Do you want me to play Für Elise so you feel like we’re at home? I thought maybe the river would help.”

Always thoughtful, always for me. “It does, but I prefer your voice. Tell me a story.”

“What kind of story would you like?”

“Tell me how you discovered that Für Elise helped you sleep.”

He hugs me closer, lips in my hair still, but his body tenses around me. “That’s a very difficult thing for me to talk about. I found it on the night you left . . .” A shudder runs through him and me.

“Then don’t.” I stop him before he forces himself to think of more torment. “Only happy memories now. Pick whatever story you want.”

His comforting, relaxed weight cocoons me again. “All right,” he murmurs after a moment, his musical voice more soothing than any lullaby. “I’ll tell you about my first memory of this park. I was seven, and my parents and I came here before my first meeting with Doctor Helen on April 12, 1987. I was a difficult child, as you might imagine. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Why could I remember everything my best friend Brandon told me but he couldn’t remember anything I told him? Why were the teachers whispering about me? Why did I have to meet with scientists instead of playing ball with the other kids? And why was mom crying at night? Anyway, when we came here that day though, it wasn’t bad. I felt somewhat normal. This was a brand-new place, no memories yet, and I could just run amok or play ball, without crystal clear images in my head every corner I turned. And mom seemed happier, too. She was smiling, as was dad. They were so hopeful the brilliant Oxford scientists would help me. And I saw them kiss. Right down Lucas Walk over there, on that bench. It was just a light kiss, but I hadn’t seen them kiss since Christmas morning in 1986—over four months prior. And in that one moment, they looked happy. It lasted seconds before they spotted me looking at them. They pulled away quickly and waved me over. I pretended to gag but went and set with them. ‘Does our kissing embarrass you?’ Mom asked. Me, the brat: ‘It’s gross, but at least you remember how to do it.’ And she laughed, Elisa. I hadn’t heard her laugh in so long—ever since my mind started showing. She kissed my cheek, as I was squirming away, and she said, “Well, you will never have that problem, Aiden-bear. When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.” I lied and told her I had kissed Jenny, Sarah, Myra, Kate, Laura, Ashley, Emily, Tara, Erica, Leah, and Anna—basically all the pretty girls in my class. She looked horrified until she saw the lie in my eyes, and then laughed again. But what she said stayed with me. That’s how I knew not to kiss on the mouth until I met a woman whose taste I’d want to remember forever in mine. Until I met you. And that’s my first memory of this park—a happy one, just like right now.”

His piano voice stops and, for a while, I don’t know whether I’m asleep or awake. But I must be awake—my mind could never conjure this. I lift my head, fighting off the wall of sleep and the heavy lids just enough to look at him. “Kiss me here then, Aiden-bear.”

He sighs again, no doubt thinking I had fallen asleep, but he kisses me. Softly, slowly, so light it could be the breeze. Or just a dream. And I drift, sleep shutting all of my mind except this one urgency of being the Oxford scientist that can save the seven-year old boy who became a soldier and is now fighting for his own peace.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 15 – HOPE

Happy Sunday, friends, and Happy Easter to those who celebrate! Hope it’s a day of rest and renewal for all of you. In that spirit, here is a new and (IMHO) important chapter. Thanks as always for reading, writing, and following. Lots of love, xo – Ani

15

H-o-p-e

Something soft and weightless pulls at the edge of sleep like a forgotten dream. I breathe against it, too comfortable and warm to wake up. It flutters again, like a puff of breath or a rose dancing over my lips in a familiar way. Memory and consciousness strike at the same time.

“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.

Aiden is lying right next to me, his face more radiant than the sun, taping an Elisa rose over my lips, exactly as he did on our very first morning together.

“Good morning.” He smiles, his voice still gravelly with sleep.

“Aiden!” I rejoice and throw myself on top of him, quilt, sheets, and all.

He laughs and wraps me in his arms, burying his face in my hair as I burrow in his warmth.

“Elisa, we just woke up together,” he sighs with a profound note of relief. “You and me, and all your perfect ten fingers and ten toes. I checked, they’re all there. Can you believe it?”

“Yes, I can,” I answer, looking at him and believing everything. Not just because he is glowing on the white pillow, under a beam of sun, with the lightest blue sky in his eyes. I believe it because of last night—because of who he is. A whisper from my nightmare hisses like an echo, but I shove it back. Not today.

“What is it?” he asks, looking at the goose bumps that erupted on my skin at the nightmare’s hiss.

“Today will be another good day,” I declare to him and the goose bumps, kissing his lips. He engulfs me in his body heat, and we kiss like this for a while in our hot, sunny bubble. I breathe in his scent until my lungs hurt. He smells like a cinnamon stick inside a leaf of sandalwood wrapped with a rose petal warmed in the sun all tucked inside a heavy cloud of an unknown pheromone blowing out of some pagan sex god—all in concentrated form here under the sheets with me. He frees my mouth when I start hyperventilating and sweating, and throws off the sheets, letting the cool breeze tickle my back.

“I’m sorry, I’m a warm sleeper.” He blows on my flushed cheeks.

“Perfect because I’m usually cold. How did you sleep?” He looked so peaceful while I was keeping vigil, but I don’t know what happened after.

His eyebrows arch in bewilderment. “The best sleep of my life, Elisa.”

“Really?”

He nods with something like awe. “I don’t think I even had any dreams. I must have rolled onto my back at some point but I’m not sure I moved after that. Corbin will want to know.”

That’s true. He never moved while I was awake. And although he doesn’t know it, there was enough commotion to wake him up. “Do you think it’s because you were so tired from the flight and all the awfulness of the last two weeks?”

He shrugs. “Maybe. We’ll see, I suppose. My guess is it’s you but I’m not sure.”

I love that. The idea of giving him a full night’s rest. “Why do you look worried?”

“Not worried exactly. It’s just a very sudden, big change. Full eight hours, no dreams, no movement. I didn’t have that even before Iraq. I don’t know how long it can last.”

And there it is. Tic toc, tic toc. We’ve been given so much in the last twenty-four hours. Is this the held breath before the war?

“Did you sleep well?” he asks, his index finger tracing a circle under my eye.

I’m grateful my goose bumps can be blamed on the breeze this time. “My favorite part was when I was awake.”

He looks at me with a raised eyebrow. “Were you watching me?”

“Of course. You used to do it to me all the time.”

“That’s true. I’d like it better if we were both sleeping though. Were you afraid?” The first V of the day forms between his eyebrows.

Not from you, from my own mind. I smooth the V away. “Not at all. I was just getting to know you.”

He smiles. “Yikes. How the tables have turned. Do I want to know?”

“Oh, nothing serious, only eight erections by the time I fell asleep.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter. “Eight? My, my. Sounds dire. That will make for an interesting conversation with the experts at Oxford tomorrow.”

I prop myself up on his chest—his strong heart thuds there reassuringly alive. “What should I expect tomorrow? I want to get this right.”

“Well, Corbin will Skype in—you’ve already met him. They’ll scan my brain to compare it to five years ago before I met you, and again in eighty-nine days. And they’ll go over their plan with us. Just be you, and you’ll get it right. Look how far you’ve brought us with me completely against you. Maybe we can travel a little farther now that we’re on the same side.”

His voice becomes soft, colored with the h-o-p-e he is holding for us both. Maybe it’s that tone or last night’s nightmare or the loneliness of him carrying this little torch alone, but I let my mind tip-toe around the edges of h-o-p-e. How would it feel if I stepped inside its pool of light? Would it blind me so I can’t see the horrors ahead? Would it stun me so I cannot fight with a rational mind? Would it give me life so it can kill me in the end? Is h-o-p-e the dagger to the chest? I shake off the image, but even with that sliver of thought, the goose bumps return.

“What are you thinking?” Aiden asks, brushing the goose bumps on my arm. “These left and now they’re back.”

So much for the breeze as an excuse. “I was breaking Corbin’s rule and looking ahead instead of at the present moment.”

He nods, rubbing my arms until the goose bumps disappear. “Easy to do. How about my virginity Baci? Only happy memories in this room.”

I laugh despite my current love-hate relationship with Baci quotes and pick it up from his nightstand. “Make it a good one.”

He peels it slowly while I remind myself that I am a woman of science and took an oath last night against superstitions. My hands don’t care—they still clutch the sheets as though he is detonating an explosive device. But Aiden smiles as he reads the note.

“Oh, Elisa, you’ll love this. ‘Everything I know, I know because of love.’”

“Who said it?”

“Our closest friend and confidant, Tolstoy. Straight from War and Peace.”

“Yes!” I squeal, half-relieved, half-furious with myself for my reaction to this most trivial and nonsensical ritual.

“Share it with me.” Aiden pops it in my mouth and chases it with his tongue. We have learned to melt these little chocolates together by now—not a single crumble or drop ever spills. And they no longer taste as good on their own, without the taste of him. He doesn’t stop the kiss when the Baci is gone, and neither do I. His mouth changes, becomes full of slow, heated things. Things my body understands instantly, the way it catches fire and moves on top of him, searching for a precious blink of skin-on-skin.

“Elisa, you seem to be after something. Is there anything my twentieth erection and I can get you? We’re taking requests.”

“Yes, please.” I try to glide against him but he’s too quick. He lifts me an inch, where I can feel all his heat and none of him.

“Behave,” he says darkly when I whimper but tilts his hips a fraction for the faintest brush. “Is this what you want?”

My “yes” is more of a sigh, and he presses a finger gently into me. I tense, feeling the effects of last night’s homecoming.

“Are you sore?”

“No,” I breathe.

“I don’t believe you.” And the finger disappears.

“No, Aiden, more!” Oxygen becomes rarefied, and I try to find the rose-scented breeze.

He chuckles. “The headboard, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“The . . . the . . . the what?”

“Like this.” For a scarce heartbeat, he lets go of my hips and takes my arms, stretching them over him until I can grab the headboard. I take advantage of my hip freedom and brush against him.

“Hold on to that,” he says with a growl and locks my hips again. “I’m going to chain these, Elisa.” He smacks my behind while biting my breast, hard. It makes the fire worse. And the new problem of shaky arms. I grip the headboard as he pulls my prisoner hips upward until I’m hovering over his mouth.

“Wait, no, no—yes!”

His warm lips smile against me. “Now you can dance,” he murmurs. And he releases my hips while his tongue begins gliding as though it’s melting another Baci. Finally free, my hips tango to his rhythm. If he draws circles, they roll. He traces figure-eights and they shimmy. When he blows, they sway. Then his mouth changes again. Instead of a tango, it becomes a tribal dance—pressured, fast, and heavy until with one quick flick, I spiral and fall, sliding down the headboard and all over his face into an inert mass of trembles and whimpers.

He rearranges my melted arms and legs on top of him with a self-assured chuckle, while I try to regain some composure. The clock on the nightstand informs me that my entire transformation from adult woman to blob of molecules took him less than five minutes.

“Are you pleased with yourself?” I try to sound sarcastic and self-possessed but it comes out like a string of drunken slurs.

“Exceptionally. This is one thing where I’m above reproach as a partner. Don’t take it away from me.”

“Not the only thing.” I press my lips over his heart. “But you could certainly improve on self-love.” I wait for my body to solidify, the vague contours of a plan forming in my head. A rational brain cell warns me that I have no clue what I’m doing. But I only have so many weapons, and I promised to fight with him. And the fight has to include this.

“Speaking of self-love,” I say, sitting up and straddling him when I’m steady. His abs flex against me—hopefully an ally in my current incursion. “I’d like to play a game.”

He grins. “What kind of game?”

“It’s quite simple. Someone with your expertise should have no problem.” I press myself gently against his abs, but even the light contact tingles my still-sensitive skin.

Instantly, his grin becomes an arrogant, lopsided smirk. “Is this a sex game, Elisa?”

“It can’t be, can it? As you so thoughtfully observed, I’m a little sore. Which means we can’t use this—” I brush over the length of him, not bothering to hide my sigh. “Or these.” I knot my fingers with his. “As you’d never want to hurt me, right?”

The smirk disappears. “Of course not.”

“Exactly. And we already used your mouth but it just . . . how do I say this . . . it didn’t hit the spot.”

“What the fuck?”

“Yes, I think it left something . . . to be desired.”

He looks almost enraged—as though he has never heard such words in any of the twelve languages he speaks. “Encore,” he hisses, trying to bring me closer to his mouth, but I have his fingers locked with mine, knowing he’ll be gentle while in my hands.

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” The words slice through clenched teeth, as though all the strength I have neutralized from his hands has seeped into his jaw.

“Because your mouth and I have reached an impasse.”

“Excuse me?”

I press myself against his abs more firmly and they nudge back—reflexively swearing allegiance to me. Good, I need reinforcements. “Yes, you see, your mouth—despite its considerable talent—has an awful habit of saying terrible things about you. So your mouth will not have any part of me until we fix this problem.”

His eyes darken as he catches up to my game. The good news is that the fury disappears from his face. The bad news is that it’s replaced with his patent fire. On command, my skin bursts into flames. “That’s a grave impasse, indeed.” The fire is there his voice too—low, with an after-sound building in his chest like smoke. “And how do we remedy this transgression according to you?”

His abs ripple under me, fueling me on. “It’s simple really. I’ll just have to love myself.”

He did not see this coming, that much is obvious. His mouth pops open into a perfect O, along with his eyes. With more courage than I knew I had, I release one of his hands—he grasps a fistful of my thigh immediately—and trail my fingertips between my breasts all way down like he does, until I feel wetness there. Then I place one fingertip inside his open mouth. He sucks on it with a growl, biting hard. “Do you taste that?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever because it’s the last time you taste it until your mouth and I resolve our dispute.”

He doesn’t release my finger, his teeth and eyes imprisoning me here. “You can keep that one finger, Aiden, if you want it so much. I have nine other perfect ones, as you call them, and your abs, which have sworn allegiance to your favorite home.” I roll against them with another sigh. “So, I will be just fine.”

He drops my finger. “You will beg.”

“Oh, but as you assured me last night, you would never let me burn. So I’m hedging my bets that you will beg first.” His abs twitch under me while a growl whirls out of his mouth. His twentieth erection presses imperiously against the small of my back.

“As you wish, Elisa,” he enunciates darkly, as though his tongue is moving inside me, not in his mouth. “We’ll play your little game. What do I have to do?”

His eyes don’t release me and his free fingers are digging into my thigh, so my voice is as tremulous as I feel. “ Well . . . as you know, I’ve never done this self-love business before. And I would want you to guide me through this very first time, like you have done for all my other firsts. But you lost that right for yourself.”

“An immense oversight on my part that will be rectified as soon as I’m allowed, I assure you.”

“Well, here is your chance. I’ll fumble my way through, just me and myself. And if you want to join, first you have to say something nice about yourself and mean it. And then I’ll do what you tell me to do. Agree?”

He looks at me like I’m the bane of his existence and his reason for living at the same time. “Agree,” he says with something like venom and fire. His free fingers grip my thigh. I slap away his hand as he does with me.

“And no touching, please. This is between me and myself. You can touch when you behave.”

I notice with satisfaction that a low gasp escapes his lips.

“Now, where shall I begin?” I circle my hips over the ridges of his abs, losing my train of thought. They flex with me, and I don’t stifle my moan.

“Elisa!” My name fires through clenched teeth like a warning, his hips thrusting underneath. I tighten my thighs around his waist as hard as I can to lock him down—it’s difficult with a thousandth of his strength and my own body shaking.

“Tsk, tsk. I might have to chain these, Aiden. You’re interfering.”

“I don’t give a fuck.”

“You should. Because the more you interfere, the more I’ll change the rules. For example, right now I’m contemplating doing this alone in the bathtub with a locked door while you have only your ears and imagination to torment you.”

“It’s not a hard door to break.”

“That may well be. But it’s an awfully small, European-sized tub. Not at all designed for the likes of you. I’m certain only I can fit in.”

“Fuck you.”

“I really hope you do. And soon. But for now, I’ll just do what you would do.” I’m no longer able to handle the heat of his furious gaze so I close my eyes and, with a burst of courage, I throw my head back and wrap my hands around my breasts. “You would start here, I believe?”

A whimper—an actual whimper—comes from the god of sex. It’s the sound I needed for confidence. My hips unleash themselves on his abs, soldered as we are together from my thighs and my weight. And my hands start to mold around my breasts. I know the way he would touch them—his fingers have branded a permanent trail on my skin. I follow it now with my own fingers, thinking only of him. And everything inside starts to pulse.

Aiden shudders underneath me and the whimper becomes a growl that sounds like, “Oh dear God.”

“No, not that God,” I gasp through the inferno I just lit for myself. “Dear Aiden.” I brush my fingers over my nipples—this is harder, more intimate under his blistering gaze that burnishes my skin even with my eyes closed. I pinch as he does at the same time that I circle my hips.

“I’m loyal.”

I almost miss the snarl of his words over the blood hammering in my ears. But they hang in the air, raspy and clear.

“Yes, you are,” I smile. “One of your most noble traits. What would you like me to do in return?”

“Look at me.”

And I do. Those are the rules I made, even if they light me on fire. Under me, Aiden is falling apart. Every band of muscle has turned into a blade of steel. The V is carved so deep between his eyebrows, it might become permanent. His hands are in white-knuckled fists, clenching the quilt. And his fiery eyes are dark and hooded, boring into me with greed.

“Am I doing this right?” I ask, circling my nipples as he would.

He nods furiously, beyond all speech, his eyes unblinking on my fingers. His abs and I continue to dance to the music of my moan.

“I’m strong.” His words ring out again, a little louder.

“Very strong. Stronger than anyone I know. What do you want me to do next?”

“Lower,” he commands as another shudder runs through him. My fingers flutter over my belly like his did when he was playing the piano on me.

“I love you.” His words spill out again.

“No, that’s about me, not about you. Try again.”

“It is about me,” he protests through his teeth. “My love for you is my best trait.”

I deliberate but the throbbing inside makes me a biased judge. My fingers brush over my pubic bone. “How about you’re loving? Can we settle for that?”

“I’m loving.” Half-snarl, half-whimper.

“Yes, and I love that about you. It makes me feel like I’m the only woman in the world.”

“You are.”

“What next?”

“Lower.”

My finger tiptoe my public bone to the inside of my thighs, tracing little circles there like he did yesterday with me. “Like this?”

“Uh huh.”

“I like it so much better when you do it.”

“Let me.”

“No.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes . . . wouldn’t that be nice?”

But now I have a dilemma. Where do I go from here? If I move, I lose the friction of his abs and I need that—I need it like air. If I don’t, I run out of real estate on my thigh. And then there is only one spot left. The inferno that will burn us both alive. He must sense my battle because he doesn’t speak—he is breathing hard though. Like my next touch is air to him. And I give it. I wedge my hand between myself and his abs, pressing hard as he would. I barely hear him over my own moan.

“Christ.” His hips thrust again, almost buckling me off.

“No, just you in my head. And control your hips or I will stop.”

He becomes utterly still with a pained groan.

“Good. Now . . . the piano you said, Aiden?” And I play the first notes of Für Elise against myself. I know he can feel them on his abs. I know because he shudders, snarls, and swears at the same time.

“I’m—fucking—smart.”

“Yes! Even though it’s an understatement, I’ll accept it. What now?”

“Get—on—this—bed—now.”

Damn him. He’s taking away his faithful, miraculous abs that have done nothing but love and support me. But these are the rules I made up. “Goodbye for now, Aiden’s abs.” I roll one final time against them and slide off him onto the bed.

He takes full advantage. He springs onto his knees between my legs, looming above me, fire raging from everywhere. He spreads his thighs slightly, forcing mine to open more. He seems taller, broader somehow—as though the last few minutes have stretched his contours to breaking point. His chest is rising and falling with his hard breathing. His fingers are curled inward as if he is gripping me in his head. His now-permanent erection is pointing straight at my mouth.

And the throbbing inside gets worse—like a drum on fire pounded by a flamethrower. I will my fingers to continue to play Für Elise, but I can only summon random, off-beat notes even though I heard it all night. My breathing becomes jagged, matching his. He doesn’t speak so my body arches toward him, as though pleading for his words.  It marks a transformation. A flicker of calculation glints in his eyes, his hands relax, and his breathing steadies. His lips lift into a slow, deadly smile. Abruptly, I feel like I’m about to lose my own game.

“I’m an excellent fighter, Elisa.” His voice is now dripping with triumph. “I always win.”

“That’s true,” I sigh, addictive fear gathering like static over my skin. Not fear of him—fear of whether I can handle whatever he is about to unleash on me. “What would you like me to do?”

“I want you to play your song inside you since my fingers are banned.”

Oh bloody hell! Playing on the surface is one thing, venturing into the dragon’s den with him roaring on the threshold is quite another.

“Your rules, Elisa.” His voice is even and dark. I lost all his whimpers and growls the moment I laid back on this mattress. “I’ll even play the music on my phone to help you because I’m thoughtful like that. And that counts for two self-loving things, which means I’d also like you to spread your legs as far apart as they will go. Now.” Then eyes never leaving me, he calls to his phone. “Siri? Play Für Elise . . . for the only woman in the world,” he adds the last part under his breath.

And the piano starts. “Carry on, Elisa.” His voice is back to its taunting setting—he has already won, I just haven’t found out how yet.

Well, I might as well not go down without a fight. “Like so?” I breathe as I obey both his commands. But only one finger—that’s not bad.

“You will need two fingers for your notes, darling, unless it hurts. I earned this one fair and square.”

“Yes, you did,” I concede and do as he says. The first thing I notice is the soreness has eased, either from the heat or the throbbing I don’t know. The second thing I notice is a lot of wet, warm mess.

“Well, well, isn’t that interesting? How soreness just heals from self-love.”

“Only for me.” I try to sound strong but my breath leaves me entirely as I trace the paths he has blazed inside me as well. So familiar with him, so strange and new to me alone. But pleasant too—in a way I didn’t know I could give myself. Nowhere as bewildering as when he does it, more like a snack to his feast . . . but good nonetheless. My eyes flutter close.

“Oh, no. I earned the open eyes as well,” he reminds me.

I force mine open, begging him in my head as he predicted. Say more nice things, please. More nice things about yourself, and then make them into nice things for me.

“Now,” he begins in a tone that makes me shiver. “Self-love, you said?” And eyes on me, he grasps himself. I whimper as though he grasped me. “I don’t think your cruel rules prohibit this, do they?” And with a controlled sigh, he moves his hand up and down his length to the languid rhythm of my song. It’s my mouth that pops open now, my fingers that curl and stop. I’m the one shuddering. I can’t blink away from the sight.

“Your song, Elisa,” he prompts evenly. “Play it, like I earned it.”

I try. I really, really do. But I’m frozen. I barely survive Aiden pleasing me. How am I supposed to live through Aiden pleasing himself? His beauty in this moment is a force. Exactly that. He knows his body with such precision and control—a fluid symbiosis unlike the treacherous flailing my body is exacting against me. And then he stops. The sparkly bubble of liquid forms over him.

“Don’t stop!” My plea escapes without permission—body and mind completely breaking ranks.

“Oh, no. This is your game. You play, I play. Self-love and all that. Go on.”

As if I can resist him. The sight, the voice, the bubble. I play the keys, and he starts again, as though he can see through my skin. I watch every stroke of his hand, the way the shimmering liquid spreads over him, the way the two of them mold together perfectly without me. And lust becomes almost anger—at myself, at him.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” He smirks. “Feeling so left out when the person you love most in the world turns against you like this.”

“Please, Aiden!” My traitor mouth fires away, completely on his side now.

“Are you begging, Elisa?”

“Yes,” Judas continues.

“What would you like?”

“More nice things . . . about yourself.”

“Ah. I’ll have to think . . . hard,” he says as he pushes himself into his strong hand with a hiss. “It’s difficult to think about myself when all I have in my head is you. And what I’ll do to you once this pestilent soreness is all gone. You have chairs in your lab, don’t you, love? Because I don’t think you will be able to stand. But maybe all the oxytocin will help.” The crescendo of my song starts, and I manage to tap out one note out of three. Gasping, coming apart at the sight of him. The familiar tension wrings my body. At least it’ll be over soon. But the moment the trembles start, his words ring out.

“I’m loved.”

“Wha—? R-right now? I’m busy.”

“No better moment. You heard me. I’m loved. Admit it, that’s your favorite nice thing I should know about myself.”

It is. It is and he knows it, that’s why he saved it for now. But at last I’ll have my release. “You’re—very—loved—especially—by—me—what—next?”

An infuriatingly controlled chuckle. “Fingers out.”

“What? No, no, no.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Why?” The whimper sounds like another “no.”

“Because I earned it. And this one was a very hard one for me to admit. I have plans for this.”

I can’t argue with him, even if my brain cells had not been decimated by his strokes. I almost cry as I obey. The emptiness left behind is physically painful.

“I hate you,” I hiss at him, and he chuckles.

“And there’s the difference between our love. I love you even when you hate me. Now, those perfect fingers of yours . . .”

I tense. “Yes?”

“Since you’ve broken up with my mouth, I’d like you to put one of them in yours.”

“Ew! Really?”

Another slow stroke, another bubble sparkling on him. “Ah, now that hurts my feelings, Elisa. I admitted this very difficult, very vulnerable part of myself. It’s engrained in me not to accept love, but I want to accept yours. I want it so badly, I have gathered scientists, psychiatrists, Beethoven, medication, U.S. Marines, the U.S. Congress, the CIA, Siri, not to mention crossing an ocean and eight thousand miles—all the king’s horses and all the king’s men for the single purpose of deserving your love, but you—love of my life, star of my dreams, peace of my war, lullaby of my sleep—won’t even taste yourself from your finger when you have no problem doing so from my lips? Which is ironic when you are trying to teach self-love. And what’s worse, you refer to my favorite taste with ‘ew’. What is a man supposed to do with all that?”

I just stare. He has stunned even thought into silence, let alone speech. Eyes on him, I put my finger in my mouth without hesitation because he’s right—I’ve done this countless of times with his mouth. I think about the way his bubble tastes instead of me. His eyes widen a fraction—he must have expected more arguments—and a slow smile spreads over his face. I notice with some h-o-p-e that his hand is moving faster. Two bubbles now.

“Thank you,” he says, and his voice is huskier too. “Was that ew?”

I shake my head, still unable to speak.

“Will you say such awful things about yourself again?”

Another shake.

“Good. Did you like it?”

A shrug.

“Ah, that’s too bad. Personally, I could live on it. Would you like to taste something else?”

A nod.

“Well then,” he says, and gathers the gleaming bubbles on his fingertip and brings it to my lips like I did with him. “Taste.”

I shiver from the warm liquid steel that, at least to me, is better than melted Baci. The same moan escapes my lips as it did for him.

His breath catches as his eyes darken. “Better?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever, Elisa. Think about it because it’s only yours. And allowing myself to be yours is the most self-loving thing I can do.” His finger circles the tip of my tongue, sending a jolt through the rest of me, releasing my words.

“I’m only yours, too,” I whisper as he takes his finger away. I’m palpitating from the torture I brought on myself. What was I thinking going against him in this area? But it was worth every unreleased tremble, every ring of fire, every achy throb, just to hear him say, “I’m loved.” I try to press my thighs together to relieve some tension but he is still standing between them—no doubt part of his plan. I give up and close my eyes, reciting the periodic table in my head. My brain glitches over all the elements that are combustible.

Then his warm breath washes over my lips, and my eyes fling open. His face is so close, so heady, the bedroom spins. “Now, will you please forgive my mouth?” he asks, and his voice has become very tender. “It says it’s very sorry and it really wants to taste you.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Oh, I’m serious. I have learned my lesson. It was a very effective teaching strategy. I’ll never forget it.”

“You never forget anything.”

“That doesn’t make it less memorable. Please, Elisa?”

“Are you begging?”

“Begging and dying.”

“And you’ll try not to say bad things about yourself again?” I sound almost in tears. Even his body heat and the sheets feel rough against my over-sensitized skin.

“I will. Now please kiss me. I’m literally on my knees.” His lips inch closer, almost brushing against mine.

“You’re forgiven,” my mouth says to his mouth.

He moans. Where his own hand didn’t break his composure, my lips shatter it. He kisses me like his whole soul is pouring into me through his tongue. I do my best to match him—it’s not even close—and every time I kiss him, I’m also kissing the words he formed in his mouth, the syllables of his self-love.

“Aiden, please, let’s try,” I mumble in garbled English. “I’m not that sore.”

“No, love, heal,” he murmurs, and then his mouth—my new ruler and savior—starts traveling over me. Wherever it touches, my skin zaps at even the lightest pressure. By the time he makes it to the mess I made, he has to hold me because I’m shaking so hard. And then he takes my hand.

“Let me show you,” he says and guides my fingers. It’s entirely effortless with him.

“Not this anymore . . . you.”

“You should always know how to pleasure yourself, Elisa. Always.” I sense something in his voice but I don’t have enough brainpower to understand it. I just follow his patient, mind-blowing lesson, introductions to parts of myself I only know from books of science. And soon I’m flying. The little snaps are starting.

“And now together,” he says and his mouth closes on me. It takes exactly one kiss, and I explode into a million tiny pieces—pieces of mind, of heart, of my body that now I can say I thoroughly know.

I feel his gentle lips and strong hands, holding me together until my breathing eases and the shaking recedes. When I’m finally still, he says, “And that, my Elisa, is self-pleasure. It is yours and no one else’s. Keep it and don’t ever give it to anyone. Not even to me.”

I think about his words, his voice—so forceful but for a trace of wistfulness. I’m too afraid to ask about it without my protein. Because a small part wonders if he showed this to me so I know it in case I lose him. So my body doesn’t shut down again after he is gone, like it did after the accident. A shiver having nothing to do with my recent orgasm runs over me. Violent ends . . .No! I mentally stomp on the whisper. I won’t let it slither inside this purest, closest part of our love. Pleasure is our super-power. Is there a weapon more powerful than that?

Aiden is still on top of me, on his elbows, tense with his own unreleased pleasure. Every plane of his face is etched with need, from his dark hooded gaze to his parted lips.

“You know something I’m learning about pleasure?” I ask him.

“What’s that?”

I sit up, forcing him to rise back on his knees. He is right in front of my mouth, soaring. “It feels as good to give it as it does to receive it.” And I swirl my tongue over the glistening bubbles. A shudder and a hiss rip through him.

“The headboard, Mr. Plemmons,” I say with another swirl.

His chuckle breaks and he actually grips the headboard. I wrap my hands around him and take him in my mouth as far as he can go in one swoop. He shudders again with an unrestrained “fuck” and the headboard shakes behind me. I do it again and all his control shatters with a snarl.

At the sound, I become possessed, ruled by instinct—my entire vision narrowing on this one goal of pleasuring him. He has never let me loose on him before like this, only as foreplay under his careful control. Sure, I have the matter of physics—there is only so much of me, and too much of him. But if I ignore the mechanics and think only about his mouthfeel, his taste, then I understand. I understand exactly why Aiden loves doing this to me. Why he was indignant at my ‘ew’—because if he ever said that about himself, I would be furious.

His entire body, from his vocal chords to his thighs, is thrumming. My name is slicing through his teeth, punctuated with groans and profanities that to me sound better than Beethoven. Every time I feel him at the back of my throat, I taste more of him. And the deeper I try to go, the more vicious his battle. I learn his body as he has done with me. The way his head falls back when I do this. The way his knees almost give out when I do that. I use every move he has used on me: from a peck to a suck and everything in between. He falls apart at the sucks—the harder, the better—and goes completely mental over the swirls, thrusting inside my mouth. Knowing him now, I pick up depth and speed. And Aiden—force of nature, epitome of physical strength, and paragon of sexual control—starts trembling, and the entire bed shakes with him.

“Elisa!” he grabs my hair, trying to pull out, but I grip his hips as he does with me. It seems silly to let go now after everything. I take him in the depths of my throat one last time.

He comes like war. There is no other way to describe it. A guttural growl, one hand nearly ripping off the headboard, the other in my hair, convulsion after convulsion, and then Aiden falls backward on the bed, shuddering and twitching.

Bloody. Hell.

I just did that. And survived.

I tilt my neck to test if my head is still attached to my shoulders. It is. To my utter amazement, I feel relaxed despite the tornado that just happened in and around me. Except for a trickle of warmth inside, I feel only wellness and a small sense of pride.

I look over at the foot of the bed where Aiden’s head is barely visible under the arm over his face. He has not resurfaced, ribcage rising and lowering rapidly, spasms over his muscles like waves, his sprinting breath filling the bedroom. I crawl over him, rest my head on my favorite spot on his chest, and kiss his heart. A gentler ripple courses through him with a low moan. I wait for him to recover, thinking about this new weapon in our hands. I add pleasure,self-love, and sleep to the list of defenses we are collecting for this fight. Is that enough for h-o-p-e to turn from foe to ally for me?

“Hi.” Aiden re-enters our realm with a hushed, husky sound.

“Welcome back.” I use his words with a grin.

“Hmm, have I been out long?” He plays along, even though we both know he wasn’t asleep.

“Just your first post-orgasm coma that I have witnessed.”

“Just the first post-orgasm coma, period.”

“That can’t be true.” It’s an unspoken pact that we don’t discuss his prior liaisons.  I know he remembers them with perfect clarity and neither of us wants to revisit those memories. Oddly, I’m not jealous. On the contrary, I’m glad he allowed himself this healthy, ordinary part of life and made it extraordinary like he does with everything else. But I’m still curious about all the careful restrictions he imposed on himself and his partners before me.

“It is. I never would have allowed myself to relax like this, as I do with you.”

My cheeks flush with pride. More firsts—that too has to help.

“Well, Elisa, I’m amazed.”

“I know, the orgasm comas are good, aren’t they? Even if you didn’t pass out like I do.”

He lifts his arm off his face with some difficulty and peers at me with a loopy grin. Lazily, he turns to face me, curling around me and resembling very much a placated, well-fed, happy dragon on a sunny rock. “Yes, they are, but that’s not what I mean. That was quite your first time, too.” His nose skims my throat and he places a soft kiss on it. The flush spreads from my cheeks to my chest because I know what he means. The finale was a first for me. “Did you like it or did you do it just for me?”

My blush must burn even his skin. “I liked it.”

He kisses my throat again. “Don’t be embarrassed by our love. It’s the best chance we’ve got.”

And just like that, the first four-letter word joins our ranks. L-O-V-E.

It takes us a while to leave this bed—neither of us is willing to burst this bubble like no other we have had. But eventually the real world intrudes. Growling stomachs, parched mouths, still-packed suitcases, texts from Aiden’s phone about work, texts from Reagan and Javier that they’re awake and will be here in an hour. And Aiden starts making his own big place in the cottage. Hanging up his shirts with my dresses (“aren’t you glad I didn’t pack a lot of feathered hats, Elisa?”), tucking his boxers with my underwear (“will these dried rose packets irritate you with your soreness?”), the books he is reading on his nightstand (“I’ll finish these tonight and start on your father’s library.”), his toothbrush necking with mine in the restroom (“you were not kidding about this bathtub. How are we going to fuck in the shower, Elisa?”) his cologne nudging my face cream (“I have a surprise for you, but it won’t get here until tomorrow.”) All these little intimacies and normalcies—so routine for others, so ephemeral for us.

Eventually we make breakfast and eat it out in the garden, sprawled on a picnic blanket, waiting for Reagan and Javier. Aiden drinks his coffee, his phone tossed aside on the blanket. He checks it less, looks around more. The tectonic plates do not shift as much in his eyes as he builds new memories here.

“So what would you have done with yourself today if we weren’t here?” he asks, popping the last of the strawberries in his cupid mouth—he inhaled four scones and four eggs, the mush, the ham, and the fruit. Even his appetite seems better here.

I shrug, not wanting to imagine such a dark day. “I probably would have gone to the lab to work on the protein. I can’t wait to test it tomorrow. See if I got the code right.”

The same powerful emotion that fell over him when I told him about my protein yesterday morning molds his vernal face now.  But unlike yesterday, I can’t hold back my question, or at least a version of it. “Why do you get that look when I talk about my protein?”

“What look?”

“I don’t know. Like you don’t want me to make it for you or something. Or are you worried I can’t finish on time?”

His gives me a tight smile. “Elisa, I think you can do anything you set your mind on. And that’s not just a cliché boyfriends are supposed to say. I really believe that.”

“Then what is it?”

He tilts his head side to side, deliberating. I sip my tea to give him time, watching every flicker of emotion on his face. But it’s carefully composed. “I suppose I don’t want your second invention to be tied to me. You already tied your first protein to me for your green card—which you threw away.” He glares at me, but I don’t take the bait. “Staking a claim on this second one too . . . it feels unconscionable.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know how to answer that without breaking Corbin’s rule.”

A shiver whips through me, and I see him notice the new crop of goose bumps on my arms. A familiar bolt of fury strikes in his eyes as the jaw flexes—a fury I now know is not at me. It’s at himself.

“It’s in case we don’t win, isn’t it?” I whisper. “That’s why you look like that?”

“I don’t want your second invention tied to me,” he repeats. I take it as a yes.

“But it could help you even if . . . even if . . . that happens.” My voice breaks. I need the protein for myself, I need it for Dad, but I need it for Aiden more than anyone else. Because I can’t shake off the terror I feel for him if we lose. He has cashed in all his hopes and dreams on this final chance. What will happen to the man with the dimply smile, shy eyes, self-loving words, and peaceful sleep if we don’t win? It would kill him, James said. He’d rather die, Javier agreed. A snapshot of my nightmare—the worst one, Aiden’s cold lips—flashes in my vision, making my gasp. Is this what killed him in my dream? Because we didn’t win? Because I made just one vial of protein and he refused to take it from me?

Aiden brushes my arm, no doubt attributing my gasp to his words. “I’m sorry. Don’t mind the crackpot fool—negative thoughts are a hard habit to break. You keep working on your protein. And when you finish it, I’ll try it. But please do it for yourself and your father. Don’t stress yourself for me. Okay?” I hate that he is blaming himself for my terror. And I hate that I’m letting him do it. But I’d rather board the flight I took back to England a million times over than tell him about my nightmare.

“I’ll make it Skittle-flavored,” I offer to move away from these thoughts.

His lips lift in a true smile. “But I’m so attached to the cinnamon flavor of your first supplement. That’s why I changed my toothpaste.”

“It is?”

“Yes, it was all spearmint before you.”

I lean in and peck his lips. “Cinnamon then. But only because your mouth and I are back together.” I lie down and rest my head on his lap.

He chuckles and takes a picture of me, eyes shifting between the iPhone screen and my face. “What does a picture look like to you?” I ask him to distract myself from the odd sense of unease that creeps over me when he takes pictures. “Compared to your memory, I mean.”

He smirks. “The best analogy I have is the difference between a faded Xerox copy and a high-resolution photograph. Pictures are just copies; they lack the depth, the detail my mind absorbs from the moment.”

“And what does the original memory look like in your mind exactly?”

“Well, imagine pulling up that high-resolution image in Photoshop, and the app gives you options of filters to choose from. My memory works sort of like filters. I see you right now sharp and clear, but if you turn your head like this—like you were in Javier’s painting—a translucent filter falls over you, silver-white because he had made your skin look silver. So right this second, your skin looks like porcelain, shimmering with a silvery light. You take my breath away.”

He brushes his index finger over my jawline where he must see the silver veil while I marvel at the woman he paints, trying to grasp his mind. Tomorrow, for the first time, I get to see his brain. Truly see it in ultrasound. “So, if I’m understanding this right, if you were to see me when I’m all wrinkly and old, you would still see the young silver pretty me?”

He smiles. “You’re never just pretty. But other than that detail, yes, even at eighty-five, you will have the youthful filter for me. I’d see the wrinkles, but Javier’s filter would light you up, fade them if you will.”

“Wow.”

A loud whistle shrieks through the air then, startling a lark out of my beech tree.

“ISA! AIDEN!” Javier calls from what sounds as far as the willows. “REG TELLS ME WE HAVE TO ANNOUNCE OURSELVES, WHICH IS DISGUSTING.”

Aiden chuckles, looking in the direction of the howl with something like indulgence.

“Speaking of the genius. He thinks he owes me, but I’m the one who owes him for the most beautiful thing in my life.”

Jumping Aiden now is out of the question with Reagan and Javier emerging on the garden path. Reagan is wearing the most spectacular emerald hat with an enormous peacock feather so tall that it flutters above Javier’s head, tickling his hair so that every few steps he swats at it like a fly. I meet her eyes for an update but she shakes her head slightly with a sad smirk. Bollocks. Maybe we need more aggressive measures.

“How was the Inn?” I ask them as they plop on the blanket with us, thoughtfully giving Aiden his space. I push toward them the few scones, jam, and clotted cream that survived Aiden’s appetite.

Dios, it’s like a different world. I’ve already sketched it. Speaking of, Aiden, how much do we owe you to stay there for the next two weeks?” Javier asks, while sniffing the clotted cream with a suspicious look.

“You don’t owe me anything. It’s already paid for.”

“Told you,” Reagan chimes while loading a morsel of scone with a dollop of cream.

“I know it’s paid for but we want to reimburse you,” Javier presses.

“You’re not reimbursing me.”

“What the fuck? Yes, we are.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, we are. You’ve done way too much for us, I can’t accept this.”

“I haven’t done nearly enough and yes, you can accept it.”

Javier looks at me completely bewildered. “Isa, help me with your man. Speak his language. He seems to be taking this whole do-the-opposite thing literally.”

Reagan giggles, and I with her. Aiden just looks calmly at Javier who stares at all of us like we belong at the Burford Dementia Centre.

“Javier, sweetheart, you don’t argue with Aiden about money,” I explain. “Or really about anything. It’s a terrible, terrible idea that never ends well for anyone. You would do better if you ask him ‘why’ questions.”

“Thanks for giving out trade secrets, love,” Aiden says next to me, but he is smiling.

“And you,” I turn to him and the smile drops. “You will do better if you explain your reasons to Javier so he understands where you’re coming from.”

They both blink at each other, while Reagan almost chokes from laughing.

“Fine,” Javier starts. “Aiden?”

“Javier.” Aiden inclines his head.

Why do you not want us to pay you for the Inn?”

“At least five reasons. First, you are Elisa’s family, and I never let family pay for anything. Second, you have become my friends independently of Elisa and, as Cal will tell you, my friends also never pay for anything. Third, I’d like you to save your money now that you have your green card so that you can invest in your future and begin your new life. Fourth, the price of the Inn is nothing to me for the value of having you near while Elisa and I have our privacy. And fifth, as I was recently telling her, I’m the one who owes you for bringing us together in the first place.” He looks at me with an expression like, ‘how did I do?’ I squeeze his fingers to tell him he did very well indeed.

Javier blinks a few more times, speechless—a common side effect when one first experiences Aiden in full form—and eventually finds some words. “Well . . . that . . . okay then.”

Reagan claps, still laughing. “Well done, boys. Personally, I don’t see why it’s so hard but I also speak Aidenish well by now. I’m not as fluent as Isa, but I can definitely converse.”

It’s Aiden who chuckles first—a soft chuckle, nothing like the belly laughs James gives him, but it’s a happy sound. They laugh together as Reagan provides a dictionary of Aidenisms that she has developed in her head. “Yes, ‘hm’ usually means ‘I heard you, have already thought about it, but no.’ ‘Mm’ means ‘interesting idea, and worth considering, but still no.’ ‘Huh’ means ‘stupid idea, definitely no’ and ‘huh-uh’ means ‘get out of my face or you’ll burn alive.’ And the worst part is, he’s usually right. How did I do, Aiden?”

“Huh.”

“Shit, I went too far.”

“Mm.”

“Oh, okay, then. See, Javi? It’s easy.”

I watch them banter this way—learning each other, finding their own frequency, easing into each other’s orbit—and their constellation becomes so radiant that for a moment I have to close my eyes. Behind my eyelids, as though imprinted on the retinas, they are still laughing in this garden, but Mum and Dad are also here, on the wrought iron bench where they used to sit, smiling at us. The image is so stunning that I can’t breathe or open my eyes. How can I lose all this again? Make us brave, keep us together.

“Isa, did you fall asleep over there?” Javier asks while Aiden takes my hand. I swear he is feeling my pulse.

“Are you all right?” His voice is immediately anxious.

“I’m better than all right. But I’d like to take you three somewhere. Are you up for it? It’s a bit of a walk, like everything around here.”

“Will this hat work?” Reagan asks in complete seriousness. “Or should I change?”

Javier shakes his head with a chortle. “No way, Reg. The peacock feather screams countryside.”

“Shut up, Javi,” she retorts but I know her eyes. She is in so deep that even the most innocent tease from Javier hurts.

“The hat is perfect.” I smile at her. “You never know, you may run into your David Gandy while you’re here.”

“Oh, my goodness!” She gasps, as though she had forgotten the entire existence of her favorite male model.

“David who?” Javier pipes up.

I wink at her and scurry to the garden shed, trying to marshal the vortex of emotion. I don’t recognize my insides. Everything is a contradiction. Deliriously happy and utterly terrified.  At peace while fighting my biggest war. In love and loathing everything that conspires against us. I rummage through the tool rack, tossing items into my camping rucksack and needing to get through the periodic table a couple of times to fight off tears. I can just imagine Aiden’s panic if he finds me here falling apart. And I’m not falling apart because I’m upset. I’m falling apart because apparently there is such a thing as too much love.

By the time I drag my rucksack back to them, Reagan has regained her smile while Aiden and Javier are debating how many years Feign will get in prison.

“If my sources are right, it will be at least ten,” Aiden says. “He’ll never bother you again . . . Fuck, let me carry that.” He stands when he sees me and grabs my rucksack, which rattles with a metallic clang. “What the hell is in it?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out. Let’s go.” I pick up one of the American Beauty seedlings I bought from the Plemmonses, saving the other one. He takes that, too, lest I strain my back from carrying a single rosebud in a plastic pot.

We set off across the fields, the four of us. The village of Burford has never seen a stranger group, of that I’m certain. Reagan leads the way with her peacock feather; Javier next to her with a pencil above each ear and a cross-body satchel full of sketchbooks; Aiden in a white T-shirt, Raybans, and jeans, too beautiful to belong on this planet, let alone in my village, carrying a rose and a rucksack that clamors and bangs loudly with his long strides; and me tripping every few steps because I can’t tear my eyes away from the three of them.

“Will we be walking through town or anywhere we might need Benson?” Aiden asks under his breath.

I hook my arm in his—it’s turned into granite again. “No, just open fields and air. And the occasional deer.”

The tension of his arm softens. “I hope some day we never have to worry about this again.”

H-o-p-e. “I don’t feel deprived of anything. Besides, town is overrated. What are men to rocks and mountains?” I quote Elizabeth Bennett like we once did in his library.

He chuckles and kisses my hair, shortening his stride to match mine. “It’s beautiful here,” he says after a while, eyes roaming the open fields brimming with wildflowers, the river gliding next to us, the rolling shamrock hills like the curves of some earth mother goddess protecting all life within its valleys.

I lean my head against his arm, imagining that his simple observation means more, fantasizing that he wants my little village to be a beautiful home for a beautiful man. He has not mentioned me returning to the U.S. and neither have I. What can we possibly say? We both know where I live is irrelevant if we lose this fight. It’s not a question we can ask until we know our fate. But I wonder if his unerring eyes see the way my heart twists at the idea of abandoning the cottage or Oxford again. Has his quick mind already sensed another deadly war ahead even if we survive this one? A war that could spread my organs across two continents like I’d be blown up by mortar fire: bits of heart here, sponges of lungs there, never whole, never at rest.

“So does Gandy visit where we’re going, Isa?” Reagan calls over her shoulder as we cut across another field, this one carpeted with daisies and forget-me-nots.

“Will somebody tell me who the hell we’re talking about?” Javier demands.

“He is an exemplar of male beauty, Javi. That’s all you need to know.”

Aiden slows down until we fall back a few steps. “So, how would you feel about these two together?”

I yank his arm to a full stop. “You know?” I whisper.

He shrugs. “Of course.”

“How did you find out? Reg barely admitted it to me!”

“I have eyes, Elisa. It’s not that hard to figure out.”

“Not for you, maybe. Javier hasn’t got a clue.”

He starts walking again, eyes on Javier’s back. “I don’t know about that. I just don’t think he’s willing to see.”

“Same difference. Meanwhile, Reg is in hell.”

“Yes, I recognize the symptoms. Give them time. They’ll figure it out.”

“I’m not sure they will. I don’t think Javier envisions a love life for himself at all.”

Aiden laughs. “Elisa, he’s a man. I guarantee you he envisions a love life. Whether he goes after it is a different question.”

“I’m starting to think he won’t though. He’s convinced himself he has nothing to offer. He’s almost as self-loathing as you.”

“You know what to do with these self-loathing men, Elisa?”

“What?”

“Add self-love.” He winks, his eyes instantly catching fire at the memory of our game.

I grip his arm. “Don’t joke about that right now. Please help me make Javier see.”

“What could I possibly do about it? The man has to want it, Elisa. And I can see his point to a degree. Wanting to build some security, to be able to provide for his family before he gets involved.”

“Reg doesn’t care about any of that.”

“But he does, my love. It’s important to him.”

“Are we still talking about Javier?”

He smiles with the dimple. “Yes, we are, but I understand him on this point. You and I have serious problems, but at least I’m able to protect you from everything except myself. That’s important to me and I’m certain it’s important to a traditional man like Javier.”

I watch Javier duck away from Reagan’s feather as she skips past him playing with a daisy.

“Trust me on this one,” Javier’s new comrade-in-arms insists. “Javier has to be ready on his own. And if you need more proof, I draw your attention to exhibit one.” He points at the center of his chest, in the exact counter-spot where the raw wound used to hurt me two days ago.

“But in the meantime Reg is hurting,” I argue. “And Javier would hurt too if he knew he is hurting her.”

Aiden sighs. “And you would hurt with them. All right, at least give him these two weeks. Maybe being in this romantic place will trigger something. And if not, I’ll help you. I have no fucking clue how, but I’ll try. Is that better?”

I grin at him, watching his lips lift into a mirroring smile. As unfathomable as Aiden’s mind is, there is a simple axiom at the very kernel of its existence: to protect me, he would do anything.

“You think this place is romantic?” I kiss the spot above his elbow where my lips reach—his golden skin is warm from the sun.

He laughs. “Don’t read too much into that. I also used to think a sand ditch in Iraq was romantic when I was writing your letters. So I’m not to be trusted with the concept.”

A fiery field of poppies ripples around us now. The flowers brush against Aiden’s jeans like Marilyn lips. I watch the soldier who believes he doesn’t understand romance step carefully not to crush the blooms. Then I watch the man who doesn’t need photographs snap a selfie of the two of us parting the poppy sea. And despite the ice trickling down my neck at the camera’s click, I smile. Because this is the kernel of my existence: for him to see himself clearly, I would do anything.

We leave the poppy field behind and I lead them up the hill. For a while speaking becomes difficult from the climb and, in my case, from what the hill means.

“I’m very curious to see where you’re taking us,” Aiden says in perfectly even tone, despite carrying a rucksack full of metal, while the rest of us are huffing and puffing.

“We’re almost there.”

As I say the words, however, a current of panic courses through me. Was this a good idea for Aiden? Will it trigger anything? I stumble at the thought but he catches me gently at the elbow. “Careful, love.”

“How are you feeling?” I ask him.

He frowns at my sudden question. “As I always do with you. Calm. Why?”

“Just checking.”

I hesitate where I am—wanting this deeply, but also wanting only happy memories for him. Javier and Reagan stop with us, clutching their sides. I contemplate turning around, but then, right above us, a beam of sun breaks over the summit. A single, brilliant ray like a halo over the crest. It blinds me to everything else, even the three people next to me, and I start climbing in a trance, as though the beam is a gravitational string made of the most dazzling starlight, pulling me to the peak. I can’t hear Aiden, Javier, or Reagan behind me—I can’t hear anything. Just Mum’s voice crooning like in our home movies, “keep going, Elisa.”  My feet gather speed like last time and I break into a run. The wind flings my hair, the sun blinds my eyes, but I’m air. Just air trying to float to the heavens above. Then with one leap, I’m on the tiny crest meadow.

Under the cypress tree, the white marble tombstone glimmers and sparkles like always. And, as always, I can’t breathe.

Aiden reaches me in a blink. I know because even though my eyes are fixed on the shimmery grave, I sense his presence like a shield right next to me. It blasts away the chills, releases my lungs, and fortifies my knees. He doesn’t speak, but he wraps his strong arm around my shoulders, holding me up, standing so close that I only have to tilt my head and it leans on him. And all the grief, all this implacable loss, all this anguish are also now resting on him, on his iron shoulders carrying this sorrow with me. The agony splits by half so my knees don’t give out like they did when I last came here. My body doesn’t break into dry sobs. And my voice doesn’t disappear. I can stand, I can breathe, I can form thought, even if I can’t speak.

Javier and Reagan appear to my right. I feel Reagan’s hand on my hair and Javier’s fingers around mine. And the climbing roses on the marble flutter with the breeze. Hello.

“Hello,” I whisper back.

The rose buds have now opened into white miniature rosettes, each like a smile, flittering with a “come here” gesture. It releases my feet and I walk to the tomb on my own power. The roses sway when I reach them. I notice our four shadows fall over the sparkling stone, the tallest right next to me. Below the roses, on the marble is the vial of dried rose and Aiden’s dog tags that I last left here. I can’t blink away from my parents’ names to look at him. I test the words in my mouth before I speak. They’re there, I just have to breathe.

“Mum, Dad,” I tell them even though I know they cannot hear. “This is Aiden . . . and Reagan and Javier.”

The rosettes wave.

The first sound registers in my ears. Reagan’s sniffle. I watch her shadow remove the hat, Javier’s shadow pat her shoulder, and Aiden’s shadow pull mine close, his arms folding around me until our two shadows become one that looks like a distorted heart.

Other sounds enter then. Aiden’s strong heartbeat, thudding fast like mine. The warble of the lark that lives in the cypress tree. The whoosh of the hilltop wind. And more words come.

“This place is where they had their first date,” I say, noticing my voice is not a whisper anymore, just a quiet key.

“It’s beautiful,” all three of them answer in unison.

“The four of us are the only ones alive who know that.”

None of them says anything but strangely it’s as though their silence finally allows me to talk in this place. Actually talk. “Everyone in town thought I had gone mental insisting they rest here, away from everything. Of course, I was mental so they gave in to me. I think it turned out well. I think they like this.”

“Of course they do,” says Reagan.

“I brought them something this time. This American Beauty rose from all of us. Will you help me plant it here?”

And they do. I hear Aiden unzip the rucksack, no doubt realizing the racket inside was a hand spade and shovel, a large stainless steel water bottle, and a bag of enriched dirt.  We start then—all four of us together. Javier’s callused hands, Reagan’s delicate alabaster ones, Aiden’s strong fingers, and mine that look exactly like Mum’s. We dig the small hole in the grass at the foot of the marble, and I lower the seedling into it, covering its delicate roots with dirt and watering it. We use the rest of the water to wash our hands. In the end, the little seedling sways in the breeze.

“Want to sit here for a while?” I invite them, eyes still on the stone. “I know it’s strange but . . . it’s the only time I’ve actually been able to truly visit.”

As one, they sink on the grass around the seedling with me. After a while, we start chatting, not an involved conversation—just bits of thought and feeling. Javier draws a rough sketch of the cottage and tucks it with the rose vines. Reagan digs her favorite British toffee out of her purse and places it on the marble. And Aiden opens his wallet and takes out a familiar strip of waxy paper—“Love me for love’s sake only”—the very first quote Baci chocolates gave him on our embargo day. To my utter shock, a smile finds me here. He has kept it all this time and now secures it under the vial of his dog tags and dried rose.

I look up at his face, recalling my fear of whether this would trigger bad memories for him. But he is entirely here with me, from his tender eyes to his hands like strongholds around my waist. And this moment will live on in him, with every pixel of ache and beauty.

“This isn’t a happy memory for you,” I say.

“It’s better than that. It’s precious.”

“I’m sorry about the dog tags. I was trying to leave you behind. You should have them back.” I try to get out of his hold but his arms tighten around me like a fortress.

“Don’t think about that now. Let them stay here, in this special place with your parents. Hopefully that part of me will be at rest, too.”

H-o-p-e again. I look at the seedling, feeling something germinate in my lungs and wind up my throat like the rose’s tendril. It’s a singular, curious sensation—like a tickle, wrapped in warmth, swarming with butterflies. Light like a breeze, yet mighty too, as though it could parachute me straight up. I try to understand what it is. Sunrays shatter into millions of crystals around the epitaph: “Amor Vincit Omnia.” Love conquers all. And I find a name for the tendril. Odd that I should find it here in this place with so much pain, loss, and time long gone. A place of so many four-letter words.

“I hope it does,” I answer Aiden a little late. Here, by my most tragic loss, H-O-P-E joins my side. Or perhaps I join it.

The way back down the hill is easier. Not just physically, but emotionally too. So different than the two other times I’ve stumbled down this trail. By the time we’ve reached the open fields again, I feel light—like the tendril of hope is parachuting me above ground.

“Feeling a little better?” Aiden asks as we stroll across the poppy field back to the cottage.

“Yes. I actually feel happy in an odd way. Everyone I love now has met each other.”

I smile at Reagan picking poppies ahead of us, while Javier opines that she should balance out the red only with dark grass. To which she replies, “you should balance out your dark grass with red.”

“Good one, Reg,” I cheer for her under my breath as she fluffs her flame of red curls. But her euphemism flies right over Javier’s raven-black waves.

“Elisa?” Aiden pulls me by the elbow. I look up at him, tripping to a stop not because of his gentle hold, but because of his face. It’s always stunning but there are some moments, like right now, when it looks surreal.

“Yes?” I breathe.

“How would you feel about meeting my parents?”

Can one trip while standing perfectly frozen? Seems like I can. “What?”

He smiles patiently, giving me time to process.

“Are you serious?”

“Very.”

“B-but . . . they’re in Portland.” Of all the thoughts scrambling in my brain, this is the one my mouth picks.

He chuckles. “Elisa, to meet you, they’d swim over, let alone take a flight.”

“They know about me?” Maybe I should sit down, if I could move.

“They do. I told them after you left when I asked them to shelter the Solises.”

He gives me another moment to process, which is good because I need it. Aiden has isolated his parents since he attacked his mother when he returned from Iraq twelve years ago. Our conversation about this during the drive to his Alone Place might as well be blaring through foghorns over the poppy field. He doesn’t see them—only speaks to them occasionally by phone or other safe methods of communication that do not expose them to his startle reflex and him to the excruciating memory of hurting his own mum.

“I . . . I didn’t realize you’re reconnecting with them,” I manage. “That’s wonderful, Aiden.”

He shrugs with a small smile. “You told me I can’t shut them out. You said someday they will be gone and nothing will be able to take my grief away.” He quotes my words verbatim, of course.  “I thought a lot about that after you left. And then seeing you just now, how close you still are to your parents even though they have passed, made me think you’re right about this too, like you have been about a lot of things.”

I stare at him, unable to voice all the emotion inside. When I still can’t speak, he continues. “I know it makes no practical sense for you to meet each other now if in eighty-nine days you and I . . .” His eyes fall on the immediate goose bumps that sprout on my arms and he rubs them gently. “But somehow that makes it even more important that you meet. That we try this normal life thing to the fullest.”

Finally my brain is able to string together the biggest question—the one that is ruling them all. “Do you want me to meet them? Or is this for me . . . or Corbin?”

“All three. I find that I want you to know them, and them you. I want them to meet the woman I love, no matter what happens in the end. I really haven’t given them many moments of joy in life as a son should. And I might never be able to, except this time with you.”

Except now—this present moment we may never get again.

“And I suppose I thought you would want this, too,” he adds. “To meet everyone we love. Do you?”

His question—as though he still cannot believe I would want every speck of him, let alone such a core part—releases my words. “Of course I do, Aiden. I’d love to meet your parents. I just want to make sure you’re doing the right thing for you, not because you feel you have to do it for me.”

The dimple winks in his cheek, lifting his beautiful mouth into a moon of a smile. “This is the right thing for me. You’re teaching me that—you take these memories in life, no matter how ugly and you make them beautiful. I guess I want to do the same.”

“Well then,” I take his hand in both of mine as I did yesterday. “Let’s welcome your parents.”

He laughs with that pure waterfall sound. “Really?”

“Yes, really.”

He runs his hand through his hair, looking around like he wishes someone was close to hear this. But Reagan and Javier are in the distance, plopped under the shade of an enormous oak, waiting for us. Aiden laughs again. “Fuck, I better give a heads-up to my mother’s cardiologist. She might need him.”

He tucks my arm in his and we start walking again. His step is quicker, lighter somehow.

“So when would they come?” I ask, nerves already starting to creak. How will it be meeting the genetic forces that created Aiden? What do they think of our experiment? Of their only son being in this far-flung village, thousands of miles away in another fight for his future, maybe even life?

“Well, if it were up to my mother, they’d get here tomorrow. But I was thinking it might be better after Reagan and Javier leave, so you can have something to look forward to. That way, we’ll also have family and friends around for about half of the summer.”

The easier half. He knows neither of us will be in any shape for company during the second half as the ninety days run out. “Very thoughtful.”

“What’s that in your voice? Are you nervous?”

“A little bit.”

He laughs. “Don’t worry—I’ll keep my mother in check.”

“No, don’t. She must miss you so much. Let this be special for her too,” I tell him, unable to ask my hardest question. But his inconveniently observant eyes have already seen it.

“So if that’s not worrying you, what is?” He tips up my face so I can look into his eyes and, on cue, the question blurts out.

“What do your parents think about us being together? With everything we have to overcome, I mean.” With how much there is at stake if we don’t, I add in my head. He must hear the unspoken part too because the tectonic plates shift in his eyes as he retrieves his answer.

“I won’t lie, they’re worried. Worried about both you and me if I were to . . . again. But they’re also ecstatic that I’ve found someone who has given me a reason to fight and take care of my health. So I’d describe it as joyful terror. A bit like us.”

Oddly his words make me smile despite the f-e-a-r. Because it’s similar to the reaction I see in Javier’s and Reagan’s eyes. And it’s the same reaction Mum and Dad would have had, of that I’m certain. Desolately terrified and deliriously happy—unable to help us with anything but their love. Could our families’ unconditional and undying love be a weapon? Could it help Aiden and me in the same mystical way that Für Elise does—ways science can’t explain because they’re written in the stars?

“And if you’re also nervous about whether my parents will like you—although I cannot imagine your brain forming such a ridiculous thought—of course they will. How could they not?” adds the man who literally has Javier’s magic filter over my face.

“Hmm,” is the only answer I give him.

“Is that an Aidenism?”

“Definitely.”

He laughs, clueless that my brain is more than capable of such questions. Will they like me? What do they think of their son falling for someone with her own trauma? Someone who lives so far away? Someone who—if they knew the full truth—believed their son to be such a monster that she left him and wasted his one million dollars?  But none of my insecurities matter in this bigger constellation we are charting. They’re trivial compared to the brightest thing: Aiden is letting more love in his life.

“All right, tell me more about your parents. Robert and Stella. Tell me everything.”

“Well, this is their last year before retirement . . .” he starts as we make our way to Reagan and Javier. I listen to every word, picking some wilted poppies. No reason to end the young, pretty ones. But wilted poppies have their own beauty too. They’re not bubbly and cheerful, but their swan necks have their own grace—they have survived the wind.

With each withered bloom, I tick off our new list of allies and weapons: our love, Aiden’s strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love if we can grow it, our families, the team of scientists, these mystical gifts from our stars—my calming effect from Javier’s genius, the protein from Dad, and Für Elise from Mum—and now H-O-P-E. Will they be enough for the unfathomable enemy before us, lurking, waiting to strike? Because strike it will.

“Why are you picking only the dead ones?” Aiden asks looking at the eleven wilted poppies I’ve collected.

“They’re not dead. They’re wise.”

He laughs again, and I listen to the sound floating free over the poppy field with the gentle breeze. I add a twelfth withered poppy—laughter has to be a weapon too.

“You two look like you belong in a Shakespeare sonnet or a Jane Austen novel,” Reagan grins when we reach the two of them under the oak tree.

“Shakespeare was an idiot,” I respond.

All three of them lecture me about my issues with the overrated fool all the way home. But they did not hear the chilling whisper that deafened my ears despite my bouquet of allies and the tendril of hope: these violent delights and have violent ends.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 14 – SLEEP

Hi all,

Of all the chapters I’ve written about Aiden and Elisa, this one is the closest to my heart. I hope it is the same for you too. Enjoy and thank you as always for reading, commenting, and following. xo, Ani

 

14

Sleep

The last time the cottage was this crowded and cheery was when Mum and Dad invited thirty of their Oxford friends for a Christmas toast three weeks before the accident. Sure, now there are only six of us, but Aiden, James, and Benson are so tall and muscular for the cottage that each of them counts for at least three professors or seven Grahams. Benson in fact is sitting on cushions on the floor, too self-aware to risk crushing the small furniture, for which I’m grateful. Javier is in my dad’s armchair, laughing and clinking ale mugs with Benson, and my eyes keep flitting to him every few minutes. How perfectly the universe can reform—some new stars find the orbit of the older ones, gravitating there so naturally, it feels as though the old and the new stars merge, neither gone, both shining. And then there is Reagan perched on Mum’s chair, playing with her new hat purchases. She quibbles with Javier about whether she will be able to fit them all in her suitcases (“you’ve lost your mind, Reg, it’s spatially impossible.” “I’ll just pack them in your suitcases then; I’m sure your T-shirts will love some diversity.” “My T-shirts are vintage, thank you, they say soul.” “They say bored.”) The two of them sound like a young version of the Plemmonses—a star pair that is not arriving perhaps because the ancient stars are still blinking. Then there are James and Aiden—bold twin stars—taking up the whole sofa so that the only place left for me is on Aiden’s lap, rotating around him like a moon. And that place suits me just fine. Because his arms are around me, and the sound of his deep voice reverberates through the crisp linen of his shirt and the thin cotton of my dress straight into my heart. His waterfall laughter at James’ jokes is my favorite star frequency: every time it breaks over him and his ribcage pushes against mine, my own lungs vibrate with his carefree sound. Every so often, his fingertips brush my leg inconspicuously, or his lips press on my hair, or his hand tightens on my hip—a silent conversation we are having, a postscript to the chatter around us. You ok? Yes, you? Perfect with you on me. Sleep is almost here. I know, love, present moment. I like this present moment. One of my favorites, too.

And all around us is the stardust—wiped clean plates of Javier’s carnitas, ale mugs and bottles, Mum and Dad’s vinyl records playing oldies, their photographs on the walls sprinkling smiles above our heads, and the rose-scented breeze wafting through the windows.

Life restarts. Even for me.

“I better go pack to take the suitcases at the hotel. Sounds like my T-shirts are about to be evicted.” Javier stands, clueless of Reagan’s emerald eyes following him.

“I’ll be right back,” I tell Aiden and follow Javier upstairs. Except in my case, every cell of me feels Aiden’s gaze climbing these stairs with me.

Javier is rolling up his T-shirts into tight balls when I walk into the guest room filled with roses. For a moment I wish we could all just sleep here on top of each other, like children at summer camp. Aiden and Javier would find a way to protect us. Except my playtime with Aiden would give Javier a stroke.

“Hey, amorcita,” he grins at me. I walk straight into his arms, and he hugs me, tugging my hair. “What’s up?”

“Nothing, I just love you. Thank you for accepting Aiden like you did.”

He plops on the bed, patting the spot next to him. When I perch there, he takes my hands in his.

“Isa, you’re smiling.”

“Yes.”

“And you love Aiden.”

“More than anything.”

“And he loves you like a lunatic, that’s obvious.”

“Yes, he does.”

“And you’re scared.”

“Yes.” I whisper so quietly, afraid of speaking the word into this new reformed universe until I finish my protein.

Javier throws his arm over my shoulders—his peppermint smell so much like Dad’s after-eights in the library downstairs. “You know, I’m scared for both of you, too. But remember that Spartan warrior painting we saw at the Portland Art Museum? Well, Aiden makes that dude look like a wimp. Isa, he mobilized the U.S. Congress for me. Can you imagine what he would do for you? I think he loves you so much, he’d rather die than lose this fight. We just have to keep the faith, amorcita.”

Chills whip over my skin and my throat twists shut so abruptly I can’t breathe. The new universe is cruel in its beauty too, aligning with vicious symmetry my brother and Aiden’s brother to say on the same day that our love could finish Aiden.

Then I’d die with him, too, I answer Javier in my head—Romeo and Juliet’s love moving the stars and sun now, not Dante’s words. I don’t know what that end would look like, but I know I heard that boulder prophecy because it’s inside me. Because death can look different than a dagger to the chest or poison to the lips, can’t it? Sometimes the surest death is the one that tears apart your very heart.

“And now you two have all of us,” Javier continues when I say nothing. “Aiden is gathering the forces, sweetheart, he knows how to fight. And Reg and I can stay longer or come back if you need us until you two sort this out. Okay?”

I like the sound of that. Keeping them all here with me. But this reminds me.

“What about you, Javi?” I use Reagan’s nickname for him intentionally. “Where are we going to find you one of these big loves?”

He chuckles. “Oh, you know me, I’ll just draw her.” And he starts rolling up his T-shirts again. I help him pack, biting my lip. How do you make someone so loving see love through a different prism?

“She might be real,” I say, folding his socks into balls.

“Yea, and I’m sure the first guy all real girls want is a recent inmate with no college degree, four little sisters, and a paralyzed dad to care for. Isa, Aiden’s love has made you drunk.” He zips up his suitcase, tugs my hair again, and walks out of the room.

“You are rare,” I call behind him but, if he hears me, he doesn’t answer. Why do all good men hate themselves? This will be my next protein if I survive: self-love.

I pick up a T-shirt Javier forgot to pack and hug it. Here is the price of living in the shadows all your life: even when you come out into the light, you cannot see it. If an entire system treats you like nothing, you will believe you are nothing even when you are so many somethings that mean more than everything.

I grab one of the vases of fresh roses and make my way down the hall to the bedroom where Aiden and I will sleep tonight. Every part of me tingles. I change the sheets so he has fresh ones for his first sleep with someone. The new sheets have a faint scent of the dried rose sachets Mum used for our drawers. I sniff at it deeply. Help us, Mum. Help us with your magic. I set the vase of roses on his nightstand, fill the pitcher with fresh water, and place a Baci next to it.

Downstairs, Benson and James are helping Javier and Reagan with their suitcases and Aiden with his, in this little exchange of guests that will give me my dream tonight and hopefully give Reagan a chance.

“I better head out too,” James says. “Early day tomorrow.”

“James, wait. I have something for you,” I tell him and flit to my Dad’s library.

When I come back out, they are all filing out of the door, laughing about Benson needing to exit sideways. James is not in much better shape; he has to duck so he doesn’t hit his head against the doorframe. He and Aiden are laughing on the threshold and I wish I had my phone to capture it. Or to have eidetic memory just for Aiden’s laughter in this moment—a man-to-man smirk, some synaptic bond forged in the fires of Iraq that will always elude me. Or maybe it’s just another dick joke.

“Here you go.” I hand James the package when I reach them. “Sorry about the girly rose paper. Everything is made of roses here.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Elisa. Cal is really a woman.” Aiden chuckles and pulls me against his side. James tears the paper with what might be a smile—it’s hard to tell with the Viking beard.

“A book?” He sounds perplexed.

“Not just any book. It’s my Dad’s secret fly-fishing guide about River Spey. And that bookmark is his favorite fly he fished there. He said he always hooked something with it. I hope that river gives you better fish than this one did.”

Aiden’s hand tightens on my waist as James pats my shoulder. My knees buckle under the weight of his hand. “You’re a little pest, aren’t you? Making me like you and shit. Well, thank you. I’ll let you know how it goes when we get back.” Then he turns to Aiden. “You are fucked.” And with another barking laugh, he follows Javier, Reagan, and Benson into the garden.

“See you in the morning, Isa.” Javier and Reagan wave, and the four of them disappear down the dark path to pile on Benson’s rental van across Elysium. And then all that’s left are the roses, the night, and my North Star.

I turn to him slowly, our bodies so close together on the small doorstep that our clothes and sneakers are already kissing. Half of him is candlelight gold from the foyer chandelier, the other half dark silver from the moon. He is watching me with a powerful emotion, too powerful for me to grasp, except a flicker of shyness in his eyes I have never seen before.

“That was very kind of you,” he says, and it’s there in his voice, too. A very rare note of nervousness for Aiden.

“James has been very kind to us.”

“Yes, he has,” he murmurs.

“Well then,” I answer, caressing his scar, tracing the L with my finger.

“There’s still time, love.” His knuckles brush against my cheek, and I know he is offering, maybe pleading, for another delay. But the urgency to live, to have every second of these ninety days together has become too potent for rational decisions, no matter how safe they might be.

“No, Aiden, there isn’t. The time is now.”

He smiles, tracing my lips with his thumb. “You are so brave, Elisa. You don’t need your protein at all.”

I want to tell him I’m not brave. I want to tell him how terrified I am. Terrified for him, for us. Terrified of the end, of these dark prophecies I hear in boulders and camera clicks. Terrified of missing a single blink of him. Terrified of everything. Except one.

“I’m never afraid of you,” I say, placing my hand over his heart. It’s thundering, and he shudders at my touch. “We are part of each other.”

His dark-and-light smile breaks over his face. And in a blink he bends and sweeps me off my feet into his arms.

“Bed,” he says over my squeal, exactly as he did in his homecoming war letter, and carries me over the threshold, kicking the door closed behind us.

I don’t know how he finds his way up the narrow stairs, soldered as our mouths are to each other, but he does it without hitting our heads once.

“Which door?” he asks against my lips at the landing, his breathing rough like mine.

“Behind me.”

He kicks it open and we both pause at this second threshold. I know the white king bed I just made with the rose quilt. The crystal lamps on the mahogany nightstands now holding fresh roses, the gauzy white curtains billowing with the evening breeze from the open window. I know them because they were my parents’, and now they are ours.

Aiden’s arms tighten around me. “Should I be expecting lightning bolts in addition to Mr. Plemmons’ cane?”

I giggle, bringing his mouth back to mine. “You barmy old fool. Don’t you know the roses will protect us?”

He laughs as he carries me over this threshold too and sets me down at the foot of the bed. “My dear Mrs. Plemmons, where do I start with you?”

But he knows exactly where to start. With his eyes that ignite a wildfire from the split ends of my hair to my curled toes. He stands right in front me, towering in his full height, and places his phone and other things I cannot bother to register on the dresser behind him. Then, eyes never leaving mine, he throws about six condoms on the bed next to me.

“In case we can’t sleep.” He winks while I check the condoms did not spontaneously combust. For the first time since I met him, I hope we only get to use one or two, three at most.

He steps out of his sneakers and socks, takes off his shirt, and removes his boxers and jeans—his body materializing inch after inch. My skin bursts into flames but I can’t blink away from him to check for smoke.

“I’ll never tire of that look,” he says, his smile pulling up his soft, cupid lips at the left corner while my breath stops completely.

“Come to me,” I mouth, my hands gripping the quilt in little fists.

He parts my sneakers slowly with his bare foot while the sight of his toes launches a blast of sparks to the bottom of my belly, and then kneels between my legs. My hips lurch forward to meet him, but his rests his palms on my knees, steadying the trembles that have already started.

“Slow,” he murmurs, and his hands trail down to my sneakers. He takes them off gently but wherever his fingertips touch, a new fire starts—around my ankle, at the tips of my toes, my heels. His fingers glide up now, light like the cool breeze wafting through the window. I try to feel only that breeze as a new flame erupts at each point of contact. He peels off my dress but even the brush of the soft cotton against me makes me shiver. Everything feels more intense than any other time between us—the fire, his touch, his smell—I don’t understand why. Is it because in so many ways this is like our first night? Is it because we’re here in my home, in this bedroom? Is it because of the day we had, just Aiden and me with people we love and no rules? I don’t know, but my head starts to whirl as the dress finally slips off and his face is so close that his breath warms my lips. Even his beauty is more intense—my eyelids flutter as though I’m staring into the star’s very halo. I find the cool breeze again and open my eyes. It’s good and bad. Good because I can’t miss a blink of tonight. Bad because the fire in his eyes doubles my burning.  His fingertips trace the lace of the bra—the one that matches his eyes—and it snaps off, releasing a wisp air into my lungs, which disappears in seconds again as he slides the lace straps off my shoulders, down my arms, and onto the floor.

“Ah, all of this under your dress,” he says, brushing his knuckles lightly like feathers over my breasts. A shudder rips through me and I almost flop backwards on the bed but he catches me and lays me down gently. “Better?” he asks, climbing between my legs, parting them with his knee.

“Closer,” I whisper, unsure whether I’m ordering or answering him. The ceiling is twirling. I catch the breeze again, but his eyes descend over me like fire, from my lips to the precise center between my legs where the flames are spiraling into a pulsating fireball. My hips arch of the bed straight into his waiting hands.

“These are torturing us both, aren’t they?” His fingers hook under the lace of my knickers, and he slides them off slowly. Then he bends down, skimming his nose exactly where the knickers were.  “Ah,” he sighs as my hips try to fly off again but he is prepared for that. His grip has secured them to the mattress. I can’t move. I search for the cool breeze but I can only feel his nose circling the little inferno and then tracing a straight line upward, over my belly, between my breasts, along my throat until his body covers mine, the dusting of hair like live wires against my skin.

“Aiden, please!” I gasp, trying to twine my arms and legs around him, but he has tangled them with his. His thigh is pressing between mine firmly, making every cell throb. I reach for him with the only things I can move, my lips. But the moment our mouths touch, his lips brush along my jawline to my ear.

“Slow, love, I want to take this slow.” His teeth graze my earlobe. How can I have chills up here and raging fires down there?

“But I might set the cottage on fire.”

I feel his smile as he kisses the spot below my ear. “You don’t think I’d ever let you burn, do you?”

I’m already cinder, I want to say, but he gives me his mouth. I drink him in like he is a spring of glacier water. He makes each second last a minute, an hour, until I no longer count time between his body and mine. I measure time with us—flesh intervals between blistering heartbeats. Our mouths and tongues move together, taste bud to taste bud. If I live a million years and sample the world, I still will not be able to describe Aiden’s taste. Or the way his tongue moves like it’s alive. The way it knows my mouth, the way it catches all my syllables and sighs.

“I missed your taste, Elisa. I know it better than mine,” he murmurs against my lips, stealing all my words, as his fingers start a stroll of their own. Tracing along each blue vein that is hurtling lifeblood to all the fires. Gliding over each curve, goose bump to goose bump.

“And your skin, so soft, so warm, like a welcome.” His fingers trace the inside of my thigh, each fingertip a spark, while his mouth glides down my throat, dropping kisses like hot plumes on my feverish skin. Then in a blink, he brushes his knuckles between my legs. I roll frantically against his hand as the inferno starts spreading little licks of flames everywhere waist down.

“You are my home,” he continues, and his mouth closes on a nipple at the same time his fingers slide in. I cry out his name—it zooms around the room and out the window like I’m his homing beacon. Because he is right. My body molds to his fingers exactly like it was built for his hand. And his fingers move like they know every threshold, every secret nook, every spot of warmth. My hips move with them, umbilically corded to him. When his fingers circle, so do my hips, when he presses down, they tilt. His fingers say come here and my hips listen. His fingers tap and my hips shimmy and shiver.

In the same path, his mouth trails over my belly, planting wet kisses lower and lower until finally it closes around me with the same pressure as his fingers. Each flick of the tongue rings a doorbell. Each circle of his fingers is a knock. And my legs fall open like doors at his arrival. My foundations start to shake exactly as in his war letter.

“What took you so long?” I whimper the words he wrote.

I feel his smile against me, his lips opening with mine. I hook my fingers in his hair—support beams for the earthquake of his homecoming. The pressure of his mouth increases. Flicks, circles, kisses. My whole body is aquiver. Each wall and chamber shakes, and I don’t know: is he the one arriving or am I the one going home? It doesn’t matter though because either way I free-fall. Spiraling, each nerve an epicenter, earthquakes radiating from my eyelids to my curled toes. Then everything crumbles and I’m gone.  With his name on my lips, exactly as he wrote.

Aiden, Aiden, Ai-den.

Somehow he puts me back together. He rebuilds me with soft, hushing kisses. He pastes the crumbles with his tongue, resets the plaster with his lips over my breasts, my throat, my jaw, my cheeks. His hands mold the foundations back together, flesh brick after flesh brick. And his fingers etch all my curves, cinching my waist, rounding my hips, arcing over my neck. His mouth on my mouth is a door. His tongue on my tongue, a garden path. His eyes on my eyes are windows. Until piece after piece, my body builds again. For him.

And he is on top of me, but I don’t feel his weight. Only his heated skin, the sagebrush of his hair, and the hardened lines of his body. Here and there, his muscles twitch like a wink.

“Hi,” I tell him, running my fingers through his hair. He shudders.

“Hi.” His voice is husky and gravelly with his own need.

“That was some homecoming.”

He smiles as another shudder ripples through him. “I haven’t come . . . home. Yet.” I get lost in his darkened, hooded eyes. No, he hasn’t. This was all for me.

“Then come,” I say, twining my arms and legs around him.  “Come home like you do in your letters.”

I grasp him with my hands the way he has shown me. He surges forward and a droplet of liquid bubbles on him like a diamond. On impulse, I brush it with the tip of my finger like he does with my tears and bring the finger to my mouth. Ah, the taste. I open my eyes that I did not know I had closed to reach for more but he has transformed. Half-animal, half-man. A deep growl whirls in his chest. The sound vibrates straight down to my epicenter, and my hips lurch up to meet him. For a precious blink, I brush up against him, skin on skin. But he’s too fast. In another blink he’s covered.

“I loathe using this with you,” he hisses with venom.

I loathe it too. Every cruel latex atom of it. “Monday . . . pill . . . me,” is all I can manage because in another syllable, he is inside, and words become scrambled. An anagram of his name and moans. I arch toward him, but he locks down my hips.

“All of me,” he says, his voice dark and guttural.  He secures my legs around his waist and rises up on his knees until the only parts of me left on the bed are my head and shoulders. Everything else is pressed against him. But despite his support, my body is shaking. I grip his wrists for balance, trying to breathe through the feeling of him this far, in this new upside-down.

“Beautiful, Elisa,” he says gently despite the strain in his voice. “Hold on to me. Breathe.”

But my lungs are not working—every part of me is full. Full of him, full of trembles, full of fire. It takes several heartbeats for me to find air.

“There,” he says, watching, noticing every movement of my body. “Now, you breathe, I’ll move. And when I do this . . .” he pushes a little further into me, causing my breath to stop again. “You do that.” His fingers tap my hips, teaching me how to relax.

It takes a lot more heartbeats for my body to open to him like this. More of his patience, his gentle instruction, a shift here, a tilt there, a pause to let me adjust. But no pain—never that. Only us expanding, taking each other into our deepest parts, and locking each other there in a hermetic touch.

“Perfect. Now hold. Feel.” His voice is rough, sliced between his teeth. “It’s just all of you and all of me. Farther than we’ve ever been. Isn’t that beautiful?”

It is, I want to say. It’s exactly as it should be. But I’m beyond things like speech. The only sounds that come out are garbled sighs, but he must understand because his hands tighten on my shaky hips.

“Now this,” he says, pushing into me. “Is my home.”

Welcome, I think. Welcome, welcome, welcome. But all that comes out is “mmm.”

“I’m going to move now, love. Stop me if it’s too much.”

And Aiden starts to move. Gently at first while I vibrate, trying not to faint. Then his rhythm picks up. Some moves are slow but so deep we both stop breathing. Others are faster, quick and shallow like our gasps. Then he combines them, shallow-slow, shallow-fast, deep-slow, deep-fast—his tempo rising until I get lost. Lost in the darkness of my shut eyes. In the space between breaths. In the feeling of our bodies fused so close together, I no longer know where he ends and I begin. There are several heartbeats when I have no sense of direction or time. Only fragments of awareness between thrusts.  As though each time he moves inside me, he sends an electric current to my mind, bringing me back. But then abruptly there is a change. My body catches up, finds a new bubble of space, and molds around him. No struggle, no ache, just wavelets of pleasure lapping against him as though I’m the sea and he is the shore.

He feels the change too. “Ah, Elisa,” he moans and then starts to move with abandon. With perfect clarity, my senses absorb everything this time. The sound of our voices, the words we gasp to each other. The harsh breathing tearing the air. His mouth, his shut eyes. The ripples that descend over him. And the end begins for us both. My body breaks first in the most intense climax I’ve ever had. It palpitates so violently, my fingers grasp Aiden, the quilt, the pillow, my own hair. With each final move of his, a new wave of convulsions starts, so powerful that for an instant, I think I’m turning inside out. An overwhelming sensation builds at the very bottom of my belly, like a surge, and I explode in every way. My breath becomes a cry, tears spring in my eyes, and my insides liquefy at the same time that I hear his homecoming—my name—and we both collapse in a quivering mass on the mattress.

And then there is nothing.

I don’t know for how long. But eventually I start drifting between reality and non-reality. Reality is a vague sensation of movement and sound, but I can’t say what or how. Non-reality is stillness, as though my body has shut down for universal rest. But I know even in that restful state that there is something stronger coming, something more intimate, something so special, I have been waiting for perhaps all my life. So I hold sleep at bay, inch by inch, and focus on the one thing I know is real. Aiden next to me. Holding on to him with every sense, I realize we are lying on the bed, he is cradling me over his chest, and his heart is deafening in my ear. At that precise moment, I register my own heartbeat galloping in the same rhythm. I hear his harsh breathing at the same time that I find my lungs. And I smell his Aiden scent at the same time that I catch the rose breeze from the window.  Then with a last shove against sleep, I open my eyes.

Aiden has one arm over his face as the other one flexes and twitches around me. I think he just mouthed holy fuck. Tremors still ripple through him like aftershocks, as they do with me. He seems equally unable to lift any body part. His chest is rising and falling at the same speed as mine.

He finds his voice before me, though, even if it is just to rasp, “Hi.”

“Hi.” My voice is just as hoarse.

“I think we’re alive.”

“Can you die from orgasms?”

“That one came close.”

“I think I might have fainted at some point.”

“I’d never allow that.”

“Is it . . . does it . . . is it normal for it to feel like this? So intense?”

“Never for me.”

I think about this new word for us. Never. I was crediting his sex talent for this experience, but it sounds like it’s neither him, nor me. It’s us together. And it’s a good feeling—this rare conviction that, no matter all else that’s against us, in this one aspect of our love, we are a perfect match. No matter how this ends, if they ever were to write stories about us, they would say our physical love moved stars and suns. Even if our storybook would be next to Romeo and Juliet.

“Will you do me a favor?” I ask him.

He turns his head to look at me, questions in his eyes, but I lose my train of thought seeing his face for the first time since his homecoming. A destructive beauty has fallen over him. His pupils are dark and dilated still, but a halo of light is illuminating the irises as they change color before my incredulous eyes until they become the luminous shade of turquoise that belongs irrevocably to me. His lips are darker too from my biting. His skin is flushed, the gold almost bronze.

“Anything,” he says.

“If we make it through these ninety days together, will you tell me about this night some day? I’m losing parts of it already.”

His smile is dizzying. Exactly that. It makes my head spin. “I promise,” he says, cupping my cheek. “If we make it, when I’m eighty-five with a cane and still trying to find a way to make love to you, I will say, ‘my dear Mrs. Plemmons, there was this one night on June sixteen, fifty years ago, when you were so spry you brought a Marine to his knees.’ And you will laugh and say, ‘you crackpot fool, I’m still spry, but you don’t have any knees.’”

I giggle. “I’ve decided that’s what we will dream tonight. You and your cane, chasing me about.”

The dizzying smile softens until it becomes a melancholy kiss at the corner of his mouth. “What a beautiful dream.”

He holds my gaze like gravity. It changes the moment, the room, the night. A different electricity hums between us. Serious, full of unsaid things, full of spoken and unspoken dreams, full of always and never, full of every night gone and every night still ahead, and every single moment in between. Full of this small chance for big things.

Full of dangerous things too—his h-o-p-e, his f-e-a-r for me and my f-e-a-r for him, full of d-a-r-e, of t-i-m-e left and t-i-m-e lost, full of this brand new h-o-m-e we are building inside each other.

Full of his all and my all.

They suspend here in this moment between us—hanging on the balance of what happens tonight and for the rest of the summer.

He does not release my eyes. Shyness flickers again in the blue depths, and I grasp that flicker is the essence of young Aiden. The little boy who was given an almighty gift at such a tender age. There was shyness there once, before memories, war, and torture stole it. But they didn’t take it all. Somehow, in his vast mind, he knew to hold on to this small flicker of virtue, of innocence. He knew to keep this part only to himself. For thirty-five long years until tonight.

I am abruptly overwhelmed by his trust in me. He is lying right here beneath me, mouth silent, eyes loud. In nothing but skin and completely mine. His vulnerability floats inside me and becomes protectiveness, pride. I sit up and place my hand over his heart. It’s still sprinting, and he shudders even at my lightest touch.

“Aiden, do you want to do this? Not because I want it or because Corbin thinks you should. Do you want this for yourself?”

His Aiden’s apple bobbles once, but when he speaks, his voice is clear. “I do.”

“Are you sure?”

He sits up too now so that we are face-to-face. “I am. I’ve waited all my life to sleep with you. And you’re finally here. My only hesitation is your safety.”

I caress his scar, his sculpted jaw, kissing his full lips lightly, feeling the pull between us, feeling it and resisting it. “Tell me how you pictured it,” I ask, my lips moving along his jaw to his ear. I kiss the spot below as he does with me. He winds his arm around my waist pulling me so close, my breasts brush against his chest.

“I haven’t allowed myself any fantasies about it, Elisa.”

The loneliness of the image pierces my heart. A desire so deep, so out of reach even his fantasies couldn’t catch it.

“Not even a single detail?” I brush my lips down his throat, kissing the dip there.

“Well . . . I suppose . . . I always thought I’d fall asleep with my face in . . . your hair.”

I kiss along his collarbone, waiting for the tears that have welled up to dry. Just my hair. That’s all he could give himself. My lips travel over his chest and kiss his heart.

“Don’t be afraid,” I tell him. “You won’t hurt me.”

He pulls up my face until we are mouth to mouth. His eyes are hooded, heavy with the same need I feel but he is resisting it like I am.

“I have an idea,” I say, pecking his lips, and climb out of the bed. The only rational brain cell left registers I’m already feeling sore; the rest of my mind is absorbed with his eyes that I sense on me and the old record player on the dresser. I find Beethoven’s and place it on the turntable. After a few scratches, Für Elise starts.

When I turn to him, he is smiling with his dimple. I hold out my hand, palm up.

“Aiden, may I have this dance?”

The smile becomes a grin. He rises with his usual grace and takes my hand. Then we sway to my song—skin on skin, our bare feet together on the worn rug. His lips in my hair, my lips on his heart, arms like rose vines around each other.

“Are you romancing me, Elisa?”

“Yes, Aiden, I am.”

“I’m a sure thing, you know.”

“You’re the opposite of a sure thing. You’re impossible to me in every way.”

I’ve stunned him speechless but not motionless. He lifts me by my waist and slides his bare feet under mine, holding me tight against him, burying his face in my hair, and we dance. I memorize his steps to the familiar notes. Right, right, right, left, left, turn. His feet move so effortlessly to the melody that has become his lullaby, it’s as though he is playing the piano with our steps. Three languid rights, two quick lefts, turn, turn. He twirls me on the final bridge, our laughter trilling with the tune. And on the last note, he dips me over his arm, kissing his favorite spot at the end of my jawline.

“Thank you for the dance,” I say when I’m upright.

“Thank you for the memory.”

In the silence that follows, the willows are playing their own lullaby with the river. Wishes. Wishes. I sense he needs a moment to himself so I start straightening the bed that is a tangle from our homecoming. When I finish, I pull back the covers for him in invitation. “They’re clean,” I assure him. “Except the mess we just made, but it’s all us.”

“Perfect.”

He must like our mess because he grabs his things from the dresser with speed and flits over to his side—no hesitation on his step or voice anymore. When he sees the Baci on his nightstand, he smiles.

“Is this for now or morning?”

“Whenever you want.”

“Morning then,” he says, looking at the chocolate with more emotion than Baci gets from people who are not me. “Is the vase of the Elisas for me too?”

“Yes. I tried to put only happy memories here for you.”

“I have everything I need for happiness right here in this room.”

He pours a glass of water from the pitcher, takes out a small red pill from his wallet, and swallows it. I thank science in my head for giving us this chance, even if it needs to be combined with magic we do not understand. Like my song’s effect on him. He taps his phone and Für Elise starts again, lower now, like background music.

“Will this bother you? It’s programmed to replay until my alarm goes off.”

“Aiden, I’d listen to heavy metal all night if it keeps you asleep.”

He grins. “Lucky for you, nothing else works. Just your song.”

“Will you tell me how you discovered it?”

“Nope. Only happy memories enter this room tonight.”

And hopefully every other night. With our eyes on each other, Aiden and I climb into bed together. Side by side, face-to-face, our pillows touching, our knees touching, our forearms touching. We don’t turn off the side lamps; neither of us wants to miss any detail tonight.

“Will you do me a favor?” he asks, knotting his fingers with mine.

“Anything.”

“You will be careful, right? You will put your safety above all else, including me?”

As if I could ever separate my safety from his. As if could ever tell him no. “I will.”

“And you remember what that means?”

“Yes. No startling you awake, no touching if you’re having a nightmare, add love.”

He chuckles with a sound like the piano. “Add love,” he repeats, bringing his mouth to mine. His lips move in perfect harmony to the music. “Do you remember the morning we played this together?” he murmurs.

“Yes,” I whisper against his lips. “On your piano.”

He turns me around slowly until my back is against his chest, and kisses along my jawline. “You were so new and innocent . . . yet so familiar.” His lips press right below my ear. “And do you know what I was thinking?”  Lips brushing over my shoulder to the tip of my shoulder. He nips at it gently.

“No,” I sigh.

“I was thinking . . .” Hands around my breasts in the languid rhythm of the melody. “I must be asleep.” Lips pressing soft kisses like piano notes over my neck. “I dreamt her in war . . . ” He returns to my mouth. “And now she is bringing me peace . . .” His tongue plays Für Elise, while his fingers tap my nipples like piano keys. “And that’s why your music keeps me asleep . . . because when I played it with you . . . I didn’t want to wake up . . . how about that, Elisa?”

I want to answer, I want to tell him so many things, but I am lost. Lost in the way his mouth plays my song. Lost in the way his long fingers flutter over the ivory of my skin. He synchronizes each touch to the melody. Each flick of the tongue is a note. Each caress of his fingers is an arpeggio. Each slow, gentle thrust is a bar of music. Trill after trill, chime after chime until my body arches against him during the last bridge, trembles during the legato, and we both snap like piano strings into a thousand notes of our own music, us and Elise finishing on the exact note. As he must have planned it to be.

He holds me like this against him as Für Elise restarts. I feel him pull out and discard the latex invader. He wraps his arms around me and buries his nose in the hair behind my ear. I fight sleep with all my strength and lay very still, feeling every tremor of our bodies fade, every gust of his breath in my hair. After another Für Elise, Aiden stills too, and his breathing slows and deepens.

“Oveu,” he murmurs and drifts into deep sleep.

I know exactly the moment when he is gone because his weight around me gets heavier. But I still don’t move. I just listen to the sound of his breath, counting each gentle waft on my neck. One puff of happiness. Two puffs of happiness. Three . . . On the one-hundred-fiftieth puff, Aiden rolls away, lying on his back, one arm still under my pillow. It’s then that I move. First one finger, then two, then my hand, turning slowly, inch by inch so I can see him.

Aiden thought I was a dream, but there is no better dream than the real him asleep. His face is relaxed under the muted light. The sharp planes are softer, the sculpted brow smooth. His lips are parted and his long lashes brush against his cheekbones, casting feathery shadows over his lucent skin. But there is heartbreak in his beauty too. How he has trained himself to sleep on his back, how tension still drapes over his shoulders like a quilt.

I memorize each breath and learn all his little sleeping quirks. Like the way he moves his lips softly sometimes as if he is tasting his sleep. Or the way his toes curl where they’re dangling off the bed.  Every so often, he gets an erection which, of course, for Aiden it’s visible through the quilt. I know this is normal for men, but I still wonder if my song is giving him pleasant dreams. I hope it is. I hope the snowball is shrinking even as he breathes. And through it all, Aiden stays asleep.  Five-hundred-ninety-nine puffs of happiness, six . . . My eyelids start to droop. In those last moments between awake and asleep, I sense the edge of a dream similar to this moment and I chase it. Because Aiden is there too, and in the dream I can touch him as much as I want. We’re in the same room, the same bed, but the light is weaker, flickering from candles, not side lamps. Aiden is asleep, but on his side, facing me. I place my hand on his chest. It’s cold like the river breeze has been blowing on him all night. A sense of unease creeps upon me. Something is missing. My fingers flutter in panic searching his chest. There is no heartbeat. Aiden? I call but no voice comes out. A scream builds from my throat, ripping through my vocal chords, without a sound. Aiden! Aiden! Aiden! The silent screams suffocate me as my fingers fly to his lips. But there’s no breath there—they’re cold, parted on a permanent kiss. I start kissing him, blowing all my breath into his mouth. Take it, take it, take it. But he doesn’t. I keep blowing, pushing against his heart. Will no one help me? Can no one hear? My hands race over him—what can I fix? What went so wrong? And then I see it. In his half-open hand is a vial from Bia. Full of lilac liquid. I did this. I did not make the protein of bravery on time. I take the vial out of his cold hand—kissing each icy fingertip. Maybe there’s an antidote. Maybe I can bring him back. The vial drops into my hand and shatters into smithereens, but the glass-dust spirals and reforms, changing into the glinting blade of a dagger in my hand. It turns like a compass toward my chest. And I plunge it there, straight into my heart.

I jolt up awake, gasping, the silent screams stuck in my throat like shards. I whirl to the real Aiden still here in bed with me, terrified I’ve startled him. But he is still sleeping peacefully on his back. I hover my fingers over his lips. His warm breath is even and strong. The pupils under his eyelids are racing with his own dream—hopefully a lot happier than mine. I know this is real because Für Elise is still playing, the date has changed to June seventeen, and my hand doesn’t go through the wall. But still I lean in, listening to his deep breath for a while, smelling his Aiden scent. As if he senses my terror even asleep, his lips do the little tasting thing again and he sighs. Very real. Very much alive.

I sink down on the bed, still gasping, eyes on him, unable to blink away. And that’s when I notice tears on my cheeks. Abruptly, I’m furious with myself. What a stupid nightmare to give myself on my first sleep with him. I brought this on like a bloody idiot by obsessing about random chocolate quotes, imagining prophecies out of inanimate objects, and pondering universe alignment in a day when I have been given nothing but gift after gift after gift, with the most beautiful gift of all still soundly asleep next to me, despite my sudden jolt and gasps. Yet another gift: Für Eliseand the medication work. Without them, Aiden would be wide awake right now, trying to comfort me—the lunatic girlfriend who dreamt him dead and killed herself in her sleep. I should be locked up. We should absolutely not rule out Burford Dementia Centre. I almost slap my own cheek. I had the best night of my life and had to ruin it with this. Well, no more. I make a vow here and now to have faith in this man who is working so hard for us even in his sleep, while I sit here useless, dreaming up Shakespearean tragedies. Who cares how terrified I am—I’ll work as hard as he, and not indulge these idiocies. I also vow never to breathe a word about this to Aiden and throw out Romeo and Juliet the first chance I get. I’m a bloody scientist, not a fucking oracle.

I shake my head, this time actually slapping myself, and rest my eyes on Aiden’s peaceful form. The only lines I know from the worst love story in the world still manage to slither like gnarly thorns, coiling around the hedgerows of my mind.

These violent delights have violent ends

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,

Which, as they kiss, consume.

Shakespeare was a fellow idiot. I’ll stick with science, not literature, thank you very much. I toss my hair and the idiot’s rubbish lines with it. Present moment, Aiden would tell me now if he wasn’t sleeping beautifully, deeply, miraculously, trustingly next to me. And my present moment is made of cinnamon puffs of happiness, blowing gently on my skin. One puff, two, three . . . one thousand.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 13 – OPEN

Hey gang, new chapter for you! It has one of my favorite scenes in it, wonder if you’ll like it as well.  Thanks as always for reading and writing to me–love hearing from you. I had some questions about whether Aiden & Elisa’s story will be finished in this book. Yes, it will–their love was always going to be two books. I think after you read the ending, you will agree. 🙂 Lots of love, and hope you’re having a great week. xo, Ani

13

Open

Three simultaneous things wake me up: a buzz from a phone, a feeling of electricity on my skin, and a soft chuckle. Aiden. I don’t need to open my eyes to know he is real this time. His smell, his arms caging me protectively on top of his sculpted body still on the floor of his hotel room are more perfect than any dream I can muster.

“Welcome back,” he says, sensing me awake, his fingers trailing along my spine. His deep sultry drawl brings back a deluge of memories about everything that just happened on this floor, and electricity flurries everywhere from my toes to my matted hair.

“Mmm, have I been out long?”

“Just your usual post-orgasm coma. You even snored this time—the cutest little snore.” He chuckles again. A wave of blush must burn even his skin because he brushes his fingertips over my cheek. “I’ve missed your blush, but I don’t see what you have to be embarrassed about. I love that I can knock you fast asleep like your piano piece does with me. It’s good to know we have at least that effect in common.”

Everything inside me opens at his words—arteries, veins, airways—and abruptly I feel like my air, my blood flow, my heartbeat have doubled. Living twice: once for me, once for this dream of sleeping next to him. A dream so powerful, so forbidden that it sings for me like a siren song, always beaconing, never reaching. Until now.

“Are you okay?” He tips up my face to examine me. Can he hear my heart thundering?

“Is it tonight?” The words come out as a whisper, as though my voice already wants us to be asleep.

He understands what I mean immediately. I can tell from the way his eyes move with years of fear and practiced self-denial. “Elisa, love, I . . . can’t bear the idea of hurting you. We haven’t tested it with anyone in bed with me, let alone with anyone who affects me as you do. Can’t we wait the ninety days to see where we land?”

“But Corbin has given us the plan for sleeping. He wouldn’t suggest it if he thought it would be dangerous.”

“Corbin admits he can’t make guarantees. What if he is wrong about the sleep part? I can’t take that chance with you. Do you have the faintest idea of what you mean to me?”

“I know what you mean to me. And you’re not supposed to think of what-ifs. We have to live in the present moment. We have to do the opposite.”

“And we will with everything else. We’ll spend time with Javier and Reagan, we’ll go out, do whatever you want to do while I’m awake and can control myself. But we can’t do the opposite with your safety.”

“You won’t hurt me in your sleep. I don’t think you’re capable of it after what we’ve been through.”

But I’m losing him with arguments. The jaw is starting to flex. “Elisa, do we need a detailed review of everything that happened two weeks ago? I’m still the same man who . . . ” He shudders. “Nothing has changed yet.”

“That was different. I triggered your reflex while you were awake. This time you’ll have your medicine and you’ve never been able to sleep as deeply before Für Elise, you said so yourself.”

“Exactly. We don’t know. It’s too risky for you.” His hands turn into fists at the small of my back.

I give up reasoning and try my best weapon. “Please, Aiden. It’s all I want. I want it so much it hurts.”

I hate the torture that strikes in his eyes at my words. They tear asunder in conflict between never being able to resist what I want and always wanting to save me. But those are not the rules anymore. And he knows it. I watch as the battle slowly resolves and his side loses. He nods once as though he cannot bring himself to say the word, “yes.”

I cannot speak with the way my lungs are bursting; it feels like my ribs are cracking with the purest form of happiness. So I kiss him, pouring all my words into my lips, feeling his warm cinnamon breath washing over my face. He kisses me back just as urgently, as I knew he would. “Isn’t there a small part of you that is happy about this?” I finally manage when I can breathe again.

He brushes his knuckles along my jawline. “You can never know.”

His phone buzzes again, breaking the spell. But I hug this little victory tight in my mind, hide it deep inside my heart where it will beat with me all day until tonight.

“Javier and Reagan are awake. They’re asking for you.”

“Yes!” I bolt up. “Let’s go see them right now. Oh bloody hell, my hair!”

His lips lift in the smile I love best. “It is beyond all description.” And to my surprise, he snaps a photo of it with his phone.

“Aiden, don’t! It’s ridiculous.”

He chuckles. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”

As soon as we are vertical, the full extent of the devastation we have caused with our big bang becomes apparent. My old pajamas are in shreds. One of my wellingtons is on the dresser where it has kicked down a crystal vase of spray roses, the other is nowhere to be seen. My torn knickers are dangling from the chandelier. The buttons of his jeans are everywhere, including in his hair. One of his Timberland boots is on the bed, the other on one of his suitcases, which has collapsed open onto the floor. The nightstand has dragged away sideways from the wall exactly where he was pinning down my wrists. The lamp on it is knocked over, my picture frame too.

“Thank heavens this survived,” Aiden says, sauntering in nothing but flawless golden skin to the nightstand and straightening my frame. The sight of him, especially after my victory, makes me want to demolish the room some more, but I have bigger problems.

“Umm, I might have to wear your clothes back to the cottage. It’s going to scandalize the whole town, not to mention Javier.”

His eyes sparkle. “I’d never allow such infamy. I brought you your clothes.”

“My clothes?”

“Yes, all my gifts that you left behind—the dresses, Powell’s books. I couldn’t bear to keep them.”

Really? They’re here?”

He smiles at my obvious delight. “In that big duffel over there.” How could I have ever left them? Abruptly I miss them so much. “I need a woman minute,” I tell him, rushing for the restroom to clean up as soon as possible so I can wear his gifts. His chuckle follows me like a shadow.

The restroom is domed, like the spired roof of the Inn, complete with a console sink, a bidet, and a shower over a claw-foot tub. I try to clean up quickly but it’s a lost battle.

“Are you done with your woman minute yet?” Aiden knocks at the door. “It’s been twelve and I miss you.”

I wrench the door open to let him in. “Look at me! The mud won’t come off.”

He really tries not to laugh but it bursts from his lips. “Here, I’ll help you. Mine is a mess too.”

Under the hot shower stream with him running his fingers through my hair, it’s impossible not to recall that first shower I took in England two weeks ago, trying to wash him and all of America off. But this time, almost fused to each other in the tiny tub, it’s as though we are washing off the last two weeks together. He scrubs my strands gently and I shampoo his hair, rivulets of mud, tears, distance all draining away with the soap bubbles. And although we can’t wash off the terror still lining our insides, I feel lighter, stronger—as if his touch is flooding me with oxytocin. Which it probably is.

“Fuck, it won’t leave your scalp!” Aiden is doing battle with the mountain of foam on my head, the V etched deep between his eyebrows. It takes fifteen minutes and all twenty of our fingers for the water to run completely clear. But at least his hair and skin are glistening with droplets like a million diamonds are trying and failing to outshine him. A few drops peck his lips like kisses, but those lips are mine. I reach on my tiptoes for his mouth. He gives everything to me, like always. The familiar static gathers on my skin as though the water is vaporizing from the heat within. But he pulls away right as he starts to turn into gold-plated titanium in my hands.

“We’re never leaving this bathroom if we don’t stop exactly now.”

“Fine. Tell me about Rostóv again. I need him.”

Rostóv has made it to his Moscow family home by the time I open the giant duffel back of my gifts. And then I don’t need Rostóv anymore. Because inside, rolled so precisely he could only have packed them himself, are all the dresses he gave me except the one that was torn during the attack. And all my lingerie. And my graduation trainers engraved with Byron’s “She Walks In Beauty” line. I put on the gray sheath I wore when we went to the rose garden in Portland during the daytime—that was a good day. Then I slide on the trainers, convinced my toes and the fabric are hugging each other.

“I’m ready,” I say to the Adonis next to me in a fresh white shirt over a pair of jeans. But he is hiding something behind his back with a grin.

“I think something is missing,” he answers.

“What is it?” I try to peek, but he shifts, blocking the mystery from view. “Show me!” I try again but he is too fast.

“You have to solve the clue first: if you gave me all the kisses in the world, they would still be too few.”

“Baci!” I squeal and throw myself at him. It’s the quote the chocolates gave me the very first time I introduced Baci to him on our embargo day. He laughs and hands me a big box of them. “There are exactly ninety,” he says. “I counted them myself.”

“Ninety,” I whisper, caressing the clear lid through which the silver-wrapped chocolates are twinkling. Last time he gave me thirty of them accidentally before he even knew about my thirty days. But this time he knows the deadline. And he didn’t dare to buy one more. D-a-r-e. Keep us together, make us brave.

“Have one,” he says. “Let’s see what they start us with this time.”

I wrestle with the lid but he takes it back from me and opens it lest I die from a paper cut. I reach for one with closed eyes, willing it to be positive, and read the waxy little note:

“If love be rough with you, be rough with love.”

“That sounds inspiring for our fight,” I say, looking up at him. “It says it’s from Shakespeare, but I don’t recognize the line.”

“Romeo and Juliet,” he murmurs.

If he feels the chill that whips through me, he does not say anything. Don’t be silly, I tell myself. It’s just your fear. Make us safe, make us brave. But the goose bumps are not leaving.

“You pick another.” I tell him quickly, my own naked Baci completely forgotten.

He smiles—am I imagining the kiss of melancholy at the corner of his mouth? “You know, it’s probably because we’re not doing your ritual with the apples,” he says as he unwraps his. I hold my breath.

“‘Love that moves the sun and other stars,’” he reads. “Whew! Thank you, Dante.”

As though Dante’s sun leaps straight out of the waxy note to beam down on me, the goose bumps disappear. This is ours. Haven’t I been thinking about stars and constellations?

“Seems more consistent with the big bang.” Aiden winks with that uncanny way he has of guessing my thoughts. I take his chocolate and shove it my mouth.

“I choose this one,” I mumble, my mouth full.

“No contest.” He hurls the Romeo and Juliet one on the paper bin and brings his mouth to mine, melting the chocolate together until it is all gone.

Downstairs in the lobby, James and Benson are playing chess on the sofa. Benson is ahead by two moves but stands when he sees us.

“Where to, sir?” he asks Aiden.

“Just to Elisa’s for now. Did we get the EBIDTA reports?” They start talking about Aiden’s work at the concierge desk that Benson must have transformed into a mobile command center in the last couple of hours. I take advantage of their distance to perch on the armchair next to James. He grins. “Well, look’s who neither drenched nor muddy.”

I smile. “I told him, by the way.”

“I figured. Better you than me.”

“I don’t think I ever thanked you properly. If you hadn’t been there…” I shiver at my recklessness. “Well, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Why didn’t you tell him, James? I’m grateful you didn’t, but I’m curious.” I lower my voice as much as possible to still be audible. He looks at Aiden still at the desk and, above the thick ginger beard, his eyes age in a way Aiden’s do sometimes.

“He’s my brother, Elisa. I know he’s told you about Iraq. Well, he saved my life, he saved all of us except . . . Marshall. And you know what that’s done to him. All of us would give our lives to save him if we could.” His eyes flash back at me, and I see the human sniper Aiden mentioned. “But it sounds like you might be able to. So why didn’t I tell him? Because I couldn’t bring myself to add anymore to the hell he was in. I’ve only seen Storm that fucked up twice. Once after Fallujah, once at the cabin after he had left you. And then he got the call from Benson that you were gone. I don’t know what you were doing that night, but it would have killed my brother if something had happened to you.”

I can’t find the words to respond. They’re lodged with tears I can’t spill here.

“I’ll ask this once,” James whispers so low I can barely hear him, his sniper eyes still on Aiden—he doesn’t seem to need to blink as much as most humans. “Were you trying to hurt yourself, Elisa? Is that why you jumped into the river?”

And I understand then. I understand the deepest, darkest reason why he kept this from his brother. “No, James. I swear to you I was not. I was just stupid and had experimented with a very strong sleeping aid that I concocted myself. I’d never do that to him. I love him.”

I see relief spread over his eyes even though they haven’t left Aiden once. But they zoom on me now and, in that laser gaze, I know he believes me. “Then we’ll never speak of this again.”

Aiden strides to us seconds later. “Plotting how to keep more secrets from me?”

James barks a laugh. “Not this time. After serious consideration, Elisa and I have decided we both value our lives too much to fuck with you again.”

“How long are you staying, James?” I ask, wondering if I have time to know him more and see Aiden around a friend. It must be so good for him.

“Oh, I’m leaving tomorrow. Hendrix and Jazz are flying over and we’ll fish River Spey in Scotland for a while, courtesy of your man.”

“So soon.” I force a smile. “Will you be going?” I ask Aiden, my voice breaking despite my effort to appear calm and collected. He gives me a look that says verbatim “how hard did you hit your head on that floor?”

“No, I’m on partial leave from work and everything else except you,” he says in a tone that confirms the version in my head. “But don’t worry, Cal and the others will stop by before they head stateside. You can meet them all then.”

Yes! That’s brilliant!” I have wanted to meet his friends since the very first time he mentioned them on our second embargo day.

They laugh at my excited tone. I see Benson coming our way though and whisper quickly to James, “Knight to E-3.” His eyes widen, as he traces the chess move that will get him out the checkmate Benson has set up for him.

“Told you,” Aiden says to him with his “this is Gary Kasparov” tone and takes me by the hand. “Let’s go. You can say goodbye to Cal tonight.”

“Actually, I’ll walk with you. I need to pick up some cigars for the trip.”

But all our smiles vanish and we freeze on the inn’s threshold. The shops are now open and people are littering Ivy Lane. Fewer than Portland’s streets, but even one person in danger is too many. Tension snaps back around Aiden’s shoulders, petrifying them into granite slabs under his crisp white shirt. The ripples jolt all way down to his hand clenched around mine. He looks taller, forbidding, indestructible—as he always does when he feels most vulnerable. For a breathless moment, he locks eyes with the narrow alley, memorizing each shop, door, passerby, bench, flowerpot, cobblestone—engraving it in his mind, calculating and anticipating every outcome—all for the simple, beautiful purpose of protecting it.

It lasts only seconds to anyone who might be watching—just a beautiful man holding hands with an awed woman, heading out of their inn. But to the three of us who know what this costs him—know it, yet still not fathom it—it’s endless. With each ripple of his muscles, I want to say, “let’s just stay here in our little bubble, in the bliss of your arms.” But I bite my tongue so hard, I taste blood. Because he needs all my confidence in him right now.

Aiden looks at me then, his eyes searching my jawline that gives him the most calm.

“Let’s go do the opposite,” he says, donning his Raybans. And he takes the first step onto the street.

The next several steps are hard. As the passersby zig-zag to make room for us entering the lane, Aiden’s vigilance sweeps over us like a shield. An elder gentleman brushes past him, and I stifle my gasp. But a fraction of a second before the near-contact, Aiden shifts slightly away, his mind having already anticipated the move. Then a little boy on a green bike shoots toward us but, again, seconds before he enters our radius, Aiden steps fluidly out of the path. “Mum!” a little girl screams, making three of us jump, but not Aiden. He simply tilts his head as though he had expected her cry before being howled. I watch in awe as his impossible mind powers us through in an elegant, nearly invisible dance of hunt and save.

“Damn, Storm!” James says behind us in similar wonder.

Aiden doesn’t respond, but takes my hand and tucks it into his granite arm. I know he means, “stay close.” And I do. I lean my head against the stone of his bicep and feel it soften, mold to my shape, granite giving in to silk.

It gets a little easier then. Not because of my effect, though. Because of his. As we walk further down the lane and the passersby register Aiden’s presence, his beauty is so intense for Burford, so very clearly not from around here, that they instinctively give him a wide, admiring berth, stunned into general paralysis like me. Especially the female of the species, although some men as well.

“That’s interesting,” Aiden says, clearly not having factored the mind-numbing effect of his own beauty in his vast calculations at all. “Must be a Burford thing. People give you a lot more space and move slower, too. That’s good. I didn’t expect that.”

I can’t stop my giggle on time. He looks at me and, even behind the Raybans, I can tell he is thinking I’ve lost my mind to be laughing at such a juncture. “I don’t think it’s Burford, Aiden. I think it’s you. You’ve incapacitated the entire female population on this street. Why, Mrs. Willoughby just walked into that street lamp over there.”

His head flies up toward Mrs. Willoughby as though she might be an incoming missile. Which would be entirely possible if she wasn’t frozen, ogling our direction. Aiden clears his throat. “I don’t think this is the appropriate moment for us to be fucking around, Elisa. Head in the game.”

James chuckles behind us. “I think Elisa’s got a point, Storm. That dude at ten o’clock just tripped. Just come out dick first next time. Problem solved.”

That’s too much for me. Laughter explodes through my lips, drowned by Benson’s and James’ booming barks. Aiden does not dignify our laugh with any response whatsoever. But I know behind the Raybans, his eyes are sweeping the street with this new lens, no doubt noticing every stare, every mouth popped open, every stumble. Noticing it and entirely overwriting it. His Raybans turn on me.

“You find it amusing that the poor unsuspecting folk of your hometown find a violent madman attractive, Elisa?”

“I don’t know the madman you’re referring to, but it’s good to know I’m not the only one you have this effect on.”

Where dick jokes didn’t make him smile, my words do. Or maybe it’s because we have reached the end of Ivy Lane and the field of epiphanies stretches ahead with no passersby or admirers of any kind lurking in the grass.

“Well, I’m off for my cigars. Benson, wanna grab a beer? I don’t think Storm needs us anymore. He’s too pretty.”

Aiden laughs, tension draining out of him now that it’s over. “You’re not my type, Cal. How often do I have to tell you?”

“Why would you say that? Just because I don’t have purple eyes and black hair?”

“That’s exactly why.”

“Come on, Benson, let’s see if Mrs. Willoughby is interested. See you lovebirds later.”

“Thanks you two,” I tell them, and we both watch them stroll easily back up Ivy Lane. Aiden gazes at the road he just walked over blistering torments of torture, coals of capture, and flames of bystander gazes for me. For us. And I think, this is Dante, not Romeo. It has to be.

“What is it?” he asks, noticing my stare or drool.

“Take off your glasses. I miss your eyes.”

He makes a show of removing them dutifully and tucking them in his shirt but I miss it. Because the blue depths are shining with this other victory—so miniscule to everyone else, so significant to us. I take his face in my hands.

“I’m so proud of you,” I tell him and kiss him with the full force of my words. He responds so enthusiastically that we stumble backwards into the field. And his kiss does what it always does—cancels everything but the taste of him, the feel of his mouth that he has only ever shared with me. Each time our tongues dance and our lips brush they tattoo a new memory in his mouth. A memory that is ours alone.

The walk back to the cottage is a breeze after that. Just open space and us. His shoulders sway with his natural grace. His laughter is easier too—cascading over the field of epiphanies, the arched bridge, the trail along the river. Every so often, he snaps a picture of me with his phone. And despite his smile and the high of the day, I don’t understand why the camera click feels like an icy flick against my skin.

“Why do you take pictures of me?” I ask him as he captures me showing him where I camped. “You don’t need them. You never took them before.”

He takes another one of me twirling a blade of grass, and the ice pinches me again, but he doesn’t answer.

“Aiden? Tell me.”

“I want you forever in every way I can have you,” he shrugs, not meeting my eyes.

He doesn’t have to. I know what he means. Forever in paintings, memories, pictures. In case we fail. In case we don’t win. How can I deny him that, no matter how many ice crystals just broke through my skin?

“Present moment, love,” he says, as if he saw every ice pick. “We have to capture it.”

“Present moment,” I repeat.

But the present moment eludes us both when he spies the river boulder that nearly drowned me. He recognizes it immediately from my description. His fists alone could pulverize it into fine sand. How different it looks to me now after James’s words and Aiden’s terror for me. Instead of a foolish stunt, its rounded black curve seems gravelike. A sinister tombstone or the hunchback of an evil sorceress lurking below. It would have killed him, James said. Perhaps it’s the conviction of his voice, or allowing myself to look at this spot that almost ended us both, or perhaps it’s the ice of the camera clicks, but Romeo and Juliet feel closer than Dante now. My life and Aiden’s are entwined by fate and circumstance like two nerves threaded inside a heart chamber. Cut one, and you cut the other. The river laps at the boulder like a dark prophecy. Neither survives if the other dies. Neither dies if the other lives.

Aiden’s hand wraps around my waist, and he leads us away from the boulder toward the cottage. Maybe he needs to get away from this spot as much as I do.

“Do you want to hear four things that will make you smile?” he asks as the boulder’s sickly lapping sound fades.

“Please.”

He tips up my face. “Cal was there, we are here, it’s been a good day, and tonight you get to take my sleep virginity. I hope you’ll be gentle.”

It works immediately. I giggle at the same time that tears spring in my eyes because he is right. Tonight is still coming. Tonight he will be mine exactly as I’ve always wanted.

“I love the giggle but not the tears,” he says. “Now tell me, what kind of dreams do you think we will have on our first night? The only rule is no sleepwalking allowed.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep at all. I’ll probably just watch you the whole time.”

“Oh, I’ll make sure you pass out. The more knocked out you are, the safer.”

I giggle again. Leave it to Aiden to turn even sex into a safety measure. “How will you manage that with Javier and Reagan? Javier might have an aneurism.”

“I’m working on that part.”

“Have you really never slept with anyone before? Even before Iraq?”

He kisses the top of my head. “Of course not. I never kissed on the mouth before you, but you think I stuck around and spent the night?”

“Why not?”

“Because if I have to remember something forever, it better be something I absolutely love.”

Like us. All his other conquests don’t matter, even if he still remembers them perfectly. The most intimate part of Aiden—his sleep—will belong only to the two of us.

By the time the cottage’s rose-covered roof appears, the boulder is far away and Romeo and Juliet’s quote feels like just another poetry line again, as though the cottage is a counter-curse, folding us within the protective charm of its rose magic. I feel abruptly safer, more carefree—like I always felt here as a child. Everything shifts away as I grasp the present moment: Aiden is coming to my home.

“Let’s do this the way I used to when I was little,” I say.

He smiles with the dimple. “Right behind you.”

We creep up to the guard of willows that susurrate as always. “Listen,” I whisper. “What words can you make out?”

He plays along, straining his ear against the trunks with me under the dense emerald canopy of the garlands. Shhhhhh, shhhhhh.

Wishes?” he asks, cupping his ear.

Wishes! “I love that! I’ve never heard that in the leaves before.”

“What do you hear?”

“Oh, I’ve heard all manner of words here over my life. From selfish to licorice. But since I’ve been back, I only hear she’s here and he’s here.”

He kisses me. Right here under the willow garlands, like a secret. “Come,” I tell him, feeling unsteady as his lips always leave me. And, parting the garlands like a curtain, we step between the trunks into Mum’s magic garden.

“Ah!” Aiden murmurs as he sees it in daylight for the first time. Delight molds his fairytale face as his eyes sweep over my little kingdom. And what a show it’s putting up for its prince. The cottage gleams pearl white under the brilliant sun. The shutters are open, the lace of the curtains fluttering hello with the breeze. The ancient beech trees are murmuring their own welcome like dignified sentinels with sun-plated helmets. The river is glistening like an emerald silk ribbon. And like a royal mantle over it all, are the thousands of roses in full bloom. Sparkling with sunlight like rare unknown gems.

Aiden does not move. He is stunned into silence. But his eyes are more luminous than I’ve ever seen them. They alight on each bloom, each detail of my childhood—absorbing everything.

“Come, let me show you the roses I told you about in Portland.” I take his hand and we wind up the garden path covered in petals. And as he did then, he kisses me by each rose when I introduce him.

“And these are the Elisas,” I tell him, remembering that he made poor Benson hunt for a look alike on our first morning together. My roses wink, flutter, and sway for him as though they want nothing more than for him to touch them. And he does. One single caress with the tip of his finger. I’m not a rose bush, but I can’t imagine any living cell being immune to his touch. I’m certain the Elisas look less white and more pink.

“I don’t have words in my memory for this,” Aiden finally speaks. For once, he looks completely past-free. Then I remember with terror.

“Won’t your first memory of this garden be me breaking up with you last night?”

He smiles. “That’s not my first memory of this.”

“Then what is?”

“My first memory of this is exactly what I had planned: your astonished beautiful face seeing Javier and Reagan on your doorstop. That’s why I stayed so far behind. I wanted that first memory to be only of you and your happy moment.”

What can I say to that?

Inside, Reagan and Javier are in the kitchen, Javier sniffing suspiciously the pot of porridge that Reagan is making while she beams at it, already wearing a royal blue feathered hat. As soon as they hear us come in, they bound to us and pull me into a hug.

“There you are! We were about to figure out how to call British search and rescue on you two,” says Javier. Then their eyes fall on Aiden’s and my joined hands.

“Oh, yay! You’re back together!” Reagan squeals, the feathers of her hat bouncing with her excitement.

Aiden smiles—their old cat-and-dragon exchange only a distant memory—but he lets me answer. “Well, I have officially introduced him to the roses. So I think that means yes. At least while we sort out a few things.”

“What things?” they ask in unison, their voice trembling exactly the same way, their eyebrows knitting together identically.

“Are you two okay? Is there anything the family can do to help?” Javier adds.

In those words, in their worried looks, I grasp exactly how much their relationship with Aiden has changed in the last two weeks. Perhaps working together to save Javier and the rest of the Solises bonded them in ways I never could.

It’s there in Aiden’s voice too when he answers this time. “Let me think about that, Javier.”

“Okay, want something to eat? Although I don’t really know if this is edible. What the hell is this mushy stuff, Isa?” He points at the pot of porridge.

“I’ll just show Aiden around first, okay?”

Aiden is watching me with his fiery eyes, so tall for the cottage his wavy hair brushes against the small chandelier. Impossibly, he has gotten more beautiful since he crossed the threshold.

“Welcome to the Rose Cottage!” My voice trembles. I want to say welcome home. But the home part is a dream, an h-o-p-e I cannot allow myself. “This is the foyer, obviously—it’s tiny by your standards but I love it. And over there is the living room . . .”

He takes my hand and starts exploring the cottage in the way only he can. He runs his long-fingered hand over the front door, the rose-shaped brass knob, the rotary phone, the walls—memorizing their feel. He spends a good ten minutes gazing at the photographs lining the foyer in reverse order of my aging.

“Look at you!” He smiles at one of me missing my front teeth. “The cutest kid.”

I watch him with a clenched heart, unable to speak. How many times have I imagined him inside these walls and now here he is. Bewildering in every sense of the word. I realize that in those vague fantasies I always imagined the cottage softening him. But as he winds through the living room, running his fingers through the ivory of Mum’s upright piano in the first few notes of Für Elise, clutching the arm of Dad’s plaid chair in the corner like a handshake, I see a symbiotic cord twinning between the cottage and him. He is shining as much beauty on it as it is pouring on him.

“This is surreal,” he says. “I thought I could envision this so well from your descriptions, but I was wrong. No one can picture this without seeing it.”

“Let me show you my favorite room.” I can barely hear my own voice as I lead him to the library. But I hear his quiet footsteps kissing the hardwood floor.

He whistles as he enters my dad’s bubble, and the tectonic plates shift as he recalls everything I’ve ever told him about it. He weaves through the towers of books and notepads, careful not to jostle anything, and goes straight to the unfinished chess game inside the glass flower box. “Is this the last game?”

I nod.

“Six identical moves to checkmate for each of you. So equal and you were only eighteen.”

“I could never equal him.” I barely mouth the words, but he must read them because he comes back to me.

“I’m sure he would disagree.”

“I wish you could you have met him. And Mum.”

“I do too.” His index finger comes under my chin and he bends down to my height. “I have an idea. I’ll read through all of his books and notes, then maybe I’ll know him more. Would you like that?” His voice, his eyes are so tender they could h-e-a-l the deepest wounds, except his own.

My “yes” sounds more like a sigh. “And maybe you can help me with the protein. Here, look at this.” I open the secret safe in the wall behind the Encyclopedia of Elements. He peers inside—a childish curiosity glinting in his eyes—and sees his war letters with Dad’s clue and everything else valuable I own, “my all” in a sense. Which is not much. “You can have them—”

He stops my hand before it slithers inside the safe. “Let them stay there.” When he closes the safe, I imagine him tucking in my entire life under a blanket.

This kiss is hushed too. So light, each brush like a whispered secret. A secret I can’t even tell myself.

“MUSH IS READY,” Javier bellows from the kitchen. “AND SOME CRUSTY STUFF!”

Around the dining table, Reagan and Javier have made their first British breakfast even though it’s almost noon. Porridge, scones, clotted cream. But I can’t swallow a single bite—everything from my eyes to my belly is overflowing. The three people I most love in this world who are still alive are here. My three brightest stars twinkling in this new constellation that looks like a table to everyone else but to me it’s a million-faceted crystal, gleaming and sparkling—each plane brilliant, fragile, a mirror of the others. Rarely meeting, always reflecting.

“Reg, I know it’s what they eat here. But just between us four, objectively speaking, this porridge thing cannot have been meant for human taste buds. Aiden, back me up as the only other man here. Is this food to you?”

Aiden is looking at me and I know he has read every flicker of emotion I have not been able to hide. He seems to make a decision of sorts because he turns to Javier. “I definitely prefer your mother’s carnitas. But it’s better than MREs.”

A total silence falls over my constellation. Reagan’s fork drops on her plate. My hand tightens on Aiden’s under the table. I’ve never once heard him make a casual reference to the military. And instantly I know whatever he is doing, he is doing it for me. He folds his napkin while Javier’s fork is still in the air.

“Actually, Javier, Reagan.” He addresses them both while I sit here periodic-tabling for oxygen. “May I have a moment? You asked earlier if there is anything the family can do to . . . help Elisa and me.”

Javier’s fork drops too. “Anything,” he says. “We owe you our lives.”

“It’s not as debt collector that I’m asking. You don’t owe me anything. It’s as a . . . friend, I suppose. This is not an easy thing for me to share. I’d appreciate your discretion. But you’re Elisa’s family, I’ve seen that over the last two weeks more than I was able to grasp before. So you should know—” His hand around mine becomes a live grenade. “Why things are complicated with Elisa and me. It’s not because I don’t love her—”

“We know that,” Javier says firmly. “We all can see that now.”

“It’s because there are things in my past and present that make me . . . not the man you would want for your sister.”

“Aiden, don’t,” I cut in, but he silences me with a grasp of his hand.

“What do you mean?” Javier says while Reagan mouths at me in a completely obvious way, “The thing?”

“Well, without getting into the gory details, I was a Marine. In Iraq. And one mission went . . . wrong. More wrong than I’m prepared to discuss. It has stayed with me in every way . . . and it has left me with a . . .” He takes a deep breath as his shoulders flex once. “It has left me with a violent startle reflex. Not your usual car backfiring thing. I cannot be startled from behind in any way without a series of events being triggered which always end with me attacking the person who startled me.”

The silence that follows his words is clamoring. I don’t think Aiden has breathed once since he started. But he meets Javier’s eyes evenly and I see the Marine there—the one who might never have needed a protein of bravery.

“You attacked Isa!” Javier’s somber, grave tone is punctuated by a small whimper from Reagan.

“I did.” The two words, so low, sound almost like “the end.”

“It was my fault,” I jump in, ignoring the clasp of Aiden’s hand. “I knew about it, and I was careless, and I triggered it, and—”

“Elisa,” Aiden’s voice cuts through, even and clear. “You will never take this on yourself ever again. Please. They have a right to know as your family, and now they do. I won’t be the reason for secrets between you anymore.”

I meet Javier’s eyes. They’re on me, stricken with terror. Reagan searches for my hand under the table but both of mine are on Aiden’s grenade.

“I love him, Javier,” I say directly to him. “I will fight with him against this. No matter what.” Tears start burning my eyes, but I don’t blink. Javier’s deep dark eyes are locked on me too for a long moment. He nods at last—a slow bend of the head but his eyes become so endless, as though he heard exactly what I cannot say. No matter how it ends.

“So,” Javier says. “How can we help? We’ll support you both with whatever you need if this is the decision you have made.” He does not say he agrees. How could he?

“I’m with you too.” Reagan’s voice trembles with tears. “Both of you.”

“Thank you,” I tell them, eyes still on Javier because he is the leader for our patch-quilt family. If he gives us his support, it is irrevocable.

“Yes, thank you both.” Aiden’s grenade relaxes a fraction. “Please know I’d never expose Elisa to this again without some hope that we might be able to overcome it.”

“What’s the hope part?” Javier asks.

I’m glad Aiden answers this one because Javier would see how little h-o-p-e I’m allowing myself. “We’re working with some experts at Oxford and University of York, and of course back home. We’re meeting them Monday; they have an entire plan. But the gist of it is that I need to do the opposite of what I’ve been doing. Not push Elisa away or isolate myself, but rather experience what normal life could be like for her and me if we allow it. Their hope is that, with other interventions and hard work on our part, this will begin to correct the startle reflex.”

Javier blows out a gust of breath and I realize now he has not been breathing much either. “That sounds like good news, right?”

“Hopeful.” Aiden corrects while I stare at my cold teacup trying to look like I am nodding sagely. “And this is where you two come in. The hope part. I will never keep Elisa from you. But of course, she refuses to leave me and I refuse to leave her. These last two weeks almost killed us both. So, by necessity, at least for a while, you might have to be around . . . me,” he says the last word like he is the dark boulder.

“Aiden, that’s nothing to ask of us,” Javier says, and I want to grab him over the table and hug him if both my hands were not around my grenade. “We all care about you. Not just as Elisa’s guy but for who you’ve shown us to be. It’s not a burden on us to be around you. We want you to heal. We want you in our life if you two can make this work.”

H-e-a-l. L-i-f-e. “Umm . . . thank you . . . I appreciate that,” Aiden says with a strong emotion. No doubt his deep self-loathing wasn’t expecting such acceptance. The grenade relaxes further.

Javier takes a deep breath and the deep wrinkles in his forehead soften. “We’ll just be careful, all of us. No one will sneak up on you or anything. And we’ll do whatever we can so you two can win this. Right, Reg?” he turns to her.

“Absolutely.”

For the first time since this conversation started, Javier smiles and the entire constellation brightens up with him. I look at Aiden, the Marine who just disclosed his darkest secret to give me this moment of togetherness, to tear down all walls between my family and me. He shakes his head with a small smile. Anything for you, his eyes say.

“Actually, I’m really glad we know now,” Javier says. “This explains so much. I mean, we started suspecting something when you were able to pull off my green card with all those political contacts, but not this. We thought you were some high-level CIA or something.”

Reagan giggles breathlessly. “Honestly, I thought you were an assassin. Really sorry about that.”

At the shaky laughter that follows, the grenade disarms and Aiden’s face softens with relief. “An assassin?” he chuckles. “And you were yay-ing earlier when you thought Elisa was back together with me? Reagan, I thought your common sense was one of your strongest traits.”

“Of course,” she shrugs. “You’re who she loves.” Her bright emerald eyes flit to Javier who is sighing with relief in an identical posture to Aiden’s.

“Javi,” she tells him, and for a mad moment I think she’s going to declare herself but she has other plans. “I think you and I should move to Aiden’s hotel.”

“What the fuck?” is Javier’s response.

“You heard me.”

“No, Javier has a point, Reg. What the bloody hell?” I ask but she kicks me under the table. Hard. I have to pretend to cough to hide my “ouch” while Aiden fusses I might be choking.

“Listen,” she says to us. “You two need privacy if you’re going to try this normal life thing. Javi and I can sleep at the hotel, you two stay here, and we all hang out and be normal adults during the day. And when Isa has to work, we can be tourists.” She stomps on my foot again in case her desire is not clear.

“Elisa, why do you keep coughing, love? Are you okay? Here, have some water.”

“I’m fine. Just a tickle.” But I drink the entire glass he pours for me to give Javier a chance to respond. And he does. Sort of.

“I guess you’re right. How far is your hotel, Aiden?”

“Just across the field,” Aiden answers quietly and I know in that tone how profoundly he wants Reagan to win, but how deeply he hates the reason for Javier’s hesitation: my safety in case I get hurt again. And he’ll side with Javier. That decides it for me. And I know exactly how to solve it.

“Javier, Reg is right. I want to sleep with Aiden.”

It’s Aiden who chokes now at the same time that Javier throws his hands over the ears, saying “Lalalalala.” But over the chaos, Reagan and I wink at each other. And for a moment, it feels like girls can win everything today.

I add this other little victory to my collection. Can a girl deplete her luck? Should I take more chances? Or should I save it all for tonight? No, I don’t need luck to sleep next to Aiden—I refuse to think that way.

“Let’s all go to town,” I decide. “I’ll show you some of my favorite spots. And you can meet my grandparents for all intents and purposes.” I know none of them can resist that. Especially not Aiden, even if his muscles just locked down at the idea of strolling the streets again.

“Your octogenarian bodyguards?” he asks.

“The very same.”

“Yes, this I have to see.”

The town is enshrined in gold under the late afternoon sun when we arrive, and the streets are lazier, sultrier. Plemmons Blooms is only two roads west of the inn, down a cobblestone alley so narrow that James and Benson—who have been strolling with us in their hulking frames—decide to wait at the inn’s terrace over cigars and ale.

Even though I visited the Plemmonses the very next day I returned, as soon as I see the cascade of wisteria draping over the familiar awning, my own memory rewinds the endless days I spent with Mum in this shop as she and Mr. Plemmons experimented with rose breeds. Nothing has changed except the two snow-haired, hunched over octogenarians who are sitting on bright yellow chairs, head to head, sifting through seeds together. The image is so precious that four phone cameras click at the same time, including Aiden’s.

“OMG, they’re so cute,” Reagan whispers.

“Don’t worry, they can’t hear. You have to yell,” I tell her and then shout at the top of my lungs, “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Plemmons!” All three of them jump despite my warning.

“Bless my soul, it’s Rose!” Mr. Plemmons wheezes, wobbling up on his birch-wood cane, and I notice how much it trembles. “Josephine, it’s our Rose. Blimey, she’s brought friends this time.” He wipes his thick-rimmed glasses against his woolen vest—an unnecessary act since they are generously wiped by his bushy eyebrows and even bushier mustache. Little tufts of cotton blossoms spring out of his ears.

“I can hear you, Harold, and I can see them, there’s no need to shout.” Mrs. Plemmons is sprightlier and she shuffles up to me—tiny, barely clearing my shoulder, looking at me with her once-green eyes that have paled to sage—and kisses both my cheeks. “You’re lookin’ fit, luv. It’s the rose air, I told Harold, didn’ I? I said, let that lass smell the roses for a week and she’ll be pink as their petals.” She still hasn’t let go of my cheeks.

“Ha!” Mr. Plemmons teeters closer and grabs my shoulder. His clasp is so frail that I’m not sure if he needs it for support or if he is greeting me. I peck his fluffy hair gently lest he blows away. “Who are yer friends, Rose?” He peers at them through his glasses, brows wafting high in his forehead like pampas grass.

“These are Aiden Hale, Reagan Starr, and Javier Solis,” I yell their names, pointing at each of them. “They’re visiting from Portland.”

“Hmph,” Mr. Plemmons harrumphs, tottering to each of them, squinting at their faces and finally declaring in front of Aiden. “We’re not giving our Rose back! No, sir!”

“Oh, don’ mind the crackpot fool.” Mrs. Plemmons clasps all their hands. “You’re very welcome here, very welcome. Oh, to see our Rose smiling with friends again! Here, luv, sit, sit.” She tries to clear a bench of cyclamen pots, but I beat her to it.

“You sit, Mrs. Plemmons, I’ve got this.” I clear out the bench and the four of us sit cramped together, visiting with them for a while. Mrs. Plemmons frets she doesn’t have tea and biscuits.

“Don’ fuss, Josephine. It’s only our Rose. We’ve changed her nappies, we have.” Aiden, Reagan, and Javier burst out laughing while I turn the color of the cyclamens.

“Your nappies,” Aiden murmurs in my ear, his fingers trailing my spine behind everyone’s back. “I think I prefer your knickers, Rose. Especially the ones you’re wearing right now.”

“Stop or you will die,” I whisper through my teeth, smiling at Josephine for telling Harold off. He chuckles so quietly I can only tell from his cinnamon breath in my cheek.

“What are yeh two bumpin’ yer gums about?” Mr. Plemmons calls to Aiden and me. “Yeh’re not tryin’ to take our Rose away, Anton, are yeh?”

“It’s Aiden, Mr. Plemmons,” I shout, ignoring his question, which keeps my voice from breaking.

“Are yeh sweethearts?”

“Harold, you don’t have to shout every thought that flits in that wooly ‘ead of yours!” Josephine scolds him, but smiles expectantly for an answer.

“Yes, we are,” I whisper before I remember they can’t hear. “Yes, we are,” I raise my decibels again. “And Javier and Reagan are my adoptive brother and sister. They took care of me when I first . . .”

“Ah,” they sigh in unison, abruptly looking one hundred, their heads bobbing at the same time, paled eyes away, and I know we are seeing the funeral day. The only two people left who know every minute of that day, who spoon-fed me until I was taken to the hospital.

“Well, yer Mum and Dad would ‘ave liked yer friends and sweetheart, Rose,” Mr. Plemmons blinks back to the present. “I told Josephine, I said ‘yeh just watch those roses bloom with Clare’s magic now that our Rose is back. They’re glowin’ up there, they are.”

I nod and smile, unable to speak, as Aiden rubs the small of my back gently.

“But no stayin’ at the cottage with Edmund without a chaperone!” Mr. Plemmons stomps the cane on the cobblestone.

“Ha ha ha!” Josephine almost topples off her yellow chair from cackling. “What codswallop you talk, Harold! You never let a chaperone stop you when we met.”

“Tha’ was diffren’. We were older than these two.”

Aiden, towering at thirty-five years old, and Javier, looking even older with his full beard, are shaking with laughter while Reagan is giggling so hard, she twists her legs together in that way she does when she has to pee.

“No, you barmy old fool. We were younger. I had Emma when I was Elisa’s age. That’s your second child.”

“I know who my Emma is!” And they’re off quibbling about the sixty-five years they’ve had together, the decades running together as they should. From the corner of my eye, I see Aiden watch them with something like longing—perhaps wondering whether the years will ever disappear for him. Yet he seems entirely present here in the moment, his fist never clenching, even though he has been sitting in a cramped bench with two other people, albeit in a quiet alley and me in between.

“Wha’ abou’ yeh two? Are yeh sweethearts?” Mr. Plemmons demands of Reagan and Javier.

“No, Mr. Plemmons, we’re friends,” Javier howls while Reagan takes an intense interest in the jasmine bush next to her. At least Javier didn’t say we’re siblings.

“These young ‘uns don’ get married anymore, Josephine. Blimey, there’ll be no more weddings needin’ flowers.”

Eventually, the sun starts setting and we decide to help them close up. I give Mr. Plemmons some new seeds from the garden.

“Yes, yes, they’ll do quite nice, these will. Rose, yeh’ll come to the Rose Festival, won’ yeh? Enter yer Mum’s roses fer the Rose Cup. Willoughby has been twirlin’ his mustache at me fer winning the last one.”

“Of course I will,” I say, even though it will be a day away from Aiden. A crowded festival would be too reckless, too terrorizing. But Mum’s blooms will go to that festival, especially if I don’t know how the ninety days will end.

I buy the American Beauty rose fledgling that’s been waiving at me for the last hour—Aiden carries it gently, earning a smile from Mrs. Plemmons—and say our goodbyes. The Plemmonses shuffle with us half-way through the alley, wishing us and the rose a good night.

“Even yeh, Adam. But keep yer hands to yerself!”

“It’s Aiden, Mr. Plemmons,” I yell again in vain but he just smiles and waves.

We watch them teeter away, arm in arm to their apartment above the flower shop. As the door closes behind them, I wonder how many of these memories I missed and how many there are left. An urgency gathers in my veins and abruptly I want to run, dance, shout, sing, jump, twirl, do everything, live everything, every hour, minute, or second left of our ninety days. Because what if these are the only present moment we have?

“Let’s go!” I tell my three stars. “Let’s find Benson and James and go back to the cottage. We can send James off on his fishing trip with a cheer.”

Javier and Reagan start ahead of us, but Aiden tips up my face. “Are you all right?”

“I’m so glad you met them.”

“Me too, Rose. One of my favorite memories in my entire life.”

“Let’s go make more,” I say and pull him behind me.

Above us, in the twilight sky, the first stars of our first sleep start twinkling.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 12 – BIG BANG

Happy Saturday, friends! What can I possibly say about this chapter? I’ll let you find your own words but I will add that the “Male” poem under the Poems page in my website was written exactly for this chapter. Hope you enjoy it and thank you as always for following this story and for commenting and writing to me. It means a lot and I might not have found the energy even for these chapters without your words. Happy weekend! xo, Ani [The following material is R-rated.]

12

Big Bang

“What is it?” Aiden asks, noticing my smile. He is still glowing above me, breathing hard, his body still pressed against every inch of mine.

“You gave me an idea.” I breathe, my legs wrapping around him like a vise.

He closes his eyes with a moan. “Does it involve how to prevent pregnancy when the most desperate man on the planet does not have a condom?”

“Umm, no, but it should help with desperation generally.”

“Mmm, I’m beyond help on that point.” He runs his nose down my throat and around the nipple protruding through the thin cotton of my pajamas. He shudders and opens his eyes—looking at me that way—and my body riots. It arches off the meadow, brushing against the denim of his jeans. He presses into me reflexively, that part of him to that part of mine, cancelling out the whole world.

“Ah, Elisa,” he sighs, his jaw flexing, the bands of muscle tensing like he is trying to move and stay still at the same time. I’m not sure though, I’m over here on the soggy meadow, burning. With a groan, he pulls away from me and rolls on his back, staring at the sky and muttering something fast and low.

The small distance feels transatlantic. I turn to my side and flutter my fingers on his cupid lips. But his hand flies up and places them over his chest where his heart is crashing against his ribs like mine. “A man minute, please,” he breathes, lying here motionless on the wildflowers, all the sky in his eyes.

“What are you doing?”

“Reciting War and Peace backwards.”

A laugh bursts through my lips. A true-bubbly-effortless-straight-from-the-heart laugh. Of course an impossible being like this needs a fifteen-part saga to cool his fire.

I think my laugh works better at distraction than Tolstoy though because he turns to me with my favorite lopsided smile—ardor reined in. “I love the sound of your laugh, Elisa. I thought I’d never hear it again anywhere except in my mind.” He props himself on his elbow. “Now tell me about your idea. What was it?”

It takes me a moment to remember lost as I am in this feeling of laughter. But when I do, words tumble out, telling him everything about the protein of bravery from the moment I first interviewed with Edison. He listens to me incandescently, that’s the only word to describe it. “Anyway,” I take a deep breath when I get to the clue part. “I’ve been so sure I would disappoint Edison and, worse, embarrass my dad. He’s a legend there, Aiden, I can’t even describe it. And they all seem to think I’m a mini-him with his skills and brain. It’s mental. But then I found a clue in Dad’s safe the same night I started reading your war letters because that’s where I keep them. He had locked the clue in there at some point, but clearly didn’t tell anyone, I’m not sure why. Want to know what it said?”

He strokes my cheek with the back of his fingers. Humor has left his eyes, and they have become unbearably tender. “I think you are a brilliant scientist on your own right, not just as your father’s daughter. You may have inherited his talent but your work, your worth, that’s all yours. Never forget that. You are nobody’s mini. All of them are just mini-Elisas.”

“Want to hear the clue or not?”

He chuckles. “Yes, dear.”

“It said: Fifth Time. Not December. Add Love.”

I see his own intelligence and curiosity flash in his eyes, and the tectonic plates shift, probably retrieving everything he has ever heard, read, or learned about number five, December, or love. He whistles in awe. “There’s a lot to unpack there. We can break it though; let me think for a minute.” And he closes his eyes, his pupils shifting rapidly under the eyelids as his super-brain starts sifting through a vast network of data at lightening speed. A part of me wants to drool here in awe but a bigger part misses his eyes on me.

“I already cracked the first two sentences,” I say, and his eyes are mine again.

“Of course you did. Why would I think you need my help? Tell me.”

“It means I have to remove magnesium, the twelfth element, after the fifth spin on the centrifuge. But I had no idea what “add love” meant until you helped me with your kiss.”

“Oh?” A blinding smile.

“Yes, I was watching how you happy you looked compared to how afraid we were right before—”

“And still are.”

“And still are, but tell me, during the kiss were you feeling any fear at all?”

“None. I was drowning in you. And those pajamas.”

I nod as he confirms my hypothesis. “That’s the third code. Kissing releases oxytocin. Dad is telling me to add oxytocin to the formula.”

His mouth pops open.

“Or at least I think that’s what it means. I can’t wait to test it. But it’s really complex. I have no idea how. And I have to do it in secret—Dad obviously didn’t want anyone to know yet. And if I can do it, it can help you so much. You can eat it like candy every morning, no side effects, and the terrors can’t touch you at all even if my calming effect fails. I’ll save you, you’ll see.”

He changes before me—emotions flitting through the beloved face so fast, I’m breathless. I try to name the ones I can fathom: pride, joy, tenderness, love, pain. Others are too big, too nameless for my mind. At length, his eyes settle in their peace setting and he lowers his face to mine. I reach eagerly for his lips, but they rest on the center of my forehead. The spot my dad always kissed, the spot I couldn’t bear to touch until that last time Aiden and I made love. The spot that now belongs to him.

“You save me every minute, Elisa” he says. “Don’t stress yourself for me. Do this because you love it, do it for your father, not for me. Promise?”

I try to decipher his mood like my clue but it’s too deep. Is it because he thinks my calming effect will win? Or because he thinks no protein of bravery could save him if it doesn’t? I want to ask but instinctively I sense a wall there—a wall he is keeping up for a vital, fundamental reason. A chill prickles my neck. Make us strong, make us brave. I pull him to my mouth for more oxytocin but he sits up, smiling now. “I don’t want to run through the entire fourth book of War and Peace, do you? Come, you’re getting all wet.”

“I know,” I grumble, and he laughs. My favorite, free-waterfall Aiden laugh that springs from a secret part of him and crashes through all his craggy cliffs, washing away every memory debris from his eyes even for just one brief, cascading moment. And I know what he means by the sound of laughter. I could lie here and listen to his all day.

“I meant wet from the grass,” he chuckles. “But I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in my inferno. Come.”

“I’m trying.”

“Elisa, I swear.”

“Oh, yes! Swearing is good too.”

“‘Early in the year 1806 Nicholas Rostóv returned home on leave. Denísov was going home to Vorónezh and Rostóv persuaded him to travel with him as far as Moscow,” Aiden starts reciting, yanking me up with one hand as though touching me with anything more might bring war here in Burford. “It’ll be Rostóv and Denísov all the way if you don’t behave yourself,” he says with a stern voice that doesn’t match either the fiery eyes or the dimply smile.

But now that I’m vertical, I see exactly what he means by “wet.” The back of me, from my hair to the wellingtons, is muddy. An imprint of my body is pressed into Elysium from Aiden’s weight. And his rain jacket looks like a tarp forgotten on a sludgy ditch overnight. For his part, Aiden wears mud extremely well. It has molded around his shoulders and derriere like it wants nothing more than to become an exact replica of him. And his black wavy hair is specked with it, as though Old Aiden sprinkled him with silver wisdom when passing by in my vision.

“Keep looking at me like that, and I’ll tell you all about how Denísov met a comrade at his last station, drank three bottles of wine, and—”

“Okay, okay, I’ll stop.” I laugh, trying to brush off some of the mess in vain. It’s caked everywhere. I look back at the cottage where from the shuttered windows Javier and Reagan are clearly still sleeping.

“You’re a mess. Let’s go to my hotel before everyone wakes up,” Aiden says, seeing my predicament. “Besides, I’ve brought you something.”

“Is it condoms?”

“Elisa!”

“That’s okay. I’ll go on the pill. Especially if we need to flood you in me.”

“Denísov did not once wake up on the way to Moscow, but lay at the bottom of the sleigh beside Rostóv—”

“All right, I’ll really stop this time. Rostóv is starting to sound appealing.”

He zips up my parka with the very tips of his fingers lest my nipples electrocute him, tosses his rain jacket over his shoulder with a deep sigh, and tucks my arm into the crook of his. And we start walking along the river to town, following the trail of my dreams. He slows his long stride to match mine, never rushing, his eyes absorbing the countryside. It’s still early, the hilltops just glazed with the sun’s lacquer. And the willows, the larks’ warble, the river whitecaps, the arched bridge all start becoming imprinted in Aiden’s mind. I try to watch my childhood world through his eyes. It’s peaceful, quiet—the only sounds coming from nature, not man. A land with circadian rhythms that never change, always predictable like the infinity symbols of the rolling hills. Rise, fall, rise, fall—an eternal, cozy pattern of the simple life.

One look at Aiden and I see it, that pastoral standstill filling his eyes. He looks restful, a small smile lingering at the corner of his mouth like a kiss at certain moments. His steel shoulders are less tense, swaying more with movement than his American ramrod posture. Because, as he said, he has no memories of this landscape. Nothing but the ones he is creating right this very minute. I keep quiet to give him these first images to himself. He must be thinking the same because he doesn’t talk, but his hands never leave me. Every few steps, he strokes my cheek, my hair, my arm. As I do with him. But not because I don’t think he is real. Seeing him here, teeming with beauty on my dream trail—how could I possibly have believed those pale imitations my psyche threw together were reality? They were blurry polaroids, grainy images, muffled sounds compared to the real him.

“What are you thinking about?” he breaks the comfortable silence as we are crossing the field of epiphanies.

“Dreams. And you.”

“You mean nightmares?”

I scoff and lean my head on his arm. Always against himself. “In England, Aiden, you’ll always be better than dreams.”

He pauses and takes my face in his hands. “Will you tell me something?” he asks.

“If you take back the nightmare part.”

“I take it back.”

“All right then,” I smile.

“When we were in the garden at your cottage last night, you asked what I did on June sixteenth ten years ago and then said, ‘It’s really you!’ You seemed so shocked. Why was that? Did you believe I’d never come for you?”

I feel my smile fading. He must sense my tension because he releases the pressure of his hands, but not enough to let me look away from him. “Would you have?” I ask, suddenly unsure if I want to know the answer. “If Corbin hadn’t made this discovery that’s given you hope?”

I know the answer before he speaks it; his eyes give it to me. A ghost of the wound creeps up my throat. “I don’t think I would have risked your safety ever again,” he says at last. “But I also know I couldn’t have stayed away. I guess I would have done what I was always planning to do if you had left me but stayed in the U.S. as I thought you would.”

L-e-f-t. “What were you planning?”

“I’d have let you live your life, knowing your normal memory would eventually fade and leave me behind, allowing you to move past the pain and wreckage I had caused. But the whole time, I would have stayed yours. I always planned to find a way to steal a glance at you from a distance. Not like a stalker, just occasionally to get through life, one glimpse to the next. But I never expected I wouldn’t have even that distant glimpse. I didn’t realize how much I had poured all my hopes for survival in that one glance. So when you came to England and took the hope of that glimpse away . . . ” He shakes his head, eyes dropping at my feet.

H-o-p-e. Is this the future that awaits us if Corbin’s theory is wrong? Or will it be even worse? Will there be enough Aiden left to chase that one glimpse? Will there be enough of me? Could I walk through life, sensing his eyes on me every blue moon but when I would whip my head around, he would not be there? Would I always look over my shoulder for my own glimpse of him, search all my déjà vu’s for his mark? A forget-me-not here, a Für Elise there, a line of Byron’s in an old book. And I would think, is this him? Or is it wind swirling our stardust around because our stars would have long since imploded? Goosebumps erupt on my skin, as though the cosmic wind is already blowing. Keep us whole, make us brave.

“Let’s not think about any of that now,” Aiden says, brushing my lips with his thumb, perhaps sensing and asking the same questions to himself. “We’ve been given ninety days, and that’s much more than I could have ever hoped. Not to mention that I’m under strict medical orders to stay in the present moment with you. And in the present, you’re here in my arms, covered in mud and I can’t think of a time when you’ve looked more beautiful.” Then he pecks my lips lightly, flooding my system with oxytocin and, at least for now, fear recedes. Why would I want any other moment than