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 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: CHAPTERS 31 & 32 – ROMEO & JULIET

Hi friends,

It’s been a while but I have two chapters for you: Chapter 31 – Romeo and Chapter 32 – Juliet. We’re getting close to the end now. Thank you for your patience as I finish this story while coping with some health matters. And special thanks and love to my friends here for checking up on me and being a source of support: Wattle, Linda, Liz, HN, and Suzi. Love, xo, Ani (P.S. There were no songs for these chapters, but I recommend you re-read Chapter 11, Phenomenon, after you read them. They are in some ways bookends to each other.)

31

Romeo

The sound of rain lashing the window wakes me. I open my eyes to the charred light of a grizzly dawn. In that same blink, a shiver whips my skin despite the woolen blanket and heavy quilt over my shoulders. It takes only another blink to realize why. There is no sandalwood body warmth wrapped around me.

“Oh!” I gasp, sitting up. My body screams in protest at the sudden movement. The anesthetic has long faded, leaving behind only the stabs and aches of last night. The soles of my feet burn, my knees sting, my shoulder throbs where I fell against the chair from Edison’s slap, the corner of my mouth smarts where his bony hand struck, and my head pounds from my temples to my eyelids. But worse than all that is the pain in my chest—that jagged, raw feeling when Aiden and I are apart. It hasn’t left me while asleep; it has magnified.

“Hey, hey, easy.” Aiden’s muted voice reaches me from the direction of my old desk only a second before my eyes focus enough to see him flash to my side, still in his sweats and T-shirt. A deluge of relief floods me at the same time that my stomach fills with splinters of ice. Because he is still here like he promised, but he has changed profoundly in the night. The expression of the burning man has vanished as if his agony has scorched everything to ash. There is no flicker of animation on his face. A pallid haze blurs his skin like dust over his former golden glow. The sapphire eyes are glasslike, their sentient depths gone. And tension strains him differently. Not like a sculpture that still evokes emotion in stillness, but like a lifeless body embalmed in eternal beauty. He is no longer thousands of miles away; he has left life.

“Oh, my love!” I hear myself choke out. I scramble out of the covers he must have draped over me and pull him down on the bed, taking him in my arms. His body is rigid and cold. I don’t have to ask how he feels. I just hold him, trying to think of the first words I want him to hear from me right now. His war letters echo in my head as if they’ve been playing like Für Elise in my sleep. “This is not that day either, sweetheart. We go on together, one minute at a time.”

Nothing passes through his stony frame, not even a breath, as he pulls away.

“How are you feeling?” he asks. His voice is dead, too, without any pulse of intonation.

“Worried sick about you. How is your head?” I reach around, feeling the spot gently with my fingertips. The bump has shrunk some, but it’s not gone. “Any dizziness or confusion?”

“No, I’m fine, but I meant your feet and knees. How badly do they hurt?”

Who cares about my stupid feet when he is like this? “Actually, nothing hurts at all,” I lie with conviction, but I don’t fool him.

“I’ll bring you some Tylenol,” he says, standing so fast, I don’t have time to draw breath.

“Aiden, I’m alright, really,” I argue, but he is already out of the bedroom.

My panic skyrockets through the stratosphere. Even in my deepest fears last night, I didn’t think it was possible he could get worse, but I was wrong. It’s as though every minute has sucked out his very soul. And it hasn’t been a lot of minutes. The clock on the nightstand is ticking five thirty. I was out only three hours. What has Aiden been doing since then? Has he heard from Corbin? How many ways has he found to hate himself? The beloved letters are back inside their envelopes, stacked neatly by the clock like handwaves. If I end, you end, he wrote. Even though the idea of him not existing is unendurable, his words give me some air: he goes on if I’m still breathing. But how? I hug my torso, trying to inhale. To be strong for him. I have barely managed two breaths when he returns—morgue white—with a glass of water and a bottle of paracetamol in hand. I take the pills without argument, saving it for bigger fights that are surely ahead.

He sits at the foot of the bed, checking my feet and knees without any sign of life. At least the gauze is still sterile, not a drop of blood has seeped through.

“They really don’t hurt,” I promise again, not even lying this time. I cannot feel anything but dread for him. He doesn’t blink or speak, doesn’t gaze at my face for calm as is his instinct when he needs it most. Something about that makes the base of my skull prickle, but I set it aside for now. “So what have you been doing while I was asleep?” I ask, even though I’m terrified of the answer.

“Taking care of a few things.”

“What things?”

“Getting you a lawyer in the Edison prosecution, for one. I spoke with Bob—he’s contacting a law firm in London who will represent your interests so you won’t have to deal with it. Bob is confident Edison will plead guilty given all the evidence.”

Of course he took care of this. Of course he will take care of everything except the one thing I want: staying with him. “Thank you,” I whisper, a shudder running through me.

Even in hell, he doesn’t miss it. “He will not bother you ever again, Elisa.”

I nod, letting him misunderstand. My shivers have nothing to do with Edison anymore.

“And for what is worth, I don’t think Graham was in on it,” he adds. “We’ll watch him closely but . . .” He trails off, his eyes drifting inertly to the letters. “I think he would be a safe friend for you.” There is something about his statement, like he has put a lot of thought in it despite its simplicity. I change topics immediately, afraid he has been contemplating who I should be with instead of him.

“What else did you do other than mobilize an international legal team at my defense?”

“Informed Oxford and drafted your report to them about Edison. You should review and submit it this morning. They’ll need to change security codes and take other measures.”

“I’m sure it’s perfect if you wrote it. What else?” I’m still terrified. Any normal human would not have had time to ponder right and wrong after doing all that, but Aiden probably did this and a lot more.

He sighs, no doubt hearing the fear in my voice. “Think, work, Corbin—”

“Oh, thank God!” The words blurt from my mouth. “He called you already?”

He nods once. I expect, even hope for that tight reaction to Corbin’s name he had last night, but nothing glimmers on his ghostly face or the empty eyes.

“What did he say?” I ask, barely hearing my voice over the hammering of my heart.

“He saw fit to wake up Helen. They’d like to see me in an hour.”

My mouth falls open. For a second, I forget even the terror about his thoughts in the black night. They must be besides themselves if Doctor Helen is seeing him at six thirty on a Saturday.

“Bloody hell!” I squeak. “I’m so glad he did that. We need to get going right now.” I throw off the covers, ready to sprint.

“Elisa, wait.”

“What?” I ask, one leg out of bed.

“There is no sense in wasting time with this meeting. I obviously don’t have an internal injury, and there’s nothing left to discuss with them.”

It takes me a moment to comprehend what he is saying. “Of course there is! There is everything to discuss and understand. What it means, what we should do now, how we react—”

“They don’t know any of that. They understand my memory about as much as dark matter. The rest is for us to decide.”

Us. At least he is still using that pronoun. But how can I convince him this is first and foremost for his health? What can I say that would make him care about that?

“Aiden, please,” I beg him, trying to stroke his pale cheek, but he leans out of my touch and closes his eyes. I feel blind without them, as if I am missing my own sight or some deep internal sonar. “I know you don’t see the point but do it for me, if not for yourself. At least let Doctor Helen scan your brain. If nothing else, it might help me sleep better tonight.”

It’s probably not true. Sleep—as in dreams and rest—seems lost forever. But my health is the only argument he might accept.

He opens his eyes unwillingly as if in surrender. “If that’s what you prefer. But I’d rather—”

“I’m coming with you,” I interrupt with as much strength as I can muster before he starts trying to convince me to stay in bed and rest my feet while he is locked inside an MRI tube alone. “Even if I have to walk there, barefoot in the rain,” I threaten for good measure.

We look at each other for the briefest moment: me unyielding, him . . . lifeless—there is no other word for it. Then he sighs, no doubt realizing I mean it, and stands. “I’ll let you get ready then.”

“Please, stay,” I say, taking his hand.

He looks down at my trembling fingers without seeming to breathe. For the first time this morning, a shadow of emotion flickers on his face. And then it’s gone before I can understand it. He sets my hand gently to my side.

“I can’t, Elisa.” His quiet voice is agonized. It lingers in the room as my childhood door closes behind him with a thud.

My body starts shaking so forcefully that for a while I cannot move even though I can hear the clock ticking, his footsteps fading, the willows murmuring ashes, ashes, ashes. My mind cannot think past the blinding fear. I try to remember any other time I have seen Aiden like this . . . I never have. Even after his attack on me, his eyes stirred, he was able to keep up a façade, he held some hope, at first for me, then later for us. Now there seems to be none of that. But every second I stand here is a second away from Doctor Helen and Corbin. They will have some guidance, they must.

Their urgency releases my feet. I scramble out in the hall, noticing as I run to the bathroom that Benson’s door is still closed. But as soon as I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I stagger to a stop.

I have definitely seen worse, but I know—from the goosebumps on my skin to my bandaged toes—that Aiden is bleeding life because of the image in front of me. My lower lip is swollen and red although the cut there is shallow and will heal in a couple of days. There is a faint shadow across my cheek in the shape of Edison’s fingers. A small purple bruise has bloomed on my shoulder and another one is starting at my hip. But it doesn’t matter that my injuries are minor or from a monster’s hand that Aiden saved me from. When it comes to my safety, his perfect cognition sees no nuance. Everything is a mortal danger to be eliminated, especially himself.

Another volley of shudders rattles my very teeth. I start brushing them on reflex, all my conscious mind focused only on one thing: how do I give Aiden some hope? How do I help him? But my brain cannot form any coherent answers, just cracklings of instinct, vague and tenuous. Things like dabbing make-up and lip balm to mask the worst. Or choosing every layer of clothing carefully so they only trigger good memories for Aiden: mum’s scarf from the first time he saw me, the white blouse from my supplement presentation, my old jeans from our date at Paradox Café, the jewelry he has given me, a drop of Aeternum perfume. Head to toe, a collage of some of our happiest moments. I race down the stairs, trying to calculate doses of serotonin. Will I even be able to work on the protein with Edison gone?

But all chemistry disappears from my head the instant I enter the living room.

Aiden and Benson are both there, Benson on the sofa, frowning at his phone, Aiden standing by the window, staring into the rainy garden. I cannot see his face, but he is dressed in his reel clothes: the same dark jeans and blue button-up shirt he wears every morning since the first session with Doctor Helen. The only fabric in this cottage that’s woven with horror. And the only clothes that live outside our bedroom. Is this because he will never step over that threshold again? Or because every minute today feels like its own reel? I swallow hard past my constricted throat.

“Morning, Benson,” I croak, asking him a million questions with my eyes. How was Aiden while I was asleep? Have they talked? Has Aiden hinted at what he is thinking now?

“Morning, Elisa.” He shakes his head slightly, but I don’t have time to decipher his gesture because Aiden turns at the sound of my voice. Against the dawn light, he looks so much like my Romeo nightmare—ashen, frozen, except the open, dead eyes. Somehow, they are worse than closed. At least then I could pretend he was asleep. But there is no pretending now even if there isn’t a vial of my failed protein in his hand. This reality is not a dream. I cannot wake up from this.

But my body does. Of their own volition, my feet sprint toward him. He catches me in his arms instinctively as I crash into his chest. I hold him tightly, resting my head against his pectoral. Listening to his heart.

“Elisa, what happened? Do your feet hurt?” His voice is low and tense.

I shake my head, breathing in his scent, wrapping my arms tighter around his waist. He doesn’t feel like my parents in rigor mortis—even though marble hard, he is touching me back. But only for a second. Then he leans away, extricating himself from my grip. I don’t know if he notices the ensemble of hope I’m wearing. Like before, his eyes don’t stray below mine to anything that might trigger calm or happiness. The base of my skull prickles again. Why is that?

“Do you need more time?” he asks.

“No, I’m ready when you are.”

“Then eat something first. There’s some breakfast in the kitchen.”

Of course there is. “Have you eaten?”

“I’m set.” Translation: no, I have not eaten, and I am not having this argument now. He takes a step back. And then I remember Benson. He is still on the sofa with his phone, studiously trying to ignore us.

“Benson, what about you?”

“I’m good too, Elisa.”

I don’t believe him anymore than Aiden, but there is no time to start a fight I will lose. I force a smile and wheel to the kitchen on shaking knees.

The clotted cream and rosehip jam are on the counter, a scone already slathered with them exactly as I take it. My cup of Earl Grey tea is steaming with my daily Baci glimmering on the saucer. I can’t even touch it without Aiden’s kiss, but I force down a few bites of scone only for him, shoving back tears. Outside in the garden, the roses are drowning. The Clares quiver by the windowsill, raindrops trickling down their petals. Help Aiden again, Mum. Help me save the seven-year-old boy like you did then. The biggest, heaviest bloom taps against the glass from the wind, splashing down a pattern of water. I search it for answers that might make this live reel easier, but the droplets cascade down the pane and disappear. I pack some food in a covered basket, a small token for Doctor Helen, and the post-reel surprise I had hidden for Aiden today. This small ritual never fails to make him smile even after fifty-four reels of torture, no matter how minor or silly the surprise is. Maybe it will help this morning, too. I close the basket and dash back to the living room.

Nothing has changed there: Benson is still on sofa, Aiden is still towering at the window, staring at the weepingElisas. Is he searching for answers like me? Or has he already found them?

“All done,” I announce, trying to inject some liveliness in my voice.

Aiden’s eyes fall vacantly on my basket. No familiar flash of curiosity sparks in their depths. The blankness terrifies me almost as much as my nightmare. “It’s a little something for Doctor Helen,” I volunteer, too afraid not to hear him ask.

He barely nods. And then we’re out in the crisp, sodden air. Ashes, ashes, ashes . . . Beyond the willows, River Windrush is a swollen, muddy gray. From its lethal depths, the boulder’s prophecy rumbles in my ears for the first time in a while: Neither survives if the other dies. Neither dies if the other lives. I huddle under the umbrella Aiden is holding over me, clutching his arm. As we pass the garden shed with the reel, tension bolts through him like lightning. Will Doctor Helen continue that torture or stop it after last night? Which is worse: one more minute of its evil or giving up?

As soon as we reach the Rover in the garage and Benson starts backing out, I climb on Aiden’s lap like always, hoping it will have the same calming effect it usually does. But it doesn’t—at least not enough. His arms feel reluctant and heavy, as they do after the reel. So I do what I do after the reel, too: flood him with me as much as I can with Benson present. I lean against his chest, pressing my lips at his throat, letting my weight, my smell, my warmth engulf him. Yet his posture remains strained, resistant somehow. His breaths are shallow and rare. Why is that? Are there some things that my calming effect cannot soothe for him? What do we do if we lose even that?

I fight back a shudder, staring out of the window into the blur of torrential gray. It whips by like a montage on rewind: rewind to that first rainy night Aiden came to England; rewind to another drizzly drive like this toward another team of experts, that time to save me from ICE; rewind to all the stormy battles we have fought for our love.

“Do you want to hear a little story?” I whisper to him as he asked me on that crucifying ride to Bob’s office when I thought I was losing everything. The ride when Aiden first told me about his dream of me that started the war letters. His breath catches in recognition. He nods once, wordlessly, as I did then.

“You have a birthday you don’t know about,” I quote him, keeping my face in his neck like that time. I only phrased it this way hoping to revive him, but as I speak the words, I realize how true they are. He doesn’t answer, but his breath has not restarted. “It’s October sixteenth, 1999, around eight in the morning, long after you were really born, of course. But I remember the date well because it was the day Dad and I carved our initials—PEC—on the bench. I was six a half, almost your age when you first came to Oxford, and Dad brought me to work with him that Saturday. It wasn’t that different a Saturday from today: cloudy but the rain hadn’t started. I used to love going to his work. He’d teach me how to play in the lab. But that morning, he said, ‘Eliser, we’re doing something else first.’

‘What are we doing?’ I asked him—always eager as long as it involved making a mess.

He smiled, ‘Today, we’re doing magic instead of chemistry.’

‘Magic?’ I remember laughing.

‘Magic,’ he nodded in earnest, grabbing a lab scalpel.

So we went out in the same quad you’ve been guarding every day and crawled under the bench. He didn’t tell me what he was doing right away even though I kept barraging him with questions. But then I understood as he first carved the P—he did it quickly like he was trying to get it out of the way. Then the E—that one took longer as he asked me how I wanted it to look. And in the end the C. That took him the longest. So long that other feet started passing by ours. But he kept going, being so careful with the curve of mum’s name. The whole time, he had this smile on his face. I think you would call it moronic, as you did for Marshall’s when he was writing to Jasmine in the sand ditch. And it was exactly that. Sort of loopy, the tip of his tongue trapped between his teeth. That smile was only hers, no one else ever gave it to him. Except I was getting impatient for the magic to begin.

‘Dad,’ I whined. ‘Stop smiling and do the magic. I want to make pink smoke today.’

He laughed—this big laughter that shook the wood flakes off his face. ‘Eliser, this is the magic. Right here, look!’

‘What is? Our initials?’ I was confused—we wrote down our initials all the time.

‘No,’ he answered. ‘This smile.’

He waited for me to get it as I watched his face differently. I didn’t know what I was seeing, I only realized that my smile wasn’t like his.

‘Why don’t I smile the same way if this is magic?’ I asked him, trying to lift my lips the same way but somehow knowing they wouldn’t.

He smiled even more widely. ‘You will.’

‘When?’

‘When you meet someone that will make you carve out the alphabet on an innocent garden bench. When you love someone the way I love this letter C. That’s magic.’

I was so disappointed—there was no pink smoke or blue sludge or yellow sparks or anything. ‘That’s it—love? Love is the magic we’re doing?’

He heard the letdown in my voice but kept smiling. ‘Love is the only magic there is.’ And he turned to finishing the C until it was an imitation of mum’s smile. That’s when it started dawning on me, kind of like it did for you with Marshall. As I watched how happy he was, lying there on damp grass, whittling these three letters together, I remember wanting that smile. I wanted to feel the magic he felt.

‘So when will that be for me?’ I wondered as he kept perfecting the C.

‘Someday. But it will be.’”

I stop, half in that memory, half in this present moment. Aiden is still silent around me, still hardly breathing. “And that’s when the fantasy of you started,” I add, quoting him again, and then flipping his words to the opposite. “You were not perfect in my head—I was too young to know any of that—but you are perfect for me in real life. Now, what can wars and startles do about that?”

I caress my PEC bracelet, listening for his breath, not really waiting for an answer. Even though he doesn’t speak, I know what he is thinking because it was the same thought I had that rainy Portland day: all those things can take me away, even kill me. But he knows, as did I, they cannot do anything to the dream. That will never be enough for me, but perhaps it will give him a speck of hope today like it did in Fallujah’s firepits.

It doesn’t seem likely from the look of his skin. It stands out in the heathered light of the car, whiter than bones, grayer than ashes. His eyes are trained on the bracelet at my wrist. From the gloom outside, the phosphorescent letters are glowing.

“A beautiful way to be born,” he murmurs after a long moment. His voice is ephemeral, almost part of the rain.

“And to live.”

“Sir?” Benson’s hesitant voice makes me jump. Somehow, we are already in the car park next to WIN—Doctor Helen’s building. Aiden’s vast oak looms in the distance at the fringe of the lawn. Beyond it, the heartline of Oxford’s spires is invisible through the thick clouds. “Same time as usual?” Benson asks, looking at Aiden in the back mirror.

Aiden nods without a word and opens the door. A gust of wind steals inside the cabin, sprinkling droplets on the leather seats.

“Benson, here, I packed you some food,” I remember, handing him a wrapped scone and fruit. “It will be at least another two hours before the shops open around here.”

“Thanks, Elisa.” He gives me a small smile and watches us leave with a deep frown.

Aiden holds his black umbrella over me, practically carrying me up the four slippery steps. But his touch is minimal, distant, releasing me as soon as we are at the entrance.

“So do Doctor Helen and Corbin know everything that happened?” I ask him.

He nods silently again and opens the door, shielding me from the rain with his body.

The empty lobby feels cavernous with the stark white that covers everything—an arctic tundra much like the wasteland of his gaze. He scans the building he has visited since his own seven-year-old days, but there is no vigilance in his eyes.

“Aiden, love, what are you thinking right now?”

He blinks down at me. “Too many things, including that I’d like to get this over with.” He starts leading me down the polished hall to the lift.

“Wait! Just a second!” I rummage inside my basket for the Clares I brought for Doctor Helen. They’re still wet from the windowsill. He watches as I take his hand and press a blushing petal onto his palm. “This is just a petal,” I tell him as he does for me before every reel. Maybe it will help him, too. “I’ll be waiting on the other side.”

But it has the opposite effect. Instead of a ghost of a smile or speck of life, that unspeakable agony from last night floods his face. Except it has grown and multiplied beyond any limit I could ever fathom. So staggering that it closes my throat and twists like a knife in my gut. Has the idea of me waiting for him become this excruciating? Am I making things worse instead of helping? I try to say something—anything—but I cannot form a single sound. Neither can he, it seems. He opens his mouth as one might do to scream, but no words come out. And his eyes . . . they darken from barren to burning as they stare at the petal on his hand.

“Aiden, Elisa, there you are!” A commanding voice breaks through the suffocating moment. Doctor Helen is bustling out of the lift toward us, her pristine white coat billowing behind her despite the early hour. Aiden tries to leash back the devastation in his face, but not fast enough. I watch in horrified stupor as their eyes meet and the unshakeable Doctor Helen falters. Horror because I realize I’m not the only one who has never seen this depth of torment in Aiden before. The scientist who has studied him for twenty-eight years is stunned.

Aiden recovers first. His face folds back into nothingness. He inclines his head at the silver neuroscientist who still has not blinked. But she does now and lopes through the last few steps between us.

“Good morning, you two. My apologies.” Her tone regains its authority as she tries to cover up her shock, but to me it sounds like I’m drowning in the river again. “I’m still reeling from Edison—what treachery from one of our own! I have already reported the matter to the Council. Elisa, thank everything you’re alright.” She grasps my shoulder.

“Thank Aiden,” I whisper, unable to find my voice. I cannot blink out of my retinas the image of his ravaged face at the idea of me standing by his side.

“Of course—him above all.” She turns to him. “Aiden, let’s get you in the MRI room right away, then we can discuss.” And the woman I used to think of as cold takes both our hands and tows us into the lift to the top floor where she presides. I follow her without knowing how—my heart and mind are splattered on the spot where Aiden stood, dying before my eyes.

The familiar, gleaming hall is empty with no court of scientists waiting for Doctor Helen’s every command. “It’s only us for this,” she explains, sensing the question I still cannot form. “And Doctor Corbin, of course. I thought that would be best. Aiden, you know the way. I’ll only scan for brain injury now; I won’t show you any images. Go on!” She urges him down the narrow corridor leading to the MRI machine I have seen only once before. He glances at me, his face remaining void of life.

“Stay with Doctor Helen. I’ll be fine.”

I think I manage a nod, still frozen. But even if I could move my lips, I have no idea what I would say. Somehow, in one minute, everything I thought I knew shattered. He strides away and enters the MRI antechamber without looking back. The heavy door thunders as it locks him in.

“Elisa?” Doctor Helen’s voice sounds distant even though she is standing right next to me. “Come, child. This one will be quicker than last time. You will see Aiden very soon.”

I know I should say something but all I can do is stare at the white expanse that swallowed up Aiden. Peripherally, I feel Doctor Helen’s hand around my elbow as she leads me across the hall to the command center where she tormented Aiden’s mind before, when he was still so full of hope. When the only option he could live with was to walk through the fires of Fallujah every dawn only for the chance of being with me. A chance that now seems all but destroyed.

“Do you need a moment before we go in?” she asks, still muffled and far-away.

I shake my head as she opens the metal door, her hand never leaving my arm. I can’t tell if her fingers are warm or cold.

The analytics room feels claustrophobic without the glow of the giant screens displaying Aiden’s brain in electric blue. Doctor Helen’s Van Gogh binder is resting next to her central monitors. But now I have no murder of crows circling out of me in rage, no sunflower seed bullets firing from my lips at fate. I am just the blank canvass that never became art.

“Have a seat, Elisa. Doctor Corbin is waiting on the line.” She pulls up a chair next to hers. I place my basket at my feet, feeling foolish, even naïve. How could anything I can pack in a basket help with this kind of torment, especially when they dangle from my arm?

“Doctor, we’re here,” she speaks into the ether, then Corbin’s face appears on a smaller screen in front of me like last time. Except unlike then, he is not smiling or waving. Deep wrinkles are burrowing around his bloodshot eyes. He is sitting under a desk lamp, the window behind him black with Portland’s night. The same night lulling Reagan and Javier into sleep. How can I tell them about this? How can I break their hearts along with mine?

“Ah, Elisa.” Corbin’s tired voice pipes through the room. “I’m glad you’re here. How are you holding up?”

It takes me four tries to mumble a whisper. “I’m fine, but Aiden . . .” I can’t finish. What can I say? Does any language in the world have words to describe the harrowing pain I just witnessed? It makes his anguish during the reel seem like a minor headache.

“I know,” he sighs, peering at Doctor Helen. “How does he seem to you this morning?”

She doesn’t answer verbally, but her eyes flit to me then back at him and she gives an almost imperceptible shake of the head. I would have missed it if I wasn’t staring at her like a life raft.

“He’s even worse than I know, isn’t he?” I breathe, clutching the edge of my chair. A hesitant look passes between them. “Please, tell me. I don’t want to be protected from his pain.”

Corbin tries to force a smile through tight lips. “Of course you don’t. And you deserve to know. The trouble is I can’t tell how much worse, but it seems worse than any other time I’ve known him. With every other loss, Aiden has had a purpose—building his empire to support his parents and the Marines, saving Javier, saving you, his hope for this experiment so you could be together. But Aiden without hope . . .” Despite his years of experience, he pales.

My mind reacts quicker than my body: the walls start spinning, the floor shaking, the air congealing. Then my body catches up, swaying on the spot like Aiden in the library last night. I grip the chair harder to stay vertical.

They must notice my reaction because Doctor Helen pats my shoulder.

“Deep breaths, Elisa,” Corbin coaches methodically. “Let’s try to remain optimistic. This time Aiden has your calming effect after all, and there’s no medicine more powerful for him than that.”

Except his words make the dizziness worse. That prickly sense of unease jolts from my skull down my spine. And I finally realize why. “C-can—” I start, then try again for volume. “Can my calming effect get weaker? It doesn’t seem to be working as well today as it was last night.”

Their reaction is unmissable. An identical mask of dread drops over their faces at the same time. Doctor Helen’s forehead crumples, eyes narrowing as though they are reading an invisible text. Then they widen in some inner understanding. “Of course,” she mutters to herself. “Of course, we should have known.”

“Known what?” I wheeze.

Her perturbed, grey eyes zoom on me. “Your calming effect on Aiden is strong and unchangeable. There is only one thing in the world that can impact it.”

“W-what is it?” I didn’t even know this was a real risk we’re facing.

“Aiden himself.” Her voice doesn’t sound distant anymore. It roars too loudly even though she is speaking in her usual, authoritative tone. “He is trying to stop it from helping him.”

Another deep sigh comes from Corbin but I barely hear it over my own gasp as this morning flashes back under a different light: Aiden avoiding my face, leaning away from my touch, not breathing in my scent—fighting all the stimuli that usually trigger my calming effect.

“No!” I tremble. “No, he can’t do that . . .”

Their somber gaze tells me he already has. And understanding strikes as fast as denial. “It’s because he doesn’t think he deserves peace, isn’t it?” The words strangle me as a new terror snakes its way through my heart. How many more kinds of horror can there be? Which one will kill?

The two doctors nod in unison. “You know him well,” Corbin agrees while I wish he would tell me I’m mad. “Yes, there’s no other explanation I can see. And he is probably trying to get used to an existence without you in it.”

Existence—not life. As my days will be without him. Both breathing only so the other can live. Abruptly, the boulder’s prophecy resounds through distance, no longer a prediction, but now reality: Neither survives if the other dies. Neither dies if the other lives. It reverberates around my head, chorusing with Aiden’s letter and my own silent refrain: If I end, you end . . . violent ends . . . Because is there a death more violent than a life unlived?

“Doctor Corbin, you use the word ‘existence.’” Doctor Helen picks up on the same thing. “Is there any scenario where you think Aiden would . . .?” She doesn’t finish because the idea is unfinishable, unspeakable.

But Corbin answers immediately, with conviction, before I can collapse. “Not while Elisa walks this earth. But I have no doubt he will suffer beyond all our imaginations every minute of the time left. I fear I won’t be able to reach him, especially without Elisa’s calm . . .” he trails off, now unable to finish himself.

The room blurs again, the walls closing in around me as if my mind is clamoring for unconscious relief. “What do we do?” I choke, laboring to keep my lungs working. “How do we help him? How can we save him from this?”

To that, the doctors have no answer.

Panic cleaves through my skull like Edison’s microscope. There has to be something, anything . . . “Should we ask his parents to come?” I grasp at any idea even though I don’t think he would allow that anymore. “Or maybe the Marines? Aiden’s mum said they kept each other alive last time.”

Corbin shakes his head, still looking disturbed. “With this revelation, I’m sure he will not accept their comfort. And they come with their own traumatic triggers for him. It might be better if we focus on the two of you having this time together.”

Better together than apart. An axiom on which I would have staked my life when I woke up. But now I can’t unsee Aiden’s pain at the thought of me standing by his side.

“I tend to agree.” Doctor Helen’s eyes are still deep in analysis. “Our priority must be getting Aiden to accept your calming effect. That’s the best hope we have at this point, but I think Robert, Stella, and his brothers should be prepared.”

She doesn’t need to explain for what. I know. The ceiling tilts oddly toward my face.

“Elisa, how far are you from solving the protein?” Corbin asks.

“I don’t know. There’s still a lot left to do, and I’m not sure what will happen to the project now with Edison out.”

“Leave that part to me.” Doctor Helen sounds resolute and confident. “You keep at it, child, keep at it.”

Is that all we have left? An unfinished dream? Even if somehow I manage to succeed, what chance does it stand with Aiden denying himself any form of relief? He simply wouldn’t take it. How can I convince him?

“For now, let’s just try to stay in the present moment and take it a step at a time,” Corbin hedges, perhaps wondering the same impossible questions. “You’re not alone in this, Elisa. We are here for you both.”

I listen to his practiced voice trying to comfort me. But there is only one person I want comforted, and he is tearing apart, alone inside an MRI machine that suddenly seems like a coffin, in a room icy like a morgue.

“Without question.” Doctor Helen revs into motion. “There’s much to consider, but let’s start by ruling out any physical injury first.” With a quick tap, she switches on her monitors. They blare neon blue on the walls that are still spinning. Static bristles in the air like high pitch. “Aiden, we are ready,” she fires into her microphone without any reply. “Starting on three, two, one.”

His wondrous brain lights up the screens in brilliant sapphire like his former eyes. But this time, I cannot bear to look at the images. I fold my arms on the desk and rest my forehead against them. Perhaps it will help me think if I can’t see. Perhaps I will find a way if I am blind. But the computers caw loudly around me with beeps, clicks, tweets. And the doctors’ grave voices like jarring notes in the digital buzz.

“Did Aiden say he was hit right over his old rifle injury, Doctor?” she verifies.

“Yes, smack in the middle,” he confirms while I try to fight the nausea. “Why?”

“It hasn’t caused bleeding or internal swelling in the area—we can be grateful for that part.”

Thank you, God! Thank you, Mum and Dad! My legs almost give out despite the fact that I’m sitting. Even the chaos in my head pauses for a second, immobilized by profound relief. Tears burn my eyes, and I let them fall. It’s better now when Aiden cannot see.

“Thank heavens he turned around so quickly.” Corbin repeats the words that have become a mantra. “He saved his own life and Elisa’s. Although he doesn’t view it that way.”

“Indeed . . .”

And the snarl inside my skull restarts. Like this morning, I only seem able to blurt out questions, not answers. The same question really—how do I help Aiden?—but with a different, razor-sharp edge now. It slices through every purpose, reflex, or analysis, leaving me only with raw instinct. Everything I have ever known, wanted, dreamed, wished, hoped, fought, or strived for all tumble one rung down to make room for this one visceral compulsion at the very top: saving Aiden, no matter the cost.

As from across the globe, the beeps stop at last and Doctor Helen’s voice projects into the microphone. “Aiden, we’re all finished. Good news: there’s no internal injury, just as you expected. When you’re ready, why don’t you meet us in the lab? I have Elisa with me—she’s perfectly safe.”

There is no answer from him, but I expected that. I want to run down the hall and be there, on the other side of that door, when he comes out. I want to take him in my arms. But will that bring back the unfathomable agony? Is my very presence now another reel of torture for him?

I wobble to my feet, wiping off any evidence of tears, and follow Doctor Helen to the futuristic lab where I first saw the waves of Aiden’s heart and mind. Its snowy interior is empty, but as we walk in, Corbin’s face flickers on the overhead screen. He is scribbling furiously on a yellow notepad. Doctor Helen takes her seat at the same long desk, flipping through her Van Gogh binder, eyes narrowed in concentration. And I fall on the chair closest to me, staring at the white double doors.

“While we’re waiting, Elisa, could you clarify something for me about the time Aiden was unconscious?” Doctor Helen asks. “He told us everything you shared, but obviously has no memory of that part, and I’d rather he not relive the experience.”

I don’t want to relive it either, but to help him, I would relive the day of my parents’ accident. “Anything,” I offer.

“I know he started losing his balance quickly after he was triggered, but did you do or say anything to him during that time?”

Despite the chills flogging my skin, I let last night flood my mind. Abruptly, I’m back in dad’s library, staring into every slide of my memory as if with microscope for magnification.

“I was just telling him to keep standing, that we love each other, that the glass was just petals, that I was waiting on the other side . . .” My voice breaks, thinking of the effect those same words had on him today. “I don’t know, a lot of things like that.”

“A lot of loving things,” she corrects kindly. “And did Aiden react in any way?”

“No, he was already locked in the flashback by then. He just fell.”

“Not just. He fell back safely on a pillow because you had placed it there and calculated his trajectory so precisely. Well-done in such crisis. You saved his life as much as he saved yours.”

I listen to her words, finding no pride in me. All I can think of is how can I help him live the life I saved.

“What did you do while you were waiting for the medics?” she asks.

“I was taking his pulse and breathing in his mouth and—” I stop because, suddenly, those few terrifying minutes become private, our last ones together on the same side, in the final throes of hope.

“It seems there is something else. It might be important.”

“It’s not,” I mumble. “It was just things that mean something to him and me alone.”

“I know this is reprehensively intrusive, but would you mind sharing? We’re looking for anything that might help him.”

As am I, and failing. “I was just talking to him . . . trying to keep him in the present moment like you taught me . . . and, umm, I was humming Für Elise. It was silly—I knew he couldn’t hear me—but I couldn’t think of anything else.”

She gazes at me with something like sorrow. “Actually, when I think of it, it doesn’t seem silly at all. It was love in a moment of untold terror.”

“But it doesn’t help Aiden now.”

“No, but perhaps it helped him then.” She gives me a wistful smile.

I look away from it, unable to withstand the grief hidden underneath—the grief that confirms we have already lost. A long, twitchy silence falls over the lab. A scratch of a pen here, a shiver of a page there. And my own thoughts, howling the same impotent refrain. How can I help? How do I convince Aiden to let himself feel peace?

There are no clues in the computer beeps, no patterns in the white surfaces that undulate like Van Gogh’s rippling wheatfields.

“Doctor, perhaps we should check on him.” Corbin finally breaks the silence. I can’t look away from the doors as Doctor Helen answers in a pensive tone.

“Not yet. Aiden wouldn’t make Elisa wait if he absolutely didn’t need the moment.”

I agree, I disagree, I don’t know. My only goal right now is to breathe so if he looks at my face, he sees a semblance of hope. It takes everything I have to sit here and not run to find him: a locket in my hand, ten periodic tables on my mind, non-scientific prayers in my heart, the ticking seconds on dad’s Seiko watch like a back-up pulse: one, ninety, six hundred . . .

At long last, the doors open.

Aiden comes in, as blanched as the wintry space around us, too beautiful to last. His eyes flash to me, then away, but in that glimpse, I see the aftershocks of agony he must have been fighting to control. Unfathomably, it’s even more blistering than an hour ago. How much more can it grow? How is he still standing? I have to lock all my muscles to stay on my chair and not fly to him. I have seen now the pain my touch is causing, like acid on his skin.

“My apologies for the delay,” he says, taking the seat next to me. His piano voice is hoarse, the way he sounded when he first came to the cottage after I left him. My fingers flutter to take his hand, but I grip the rim of the chair hard against the instinct.

“It’s no problem,” Corbin speaks first. “I’m glad you took the time you needed. And even more glad you came. I know you don’t want to be here.”

H-e-r-e. The hardest word for Aiden right now.

“I’m here for Elisa,” he answers.

“I know you are.” Corbin nods in understanding. “I know no one else could have convinced you to stay.”

S-t-a-y. For me. Am I worth this torture? Is anything?

Aiden doesn’t respond again. He stares beyond Corbin, beyond Doctor Helen, beyond anything we can see. How much more is he suffering because of my insistence?

“Why don’t we get started so you can go back to the cottage and be more comfortable,” Doctor Helen suggests while I question everything. “I’d like to begin with the obvious: the startle reflex.” She pauses as though to allow us time to adjust to the name that terrifies Aiden the most. He doesn’t blink, but the tension of his body throbs through the polished floor tiles. “Clearly, it’s still there,” she continues. “Although in what form and to what extent we cannot know without the final test.”

I know,” Aiden states without any inflection. “There is no reason for more tests or for exposing Elisa to them.”

Her intent grey eyes examine him, as his used to do, although the sentience of his gaze is not something anyone else can achieve. “Perhaps, but I won’t argue with you on that point because, as it happens, I tend to agree in part. Even though there is no physical injury, I am deeply concerned about the psychological harm you are suffering. And I have no way of knowing what effect it will have on you if I trigger your startle reflex again so soon after last night. For that reason, I propose that we extend the September eighteen deadline and wait to run the final test for at least an additional month or two while you recover.”

My head whips toward her in shock. Did I hear her right? More t-i-m-e? Isn’t that what I have been begging for every hour of every day since I the very first moment I saw Aiden? And now that it’s being offered, I cannot breathe a single sigh of relief. How can I after seeing how much every minute is costing him? Suddenly, dad’s watch seems to tick the seconds faster on my wrist as if to spare Aiden.

He is staring at her with nothing in his eyes. Somehow the void there makes his gaze more chilling. “Doctor Helen,” he addresses her slowly, deliberately, and I know what’s coming. “There is no circumstance under which I will stay here beyond September eighteen or continue the study of my memory ever again. I suppose it’s up to you how you want to proceed from here.”

The huge lab sways again. They look at each other: her gaze pleading, his dead. Then she nods, but it looks like defeat in her regal manner. “I see. In that case, you are giving me no choice. Since you are determined to leave on September eighteen and I have taken an oath to do no harm, I will not run the test—”

“Doctor?” Corbin interjects, clearly stunned at her decision. As was I a second ago, but now I am nothing. Not because she is protecting Aiden—that’s exactly how it should be—but because how final everything suddenly becomes. The last slide of our reel, the last note of Für Elise, the final words in our story. The End. Life, meaning, dreams, purpose—all over. So certain, so quick. Like death.

I realize now how much hope, instead of fear, I was placing on that ultimate test: hope for a change, for a different result, for waking up and realizing this is only another Romeo nightmare. H-o-p-e. I always knew it would finish me in the end.

I don’t know how I make it through the next minutes. The walls whirl like Bia’s centrifuge, and my fingers glue themselves to my locket for balance. Keep me standing please, keep me breathing for Aiden. Because it’s better this way. Less pain for him. I will gladly suffer every day of my existence to spare him another hour of agony in this lab.

For once, I’m glad his eyes are away, lost in past and future torment. At least he is not seeing the present torture next to him.

“I understand your surprise, Doctor Corbin. I truly do. Even Elisa’s, I imagine.” Doctor Helen’s voice is fading in and out of my ears. “But I cannot justify the procedure so soon. Not with Aiden in this state, no matter how strong he is. The only thing I would insist on is to scan his brain with the war images before he leaves, to ensure Elisa’s effect remains an option for the future ahead. His memory does not need her physical proximity to give him comfort as he grapples with the greatest loss in his life yet.”

She looks only at Aiden for that last part, and I finally understand why she is giving in so quickly, why she isn’t arguing with him, why she isn’t trying to convince him there is hope left. She must have analyzed all battles and realized the only one worth picking now—the only one worth fighting for—is not to save us, not to beat the startle, not even to heal him. The only battle we might still have a chance at winning is to persuade Aiden to allow himself some peace. What is my pain compared to that? Nothing—just a petal.

Doctor Corbin presses his lips together, shaking his head. “I cannot disagree with your rationale, but that must mean you have concluded there’s nothing more we can do to end the startle reflex?”

“Indeed,” she answers, ever logical. “Because Aiden has concluded it, it is over. He knows this reflex better than all doctors and neuroscientists in history combined.”

I can see from the set of Corbin’s mouth how much he wants to argue with that incontrovertible fact, and how little he can. He looks at Aiden from his screen with a beseeching gaze. “Aiden, please reconsider. Are you sure about this?”

There is no wavering in Aiden’s face, but he inclines his head toward me, still staring beyond the lab. “Elisa, is it important to you for me to undergo the final test, however it was planned?”

I can almost hear Corbin’s thoughts imploring me to argue, like my own heart does. But there is something else more important than all that. Something that has silenced all the chaos, finally bringing order, even if not answers. “I don’t want you to get hurt again.” I am surprised by how calm my voice sounds. “And there is no procedure that can take away my faith in you. I will always believe you can do this, test or no test.”

A new wave of agony drowns his eyes, but he masks it quickly and nods as though he expected my words before I uttered them. “Then I am sure,” he responds to the doctors. “No test for the startle reflex, but I will allow a final scan of my brain if you would do me a final favor in return.”

“What favor?” Doctor Helen asks immediately.

Aiden’s eyes focus on her and abruptly come to life. They deepen with an intensity so fierce that I feel as though I am standing at the edge of a great precipice. Even the mighty Doctor Helen withers from it. “Will you be a source of support for Elisa as you were for her mother? For friendship, mentorship, solace, and guidance—a safe, loving presence for her after I leave?” The intensity is in his voice, too; it becomes guttural, pleading. And the air thickens again. It clots in my throat like the failed protein. So this is how we end—the same way as we started: caring for me above all else. I clutch the locket harder. Don’t let me fall apart, please. Give me strength to wait until Aiden cannot see.

Outside my personal hell, Doctor Helen and Aiden are locked in a silent exchange. I cannot fathom their thoughts, but I know the pained look that flows between them. I know it because I have seen it in every goodbye. At last she nods again, but not defeated this time. “I will be there for Elisa until my last day,” she vows in her commanding voice. “And for you, in every way you will allow me to be.”

“Thank you,” he answers—a fervent, agonized sound—and the life dies out in his eyes. The void returns as swiftly as it left. “Then I promise you I will be here on September eighteen and watch every image you show me so that you can collect the last data you need to complete your research of my memory.”

“You have always been more than research, Aiden, but I will take whatever time you give me,” she replies. “Now, let’s talk about what happens from today to September eighteen. I reckon you’ve been giving it to a great deal of thought.”

The lab splits along an invisible fault line at her change of direction. On her side of the desk, both doctors breathe a sigh of relief.  On ours, all breathing seems to stop.

“I haven’t had a chance to discuss it with Elisa,” Aiden says.

Corbin looks between the two of us. “Do you mind if we do so together now?”

Nothing moves in Aiden’s face, yet I sense his hesitation in the air. Or perhaps it’s mine. “Whatever Elisa is comfortable with.” He leans his head in my direction.

I nod, unable to think of a reason to protest but I know I don’t want to see what happens next. Some old instinct, forged in the days after my parents’ accident slithers on my skin like a warning. It will get worse, it says. Much, much worse than everything you have lived through.

“Thank you.” Corbin smiles with evident gratitude. “Then, Aiden, why don’t we start with you? How do you want to spend the next five weeks given the decision you have made today?”

The hesitation disappears from Aiden’s stance. “What I want is irrelevant. There is only one defensible way to use that time: to prepare Elisa for our separation and protect her from me.”

Each word stabs like knives of glass. Each syllable a confirmation of every fear that has been riddling me since last night, since the very first time I loved him, in fact. Yet expecting them does not make the words easier to hear.

“And how do you plan to do that?” Corbin asks, but I know. I knew it from the moment Edison struck. Childishly, I want to throw my hands over my ears so I don’t hear the words that will make it real. But they are real, and they are what Aiden needs.

He doesn’t speak as tension strains his posture. Every part of him seems etched in war: stillness versus tremor; void versus agony, right versus wrong. Then a side must win. His hands close into fists on his thighs and, slowly, at last, Aiden turns to me. His eyes look only into mine. I can see the effort it’s costing him to keep his focus there and not drift anywhere else on my face that might add some calm. Yet despite his Herculean resistance, some specks of turquoise start shimmering in the distant blue depths. The light is so beautiful—like a dazzling star in the vast obscurity ahead—that it fills me with longing. But before it can ease his tension, he clenches his jaw and drops his gaze to my hand around the locket. Then agony throttles him again.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” I murmur so my voice doesn’t shake. “Tell me what you need to say.”

The end comes almost soundlessly from his lips. “I think I should move out tonight.”

Seven words, seven bullets. The same number that finished Marshall. So why are they not enough to finish me? The lab turns upside down in my vision, and I grip the locket tighter. Keep me breathing, please, keep me alive for him.

“Where would you go?”

“To the Inn. It’s still close to the cottage so that it will give you time to adjust to this.”

This morning I would have argued, I would have probably screamed at him, blocked the cottage door, even summoned his parents and the Marines. But now that I have seen his hurt, I cannot fight with him. I can only fight forhim. “And then?”

“And then we would do whatever it takes to make this . . . livable, healthy for you. I would fly over Reagan and Javier earlier if you want, secure your future here at Oxford or anywhere else, build you a support team, anything and everything to prepare you for September eighteen. I know you will not be happy, not for a very long time, but at least you will live, Elisa. At least you will have a chance at a safe future, as it should be.” His quiet voice breaks in the end. The shudder that runs through him reverberates under the soles of my wellies.

“What about your future? What would we do to prepare you?” My voice cracks too, no matter how hard I try to control it. His knuckles glint marble white, no doubt fighting his instinct to comfort me. I know because mine shove the same way against my skin.

“Don’t worry about me,” he answers as always. “I’m built for this.”

“No, my love, you are not. No one is built for this. You will be giving all you have to me, keeping nothing for yourself. I can’t, Aiden. I can’t watch you do that. If I have to prepare for the end, so should you.”

He shakes his head—the motion is rigid as if lifting an enormous weight. “I’ll be fine, Elisa.”

“No, love—” I start to argue anyway despite all my determination to stay calm for him, but Doctor Helen decides to intervene.

“Aiden, I hate to interrupt, but I can’t stay silent. I agree with Elisa on this. We must focus as much on your well-being as hers.”

Aiden looks away from my locket, his eyes skimming over the blank, white slate, landing on the only color in the room: the red buttons of the machine that measured his heartbeat and brainwaves during our kiss. The buttons that can incinerate his brain in one flick. I know, I could wager my life on it, that if it weren’t for me breathing, he would have flipped that switch. Reflexively my body leans to the side to block his line of sight.

“All I need is for Elisa to live,” he answers. “I just need her safe from me.”

The torment beneath his bleak voice is overwhelming. If torture itself could speak, this is how it would sound.

“That’s not enough, Aiden,” says Corbin. “It might suffice to keep you breathing, but not enough to live. You are hurting too much. More than I have ever seen in my career.”

“Or I in half a century of mine,” Doctor Helen agrees. “You will need to allow yourself to heal, and that has to start now while you are still together.”

“This minute, in fact.” Corbin’s urgency radiates from his screen. “You have to allow yourself to feel Elisa’s calm. We can see you are trying very hard to block it, but you can’t. Her effect on you is much stronger and healthier than any antidepressant or sedative I could prescribe. Let it comfort you now so you can grow stronger for September eighteen and beyond.”

No reaction from Aiden at realizing we know what he is doing. Perhaps he thought it was obvious, not the shock it was.

“It’s crucial, Aiden.” Doctor Helen leans across her desk as though to reach him. “You were already weakened by the reel. That was a risk we all accepted. But then you were wrenched awake by the worst nightmare of your life: Elisa in acute danger. And that terror and pain hasn’t stopped since. It’s as bad as Fallujah even though there was no death or physical torture this time. Would you ever have sent any of your brothers on another mission shortly after that schoolyard?” She pauses, waiting for him, but he doesn’t respond. He is still staring at the red button as if he wishes it could blow him up now.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she answers her own question. “You would have given them the time they needed to recover. Show the same care to yourself now. Don’t move to the Inn. You would be making a mistake.”

Corbin nods. “A grave one. Spending these final weeks at a distance will rob you and Elisa of the closure you need to survive the end of this rare relationship.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” she presses without pause. “The only reasonable option is to continue as planned: maximize Elisa’s calming effect while you cope with trauma.”

“Do the opposite of your instincts,” Corbin fires before she has finished. “They have always served your fears, not your happiness.”

With each rapid word, Aiden’s shoulders curve under the onslaught of their dire injunctions.

“Stay together,” Doctor Helen states with finality. “And in a few days, restart the traumatic exposure and let Elisa calm you while she can. This way the old trauma will hopefully be dulled some before this new one hits in full force.”

I stare at her in horror while Aiden’s head bows further. “Restart the reel?” My whisper is shredded by disbelief. She can’t be serious. How can that evil possibly help him when she just said it weakened him?

“Yes.” She doesn’t hesitate. “Restart the reel. Even it hasn’t fixed the startle, it might help close the door on Fallujah at last before the Burford door is ripped off its hinges. One trauma is easier to carry than two.”

Something scorching builds in my throat like a scream. I hate every syllable she is uttering. I hate every nod Corbin gives without argument. I hate their twirling pens and notepads and binders. I hate Van Gogh and every brushstroke of every painting. I hate every brick in this laboratory, every beep, every particle of ethanol in the clinical air that is touching Aiden’s lungs, chilling the body I love more than my own life. I hate them all, but I cannot argue with any of it. Because through this inferno, I finally start seeing a thin trail ahead. Uphill, thorny, bloody, riddled with peril at every blind curve, but a trail nonetheless. Perhaps this is the new purpose, the meaning. We cannot be together. I cannot heal Aiden enough for that. But maybe I can finally save him from his past. So he can go on.

Perhaps that’s what Romeo and Juliet did. They didn’t die. They only finished the life that gave them so much pain, so they could become immortal in the end. Their love did conquer all, survived even human death. That’s why we all know their names; that’s why they’re always uttered together in the same breath—because they don’t belong to us. They belong forever only to each other. Is that what Shakespeare meant? Is that what I have been sensing all along with boulder prophecies and goosebumps at the back of my neck? Is this what my subconscious mind tried to tell me through that vivid nightmare? We have to be Romeo and Juliet before Aiden can be Dante. As for Beatrice? She was only ever a dream.

“Will this really close the door on Fallujah?” I ask her.

“We won’t know until the end, but we have to try. It’s the only chance we have. How can it hurt at this point?”

Aiden moves then. His head snaps up at Doctor Helen, black fury rolling over his face. “It can hurt Elisa,” he snarls in a strangled voice. His body vibrates with the force of the emotions he is trying so hard to contain. “Watching me writhe in pain, over and over again every morning. I don’t give a fuck if it would bury Marshall. I will not risk her anymore for something we now know isn’t working!”

“It hurts Elisa either way,” Doctor Helen counters, not flinching at his profanities. “Either way, she will watch you suffer.”

And Aiden breaks. The void mask melts away, exposing the iceberg of agony underneath. The agony we have only been glimpsing. So primal that it knocks me breathless. It pours from his eyes, shifting them out of focus. He grips his forehead as though he wants to rip it off. The muscles of his back lock as the two scientists eviscerate his plan to save me—the only fight he still is willing to wage, perhaps the only shadow of hope he has left. His ribcage no longer rises and falls, as though they are taking everything from him, even his breath.

“—at least under my plan, she’s doing something instead of sitting there, helpless, watching you repeat your old patterns,” Doctor Helen is admonishing.

“Stop!” I hear myself cry out, my arms shooting in front of him like a shield. “Stop it, stop it, please!”

They all freeze, watching me with wide eyes. Even Aiden, though in a heartbeat his close at the sound of my voice. His head slumps on his hands. If he wasn’t sitting, I’m sure he would be falling on his knees.

“He is hurting,” I lower my voice, pleading. “Don’t push him! We’re here to support him even if we don’t agree.”

The two doctors are still staring but Aiden’s spine ripples as though he is imploding from within. I look away from them and drag my chair as close to him as I can without touching. He doesn’t look up, and that’s good. I will miss his eyes—I will gauge out my own—if it saves him even a second of pain.

“Aiden, love? Don’t worry about me. Because there is a way to make me happy and still keep me safe: just use my calm in whatever way you can, even if from the Inn. You have all my photos, my song, I will give you my home videos if you want. And I promise you, if you do that, there will be no happier woman in the world than me.”

He shakes his head into his hands. They curl inward into claws, digging into skull. He will not claim any part of me, whether near or far. It feels like my own skull is about to shatter from the pain of watching this. I caress his fingers with my eyes, the knuckles that used to brush my cheek, the strong wrists that no longer carry his watch because he didn’t want to watch our time run out. Higher still, the arms that are my fortress, the chest that is my home, the contours of his jaw, the entirety of his beauty, inside out. I kiss it in my mind, trying to get used to this non-life of loving him from a distance, this idea of existing for him, without him. Cell by cell, my own void starts to claim me, but it will have to wait a little longer.

A gentle pressure squeezes my shoulder from a different direction. I look up, and Doctor Helen is there. Silver and Amazonian, with that aura of invincible command. Except now, she looks her age, maybe older. Older than the Plemmonses, older than Oxford itself. In her hand is a polaroid like the one on my nightstand—the photo of Aiden’s heart and brain waves. She smiles the way my mum smiles at me sometimes in my dreams. Knowingly, sadly, from far away. Then, to my utter shock, she kneels on the floor in front of Aiden and rests the polaroid on his knee.

“Aiden,” she says in a voice softer than I have ever heard, from anyone, anywhere. “Singular, brave Aiden. Elisa is right; we are pushing too hard, and I am sorry. So try to listen to me not like a doctor or a friend. Try to listen to me like I am your eighty-year-old self. Yes, the experiment hasn’t fixed the startle, but you still have five weeks with the woman that makes your heart do this. Don’t throw them away. Even if it will be miserable and dangerous, this is the only time you have left. Use it to look at the face you love.”

He doesn’t react in any way. There isn’t a single spot to touch him that doesn’t look like it might break from the force with which he is trying to control himself. She must see that too because she rests her hand on his Timberland boot. “Aiden, I implore you to allow yourself to feel the calm Elisa gives you. You know it’s not as powerful with only the photos or paintings, especially if you won’t look at them.”

He shakes his head again, burying the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I will not take anything from her when I can no longer give her anything back.” His voice is a ravaged whisper.

“Yes, you can. You can give her the closure you cannot have. You know your love for her will never change. That’s not poetry. In your case, that’s a hard, scientific fact. You will love this girl for the rest of your days as deeply, passionately, and irrevocably as you did when I took this photograph. But the time you have left to love together in the same place and the same breath, is now. And it will never come back.”

She stops talking, plunging the lab into silence and ripping out my heart. Because my love for him will never change either. I don’t know much anymore, but I do know that. Above her, Aiden’s body is straining from his effort to hold it together, probably for my benefit. I cannot fathom the depths of his grief, but I know instinctively right now he only needs one thing.

“Let’s give Aiden a moment alone,” I tell them.

Somehow, I manage to rise on my feet. The lab tilts again with the motion, but the locket he gave me keeps me standing. Make me brave. Give me courage to see the right answers.

“That’s a good thought,” Corbin says from his screen. I had almost forgotten him and everyone else that isn’t Aiden. “Take as much time as you need.” His monitor goes blank.

Doctor Helen stands too, steadier than me. She gives me one of her nods that seem to bestow protection and rests the hand that touched Aiden’s boot on my shoulder.

It’s the hardest thing I have ever done to leave him here. Harder than hearing “there’s been an accident,” harder than seeing my parents’ bodies in the morgue, harder than the funeral, than moving to Portland, than the four years orphaned and alone against the U.S. government. Harder than even leaving Aiden the first time or boarding that plane back to England. Harder than returning to the hilltop grave or drowning in the river or trying to leave him a second time in the rose garden of my cottage. Harder than everything else in my short, tumultuous life. Especially leaving him without a word, without a single touch. But I do it because it’s what he needs.

He doesn’t move or breathe as I trail backwards behind Doctor Helen, never taking my eyes off him. The white doors close between us.

My own memory roils with flashbacks. The morgue’s steel doors hiding away bodies, the American courtroom’s wooden doors imprisoning Javier, so many doors shutting me out.

“Elisa? Elisa?” Doctor Helen is calling. “Let’s go to my office. I’ll brew some tea while we wait.”

I shake my head, needing my own alone moment. “Thank you, but I think I’ll just get some fresh air. I won’t be far.”

And then I run without knowing how I move my feet, leaving my heart behind.

32

Juliet

The torrent has slowed outside, but the skies are darker—a bruised purple, churning around Oxford’s heartline. Their weight presses down with an electric charge. It crackles in the crisp air, raising my skin into goosebumps. I hug my arms around my torso and slosh my way across the soggy lawn, past the empty playground to the oak of Aiden’s childhood. Its powerful roots are dry under the shelter of the immense canopy above. I curl against the gnarly trunk where seven-year-old Aiden would crawl to hide. Everything is hauntingly quiet, even the leaves. The students, birds, and animals must be hunkering down.

Here, in the silence, the dizziness subsides. It’s easier to think, if not feel. Easier to focus on the only thing that matters: the seven-year-old boy who grew up. I can see him, perched where I am, away from the games of a childhood stolen from him, looking up at this green dome like his own personal sky. His own universe that no one else could comprehend but him. And I can see through all the questions and fears of adulthood, straight into the heart of things.

How quickly the universe transforms. It becomes a single star. That brilliant, elusive radiance we chase night after night, dream after dream, for the rest of our life. Until we implode, not because we give up, but because the only way to touch that one bold star is to become its sky.

That’s what this moment is, right here under these protective branches. The final big bang that makes us realize who we truly are. I was never meant to reach Aiden; I was meant to hold up his light. That’s how we go on, he and I. Not two stars dancing in the same orbit to a celestial Für Elise. There is only one star, and I am the cosmic dust that lets him shine.

I smile up at his childhood universe through tears. It was never a choice between Shakespeare and Dante, was it? Maybe we are always both things: hope and tragedy, guilt and redemption, love and loss. What matters is which one we choose to win.

A rivulet of rain trickles through the leaves, landing on dad’s watch at my wrist. It splashes on the glass case and soaks through the old dial.

“No!” I whimper, wiping it off but the ancient seconds hand trembles and quits. “No,” I choke again, shaking my arm, turning the crown, tapping the crystal, but the delicate gold hand does not move again. It rests there, stuck at ten past eight after over forty-six years. “Not you too!” I stifle a sob, brushing off all moisture in vain with mum’s scarf. Perhaps she can fix it, perhaps only something of hers can mend something of dad’s. But it doesn’t work. The watch, like my parents, like my life, like my heart, is broken.

T-i-m-e. It has finally stood still.

“Elisa?” Aiden finds me, his voice not lifeless or remote. It’s bending with concern for me. This is the voice I will always remember to keep myself breathing. I look up, and there he is. Towering pale against the dark, fallen sky, with eyes like torn daylight snagged in the gruesome clouds. How can agony look so beautiful, so tempting even as it pulverizes me to ash? “What happened, other than me?”

I shake my head, grateful to have an excuse that doesn’t give him a new reason to blame himself. “Nothing, only my dad’s watch. I think it just retired.”

A ghost of the V forms between his brows. “Can I see it?”

I raise my hand to him, eager for his touch, but he wraps his fingers lightly around my sleeve. Even in that faint contact, I think I feel a shudder run through him. As it does through me. “Did it get wet?” he guesses.

I nod, memorizing the light pressure of his touch through the layers.

He sets my hand back on my knee, closing his own into a fist. “I’ll find a good horologist to fix it.”

“Don’t worry about that. It was about time.”

If he hears my pun, he doesn’t comment. His eyes seek my jawline reflexively, but he clenches his jaw and drops them to my wellies. The blue light extinguishes in an instant, bringing back the devastating void. And all the reasons why we are here. “You’ll get cold,” he murmurs. “I should take you home.”

H-o-m-e. Will it still feel like that without him?

“Your oak has been keeping me dry and warm.” I reach into every nook of my mind for strength. “Will you sit with me for a minute?”

His face doesn’t move again, but he folds down on the thickest root next to me and hands me his rain jacket. The jacket we sat on in Elysium, in the meadow of my childhood, his first morning in England. I wrap it around myself, inhaling his scent as he stares at the ground. I follow his gaze to the emerald blades of grass, brushing against the sole of his boot. Unlike the rest of the lawn, they are not soaked or drowning in mud. The oak protects them.

“Do you feel better or worse than in the lab?” I ask, looking up at his profile.

“Both,” he answers, and I’m glad he is being honest. It seems like a good place to start, even though neither goodnor start has anything to do with this.

“What would make the better feelings win?”

He sighs, scanning the dripping lawn. “Your safety. Your health. Your happiness. Clarity and strength to do the right thing.”

Mine, mine, mine. Never about himself. We will never be free from selflessness, will we? It’s too late now to change. “Maybe I can help with all that.”

His eyes fly to my face despite his resistance. And even though he only allows them to rest on me for a second, he sees everything. “If you’re about to suggest some self-sacrifice for my benefit, Elisa, don’t. I cannot handle it—not now, not ever again.”

I want to argue. I want to ask why he is the only one allowed to sacrifice himself, but I learned some things from Doctor Helen in the lab. I figured out which battle to fight and the only way I might be able to win it. “I’m not suggesting self-sacrifice, not any more than you are. I’m offering a . . . a deal, a compromise.”

His eyes don’t flicker with any expression. He waits, his back as rigid as the weathered trunk he used to climb. I search the lawn of his childhood, trying to find the words and the strength to utter them. And look, there he is. A seven-year-old boy with shocking sapphire eyes, playing at the merry-go-round. Laughing, circling, his black hair ruffled with the wind, a white T-shirt stained with grass and Levi’s jeans. His beauty fills my vision and stuns my mind. And the words release.

“You want me to have a future, a long, safe life,” I start—a fact, not a question.

“I do.” There is no hesitancy in his answer.

“Filled with love and family and happy memories.”

“Yes.”

“Even if it is not with you,” I breathe, my voice quivering. But the little boy laughs again. A precious, cascading laughter that will grow up into a waterfall springing from his heart. It fortifies me for the response I know is coming.

Especially not with me.”

“Because you think you are dangerous and unhealthy for me.”

“I don’t think it, I know it.”

Another argument lost, another battle I will never win. “That’s why you want to move out. To keep me safe in the interim.”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t really want to stay in England at all, not even until September eighteen.” I risk a glance at grown Aiden’s face, beautiful and severe. He is looking at the lawn, too, at the memories of his real childhood, not the one I am dreaming of now.

“Wanting has nothing to do with it. I have given you my word that I will stay, Elisa.” He sounds abruptly aged like Doctor Helen. “You don’t have to worry about me leaving before then. I will keep my promise.”

Little Aiden has bounded to the swing now, shooting up like a fledgling star. My heart stutters at the sight. He laughs again and summersaults in the air, landing supply on his trainers, checkered like a chess board. I draw a deep breath, letting his giggle strengthen me for my next words.

“What would you negotiate to be free of your promise to stay?”

His head turns to me. Surprise flashes across his face, chasing away the void. Not the pain—nothing seems to erase that—but at least it brings him back to some semblance of life. “What did you say?” he whispers incredulously.

“What would you give me if I gave you all that: a future for myself, commitment to my own health and safety, and agreement for you to leave tomorrow, even today?”

He is so astonished that he forgets to avoid my face. His powerful memory takes advantage of his abstraction and consumes my calm with lightning speed. I know because the beautiful turquoise glow illuminates his eyes. And for a moment, he is my Aiden again. Stunned, but familiar like home, like the roses, like the sound of my own name. The sight makes my chest bruise with ache. Because I know soon it will disappear.

“What would you want?” he asks.

I commit his alive voice to memory as countless answers implode in my head. Smile, touch me, look at me like you used to, call me “love” again, yell, shout, take me in your arms, make love to me right here on your rain jacket, stay . . . stay forever. But they are all the wrong answers. There is only one answer that matters now.

“I want something that will make you feel better. I want you to use my calming effect. With photos, paintings, videos, Für Elise, and anything else we can find. And if I ever finish the protein, I would want you to take it so you can fight the reel and finally lay Marshall to rest. And even after that, take it as long as you need to feel alive again. Those are my only conditions. As for leaving, I will not hold you to your promise. You are free, Aiden, not my prisoner. You can go whenever you want, deal or no deal. I will not begrudge you taking away some of our days together. I will only feel grateful to you for giving this time to me.”

He watches me without blinking, his gaze so intense that I cannot handle it despite the turquoise light sparking here and there. I drop my eyes to the grass blades fluttering against the gnarly roots. Does the root feel their gentle caress? Is that what makes it so strong?

“That’s very different than what you were saying last night,” he reminds me. “‘If you leave before then, you might save my body, but you would kill my heart.’” He quotes me perfectly, of course. “Why the change now?”

I want to cut my tongue out. But that was before I had seen the full depths of his pain, before I could even imagine such agony exists. And before he decided to give up his last hope: the calm I give him.

“I was wrong last night to make you promise to stay when you’re hurting so much. I was doing the same thing I did in Portland. Forcing you to stay with me when it terrifies you. And all it’s done is hurt you over and over again. The doctors say not to repeat the past. But maybe it’s not your mistakes we should not be repeating. Maybe it’s mine.”

“Those weren’t mistakes. You’ve never forced me into anything I didn’t desperately want myself.”

“All the same. Besides you kept your promise: you promised to give this your best fight. And you have. You have been fighting all your life. Since you were a seven-year-old boy, climbing up this tree. For your parents, your country, your brothers, me. It’s time for you to rest, my love. That’s all I’m asking. Let me give you peace, like you healed me.”

“How could I possibly be at peace knowing you’d be hurting, Elisa? Sleepwalking and spending your days at the hilltop grave, waiting for the end.”

How well he knows me, better than I know myself. I find Little Aiden in the playground to say the next words without tears. “I won’t let it be that way again. If you dedicate yourself to your health, I promise I will do the same. I will go to work, make friends. And I’ll let you set up everything you need for my well-being, from bodyguards to trust funds and heaven knows what else you have planned for me. I won’t complain. And when you board the plane, you won’t have to see me cry. I will just say ‘like cookies, Aiden’ and turn around. Just please go and take my calm and the protein whenever I finish it. That’s what I’m offering. Will you accept it?”

His eyes become deep oceans, as they were that first morning in Elysium, when he was describing my future without him. I look away from the waves of pain in those eyes, knowing they will become tears in mine. The blades of grass he stepped on as a child swish against grown Aiden’s boots. Would that they could become staircases to heaven now.

“No deal,” he fires after a long moment, startling me.

What?” I gasp in dismay.

“I reject your offer. I appreciate it but reject it nonetheless.”

Why?

“Because it’s not a win-win, like all the other offers you have made me.”

“What do you mean? Of course it is.”

“No, it isn’t. You would be giving up a lot more than you would gain.”

“No, I wouldn’t. I would gain your rest.”

“And you’d be losing yours. The best—the only—persuasive argument I have heard today in favor of me staying until the eighteenth is closure for you. If I leave tomorrow or move to the Inn, you will not get that. You will always wonder what those final days could have been like. It will be yet another shock to your system. And you will hurt even more. You will never move on. That’s not winning, Elisa. It’s losing before you’ve even started.”

I don’t tell him there is no chance I will ever move on, no matter when he leaves. The whole point of this is for himto move on from me as best he can with his memory. “I would try, Aiden. I would give it my everything.”

But his eyes miss nothing. “And it won’t be enough, because you still believe there is a chance I could overcome this. Even when you are Helen’s age, you will wonder what if. What if I had stayed the entire ninety days? What if I were exposed to your effect a little longer? What if I hadn’t moved to the Inn? What if you had offered me something else? What if, what if, what if. You will question everything: yourself above all. And I cannot live with that. I cannot and will not create any reality where you lose faith in yourself.”

How can I argue with any of those truths? Especially when I want him so much to stay with me? “So . . . so what will you do then?”

“Try to give you whatever closure I can. I can’t go back to the way things were—taking trips to River Eden, sleeping in the same bed. And I will not continue the reel. I cannot do that to you now. But I will stay and use this time for what it is . . . the goodbye we never had.” His voice drops, but not the way it does when he calls me “love.” The way it quiets when he talks about Marshall—another torture, another death that he won’t let me heal. And I have nothing left to convince him with. Everything inside and outside of me starts whirling like the merry-go-around. But I hold on to the dimple in Little Aiden’s smooth, golden cheek as he gambols to the slide, climbing up easily, then flying back down with open arms like wings. The dizziness fades again, and I can speak.

“What about my calming effect and the protein? Will you use them?”

Instantly, his eyes close. Is the idea of helping himself so unbearable? Would he rather live through torture everyday than take something from me? “Please, Aiden,” I beg. “It’s the only thing I want now.” It’s true and it isn’t—it’s the only thing I want that he might still give. “I want it more than air, more than water. Please?”

I expect the unspeakable agony now, the one with no name. My hands shake, grasping the thick root, as it floods his face. But he tethers it back, inch by excruciating inch. His throat seems to close as if he can’t speak, but he does—for me. “I will use the protein when you finish it only if there is enough for you to take as well.”

“Thank you,” I whisper fervently. “What about the calm—will you give yourself that?”

He doesn’t answer, jaw clenched into a steely blade.

“Please, Aiden. It’s yours already. Keep this one small thing for yourself. You deserve it even if your mind is trying to convince you that you don’t. You have given me so much love, you have saved my life, you healed me from my own past. Take this little gift in return. It will give me peace, too.” And it will. Nothing else will ever give me that except knowing his eyes will brighten again.

He still doesn’t answer, glaring into the tarry clouds. And I can’t help it, I slip. I touch his hand that is a gnarly fist like the burls in his childhood tree. It shudders under the lightest caress as it does when he watches the reel. I pull back my hand quickly. “Why won’t you do it anymore?” I ask, not sure I can live through the answer. “Is it only because you don’t think you deserve it? Or does it hurt too much to look at me now?”

He closes his eyes. “Elisa, looking at you is like looking at the sky. This beautiful, immeasurable space that makes you believe in wings and gods and dreams. There is nothing painful about it.”

“Then why?”

He shakes his head. “Imagine living in a world without a sky. What would you do? Would you still look up or would you look at the ground because it’s the only evidence that the sky was real once?”

His question makes me gasp. Because this is my world he is describing, my dark universe. It shouldn’t be his. “I’m real now, my love. Look at me, so you can hurt a little less. Even if you only do it a couple times a day, it will be better than nothing. Will you at least try that? Please? I need to give this to you as much as you need to take it from me.” My breath hitches, and there is no locket or little boy that can stave off the grief that grips me.

I don’t know if it’s my pleading that he can never resist, or the quiver in my voice, or if his need is as exigent as my own. But whatever it is, Aiden gives in. He turns his face to mine and lets his eyes free. They race over every line, greedily, hungrily, as though they have been starved. My jawline first, my cheeks, the curve of my lips, my eyes, over and over and over, absorbing every pore of my skin. His breathing picks up, shallow and rapid, somewhere between an orgasm and a drowning man coming up for air. And the turquoise light blasts through the depths, almost blinding me with its force. More beautiful than the little boy of my fantasies, more exquisite than any star. It shatters my mind even as it mends my heart.

But as soon as tension starts to soften around his shoulders, he wrenches back his gaze. It takes only a blink, and his face plummets into lifelessness again. Before I can gasp or say anything, our names ring across the lawn.

“Elisa? Aiden?” Doctor Helen is striding toward us in her white coat and umbrella, carrying my basket on her arm. “I’m glad you’re still here. You forgot this.” She hands it to me before I can test whether I can stand. The wicker feels like a souvenir from a different life. And a colossal testament to the distress Aiden is in, that he didn’t notice right away my basket was missing. He is staring at it blankly, no doubt realizing the same thing.

“Thank you,” I manage, remembering the contents. I lift the lid, trying not to look at Aiden’s post-reel surprise, and take out the Clare roses. “Actually, I brought these for you, Doctor Helen. Thank you for seeing us so early and trying to help us.”

She takes them from me with a look of wonder. “Ah, the Clare roses! It’s been so long since I’ve smelled them.” She brings them to her nose, inhaling deeply. “Clare brought some to me when she finished her fellowship. You weren’t born yet, but she had just married Peter. I have never seen anyone that happy.”

“I found some of her journals. She was very fond of you.”

“And I of her, but I might like her daughter even more.” She looks at Aiden, who is staring at the roses like he is burning. “I’ll let you be together now. That helps you more than any scientific advice I can give.” She inclines her head in her dignified manner and walks away, smelling the roses.

The weight of the basket disappears from my arm as Aiden takes it.

“I got it,” I say quickly, yanking it back before he can see the surprise and feel more pain. I pretend to brush off grass from the lid, holding my breath.

“What is it, Elisa?”

“Nothing. Are you hungry? I brought you some scones. I know you didn’t eat.”

A heartbeat of silence. Then, “Tell me.”

I keep my eyes on the blades of grass, so the truth doesn’t spill out. “It’s just something silly. Please, don’t worry about it.”

“I can’t do that.”

I sigh, not knowing what is worse: letting him worry or causing him pain. In Aiden’s case, they’re made from the same molecules, but only one used to make him smile. I lift the lid, knowing it won’t have that power now. But maybe somewhere deep in the inconceivable networks of his memory, a single neuron might trigger even the faintest release of serotonin. Carefully, I bring out the seedling I have been cultivating between my Elisa rose and his American Beauty. Its very first leaflet has sprouted on Elisa’s stem, bright and chartreuse green.

A sharp breath from Aiden makes it flutter. I watch with a clenched heart as the void on his face changes to recognition, like a pulse of life.

“This was going to be your surprise after the reel today.” I fight to keep my voice even, as I hand him the little plastic pot with the word “Love” painted on it. It balances easily on his palm. He doesn’t move a finger, whether afraid of breaking it or breaking himself, I don’t know. “I first brought it to our Room of Firsts the day of the Rose Festival for our lunch date,” I explain, thinking of that day when I made the mistake with the devastating consequences we are suffering now. “Your clue had said to bring love. But then I got angry with you about my hands even though you were right, and I never had a chance to show you. Probably for the best—there wasn’t much to show then. But it has been growing ever since and it just got its first leaf. See? It’s really nothing, like I told you.”

He is still holding the pot in his open hand. “Nothing?” His voice is rough.

“I—I just thought it would make you smile like these things do after the reel, but it was foolish. Not even ninety thousand more reels can compare to today.”

“Not foolish.” He shakes his head, and his face starts changing again. Fighting between the nameless agony and tenderness. At least he is feeling something else, no matter how minor. “How long does it take for it to bloom?”

A lot longer than we have left together. “A few months,” I murmur, but that doesn’t erase the excruciating pain in his eyes so I change tracks to tangentials. “I wonder what color it will turn out.” Will it look like his rose or mine? Will he take it with him, plant it in his backyard with its grandparents that we planted together? Will it make him smile years from now or will it wither like us? I tap its happy, green leaflet, thinking vaguely of that first morning on Elysium when Aiden told me about his hope for this experiment. I was staring at the forget-me-nots then, trying to avoid his eyes, trying to keep my hope from fledgling. And now everything is the opposite.

“Is this its name?” He indicates at the word ‘love’ on the pot. Perhaps he is focusing on tangentials, too.

It was going to be. But as I watch it dance in the wind, the new green sparkling like the tendril of the American Beauty rose we planted at my parents’ grave together, a different name clicks, fitting the hybrid as his war letter put it: like air and lungs, hearts and beats.

“No, its name is Hope. H-o-p-e.”

The leaflet flutters again with his breath. “You changed your mind about giving it to me.”

“Yes, but only because I saw earlier how much it hurts you. The things we do, how we used to be—they are painful now.”

He shakes his head, still watching the hybrid. “That’s not what hurts, Elisa. It’s the knowledge that, soon, I will lose them.”

L-o-s-e. S-o-o-n. Dad’s watch doesn’t tick. Even my own pulse feels quiet. I cannot think of a single thing to say. Not one word that will not shatter us both. So instead I memorize this moment: the indestructible roots of his oak, the fragile grass, my rose stem carrying the bright, starry leaflet, the playground, the raindrops slipping through the leaves. And I know I will never forget this either, like him. I will return to this oak every day of my existence.

He sighs and rises to his feet, holding Hope in his hand. “Come, the rain is picking back up. Let’s take you home.”

Home. Where he will not be able to r-e-s-t at all if I am anywhere close for f-e-a-r of hurting me.

Not sure I can stand or even breathe, I do the only thing I can—continue the last battle to save him. “Actually, I want to go to Bia. I don’t know what will happen with the project with Edison gone, so I’d like to test some more today. You go on and get some sleep. Use Für Elise, please. I have food with me and paracetamol, don’t worry.”

He didn’t expect my answer, and that’s good. Because in his surprise, his eyes find my face again and some life touches him. The deep V forms between his brows. Resistance clenches his jaw. Worry creases his forehead. I can see he wants to protest that I should sleep or stay off my feet or talk to Reagan and Javier or any number of things designed to care for me. And I can see how much it’s costing him not to say them, as if his very soul is being mutilated. But he does because this is when our goodbye begins.

He nods once, the motion taut against the grain. “Benson will stay with you. And I’ll send Doctor Gramercy to check on you later.”

“Who will stay with you?”

He looks down at the seedling. “Für Elise.”

It’s a win, I suppose, in the dead center of losing everything. I will my deadened legs to stand so he can see me strong, so he can leave. His free arm reaches for me as if to catch me. I reach for him, too, my feet reflexively closing the small space between us. Our fingers brush, sending a shiver through us both like an electric umbilical cord. The feel of his touch spreads over my frozen skin like warmth. I can feel my face contorting in ache, but I control it. Not yet. He closes his eyes as though the image is burning him.

“Be safe,” he whispers roughly.

Then his fingers are gone, and his warmth disappears. Blind, he turns around, taking Hope with him. The green leaflet trembles with the motion of his passage.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 28 – RIGHT

Hello, hello! After a three-week break, spent most working on the final chapters as the story starts winding toward the end, here is Chapter 28. For those of you on Facebook, the answer to the riddle is here. Read on for a wink at some of your guesses and thank you for playing, reading, commenting, and following along. On a personal note, this chapter was dear to me, like the calm before the storm. If you’re looking for a song for it, I was listening to The Ashokan Farewell.  xo, Ani

 

28

Right

T-i-m-e is an enemy again. It devoured the rest of July—the most beautiful July there has ever been, even with saying goodbye to Aiden’s parents and the Marines. It steals each day in our reel of brilliancy like a silent thief. And it has brought August tenth in a blink.

I know the date even at the edge of sleep. I know it from the way my heart is thundering and the static of my nerves. Because there are only five weeks left in our ninety days, only five weeks to win or lose. And because dad’s bench ceremony is this afternoon. Honoring dad is the easy part—natural like his love. Speaking in front of his two hundred colleagues without a bravery protein is another matter.

My eyes fling open. But immediately the panic subsides. Aiden’s messy head is resting on the white pillow next to me, lips parted, still dreaming to Für Elise. No matter how many mornings we wake up together, the same joy inflates my chest until I can barely breathe. I try to pace my lungs to his puffs of happiness for the rest of the melody, watching him like this—his beauty shimmering with the first light, his feet dangling off the bed, his shoulders tense even asleep.

Outside the window the skylark that lives in the beech tree is harmonizing her song to the piano. And the reel’s soundless bugle blows in with the breeze. It’s getting bloodier and bloodier each day. But at least t-i-m-e is consuming it too—there only 35 reels left. And then it will be the end. I shudder under the quilt. There is not enough bravery protein in the world for that. Because t-i-m-e has not changed the most fundamental law of our relationship: if Aiden doesn’t win against the reel, I will lose him forever and, even worse, he will lose himself. We will both perish then. There is no middle alternative, no compromise for this. When life gives you a love more beautiful than any dream, more powerful than any purpose, more irrevocable than t-i-m-e itself, you cannot reasonably expect a different choice in the end.

I swerve around the thoughts, trying to stay only in this present moment. I rest my fingertips on Aiden’s warm pillow, counting his comforting puffs of breath until the shudders disappear. One, two, ten, fifteen . . .

The piano stops, and the impossible eyes open.

“Good morning,” he smiles, drawing me immediately in his arms, breathing me in. Everything heals then. I bury my face in his chest, never tiring of those two words in his husky, after-sleep voice.

“Good morning.” I kiss his fragrant skin. A trace of rosewood lingers there from last night’s game of body chess.

He tips up my face. “So how long have you been up fretting about your speech?”

“Only a bit. Mostly, I just like watching you sleep.”

His chuckle fills the room, more beautiful than the lark’s song. “What else is left to see? Surely there are better things to do with your time than watch me snore.”

“You don’t snore. And there’s nothing better than this.” I trail my fingers over his stubble, feeling the warmth of his sculpted cheek like my personal sun. He takes my hand and kisses it, checking my palm as he does every morning, even though the pink faded within twenty-four hours and has not returned.

“I know of something better,” he answers, tapping my nose. “Do you want to practice your speech again? I think you’ll be brilliant.”

I laugh despite my stomach starting to turn. He says it as though Pericles himself will descend from ancient Athenian temples onto the Chemistry quad in my image and astonish Oxford’s scientists with eloquence and oratory. “Of course you think that. But we don’t need another rehearsal—you’ve heard it a million times. Besides, I’ve been waiting for this.” I knot my fingers in his hair and pull myself up to his mouth.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, ma’am.” His hands vise my face, and then I’m lost in his kiss. Because t-i-m-e has changed this routine too: we add pleasure—one of our strongest weapons—like bookends on each side of the reel. We need it now to be able to breathe from the minute we leave this bed until he comes back on Elysium. He doesn’t admit that it’s getting harder, that it’s wearing on him. But it’s there in his deep kiss. In the strength of his arms as they strain me closer as if to slip me under his skin. Yet it’s never close enough for me.

“More, Aiden,” I whisper, crushing myself against him. He moans and rolls us across the sheets so quickly that we skate to the foot of the bed.

“All,” he corrects, hitching my legs over his shoulders. And then he gives me everything.

If t-i-m-e ever becomes a friend again, if it gifts us a century together in flesh and millennia in stardust, I still will never be able to describe the way Aiden makes love. Some are gentle and sweet, some stormy and furious, most are utterly obscene. But in these final moments before the reel, our love is desperate, almost violent like war. He moves with abandon inside me, hands like steel manacles around my wrists, teeth sunk in my lower lip, thrusts fast and hard like bullets. I absorb all of them like a shield, holding on to him with my everything. In minutes, my body is building, begging him, for what I don’t know. But he does because he gives me exactly what I want until we both explode, me chanting his name as usual, him with his throaty growl that almost sends me over the edge again.

It takes us less than ten minutes. Our bodies know by now exactly what our minds need for the reel: ten-minute segments of pleasure for the ten-minute segments of torture.

“Elisa?” Aiden chuckles in my neck as we gasp here, tangled and shaking.

“Hmm?”

“How the fuck did I get through the reel that first month without this? I don’t remember.”

I chuckle too, kissing the top of his head. “Because you’re the strongest person I know.”

He pulls up to look at me. “Maybe but being inside you beforehand certainly makes it more livable.”

I pinch the dimple in his flushed cheek. In a few minutes, it will disappear. “Do you think Doctor Helen would let us program into the reel pictures of us like this? Fallujah wouldn’t stand a chance then.”

He laughs as I meant for him to do because laughter is our weapon, too. “Hmm, that would be interesting.” He kisses my lips. “But there’s no universe in which I’d allow Doctor Helen or anyone else to see you like this.” His lips are gentle and velvet on my bitten ones. “And nothing stands a chance against me if you’re on the other side.”

I grip him harder, pull him closer. Because t-i-m-e does stand a chance, as does his p-a-s-t.

“First . . .” I kiss him back, feeling his lips turn up into another smile. More smiles, please, more laughter just for him. “I’ll definitely be on the other side.” I taste him on my tongue and almost forget my train of thought. “Second, I’ve already had sex with thirty-one chess pieces, and have a date with the dark king tonight. You’ve created a monster, and you only have yourself to blame.”

His last laugh washes over my lips. I inhale it, hold it in, unwilling to let it go. “My dear Loch Nelisa, you’re mymonster. Exactly how I want you to be.”

He rolls on his back, holding me a moment longer. Outside the window, the skylark stops warbling. The willows’ whisper wafts in, it’s here, it’s here. Inside, Aiden’s skin is glowing with the last warmth, his eyes holding on to my turquoise like the last slivers of sky before the blackest night. I curl myself around him, wishing I was the protein. This would be the moment for him to take it. The reel couldn’t touch a single cranny of his mind then. But t-i-m-e is looting our weapons too. One month of testing and I still can’t get the fluid to congeal, no matter how many hours Aiden and I spent together at Bia every night. The d-o-s-e for serotonin and oxytocin is becoming its own four-letter word.

He sighs. “I’d ask you for the three hundredth time to stay but I know I would lose.”

“You’re right.”

“Come on then, let’s get this over with.”

I nod, keeping my smile on as long as he does. “Yes, and then we only have a speech to live through and we can start our weekend at River Eden and River Liza to celebrate.”

The dimple holds on a little longer—the names of dad’s favorite rivers never cease to amuse Aiden. “I have a feeling River Liza will be the better catch. Did you decide if you want to leave tonight or tomorrow morning?”

I think about that as I throw on my sweatpants. An idea has been seeding in my head for a month. A fourteenth weapon of sorts, combining love and calm and other things.

“Let’s play it by ear,” I suggest. “See how incapacitated I am after my historic speech.”

“It will be historic.” Aiden kisses my forehead, clasping my locket around my neck. “Maybe not for Oxford, but for you and your father.”

He takes my hand and, with one last gaze around our happy bedroom—him at our messy bed, me at the picture of his brainwaves—we leave to fight.

But the fifty-fourth reel is the darkest one yet even though it’s now in daylight for my safety. Not just because Aiden’s agony during it has reached a depth I can no longer endure with open eyes while I curl on the grass useless. But because it holds him prisoner for a record one hour and ten minutes, twenty-five extra minutes of torture even after the images stop. I have to give him everything—my mouth, breath, voice, smell, touch, mind, every ounce of my strength, even my song playing on my iPhone—before he comes back. Ashen, shuddering, suffocating on my name. And even though he springs up on his feet as soon as he can, he is worn. His skin stays like sheets of ice, he moves slower, his shoulders ripple with aftershocks, and there are deep, dark shadows under his eyes. I cling to him as we get ready so my calm can permeate his skin, while dose calculations drum in my head. Just one gram for him, just a morsel, please.

But t-i-m-e does give us one gift. It steals our days, but it also separates us from the reel each morning. By the time Benson pulls into Bia’s street to drop me off, Aiden is back to his protective, commanding self, even if the color has not returned to his drawn cheeks. He scans the area with sniper vigilance, but this search is for my safety. The car park is fuller today than other mornings at this hour. Graham’s white Fiat is already in its usual spot, as is Edison’s black Alpha Romeo. To the side of the building, the grassy quad stretches empty except the elderly groundskeeper weeding the flowerbeds. But my eyes are rivetted by dad’s bench. It’s draped with Oxford’s blue flag, hidden from view. The nerves—all but forgotten during the reel—return in full force. How can I talk about dad to his colleagues without tears? What can I say that captures him in words and sentences?

“I’ll sweep around building, sir,” Benson announces and steps out as he does every morning before I go inside, even though the two of them sit at Café Vault during the day, at Max’s old spot, to guard me.

As soon as the door closes behind Benson, Aiden takes me in his arms and brings me on his lap. “You’ll do amazing today.” He pinches my chin as he does when making an important point. “You have prepared for this not just last month, but the last four years. You’re ready.”

I nod, not wanting him to spend any energy on me. He needs it to recover.

“Trust me,” he insists. “None of them know your father as you did. Today, you are the expert and they are your students. Teach them your father’s life.”

How does he know to always say what I need to hear even when I don’t know it myself, even when I don’t ask?

“I will. Don’t worry about me.” I trace the lavender circle under his eye. “And will you do me a favor?”

“Anything unless it threatens your safety.”

“It doesn’t. Please try to get some rest today. You know I’m not in danger with this. Leave Benson with me, go back to the cottage, and sleep. Science orders.”

The first dimple since the torture flashes in his cheek. “That sounds like the opposite of restful to me. Being close to you is my best rest, and that’s a scientific fact. But I can promise I will resist negative thoughts and try to focus on good things. And I’ll talk to Doctor Helen. How is that?”

I examine the tranquil turquoise depths when he looks at me, as if the reel never scorched his retinas, and know he is right.  “Okay, revised orders then: sit at Vault with rose tea and chicken soup, read Byron, and text me if you need calm.”

The second dimple sparks. “Deal.”

“And if you’re drifting, try to solve this riddle.”

Third dimple—he can never resist clues and codes. “What’s the riddle?”

“I am the ruler and the servant. I am the war and the peace. I eat time but it doesn’t eat me. I can move for miles and miles while staying still. What am I?”

Fourth dimple. The tectonic plates jolt with curiosity, but he stills them, and his gaze becomes as tender as his touch. “Elisa Cecilia Snow, I adore you.” And he bends his mouth to mine.

It’s a gentle kiss, so different than our earlier desperation. His lips move slowly as though trying to prolong each final second. I wrap myself closer, moaning at the feel of him, but he pulls back with a chuckle. “If you make noises like that, I won’t be able to stop, let alone solve your riddle. Now, do you have your paperclips for the speech?”

I laugh for the first time since the reel—of course he remembers that. “Right here, with my skunk spray.” I pat my purse.

“And your snacks?”

“Yes, I have everything.”

“Hmm,” he hesitates, tilting his head side to side, eyes smoldering at me in a way that makes every muscle in my stomach tighten in response. “I think something is missing.”

I look down to check if my jeans spontaneously melted off on their own. No, they’re still there. “What’s wrong? Do I have something on my face?” I twist in his arms to check the mirror, but he laughs, too, and turns me back to him.

“Your face is perfect but maybe this?” He is dangling an exquisite golden bracelet in his long fingers.

“Oh!” I gasp, starting at the three charms sparkling on the delicate chain. P. E. C. Exactly like the initials dad and I carved under the bench so long ago. “Aiden!” I whisper, tears welling in my eyes.

He takes my hand and clasps the bracelet around my wrist. The fine chain is woven like a DNA double helix. I’ve never seen anything like it. I caress the three brilliant letters, wishing so much there was also an A. Maybe I can snoop wherever he got this and borrow, steal, and save enough money to buy one.

“The letters are made from your and your father’s favorite chemical elements,” he explains. “Phosphorus for his.” He cups his hands around the letters, forming a dark dome. I peek inside and see the three letters glowing a luminescent green. “And carbon for yours.” He removes his hands and the rows of small diamonds glimmer even in the cloudy morning.

“It’s so beautiful,” I murmur, fluttering my hand. The gems throw rainbows across my skin. “And what’s yourfavorite element?”

His fifth dimple dazzles me more than the diamonds. “I guess I better pick titanium. That way you have us all in your hand today.” He circles the bracelet, and I realize he didn’t leave himself out of this gift. The helix chain is his favorite element: strong and stunning, plated in gold, like his skin.

I throw my arms around his neck, kissing him again. “Thank you! It’s perfect now.” Will every one of his gifts make me feel like this? No, they’re not gifts. As warmth radiates from my wrist to my very nerve endings, I grasp a very simple truth: Aiden has never given me just a present. He gives me back pieces of me.

Benson knocks on our window then, bursting the bubble. “All clear, sir. Looks like they’re already starting to set up.”

“Thanks, Benson.” Aiden turns to me. “Don’t worry about this either. It won’t be a repeat of the festival. It’s only an hour, in a small area, and we’ve vetted the entire science faculty. There will be no accidents this time.”

I nod because I believe him. He has been assuring me nonstop over the last month, and I’m less scared with only him and Benson as my bodyguards. Even Aiden has been hard-pressed to come up with scenarios of someone hurting me in broad daylight, in the heart of Oxford, in front of all of my dad’s colleagues. “And where will you be?” I ask the only detail that matters to me.

“We’ll be close by. I’ll have to see how the crowd flows, but I’m not going to miss the best speech in the Chemistry Department’s history, am I?”

My heart swells until I can’t speak. Two months ago when I first heard about the ceremony, I never dreamed he would come anywhere near it. But here he is, no matter how much it will cost him.

I manage to tear myself away from his arms, thinking only of the protein, so I can make this easier on him. So he doesn’t have to live through more reels without it.

Dad’s bronze bust greets me as always in the building lobby, the “ah!” expression in his face like a good morning. The familiar face, wise even in metal, gazes back in his reassuring way. Ah, Eliser, it will be all right. My hand flies to his carved cheek. It has none of his clean-shaven softness, but it centers me. This is his day. I’m finally here to honor him, and not alone for a change. I hope you like it, Dad. The PEC diamonds sparkle against the bronze like a smile. I stroke his cheek and shuffle to Bia as fast as my legs will carry me.

But as soon as I burst through its doors, my knees almost give out. Edison and Graham are there already, each of them wearing a yellow rose bud on the lapels of their pristine lab coats. Another yellow rose is in a vial at my workstation.

“There you are, Eliser!” Graham smiles. “What do you think, eh?” He points at his rose. The bright blooms look like golden stars against the sterile, white space.

“They’re beautiful,” I answer, my voice hushed with emotion. “I—I wasn’t expecting . . .”

“Not expecting this?” Edison chuckles. “My dear girl, you didn’t think we would leave roses out of Peter’s day, did you? Not at all up to your genetic intelligence, Elisa.”

They laugh together while I manage a breath. The crisp air has a faint trace of rose under the ethanol. I swallow hard against the tears threatening to rise up to my eyes again.

“What do you think of the yellow?” Graham asks with so much enthusiasm, it’s clear this was his idea. “We picked it because of that wee sunny one Professor Snow had in his office.”

“I love it.” I smile, wishing Aiden was here to see this. “And dad would have loved it, too. Thank you for doing this.”

“Not at all, not at all.” Edison waves his hand dismissively. “The bench is the star today. I peeked, of course. It looks quite fitting.”

“Tell me you’ve at least written your speech by now,” Graham teases. “Everyone reckons it’ll be better than Professor Snow’s lectures.”

My anxiety ignites like a Bunson burner away from Aiden’s presence. How can I keep up with dad? What was I thinking not rehearsing with Aiden one more time?

“Of course, I have. I’m ready.” I nod fervently.

“Hah! Ready as our protein.”

“Kindly now, Graham,” says Edison, not missing my pretense even through his goggles. “I’m sure Elisa will do very well.”

I plaster on a smile while he removes said goggles and gloves. If I’m like this with Graham and Edison, what will I do in front of the entire science faculty?

“I have a few lectures this morning.” Edison walks my way where I’m still leaning against the door for balance. “I’ll see you both this afternoon.”

As he walks out, a whiff of the yellow rose wafts by with a scent of mint. Oddly, I think of both dad and Javier. Of course, Javier and Reagan have demanded that my speech be recorded so they can watch it later with the Hales, the Marines, and the Solises. Because Oxford’s science departments were not enough for my nerves. I can already hear James’s jokes and Javier’s rumbling voice: “it’s not worse than posing in a sheet for my paintings, is it?”

Except it is. The worst that could happen in a sheet is I would embarrass myself. Today, I could embarrass dad.

I throw on his lab coat and wobble to my workstation. But as I take out a rack of vials, I catch Graham’s expression. He is glancing at my fingers with quivering eyebrows, and I realize immediately what is making him look like he wants to crawl inside the cryogenic freezer, where I wish I could be.

“Graham, relax. I won’t spill anything, but if it saves you an aneurysm, I can handle the peptides today,” I offer, although it’s not an entirely altruistic deed. Because I would have more time to calculate doses and run through my speech while handling the mindless task.

His shoulders deflate with visible relief. “Thank you! I’m really sorry. I’ll make it up to you by doing the peptides next week.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. I don’t want to waste the 2-AG either.”

We spend the next few hours working in easy silence with my brain scattered like the vial shards that keep combusting. A few minutes for the rote work of the peptides, a lot more on serotonin and oxytocin, while the speech plays in the background like a soundtrack.

But around it all, there is something else. A closeness to dad. He is always in my thoughts when I am in this building, but it’s different today. What would he think about this idea that has been percolating for me? Would he like it? I think he would, as would Aiden. But do I? Through the nerves, I sense a trickle of warmth—like a microscopic river washing away questions and uncertainties. I try to hold on to the rare feeling of clarity, but as hours race toward the ceremony, nerves become a snarl. Why couldn’t I have unscrambled the formula already? I’d never take it from Aiden, but maybe just a scrap for today. And why isn’t it working? The bracelet jingles with our favorite elements. I crunch more numbers, trying to listen only to its sound.

Edison storms in around three with his typical hurried pace. He spots me at the peptide bench but doesn’t seem to need explanations this time. “Graham, could you come to the quad? We need to set up.”

I stand to help too but Edison stops me, waving his hand. “Not to worry, Elisa. We’re just arranging chairs. You continue on here. We’ll come by when ready.”

As if I can argue against having the lab to myself. “Okay, let me know if you need muscle for heavy lifting.”

They leave Bia with a laugh, closing the door with a reassuring thud. As soon as their footsteps fade, I toss on my goggles and gloves, sprint to the oxytocin and serotonin coolers, grab the ampules, and race back to the sink for some testing. I don’t risk my workstation during breaks like this. If someone walks in, they will only see my back, and I can flush everything down the drain.

“Be safe,” Aiden texts, no doubt seeing Graham and Edison exit the building from Vault. I don’t even have a second to reply. I flex my fingers for steadiness and start piping the different doses of love, reciting the speech under my breath. Hello, my name is Elisa Snow . . . But no matter how precisely I inject each microliter, the mixture in the vial remains the tepid lilac liquid it has stayed since the day Aiden’s parents arrived, the day Aiden thought there was a break-in. Not the solid candy consistency it should be. The only progress I have made this entire summer is that the vial is no longer exploding. But I’m no closer to saving the man I love. The only thing I’m closer to is the end, and Aiden and I have nothing to face it with. All the endless calculations, the relentless research, the sleepless nights reading next to Aiden under the light of my phone, the constant analysis playing in my head have been for nothing.

Abruptly, I feel angry. More than angry, I’m furious. The speech vanishes from my head entirely. A reddish haze blurs my vision, and I glare at the carefully proportioned pipette, wanting to hurl it straight across the lab. My hands shake with the urge, dripping love on the molecule of fear carelessly. In my madness, laughter rips from my throat. All that effort to save every drop, think like dad, act like him, and now all I want to do is the opposite. Spill, stop measuring, scream. It’s ironic that an hour before dad’s ceremony, I’m standing here questioning the very same methods he taught me. My fingers tremble again, and more oxytocin spills. The waste feels good, liberating.

I know I shouldn’t do it. Never in anger, dad would say, but fury hijacks my hand and I squirt the entire pipette in the vial. The bracelet rolls under my glove like a warning, but nothing happens. The liquid doesn’t thicken or change in any way. It simply swishes around in the vial, lilac and useless. That “nothing” only makes me more enraged. Saliva pools hot and metallic on my tongue. Isn’t there anything I can do to make a difference? Nothing at all I can do to help my love?

I fling the pipette into the sink where it shatters with a satisfying BANG!  Step back, dad would tell me now. Leave the lab and walk away.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” I mutter. “I can’t.” A single brain cell registers déjà vu: the last time I ignored dad’s instructions, I mixed a sleeping aid that almost drowned me if it hadn’t been for James. But I’m not sleepwalking now; I’m wide awake. I grab a second ampule of oxytocin and dump all of it into the vial of 2-AG.

Elisa, stop this! Dad splutters, but I barely hear the echo of his voice in my memory. Because in the vial, the liquid reverts from lilac to bluish water—it too is going in the opposite direction, but at least it’s doing something. My heart starts pummeling my ribs. Am I undoing my miniscule progress or am I having a break-through here? How much more love does it take to drown fear? Impulsively or perhaps desperately, I yank a third ampule.

Elisa, enough! The beloved voice rebukes me now, but I’m already pouring the clear fluid into the vial. Instantly, the mess starts fizzing and smoking. The sight is ominous but the more the haphazard concoction evaporates, the lighter I feel. As if the mixture is drawing the fury away from me to it. A crack of reason opens in my head the way my vials used to break. Then ideas start to billow like the blue smoke. Fifth time, dad’s code said. Did that too have a second meaning? Like December, the twelfth element and the twelfth oxytocin? I already have three ampules of love and one ampule of fear in. On instinct, I grab an entire ampule of serotonin. It seems a far-fetched interpretation, but what else do I have to follow?

“Is this it, Dad? Or something else?” My voice is muted by the thump-thump-thump clamoring of my heart.

But the only answer is the one I know: his strict instruction. Stop this hodgepotchery, Elisa. Be a scientist. Measure first, step by step.

“I’m sorry, Dad, but there isn’t enough time. I have to help Aiden.”

I rip off the lid from the serotonin ampule. The fluid of self-love is not clear like oxytocin; it’s cloudy and opaque. This is a lot more serotonin than I would have ever thought to use, but isn’t that what Doctor Helen said when she described my effect on Aiden’s brain? A powerful injection, she called it.

And what do I have to lose? Without another thought, I flood the vial with the milky liquid.

It’s instant. The jumble snarls with violence. It spews out gusts of blue vapor and starts hissing in my hand. Throw it in the fume hood! Dad would be shouting now, but I grip it tightly, transfixed. So this is what happens when you break the rules? You feel better? Or do you get hurt?

Another blast of fumes roils from the vial, engulfing it in a blue cloud. A curious sensation of warmth spreads to my fingertips. Finally fear finds me. I’m about to hurl the vial as dad would, but with a faint pop, the blue smog dissipates. Poof! And I can finally see through it. I stare wide-eyed, shaking head to toe, expecting a charred mess. But there, in the crystal depth, is a syrupy sap. Light indigo, not the purple it’s supposed to be. And most certainly not a solid protein.

Defeat bolts me here, staggering and deep. But what else was I expecting with this idiocy? At least it’s something different, something new. Because, despite the blow, I know without question I just catapulted further into this journey. What I don’t know is how far I still have to go. And there is only one way to find out.

I inhale a gulp of sterile, cold air and raise the vial to my lips.

Absolutely not! Dad thunders, but his apoplectic rage is drowned by Aiden’s vicious roar in my head. He would be murderous if he saw this. I swear the titanium on my wrist feels like his steely grip, stopping my hand. Which is why I’ll never tell him.

“I’ll be fine,” I assure them both, not bothered at all that I’m talking to myself. After all, I’m doing a lot more mentally unstable things. “There’s nothing toxic here, we know that by now.”

And I drip a glob of the treacle into my mouth. Every cell of my tongue recoils in protest. Gone is the lemony taste; this concoction is bitter and cloying like Novocain. I don’t know what kind of love tastes like this, but it’s definitely not mine. In that, I know again I have failed. Dad would never have brewed a disgusting sludge like this. I spit it out, tears burning my eyes. Whatever progress I made today, it’s still not enough. And it might never be.

My phone vibrates by the sink. “Incoming,” the real Aiden alerts me, mercifully unaware of my lunacy.

I jerk into motion, whirling like a tornado to destroy all evidence, including the moisture on my cheeks. I cannot cry now; the only thing I can do is breathe even if Bia’s air feels more like acid than oxygen in my clenched throat. I don’t even have time to rinse the vile taste out of my mouth. I toss the shards into the broken glass receptor and flush the sink. By the time Edison and Graham come in, the only trace of my insane and indefensible experiment is inside me, coating my tongue and blistering my mind.

“Hey, Eliser, you’ll love the quad when you see it. People are already gathering.”

“Elisa, is something the matter?” Edison frowns, probably at whatever expression is still glued on my face.

I bring out a smile. “Nothing, professor. I just finished running through my notes. I only wish dad was here to see it.” As I say the words, however, they don’t sound like the excuse I meant them to be. They ring loud and true. A wave of guilt crashes over me in addition to my misery. On the day I’m supposed to honor dad, I broke all his principles.

Edison is still watching me, eyes crinkling at the corners. “That’s natural, of course. We all wish that. Do you need a minute?”

“No, I’m all right,” I answer, smoothing down my father’s coat. Suddenly, the white cotton fibers feel like chainmail, crushing my shoulders under their weight.

“Very well. After you.” Edison gestures for me to lead, and we head out. I brace myself for the nerves but they are drowned by remorse. What would dad think of me now? Would he be disappointed as well as furious? Or would he understand the desperation behind my actions? Would he forgive it? I know the answer to that one: yes, he would. Love is never a mistake, he would say. There is nothing to forgive, only to learn.

The air has picked up a breeze outside. Clouds are floating by, turning the sun silver. The quad is lined with white chairs like half-atomic orbits facing the draped bench at the corner. Oxford’s banner waves behind it with its sigil: Dominus Illuminatio Mea. But my breath stops from the object next to it. Dad’s lectern. I would know it anywhere by the polished cherry wood and the small chemical element carved in the corner. P for Peter and Phosphorus, like the initials on my wrist. A yellow rose blooms next to the microphone.

Despite the overwhelming guilt, a soft tenderness drapes over me. This is exactly what dad would have liked: simplicity, knowledge, love. And love hangs in the air like its own emblem. It’s at the long banquet table in the back, laden with dad’s favorite bubbles, canapes, and his ubiquitous After-Eight mints. And above all, it’s in the faces of the white coats already gathered in the quad, each wearing a yellow rose. The dignified scientists laugh together in clusters.

As I watch the growing crowd, I sense eyes on me. Not the academic eyes, but the sapphire eyes that heat my skin. I turn on the spot, searching the woods boxing the quad but I don’t see Aiden there or even Benson. I’m sure I’m under strict observation, yet nothing is infringing on dad’s moment. The exact opposite of the festival, just as Aiden promised. Except I want to see his face now more than anything, especially after the last thirty minutes. I want to see the love in his gaze that makes this all worth it. The love for which I would break every rule, swallow every bitter drop. On cue, my phone vibrates once in my pocket. I yank it out, knowing it’s him.

“You’ll do beautifully,” he texts.

I give up the search. I know I will never find him if he doesn’t want to be seen.

“Where are you?” I write back, but before his answer blinks on the screen, Graham nudges me.

“So, what do you think?”

“It’s brilliant. It’s exactly what dad would have liked.”

Edison chuckles a few steps ahead but clearly listening. “I should hope so. We knew him well enough. Come along now, they’re all waiting to greet you.” His ever-curious eyes squint at me as he leads me into the quad. My phone buzzes again: “I’m with you. Love.”

I don’t know how he does it, but I feel lighter even with him invisibly close. As if those tiny four letters, l-o-v-e, can lift the atomic weight of all my toxic emotions. They carry me as I start weaving with Graham and Edison through the crowd of scientists that is swelling. I recognize almost everyone either by sight or introduction. Like Burford at the Rose Festival, Oxford is rolling out its own remembrance. There are warm handshakes despite the cold, laboratory fingers. There are favorite memories of dad and his lectures. There are questions about me: How am I doing? Am I enjoying my internship? What is next for me? And the constant, “you’re so very much like Peter.”

I smile and answer as best I can, but shivers whip my skin when dad’s friends ask about my future without a single doubt that it’s there, that it will be bright, that life is waiting for me rather than me for it. Because they don’t know our deadline in five weeks, the end that will decide everything. Not tangentials like doctoral programs or dreams, but the very threshold question of my existence: will Aiden and I win or will we vanish?

“Elisa?” Edison calls behind me as the wine almost spills from my trembling hands. “It’s time. Are you ready?”

The question rings like a shotgun in the air. I glance at the quad’s borders, still unable to see Aiden but knowing he is here with me. In the background, Oxford’s spires rise to the sky like hands in prayer. My hand flies to my locket. Make me calm, make me brave.

“Yes, I’m ready,” I manage because dad deserves the best from me.

Edison’s eyes widen slightly in surprise—he was probably expecting a nervous meltdown, which may still happen—but he nods. “Very well. I’ll announce you shortly.”

By the lectern, the violinist starts playing The Lark Ascending, one of dad’s favorites.

“Thank you for organizing this,” I tell Edison while I can still string words together. “And for remembering so much about dad.”

“It was the full faculty. Go ahead take your seat. You’re on the front row with me.”

And then I’m alone in a quad crammed with two hundred brilliant scientists peeking at me. I squeeze through the chairs and find my seat next to Edison’s empty one, only inches from the bench. If I reach, I could touch the flag-clothed arm where dad’s elbow used to rest. But I know that would push me over the brink. It’s a small, Aiden-made marvel I’m upright and breathing, or mostly breathing. Quiet gasping is more appropriate. The periodic table starts clanging with the speech in my head, words and elements jumbling together. I check my paperclip in my pocket and finger my titanium bracelet as the violin ends and Edison takes dad’s lectern. I’m done trying to understand my emotions at this point, but somewhere in the chaos, I bristle with possessiveness like I did when I saw him in dad’s office. The feeling is absurd—where else is the poor man supposed to speak?

Edison starts his remarks so eloquently that I’m torn between listening to him and trying not to hear a word lest I lose whatever composure I’m managing. Too soon, my cue booms from the microphone.

“We were very fortunate two months ago,” says Edison. “To welcome back Peter’s very heart. Friends, colleagues, and competitors—you know who you are—” he points his finger and the audience laughs in his thrall. “Please welcome Elisa Snow.”

Applause echoes through the quad, but it sounds wrong to me. I’m not the Snow they should be clapping for. My phone buzzes at my hip like a nudge. Somehow, I’m on my feet and moving. I teeter to the lectern, fingers tight around my paperclip, keeping my eyes on my Byron sneakers so I don’t trip. Aiden is close, he is with me. As soon as I reach the podium, Edison wishes me good luck and takes his seat. I step behind dad’s lectern, grasping the wooden ledges where he used to, draw a quiet breath, and finally lift my eyes to the scientists sitting in front of me.

For a second, I’m blinded by the brightness of white coats gleaming like a mirror dotted with yellow roses. Rays of smiles beam at me from every direction, but I blink past them and search the fringe of trees behind the audience for Aiden. I find him at last, directly in my line of sight. He is leaning against an oak tree with unconscious grace, Benson holding up a phone at his side. An exultant smile glows over Aiden’s flawless face. His eyes—smoldering even from here—burn on me with unrestrained pride. A sense of wonder floods my chest instead of the wound. Wonder that he is here, wonder that he is mine. And suddenly, I don’t feel nerves anymore or panic or fear. I only feel the miracle of sharing dad’s moment with him. He nods once, and the words start easily like a familiar childhood rhyme.

“Hello and thank you for being here today. As you know, my name is Elisa Snow. S-n-o-w. I have thought a lot lately about what that name means. To you all, of course, it means a colleague—” I skim over their rapt expressions and spot Doctor Helen in the last row, giving me a regal smile. “A professor—” I nod at Graham who is grinning. “And a friend.” I smile at Edison who is watching me with astonishment. “But to me, the name has carried many meanings. For the first eighteen years of my life, it meant family; for the next four, it meant pain; and now, it means love.” I find Aiden’s eyes again. His smile is so breathtaking that I have to look away to be able to speak. “It means ‘love’ because that’s what my father is to me. At every point of my life, he had a lesson: play chess and carry on; let your brain lead the experiment, but the heart steer its application; don’t try to know, try to understand. But the best lesson he taught me was how to love. Not how to love without fear, but how to love despite of it.” I continue through my speech, rarely needing to check my notes or pinch my paperclip. I just find Aiden’s eyes when I need to, and the words flow more naturally than I could have ever dreamed. It seems unbelievable that only three months ago, I was falling apart speaking in front of him with Denton at Reed. Right now, he is my bravery. But will I be able to brew courage for him? I’m closer after my madness today, but how far away still?

“I ask myself often when I am afraid,” I tell my audience or perhaps myself. “What would dad say if he were here?” I pause, searching for my own answer now that my head is clear—what would he tell me so close to the end? “He would probably say, have faith in science when you don’t know, in your heart when you do, and in yourself to be able to tell the difference.

“Thank you for honoring him and for allowing me to share his example with you today.”

I barely finish my words when the crowd erupts in applause and, to my shock, the scientists rise to their feet. I hear Graham’s cheer, I see Edison’s wide eyes, I catch Doctor Helen’s dignified bow of the head. But I skip frantically over them for Aiden in the back. I wouldn’t have been able to see him above the standing bodies if he weren’t so tall. But his beautiful head towers enough for me to meet his shining eyes. He smiles triumphantly with the purest look of adoration on his angel face as he is clapping. I love you, he mouths. I almost climb over the lectern to sprint headlong to him but, abruptly, there is a line forming around me and I’m passed handshake to handshake through the crowd.

“Well done, Elisa.” Edison finds me with Graham, and they start leading me toward the bench to unveil the plaque. “That was a very heartfelt tribute to Peter.”

“And here I was, thinking you were nervous.” Graham laughs and gives me an awkward, one-armed hug. “But then you pull a blinder. Not a dry eye in the audience, mind. Except me, I’m unshakable.”

“Indeed.” Edison nods, unable to hide puzzlement from his pensive voice.

I don’t know how to tell them about the surreal man who is my courage, so I mumble about practicing for an entire month, which is true and also irrelevant.

The mass of scientists gathers around the bench dad so loved. I try to squint through the wall of white coats to keep Aiden in my sight for this moment, wishing so much it was his hands touching the Oxford flag with me. But there is no open crack to glimpse him anymore. My chest flares even as I grasp the blue cotton fabric that always brought a look of pride to dad’s face.

Edison, Graham, and I fold Oxford’s flag together away from the bench. As the simple bronze plaque engraved with dad’s name comes into view exactly where his shoulders used to rest, my own reel flashes before my eyes: dad reading here, his laugh when I solved my first Rubik’s cube; our heads under the bench as he carved P.E.C., so many moments that made me, me. Through the tunnel of my imagination, dad looks up from the pages, saying ah! Ah, you did it, Eliser!

And though I hear the applause of his two hundred friends and colleagues, I only want one person here with me. I squint reflexively again over the white mirror and the flashes of phones and cameras, even though I know I won’t be able to see him. Maybe we can come back here at night and sit together, read dad’s favorite poem, share his favorite wine, kiss. Dad wouldn’t have minded. He would have laughed and lectured us about oxytocin. I brace for the sense of loss that usually fills me when I have such thoughts, but it doesn’t come. The only thing I feel is anticipation. With a low gasp that confuses Professor Ricci who is chattering at me, I realize something else has changed in the last month as well: I’m celebrating more and mourning less. I know it’s all because of the man watching the quad to protect me.

At last, the crowd loosens as the scientists shuffle around for drinks and canapes. As soon as I see an opening, I slip through it and scan the border of the quad urgently. But Benson and Aiden’s unmistakable frames are not visible there. The wound erupts in my chest. I dart through the bodies, greeting and thanking, trying to linger at the crowd perimeter. Around me, the chatter swells with memories of dad. “One of a kind, your father.” “Was very proud of you.” “Brought you to our lecture when you turned one.”

I nod with a full throat by the banquet table. The idea that has been percolating in my head fizzes with rightness. The first moment I have alone, I inch my fingers carefully toward an After-Eight mint. Unlike Baci, they’re not my favorite, but they were dad’s. I haven’t touched one since serving his last few at the funeral.

A caress I know in every cell brushes my trembling fingertips.

“Oh!” I gasp, spinning around and here he is! Standing right in front of me at the edge of the crowd, braving his worst nightmare, more beautiful than any mirage. The gold has returned to his skin, but his long body is vibrating with tension even with Benson at his back and trees behind him. I know there are panes of granite underneath his blue shirt and navy slacks. But despite that incomprehensible strain, his eyes are molten as he gazes at me.

“Aiden!” I choke as soon as I can breathe. “Aiden, you’re—you’re right here-here!”

“Congratulations, Miss Snow.” His voice is subdued with emotion. A smile lifts his lips into a curve; no half-moon or cupid bow could ever compare to it. “You were phenomenal. Even better than I imagined, and that’s saying something.”

“Great job, Elisa,” Benson winks.

“Th-thank you,” I stammer, unable to blink away from Aiden only inches from me. “It was because of you.”

“No, love. You did it yourself.”

I almost launch myself at him. Only a fading sense that I’m at a memorial event with two hundred professors around stops my feet. I have to cross them like a torniquet to stay put. He chuckles, but his eyes fall on my mouth like the kiss I want so desperately. His fingers brush mine again and he picks up the After-Eight mint.

“I think you were reaching for this?” He holds it on his open palm between us, as he did with the chess queen. His eyes do not release my awed gaze.

My hand flies up to his without hesitation, eager to touch any part of him. He could be holding a flame, and I would stick my fingers straight into the embers. I swirl my fingers around the mint, feeling the warm perfection of his skin before touching the little square.

“Cheers,” I whisper.

He smiles victoriously again and his hand closes around mine. I reach on my tiptoes—no longer caring about the professors anymore—but a regal, disapproving voice I would recognize even asleep rings right next to us, shattering the spell.

“Aiden?”

“Doctor Helen!” I squeak, yanking back my hand and almost dropping into a curtsy. She is standing imperiously in her gleaming crown of silver hair and white coat, looking most displeased.

“Hello, Elisa,” she greets me but her arctic stare is not directed at me. It’s trying to pierce through Aiden. Trying and failing. He doesn’t even look at her; his eyes are still caressing my face.

“Not now, Doctor Helen,” he answers, his mouth twitching in humor. “I’m having a very important conversation.”

“Aiden, this is an irresponsible idea,” she decrees. In her commanding voice, the words sound unquestionable and incontrovertible.

“Is it?” he questions her. “I believe I recall an instruction from you to live the life we want to live as fully as possible and stay in the present moment. That’s exactly what this is.”

I can’t look away from his amused eyes to see her expression, but I can hear the censure in her tone. “I also instructed you unequivocally to guard against the startle reflex at this time.”

His shoulders snap like armor but his gaze sweeps over my jawline that calms him. “And I am. I have only Benson and trees behind me. There is no one within fifteen feet except him, you, and the woman I love who just gave a beautiful homage to her father after four long years. I think she deserves this present moment, don’t you?”

Heat burns my cheeks, but Doctor Helen’s reminder makes me shudder. Because I see exactly how much this is costing him, what he is risking. “Aiden, love, Doctor Helen is right. Don’t worry about me—just having you close by is all I need.”

“I am only partially right,” Doctor Helen corrects in a gentler tone, surprising me. The disapproval vanishes from her face, and she gives me one of her stately smiles. “Aiden is correct about the rest. You did splendidly. I know Peter and Clare would have been very proud.”

I remember mum’s journal—how these two women rallied together to save Aiden—and I believe her. “Thank you, Doctor,” I whisper. “And thank you for coming.”

“I wouldn’t miss it. And if I may, I am proud of you, too, for your remarks and the way you’re supporting Aiden. I know it’s getting harder in this final run. But you are both doing incredibly well, this momentary lapse in judgement aside.”

She says this in her usual gravitas that leaves no room for doubt. And I realize that Aiden must have talked to her already, that this assurance is his other gift to me today.

“That’s a much better present moment, Doctor Helen,” Aiden chuckles. “And now I will leave. I have a riddle to solve.” He kisses me with his eyes, and I know he wants to do and say so much more. As do I. “We’ll be close. Don’t rush unless you want to.”

He caresses my fingertips again and strides away with Benson, almost blurry with tension. I stare after him as he wrestles his formidable reflex for the sole purpose of helping me lift a mint, of being here in this one moment with me.

I feel a warm clasp on my shoulder. Doctor Helen has rested her ivory lace hand on it from her great height. That rare maternal edge softens her face. “Keep the hope, Elisa child. I will see you in five weeks for the final test. Try to make the most of your time together until then.” And she glides away.

T-e-s-t. Hope trembles like a candle in the wind of her majestic passage. Because even in her assuring tone, it’s impossible not to miss the note of finality in her words. The beginning of the end.

I wheel around and race back across the quad, my only goal now to make my excuses and leave so I can be with Aiden. Edison and Graham are up front by the bench, sipping champagne. The violinist is playing the Ashokan Farewell.

“Ah, Elisa,” Edison greets me. “Right on time. A few of us are heading to King’s Arms to toast Peter. Will you join us?”

“I would love to, but I’m leaving for River Eden tonight to celebrate dad. But please have a tipple for me.”

Graham laughs. “Eliser, you’re doing something fun for a change. That’s what we should raise a pint to.”

Edison’s eyebrows rise, but he seems pleased. “River Eden is perfect, of course, but you had better leave now. Lake District is almost five hours away. Take Monday off if you wish.”

“Thank you both,” I nearly blurt out and sprint back inside the building for my purse, texting Aiden that I’ll be out in two minutes.

Bia seems exactly as I left it: bright with the soft fluorescents and the yellow rose at the desk. I hang up dad’s coat, eyes on the coolers of serotonin and oxytocin. Why didn’t it work? I’ll try again, dad, as you would, but safely this time.

Aiden and Benson are waiting for me of course, walking parallel back to the car park lest I take three steps out of sight. As soon as I round the corner, I bound straight to Aiden and leap into his arms. He catches me in his iron embrace, holding me against him so my feet are above ground. And I’m home. My fingers hook in his soft hair, and I bring him to my mouth, not caring if I’m making Benson nauseous. I drown myself in his taste after an entire century of not kissing him. He kisses me back softly, adoringly. I forget where I am, I even forget t-i-m-e. The only thing I know is that I love him. Dangerously, irrevocably, no matter what Doctor Helen’s t-e-s-t will say. And I want to spend every minute left celebrating, making every single part of mine his.

I tangle myself closer, but his hand restrains my face and he pulls back with a chuckle.

“Hi there,” he says, eyes gleaming with amusement at my exuberance.

“Hi,” I breathe.

He chuckles again, setting me on the ground without releasing my waist. “That must have been some mint.” He tilts his head to the side as if to remind me that we are not, indeed, alone like my body thinks we are, and I finally remember Benson. Our poor Big Ben is standing there, back to us, looking up at the clouds. I flush to my curled toes.

“Hi, Benson. Sorry about the—umm—this.”

He laughs and turns around. “I didn’t see anything. I’ll check out those mints, though.”

“I’ll buy you a box,” I promise because I can.

“So now that you aced your speech to no one’s surprise but your own,” Aiden turns me to him. “Are we leaving tonight?”

“Actually, there’s something I want to do first. Can we leave tomorrow? Edison gave me Monday off.”

He looks as though he heard I just made progress on the protein, but there will be time to tell him about that. “That was kind of him, but I’m curious now, though. What is it you want to do?”

My heart starts pounding. “You’ll see.”

The breeze has become a gusty wind when Benson drops us off at home. Fluffy clouds are hurtling across the sky like silver puffs of breaths from the sleepy sun. And the cottage is standing in a globe of petals. Thousands of them are flying everywhere, swirling like welcome hugs around our feet. Everything is rippling, including my heartstrings.

“A lot of change,” Aiden notes, eyes sweeping the garden as always. “But it all seems to be from the wind.”

The black shutters creak in agreement.

As soon as we’re inside, Aiden scans the foyer while I try to breathe, even though the state-of-the-art camera in the chandelier feeds live images to his phone and Benson’s all day. An entire month without incident has still not convinced him I’m safe. He remains as sure of my danger as that first night.

“Nothing out of camera’s range.” He sighs and pulls me in his arms. “I promise you, I will solve this. I don’t know how or when, but I will.”

Hopefully, it will take him a lifetime so he can stay with me. I reach on my tiptoes to kiss him. “I don’t mind now that you’re my bodyguard. But speaking of solving things, how long did it take you to solve the riddle?”

He smiles. “You sound certain that I have, in fact, solved it.”

I almost trip while standing perfectly frozen. “Y-you haven’t?”

“I have an answer,” he qualifies. “But I’m not certain it’s the right one.”

“What’s your answer?”

His hand curves around my face. He gazes down at me with tenderness. “Is it love?”

L-o-v-e! Apparently, it’s the answer to everything. “I didn’t even think about that!” I stare at him, gobsmacked.

His eyebrows arch with amusement. “You didn’t? So I missed it?” The excitement in his expression makes me laugh. Only Aiden would love being able to do something so normal as missing a puzzle.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you didn’t. I did.”

“Oh, no.” He laughs, too. “I lost this fair and square. You have to give it to me.”

“But you didn’t lose. The answer could be love.”

“It could, but it doesn’t fit your instructions. Love can survive distance, but it can’t move. And it’s debatable whether time does not affect love. It may not destroy true love, but it can change it, grow it. Not everyone loves as immediately and irrevocably as I do.”

“Or I.”

“Precisely. So I lost.” The dimple is brighter than if he had actually won. “Now, tell me the correct answer.”

Rightness washes over me again. “Come.” I take his hand, dragging him behind me. In the few short steps, I have whirlwinds everywhere. A twister in my throat, a vortex in my chest, tornadoes in my feet.

“The library?” Aiden muses, searching the cozy room with its paneled walls. “Ah, is the answer a book?”

I suppose it could be. I look up at his sublime face—it could be him. My king and protector, warrior and healer, with a memory that transcends time and place at any moment. Except when he looks at me with the same love that is burning in me. The only love that could make me do this.

“Close your eyes,” I whisper, my voice breathy like the willows.

He doesn’t miss my emotion. “Are you alright?”

“Never healthier.”

He holds my eyes for a moment in that way that sees straight through my skin, then closes his glistening lids. I lead him across the woven rug where dad and I built my first planetary model. Aiden is stepping where Venus was now, then Jupiter, then Mars.

“Wait here and don’t peek.” I stop him on the sun and open the window. The wind blows in, flipping the pages of the book Aiden has been reading in his promise to absorb Dad’s entire library; of course, he is almost finished. A column of silver light pours on the spot where he is standing.

“All right, now come with me.”

I take his hand again with conviction. His fingers weave with mine. He is quiet as if he senses the change breezing in. I stop us on the path of light at the tiny table in the corner. With his eyes closed, he looks as though he was forged out of some mystical metal just to tower here in this moment.

“Okay, you can look now.”

The brilliant eyes fling open and widen at the object between us. “Elisa!” he murmurs in shock, understanding in a blink.

“The answer to the riddle is chess.” I rest my hand on the treasured glass case that holds the unfinished chess game that dad and I started the morning before the accident. The last rays of sun are refracting on it. The pieces rest within, untouched by hand or time in four years and eight months. I look up at Aiden’s face. The deep emotion in his eyes echoes my own.

“Will you finish this with me?” I invite him.

His strong hands cover mine around the glass box. The deep V folds between his raven brows. “Elisa, are you sure?” he breathes.

“I am.” My voice rings clear. “There isn’t anyone else in the world I’d want to do this with.”

Neither his hands, nor his eyes release me. “Tell me why, love. Not why with me, but why you want to finish it after all this time.”

“Because I’m ready. I want to celebrate dad. I don’t want to spend one more minute mourning. That’s what he and mum would have wanted for me: to heal and live. And I want to live it all with you.”

Because there will be no life left if we lose in the end.

His fingers trail up my arms, leaving tingles in their wake, and frame my face. I have never seen his eyes deeper or more mine. Under his gaze, I feel like a glass case myself: open, see-through, and entirely breakable. But he leans across the tiny table and kisses me. It’s a tender kiss as if he knows the fragility of the moment. “I love you,” he whispers against my lips. “Every time I think you couldn’t make me prouder, you do.”

When he pulls back, his smile is glorious. It fills my vision and floods my mind. “Well then,” he quotes me. “Let’s play.”

I laugh breathlessly. The sound bounces off the book spines, a chuckle on Dante, a giggle on Byron. He comes around the table and pulls back my chair. “Do you want to be black or white this time?”

I know what he is really asking. “Black, for dad. I want to finish his part.”

He kisses of my temple. “Perfect, because I want to close for you.”

We take the old, rickety chairs that squeak like the shutters: I in dad’s, Aiden in mine. The board waits between us at last. It doesn’t have the magnificent gleam of mine upstairs, but it has a comforting, Christmassy sheen. How many times have I stared at it, preserving it in its glass tomb instead of letting it glow free?  I dig up the After-Eight from the ceremony and set it on the side.

The jubilant smile has not left Aiden’s lips. His face is a light prism of its own. He doesn’t need to have eyes on the board, of course; they’re only on me.

“You really like this, don’t you?” I ask him.

“I think ‘like’ is an understatement.” He laughs, but an emotion smolders under the humor. As I gaze back at him, the laugh suddenly softens. His beauty intensifies in that hypnotic way that knocks me breathless. “I love it,” he admits. “Until you came along, this game was as close to calm as I could get. I’ve waited all my life to play it with you. Even when neither of us knew it.”

But I know it now. That’s why this is not just a happy memory in our reel of brilliancy; it’s a new weapon. A weapon that will hopefully bring Aiden some peace of mind between reels, that will double my calm in case the protein—I shut down the thought and smile at him.

“Me too. I wish I could have gotten to it sooner.”

“You’re right on time, love.” He inclines his head to me. “Your move, I believe.”

There is no question about it. When it comes to this game, I might as well be eidetic like him. I remember exactly the last piece I played; I know by heart the only six moves left. He doesn’t rush me. He waits patiently as my hands claw into fists on my lap, digging into the denim of my jeans, despite my conviction. But I know how to release them now after thirty-one nights of touching chess pieces with and on him: I look at his face. His hair is ruffled from the wind as when I run my fingers through it. I visualize weaving my hands through the soft waves, and bam! The fists open. Then slowly, I raise my right hand—it’s trembling like the beech leaves—and hover it above dad’s knight. The move I know he would have made.

Aiden nods again as he did before my speech. The faith in his gaze is unwavering. Easily, like the words of my eulogy, my fingers wrap around the carved mane.

The familiar wood warms my fingertips like a hello. Does dad’s touch still linger there? Did t-i-m-e preserve that? At the window, the Clares are swaying, as if mum is watching like she used to. I draw a gulp of their air, keeping my eyes on Aiden, and then I move.

From my concentration, I underestimate the strength of my grip and almost knock over the rest of the pieces as I whip past them.

“Oops!” I gasp, but my hand adjusts automatically on its own, the synapses firing without any conscious instruction from me. The moves are reflexive like heartbeats, easy like breathing. Not like I’m coming back to them, but like they never left me. It’s an electrifying feeling—it shoots from my fingertips straight to my lips. Pure laughter bursts from me as the knight twirls between my fingers in an old habit.

Aiden throws back his head, laughing too. The waterfall sound cascades down the wood-paneled walls and their perpetual After-Eight scent. He could finish this game in ten seconds, but he doesn’t. He plays at my pace, making the moves I would have made.

“So the ruler and the servant are the king and the pawn,” he solves the riddle as he picks up my old pawn and sets it in the direct line of dad’s king.

“Yes.” I caress dad’s bishop and execute the rook. “And the war is obviously the game.”

His Queen reads my bishop’s last rites. “But there’s also peace in every piece since they rest together between battles.”

“Exactly.” I check his Queen with mine. “And we can play on repeat and kill time itself.”

“Yet time cannot erode the wood or ever touch rules of chess.” He sacrifices his Queen so I can also lose my own.

“And we can travel for miles,” I answer, picking up my Knight and riding across the chessboard as I have countless times. How many miles have I galloped and glided on this chessboard? How many has Aiden on his? How many miles will we be able to play together?

“All while staying perfectly still.” He checks my King with his Knight and looks up at me through his long lashes. His smile blinds me again.

“Check, Elisa.”

“Check, Aiden,” I counter, resting my own Knight across from his.

And then it ends. In a stalemate exactly as it would have ended then. A ten-minute segment of love completing the last four years. I stare at the finally finished game. Does the board feel the same waft of peace blowing through me? The two kings face each other as equals. It was a good game, Dad. I hope you’re laughing. I hope you’re saying, “ah, Eliser, play again!” Tears rise up in my eyes, blurring the board.

Aiden comes to my side, sliding on his knee. He traps the teardrop on his finger.

“Is this a happy tear or a sad tear?”

“Happy,” I sniffle, throwing my arms around his neck, inhaling the smell of him. “There’s nothing adjacent about it.”

His laughter reverberates in my chest. He takes my face in his hands and kisses me, his lips fierce and exultant against mine. I melt in his arms, pressing myself closer, but he stops abruptly.

“Rematch of our own?” he asks with an eager expression: eyes wide, smile huge.

“Yes, please,” I answer, free and clear.

He springs to his feet and scoops me up in his arms.  “I’m black this time,” he stakes his claim. His eyes are on fire. I ignite everywhere, from my skin to my blood. We leave the finished game by the window, the white curtains billowing toward it like angel’s wings. Then we fly together to our chess set in our bedroom. Now it’s the turn of my king.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 27: T-I-M-E

Hey friends and happy last hours of the weekend! I hope it was a good and restful one for you. In case you’re looking for a good, cozy way to finish it off before Monday arrives, here is Chapter 27. We’re getting closer to the end now.  Oh, if you need a song recommendation for this, I had Wicked Games playing in my head. You’ll see why. Hope you’re enjoying the chapters and thank you to all of you who comment and write to me with your thoughts.  I love and read each of them. Talk soon, xo, Ani

27

T-i-m-e

I don’t stop running until I’ve cleared the last weaver cottages, looking over my shoulder like a fugitive in my own village. But because I’ve never been much of an athlete, my legs and lungs give out in ten minutes and I sprawl on the grass in the middle of a grazing field, gasping, spluttering, and clutching stitches at my sides. The evening breeze whips my sweaty face. I gulp it down, staring at the evening lights twinkling from windows in the distance.

How much does Aiden know by now? That I went to Javier’s room for the night, absolutely. Max probably texted him before I finished bolting the door. That I ran away? I don’t think he has made that leap yet or I wouldn’t be panting here alone. He is probably still packing up the stand, making sure there isn’t a single scratch on it. But how long will it take him to figure it out after that? I don’t know. If he decides to give me space, I have a few hours, maybe the whole night. If he checks on me, I have one millisecond.

I scramble to my feet, still huffing and shaking. But my sandals aren’t made for escaping. Their straps are already cutting into my ankles and toes, so I set across the field for the shortcut along the riverbank and its velvet moss. The night is falling fast now, settling over everything in shades of plum, ink, and silver. Not that I can see the colors. My vision is locked in the reddish filter of rage. For a while, the mishmash of emotion is so frantic, I can’t even understand it, let alone control it. There’s the acid of anger, the cleaver of pain, the hammer of fear, the bite of guilt, the blister of grief, each crushing, slicing, and eroding whatever part of me they can reach. Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong about that. Because I’m still pulsing with them as I tread away from the river and round the foot of the familiar hill. Instinctively, as I’ve done every few minutes, I look around into the burgundy night. Burford’s lights are twinkling far in the distance, but I’m utterly alone. Not a single psychopath, stalker, or enraged Marine is following me. The trail to the top is hard in my sandals. They slow me down when I want to run up to the peak, but that’s good. Because I’m not just visiting my parents this time. I’m also climbing for me. Coming to the only place that’s still mine, free of surveillance and the terror of the reel. How did a place of incomprehensible grief become a place of hope and now of solace? Is this what they mean by healing?

The tiny meadow is bright with moonlight. Not a single shadow on it except the cypress tree. The American Beauty sapling I planted with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier is growing a new bud. The tokens we brought them last time are still by the epitaph along with the vial of Aiden’s dog tags, exactly as we left them. They haven’t moved an inch, nothing is missing. I run my hand over the engraved names—the marble is as cold as my fingertips.

“Here you go, Mum,” I whisper, but the words flow with ease, more naturally than any of the other three times I’ve visited here. I set down the Rose Cup by her side. The silver stem does not sparkle as it does in the sun but it throws a slender shadow over the marble like a delicate, feminine arm. “They all remember you still. And love you so much . . . except Willoughby of course. He’s absolutely livid he lost again.” I smile, registering with some surprise that I’m able to do so here without Aiden next to me. But it’s definitely a smile, turning up my lips even if it disappears at the thought of him. “It was quite a day,” I sigh, taking the Elisa rose he tucked by my ear and setting it down under her name. It has wilted by now. Make this your day as well, he said. I scoff with irony. How can it be my day, my life when he’s not letting us live it? When every minute of every hour of every day, we are locked in a war inside the mind that’s bombing every aspect of our life?

I rest my palms on the marble. Are they still pink? I can’t tell—I’m still seeing red. But as I sit here finally alone, breathing in the cypress air, the snarl of emotion starts to soften and rearrange. Sorrow fades away, grief changes from a blister to an old bruise. And anger shifts far down, making room for pain, fear, and guilt at the very top. I can think through them all, I can add love, I can see the night free and clear. The pure white tomb glowing with a diffuse light. The veins of the marble forming figures like clouds . . . an eye, a heart, a river, a fork in the road. And emotions start to become thoughts and then crystallize into questions: what do I do now? How do I save Aiden from the reel when it’s stealing him from me no matter how grounded I try to keep him in the present moment? How do we win when every weapon seems useless against it and I’m still nowhere finished with the protein? How do we make happy memories when we barely have a moment alone? How do I salvage some stardust if we don’t survive?

He comes out of nowhere. One second, it’s just me by the grave and another he blasts to the crest like a shooting star.

“Elisa?” He thunders, drowning out my startled cry. He freezes when he spots me, a perfect silhouette against the moonlight, holding something in his hand. I think I hear a gusty sigh of relief in the hilltop wind. A moment passes while we gaze at each other—or at least while I stare at the shape of him. Is it vibrating with tension even from here? Then he glides noiselessly across the meadow like a dream. An old fear flickers once and I pinch the inside of my wrist to test reality. But I’m awake, it’s the real him. As he comes close, I finally see the thing he is holding. My pashmina. He hands it to me without throwing it over my shoulders as he usually would. My throat tightens. But it’s better this way, so I can process.

“Thank you,” I whisper, wrapping myself in the soft cashmere. I didn’t realize I was shivering until now.

He nods once and sits next to me in silence, eyes on the epitaph. Automatically, my body softens at his proximity, despite the anger still lurking underneath. I run through the periodic table twice but he still doesn’t speak, either too angry or relieved to say anything.

“So, you found me,” I finally start.

He looks at me then. His eyes are molten silver. “Does that upset you?” His voice is dark and low like the night.

Of course he would wonder given my escape. A few moments ago, I was wondering myself. I shake my head. “I knew you would. The only question was how long it would take you.”

“Too long it seems.”

I have no idea what time it is—I can’t trust my sense of chronology with him—but it feels like I’ve only been here about ten minutes. “No harm done. I was perfectly safe.”

His eyes close, and he pinches his nose. A subtle shudder seems to ripple over him. “Were you?” His question is so quiet, I’m not sure he meant it for me.

I answer it anyway because it’s at the heart of everything. “Of course I was. If anyone wanted to harm me, they could have by now. I was walking alone in the dark with the Rose Cup as my only weapon. I really wish you would drop this now.”

His eyes fling open, and he shudders again. He stares at the grave, his breathing harsher, his jaw flexing furiously, throwing dark shadows in the starlight. He doesn’t answer, and I can’t think of a single thing to say without a fight. I trace the veins in the marble with my finger. A period, a comma, a question mark . . .

“Do you still believe that?” he asks after a while. My eyes fly up at his face, but he is gazing at the epitaph still.

“Believe what?”

Amor vincit omnia—love conquers all.”

I think about that. When I first chose it for my parents, I thought there wasn’t a truer truth. When I returned here a month ago, I thought it was the most beautiful lie. And now . . . “We have to,” I answer honestly, my voice catching. “I’m starting to think it’s a choice.”

His eyes meet mine then, ardent even in the night. “And what do you choose?”

I try to think with his eyes on me, with him being so close, yet so far, but at least this answer doesn’t require a lot of mental power. “I choose to win with you.”

The shadow of his tense jaw lightens. I think I hear another sigh in the breeze. “Me too.”

“But I don’t know how, Aiden. Not when we’re fighting against each other again, like we used to in Portland. We’re not staying in the present moment, united against the reel. We’re divided: you living in fear for me, me running away at night, making your fears even worse . . .”

He looks at his dog tags now, the flawless panes of his face dark blades again. His hands interlock around his knees in a double fist. The knuckles glow a perfect white.

“I don’t blame you for being angry with me,” I add because it’s true. “I’m sorry I worried you.” And I am now that I’ve calmed down. I added to his stress instead of ease it as I’m trying to do.

He inhales sharply, and his eyes flash to me. “Angry with you?” The light flows over his face with his intense expression. “How could I be angry with you when I gave you no choice? When I took away every place of comfort you’re trying to rebuild? When I suffocated you to the point where you felt you had to run out at night and risk your—” He stops abruptly, closing his eyes and drawing another shuddering breath. His knuckles glint. “No, I’m not angry with you.” He shakes his head after a moment. “I’m infuriated with me.”

It’s as though his mind permeated mine as I was running and read all my thoughts. Yet the more fury he fires at himself now, the less anger I feel. There isn’t a single trace of it left in me. The only thing twisting my insides is hurt for him.

He is gazing at the epitaph again. Of its own volition, my body moves closer until our arms touch. I expect his fragrant warmth, but he has become a sculpture of ice. His breath catches though, and his eyes burn on mine.

“I know why you’re doing it,” I say, brushing my fingers over his diamond knuckles. They soften as does the point of contact between our arms. “You’re just trying to keep me safe with everything you have. It’s your way.”

“Yes, my way, and I’m making you miserable in the process. I cling with arrogant obstinacy to my idea of what will keep you safe, and all I do is break your heart over and over again.”

“Aiden, no—”

“Don’t.” One word, sharp and jagged like a knife against the self, yet his hand wraps gently around mine. Instantly, an old tension I didn’t know I was feeling blows away. He twists up my palm, perhaps searching it for pinkness but it’s bleached white from the moon like everything else. “The point is, I don’t trust myself with you anymore. So we’ll do it your way, Elisa. Starting right now.” His silver eyes blaze even in the darkness, while my mind goes blank.

“My way? What do you mean?”

“I’ll let security go. Max, Ferrars, the overnight guard—gone. Tonight. You’ll never have to see any of them again. Except Benson of course, but you don’t have a problem with him. And we’ll start again. The sooner, the better. This minute, in fact.”

Bloody hell! I stare at him in stunned disbelief. Am I hearing this right? Did he really say it? My heart is crashing against my ribs like Ferrars and Felix into the rose stand. “Does this mean you finally agree there’s no danger?” I blurt out, trying to make sense of the chaos. “That you’ll finally relax about this?”

His eyebrows rise with similar incredulity. “Of course not. I still think someone is curious or worse about you, but what options do I have left? I will not force you into more risky behavior like this. I will not continue to rob you of the new life we had just started. And I’m not willing to let this drive a wedge between us like it has been. So that leaves me with your option: I will protect you myself.”

My head is still spinning. “But why do you still think—”

He presses his finger to my lips. They tremble at his touch. “I will not have this argument with you, not now, not ever again. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No, because we’re doing this your way, not mine. Mine is usually wrong.”

He takes his finger away, which is good because my mind is still scrambled. This is exactly what I wanted to hear. Want it so much, I pinch myself to make sure I haven’t fallen asleep on the grave like the first time he visited this hilltop in my dreams. I’m fully awake. So why am I not relieved?

“But won’t you be worried about me still?” I argue anyway.

He shrugs as though this is the least of his problems. “Of course I will. That will never change, whether you have a security team of a hundred or none.”

“I know, but won’t it be worse if you remove security completely? You’ll be dreading that I’m going to get hurt all day instead of saving all your strength for the reel.”

A small smile lifts the corner of his mouth. “First, I sincerely doubt it can get much worse than it was tonight. If I lived through the five minutes, sixteen seconds of trying to find you, not to mention cutting through the festival crowd and the time you were supposedly in Javier’s room, I can probably live through death itself. Second, I’m not removing security completely; I will protect you myself, with Benson of course. And third, yes, I’d worry less about your safety, but more about your heart. So it’s all the same in the end.”

Except I don’t want him worrying in any way. Not under the kind of pressure he is. “Aiden.” I clutch his hand in both of mine. “Is there anything that will convince you I’m safe? Anything at all that will help you relax even a bit?”

The smile doesn’t leave his lips, but his answer sends shivers under my pashmina. “Time, love—the very thing we don’t have.”

No, we do not. Tick tock. Tick tock. But there must be some way that doesn’t involve bombarding the life we’re supposed to live or raiding his mind with stress so he cannot fight the reel. I search the meadow, the epitaph, the marble map for anything. He is the only one who answers. In one of his fast movements, his hand turns so it now covers both of mine.

“It actually might help if I’m protecting you personally, Elisa. Even with Max, I couldn’t rest when you were out of sight. I realized after today, I cannot trust anyone with you like I can myself.”

I cannot argue with that truth. Because I cannot trust anyone other than myself with his rest either. And this way, we’ll have more time together. I feel my own lips lift into a smile. “And I’ll protect you. I’ll make you the protein as soon as possible, you’ll see. And then you’ll never have to fear for me again.”

My favorite, lopsided smile flashes over his face, varnished in silver—so beautiful that my heart stutters at the sight. “Elisa, you already protect me from everything. From the moment I open my eyes with the reel until I close them to your song. It would be impossible to find any man more protected and loved than me.”

At least the reel hasn’t stolen this knowledge from him. At least l-o-v-e is still standing strong against it, his mind is still holding onto that truth like a shield. “Not one,” I agree.

His arms fold around me at last, like protective wings. I haven’t felt them since our doomed lunch, but of course it feels like a century to me. I worm myself into their circle, breathing him in. The air flows easily through my lungs—like sleep, like Für Elise. He is not icy stone anymore, just warm and fragrant steel. He sighs, and his lips press in my hair.

“Is it really going to be just us again?” I verify, still afraid that we will lose more moments alone in our remaining days.

“We already are, love.”

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“You compare a tiny rose to an entire jungle.”

The miniature roses around the epitaph gleam the purest white. Love conquers all. It must. The locket on my chest is pressed between his heart and mine. Help me solve the protein, help us win.

His opalescent arms pull me closer, tucking my head under his chin. He kisses my hair again, holding his lips there, inhaling deeply.

“What are you thinking?” I ask, tracing the vein on his warm neck.

“It might bring back the ire if I told you.”

“No, don’t worry. The wrath is long gone. I lost it with the pashmina.”

“In that case . . .” He breathes me in again. “Thank God you’re safe and thank God for pashminas.”

We chuckle together—his laugh beautiful and argent like the night, mine quiet but effortless for the first time on this hilltop. At the sound, a sense of lightness falls over me like the uninterrupted glow of the moon over the meadow. Something I never could have imagined feeling here. I curl into him totally content, marveling at how time—my Fallujah, my reel, my startle, my mortal enemy—can also be my ally. Because four years ago, this hilltop pulverized me into granules and spewed me across continents like ashes in the wind. Then a month ago, it gave me a purpose, then h-o-p-e. And now another beginning. T-i-m-e. Has it joined our ranks or is it a foe still?

“Do you want to stay here a little longer or go back to the cottage?” Aiden asks after a while. “Just us,” he emphasizes, hearing my unspoken question or perhaps remembering it from this morning. “We can celebrate your win with the others tomorrow on our picnic.”

I smile. “That’s exactly what I want.”

He kisses the top of my head once more and stands, lifting me along and balancing me carefully in case I topple and roll down the hill. But he frowns immediately at my sandaled feet. “Did they give you blisters coming up here?”

“Umm, maybe a very small one. Blister adjacent, I think. Please don’t punish my sandals. I really like them.”

He doesn’t breathe fire on them, but he does glare, not looking the least bit convinced. He picks up the Rose Cup, hands it to me, and swoops me in his arms. “Come on, let’s get those adjacent blisters on some petals. Mrs. Plemmons thinks they fix everything.”

“Aiden, no way!” I protest, trying and failing to wiggle out of his unbreakable hold. “You won’t carry me all the way down the hill. It’s too far.”

“Hah!” He laughs, tucking my scarf around me. “You wanted me to protect you myself instead of the security team. Well, this is the deal. Take it or leave it.”

“The deal is carrying me places?”

He’s already in motion, leaving the moonlit meadow behind. “Carrying you, driving you where you need to be, sitting across from Bia while you’re working, not letting you out of my sight until I fix this, and anything else required to keep all ten of these blistered toes safe.”

He is dragon-serious. There isn’t a single speck of humor on his tone despite the laughter. Except it sounds like heaven to me. I tangle my arms around his neck, kissing his scar. “I’ll take it. You can be my bodyguard anytime.”

He laughs again. “I’ll remind you of that when you’re calling Max and Ferrars in a week, begging them to come back.”

“In your dreams.”

“No, I have a lot better things saved for those.” His arms tighten around me like pearlescent fetters.

I watch his silver profile as he strolls effortlessly down the meandering trail, remembering precisely where a shrub is or a rock. It’s been so long since he has carried me in the moonlight like this. Not true of course. It’s only been a week, but it feels like a different life to me. A life we are starting again.

“So how did you figure out I had escaped?”

A shadow falls over his face as he passes by another cypress tree. “It wasn’t exactly CIA’s Kryptos to decode. Max texted me that you were staying in Javier’s room and that he’d guard you until I was done. Not that I was shocked; obviously you didn’t want anything to do with me. But I thought I’d give you space while I finished up with the stand and then come grovel on my knees. Well, as you can imagine, I barely lasted thirty-four minutes with that noble intention—just enough to dismantle the stand and secure it in Benson’s van. Once I went back to the Inn and knocked on Javier’s door and you didn’t answer, I knew where you had gone. Alone—in the dark—what if—” He chokes off in terror. From his shudder, I shake in his arms.

“Shh, I was all right. I’d never put myself in any real harm.” I stroke his scar, trying to think. He remains convinced I’m in danger. How can I help him with this?

His jaw is throwing starlit shadows with tension. I run my lips over it, back and forth, back and forth until it shimmers silver again. Except I can’t stop. I haven’t kissed him since this morning, and that’s a millennia ago. Besides, how can any mortal mouth be this close to such a face and not touch it?

He smiles. “You need to stop that if you don’t want me to trip.”

“You don’t trip. You’re superhuman.”

“Not when you touch me.”

I hold properly still to make this easy for him. It’s hard with all the tingles lighting up on my skin like fireflies—sensations I never thought I’d feel anywhere near this hill. But they’re there, blinking warmer and warmer. Already I can’t breathe right as though I’m the one trekking down the trail.

He is quiet for the rest of the hike, his breath coming out fast and fragrant. Yet his unconscious grace never wavers. And for once I think of Byron, not Shakespeare. He walks in beauty like the night. Aiden says that poem is mine, but as he descends in and out of moonlight and nightshade, now silver, now dark, I’m convinced it was written for him. I should write it on his Timberlands. Would he laugh if he woke up tomorrow to see it Sharpied on their soles?

He clears the hill with me in his arms faster than me climbing with the Rose Cup. The night is thick down here. I half-expect him to insist on carrying me all way back to the cottage, but out of the darkness morphs the black shape of the Rover. I don’t know why it surprises me. How else would he have gotten to me in exactly five minutes and sixteen seconds? He must have raced faster than a nitroglycerin combustion.

He scans the area immediately, and I search with him, rigid with contradiction: body fusing itself to him, mind racing to Bia. We already didn’t have hours to waste, now we don’t even have seconds. But he isn’t tense right now; he is relaxed, whether from the quiet night, my calming effect, or the fact that I’m safe in his arms, I don’t know. He sets me down by the Rover’s door and takes my face in his hands.

“Now about that kiss,” he says and his mouth captures mine. His lips are soft and warm, but his kiss is urgent and deep. I give him back everything I have, parched for his taste. A low moan rises in his throat. He presses me against the Rover’s door, his heated body forged to every line of mine, his fingers gilded in my hair. To my suddenly feverish skin, he feels like a flame. I shiver paradoxically between him and the door. A different mishmash of emotion whirls in me now at the bottom of this hill: the burn of desire, the vise of love, the ocean of longing, the breeze of relief, each healing and rebuilding every part of me.

Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong again. Because I can’t imagine this all-consuming love to ever end for me, even if I’m ash. I’m still incandescent with it as Aiden’s mouth slows, his tongue tracing my lips with a final sigh.

“Ah, Elisa.” His lips brush mine once more, and he pulls back, his breathing rougher than when he was trekking down the hill while I dangle in his arms, dizzy and gasping. “Come, let’s go home.”

H-o-m-e.  It’s one of the rare times he calls the cottage home. He may not realize it, but I certainly do. I’m counting each one.

He opens the Rover door and stuffs me in the front seat, checking my palms as soon as the cabin light turns on. The pink is fading, only a faint blush now the color of the Clares.

“They still don’t hurt,” I assure him quickly.

“If they’re not back to their perfect condition by tomorrow, we’re going to the doctor, and I don’t want any argument about it.” He gives me a stern gaze.

“I accept,” I answer without hesitation. I’d probably agree to a lot worse if he really would rest.

“Now, let me look at these.” He slips off my sandals carefully, hissing when he sees the two blisters on each big toe, one on each pinky, and another one on each ankle. “As I thought. Blister adjacent indeed. I’m banning that word, Elisa. Right now.”

“Yes, General.”

He glowers as he reaches in the glove box for our first aid kit because of course our cars are equipped with such measures. I think defibrillators and MRI machines are the only medical equipment we’re missing. He disinfects each blister with an ethanol wipe, blowing on it and muttering a string of profanities. Then he wraps a bandage loosely around them, blowing again to make sure air flows through. “You’re not wearing these for at least two weeks!” He orders and hurls my sandals in the back seat.

“Do you have something I can blow on?”

He glares in response, but his lips twitch with a restrained grin. “If you behave.”

The drive to the cottage takes only ten minutes at normal speed. Aiden steers with one hand, twining his other fingers with mine. The rose soundtrack is still on from our Aidonis trip, this time playing Love is a Rose by Linda Rondstadt.

“Do Max and the others know I escaped?” I ask, starting an apology in my head.

He chuckles. “I think it became quite obvious when they saw me bolt out of the Inn like a madman. They’re apoplectic as to how you pulled it off. Incidentally, how did you manage it? Did you take the back stairs?”

I hang my head, feeling guilty. “Yes, that’s why I went to Javier’s room and not Reagan’s. It’s closer to that door.”

In the blue light from the dashboard, his smile seems impressed. “And this is exactly why I need to protect you myself.”

“I didn’t get Max in trouble, did I? He did everything right—even checked the balcony.”

“Of course not. He’s excellent, I’m just impossible when it comes to you. But don’t tell me you’re already missing him?”

“Not in that way. But I do like him, he’s very kind.”

“Well, don’t worry. I’ll bring him back again with Cal and the others. Maybe in September.”

Tick tock. Tick tock.

Everything is quiet when we park in the garage, although it doesn’t stop Aiden’s peremptory examination. But it’s only a blink. He is at my door as I’m unclicking my safety belt.

“Are you tired?” he asks, taking the Rose Cup from me and draping the pashmina back over my shoulders.

Tired? I haven’t felt more awake all week. “Not even a little bit. Besides, I think you promised me a celebration this morning.”

He laughs, sweeping me off the seat straight into his arms, lest I attempt walking the four-minute distance across a velvet of wildflowers on bare feet. “Did I? I must have forgotten.”

“You don’t forget. You’re superhuman.”

“Not when you run from me.”

Elysium is brimming with moonlight as he carries me across it. The daisies are brilliant white with the rest of the wildflowers in grey patches like clouds. A heart, a fingerprint, the inkblot of the reel. Aiden tenses as always when we pass by it.

“Will you be okay doing the reel without security?” I kiss along his jaw again until it softens.

“That’s the wrong question, love. The correct question is will you be okay while I’m locked inside the reel. And I’m not going to wait around to find out. We’re moving the reel to daytime” There is no room for opposition in his voice. But I have none. Now that it’s just us again, I will do everything to calm him.

“That makes sense. And I’ll carry my phone on me in case we need Benson. And install a tracking app, too.”

His eyebrows arch in surprise. “I didn’t realize you were capable of being reasonable about your safety, Elisa.”

“It’s all part of the deal, Aiden. I’ll be reasonable if I have you all to myself. Take it or leave it.”

His arms grip me closer. “I’ll take it all, and I might never give it back.” Abruptly his eyes smolder even in the dark, vaporizing my very bones.

The cottage glows snowy white by the river—no guard shadows on its walls. Only the climbing roses and the black shuttered windows. All the roses are asleep lacquered in silver, dreaming rosy things. There isn’t a single sound in the silent night except our breath and the willows’ murmur. They’re here, they’re here. A tiny, peaceful bubble just for us.

I sigh from its beauty, from the longing I’ve felt for it to be ours alone again.

Aiden pauses at the rose hedge, perhaps letting me enjoy the moment, perhaps searching our very own snow globe for safety. I give him his minute too. It could last forever, I wish it would. Because here, cradled in his arms, happiness shifts again for the first time in a week. It now looks like our entwined shadows on the stony path, breathing in the smell of home.

“Welcome back, love,” he whispers, carrying me to the door. I don’t ask if anything looks different or if Jazz saw anyone suspicious today. I know there is nothing to see. And Aiden’s warm, relaxed stride spells the answer in twinkly, star-stitched letters. We are alone. At last.

But he still doesn’t let me cross the threshold first. As soon as we step inside the foyer and he switches on the light, his eyes sweep it corner to corner, his arms flexing around me like shields. Then in another moment, they relax again, but he doesn’t set me down. He rests my Rose Cup on the console and roams the entire ground floor, checking everything. It is his habit now to scan the cottage, roof to studs, before he leaves and scour it again the instant he returns, exactly as he does with me.  Half of my heart clenches at the sight because he has fallen in love with these little walls so forcefully and completely. But the other half shatters because I cannot begin to fathom the terror behind this new routine. I search my head as frantically as he does the cottage for anything that might help him.

“Everything seems as I left it,” he informs me, finally setting me down at the foot of the stairs with a relieved sigh. I can see his entire face in the light now. I haven’t seen it since ten centuries ago under the elm tree when I was accepting the Rose Cup. Impossibly, he has gotten more beautiful to me, even if veiled with worry. Abruptly an idea flickers in my head. Perhaps sometimes all you need to do is turn on the lights.

“Aiden, what if we hid a camera in the chandelier so you can see if anyone is coming in, would that help? That way you won’t have to search the cottage every time, love.”

His eyes pop wide with unexpected amazement—he looks like I just offered him a vacation from the reel. “You would do that?” he whispers.

“I would. And if no one shows up, then we will know once and for all.”

He watches me carefully, eyes narrowing at the corners. “Why would you do this when you’re so certain there is no threat?”

I wrap my arms around his neck where their shape is probably branded into his skin. “For the same reasons you gave up security for me. Because this is your home too. I want you to feel safe and rested here, no matter what I think. Just because I don’t want to surrender it to others, doesn’t mean I don’t want to share it with you. Every single stone of it.”

His eyes don’t leave mine, but they change—no longer surprised or cautious; they beam with a joy that takes my breath away. Stuns me, heartbeat to blink. “Thank you,” he says with feeling. Then his mouth finds mine and he swoops me upstairs with blinding speed.

Our bedroom door is closed, but he must be expecting it because that surreal beauty falls over him. He sets me on my feet, a smile playing over his lips.

“After you,” he says and opens the door.

“Are you sure I remember how to walk?” I laugh and pretend to wobble inside. And then I rock into such a sudden stop that I fall back into his arms.

“Apparently not,” he chuckles, but my lack of balance has nothing to do with my legs. It has everything to do with my sight. Because our happy bedroom has transformed into my very own rose stand right in front of my incredulous eyes.

Elisa petals carpet the wooden floor. More Elisas are on the nightstands with the dried poppies, our double-frames, and the photo of Aiden’s brain. Above the bed hangs a white runner with black lettering like the rose stand sign, except this one says:

Elisa’s Rose Gallery

And on the walls are photos of me from each rose festival, beginning with my first and ending with the nineteenth from this morning—an image of me sitting at the welcome table that Aiden must have captured from a distance. An unmissable celebration of me, not anyone else.

“Aiden!” I whirl around in his arms. He is all golden now, his face suffused with the bliss he associates with this room. “So you did remember.” Of course he did. Of course he made time for this even while running around, protecting me.

He smiles. “Congratulations on your win, my love.”

Mine. Exactly as he wanted this morning. But I think about the other prize I won today: bringing us back to us again. “Don’t you mean my wins?” I pluralize.

He chuckles. “I stand corrected: your wins.” His fingers weave through my braid releasing the wilted Clares, a serious but tender expression falling over his face. “Your roses.” He kisses the spot below my ear, inhaling deeply. “Your day.” His lips flutter to the corner of my mouth. “And now your night.”

So many mine’s. Except my heart, that’s irrevocably his. And my body, it’s already lost. Everywhere he touches, I feel a flash burn on my skin. I trail my fingers over his cheek. “And my Aiden.” I caress his lips. “My kisses.” I press my hand over his heart. “My love.”

He smiles. “You won all those a long time ago.”

“Yes, but they’re the still my best wins.” I wrap my arms around his waist, refusing to allow any space between us. Because he is my Rose Cup, my Nobel Prize, my Oscar, my everything. I don’t want any other victory if in the end, I don’t triumph with him. “Thank you. I love my celebration.”

He tips up my face, surprise obvious in the turquoise depths. “Do you really?”

“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because you’re so selfless. Usually I know immediately when you’ll love something, but I wasn’t certain this time.”

I scoff. “I’m actually not that selfless, Aiden. In fact, I’m very selfish when it comes to you. And the roses. And the cottage. And Elysium. And now Aidonis. And chemistry. And Baci. And clotted cream . . . loads more. I’m selfish about everything I love.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter before I have finished as though me being selfish is a happiness protein. But isn’t it the same for me? The more he loves himself, the happier I feel. “Ah, Elisa. You and your eight selfish things that aren’t even selfish. But I’m glad I made the list.”

“You’re at the very top.”

His eyes change swiftly again, in that way that leaves me a stunned step behind. From amused, they become liquid and warm, and then thoughtful as they burn into mine. His hands travel up my arms to my cheeks, leaving fiery trails in their wake. “Will you let me try to add something else to the list?” The warmth is in his voice too, but with a rare note of plea underneath.

Immediately, I’m curious—more about that tone than anything else. “What would you like to add?”

“A reminder.”

“A reminder about what?”

“You’ll see. Will you please consider it?” he coaxes again.

As if I could say no to that voice and those eyes. “Yes, but on one condition,” I bargain anyway.

What condition?” he asks confidently.

“Well, you accuse me of being selfless, but you obviously suffer from the same affliction. So, my selfish list is open to additions only if we add something to your selfish list as well.”

He laughs again. “Elisa, I’m so selfish with you, I’ve cashed it all in for the entire mankind, but fine, I agree because this should hit both our lists.”

“Oh!” I grin at the chance of being able to give him something he wants. He never asks for anything for himself. “All right then, let me hear this reminder.”

“Thank you,” he says as he did downstairs, except now I hear a strong emotion in his voice. He lowers me at the foot of the bed, his fingertips setting fires on my arms. “Wait here.”

I nod, breathless with his intensity and the curiosity now raging in my brain. For some reason, I expect him to leave the room, but he walks to the window and opens it wide, flashing a smile. “We can’t leave the roses out of your celebration. They’ll be offended.”

The rose breeze blows freely into the room, cooling my feverish cheeks. “Mortally. And they’re already insulted from this last week. You’ll have to grovel and kiss all their petals.”

“Just kiss? I had rather started to think they were partial to other activities.” He winks as he ducks into our small closet while I check my skin for fire. No, nothing is smoking. He re-emerges with a box about the size of a briefcase, wrapped in parchment, and sits on the bed next to me, setting the box between us. His hands reach over it and close around my wrists.

“Just a reminder of something you love,” he repeats gently. “Nothing more.”

My heart starts thumping unevenly from his voice, his touch, his words. Why do I need reassurance for this box? “Aiden, what’s in there?”

He inches the box closer to me. There is no audible movement within.  “Let me unwrap it. I don’t think we need papercuts in addition to irritated palms and blisters today.”

I nod, transfixed as he tears the parchment with a fluid motion, revealing a wooden box. It’s the color of melted butterscotch, polished to a gleam, with a distinctive grain that curls and twists into a mystery map of its own. Instead of a latch, it has a keyhole, carved like an open rose. A faint woodsy aroma wafts from the box. I run my fingertips over the smooth surface, tracing the dense grain, finding figures. A star, a sun, a moon . . .

“It’s so lovely. What is it?”

“It’s called briar wood,” Aiden explains. “A very durable, nearly unbreakable, and heat-resistant wood.”

I look up at him in awe, but not so lost as to miss the way his skin is reflecting the golden glow of the box. “What is it protecting?”

His eyes become very tender. “A part of your heart.”

Oh! The heart in question starts thundering like my brain. In his hand is already a small bronze key, shaped like a rose stem. He slides it into the heart of the rose and the box unlocks with a quiet click. He looks at me through his long lashes. “Just try to remember, love.”

And then his long-fingered hands lift the lid.

Everything changes in a single blink. I hear my gasp, I feel my heart battering my ribs, the shiver on my skin, the blood drumming in my ears. I feel them all, but they are on the periphery. My entire focus is rivetted by the sight in front of me.

Because nestled inside the briar case is the most beautiful object I have ever seen. A carved wooden chessboard set with thirty-two chess pieces, gleaming in the muted light of our bedroom. The dark pieces are deep burgundy, marbled with veins of rich chocolate and crimson. The light ones are golden with a honeyed grain like lacework. The carving is so intricate, the pieces look almost alive, from the flowy manes of the Knights to shimmering crowns of the Queens. Here and there on the chess squares is etched a tiny rosette, like a secret code. An astonishing perfume floats from the board, almost tasteable in the air. Like Aiden, like Aeternum, I have never smelled anything quite like it. It’s a bouquet of rose, musk, woods, and something else entirely. And at the very edge of the board are my initials: ECS.

Supremely magnificent in every way. Fairytale in its beauty.  All mine. Yet my entire being splits in half: my heart and mind hug the chessboard with fervor; my body freezes into its own carved piece of wood, from my eyelids to my hands seizing into fists on my lap.

“Elisa?” Aiden’s soft voice breaks through the thud-thud-thud in my ears. I feel his strong, warm hand around my fists, but I can’t blink away from my initials on the board. He tips up my head until my vision fills only with him. Tenderness marbles his face with its own exquisite grain. He cups my cheek and blows gently across the board over my lips. “Breathe, love.” He draws a deep breath with me, and I realize he, too, wasn’t breathing until now. We inhale the indescribable perfume of the chess set together until I can form sound. Even if only breathy and staccato.

“Aiden, I . . . I don’t have the words.”

“You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t ever have to play it. Remember what I said?”

I nod, realizing now exactly why I needed his reassurance. “This is just a reminder.”

“That’s right. Only a reminder of the game you used to love and that still has a piece of your heart.” He comes to kneel before me and tucks me into his chest, kissing my temple. “Like me, this is only yours and no one else’s.”

“Wow,” is all I can whisper. He is giving me this work of art only so it can be mine. Only so I can have the most beautiful reminder there is. I focus only on his lips and the way they brush along my cheek, as I try to remember the joy this game used to give me, the times I won, the thrill of strategy, sometimes higher than the win itself. I haven’t let myself visit these memories in so long. I didn’t think it was possible to recall them without pain, but apparently it is. Not that the pain is gone exactly, but there are other feelings stronger than it. I know it’s because of Aiden’s warm strength filtering to my very bones. And I start to thaw piece by piece. Except my fists. They remain resolutely clenched on my lap.

He feels my softening immediately, probably like I do for him. He pulls back only enough so he can see my face. I don’t know what he finds there, but he smiles. “Were you able to remember something happy?”

I nod, still stunned. “I was, because of you.” I try to pour all my gratitude into my voice; my vocal cords shake from it. “Thank you. For all of it. It’s so beautiful—no, it’s much more than that. . . ”  The chess set draws my eyes back. There is a feeling about it, like a whisper in the breeze or a breathy silence in a sacred place.

“Is it selfish worthy?”

“Oh, yes. It’s already above Baci and clotted cream. Maybe tied with chemistry . . .”

He laughs with a carefree sound. My eyes flit back to him. “As long as it doesn’t compete with me.”

“Impossible,” I whisper, unwilling to interfere with the music of his laughter.

“Do you want to know more about it?” he asks casually, no doubt trying to remove all pressure for me to answer a certain way. Except I’m curious about the thought he put into this most of all.

“Yes, please. Tell me everything.”

His eyes glint with the deep passion he feels for the game, and I realize this is the first time we will talk about chess in any meaningful, just-us kind of way.

He tightens his hold around my fists, and his other hand frames the board. “The aroma you smell is rosewood—a very rare, strictly regulated wood. You can’t buy it from ethical sources anymore so the only sustainable option is from Old World furniture. This particular one came from an antique piano dating back to Tchaikovsky’s days. It will smell like this for a very long time. But I thought it was a good representation of you: roses and woods and music. Beauty and strength and calm.”

I can’t even blink with the way his eyes deepen and glow when he says things like that. Like I’m his best win, too. “It’s perfect,” I whisper, stunned voiceless again.

“The rose motif you see on the squares repeats in a pattern. See if you can find it.” He grins at my wide eyes as I start scanning the board frantically by position number. While I search, a brain cell wonders whether he embedded so many secret details so I could look at this and find only l-o-v-e and never p-a-i-n, only w-i-n-s, never l-o-s-s. The yes in my brain clicks at the same time as the code.

“My birthday. Six times.”

“You’re quick. Can you guess why six?”

He stumps me here. I try to think of favorite dates, favorite chemical element, favorite number, but nothing fits. “Some help?”

“It’s for all the six opening notes of Für Elise.”

“Wow,” I marvel again at the depth—not a single detail without meaning, not a grain of wood left to chance.

“It was carved for you by an old Russian chess master, Asimov,” Aiden continues. “He rarely crafts anymore, but he liked the story for this.”

“What was the story?”

His piano fingers brush my white knuckles the way they flutter over the ivory. “The story of a beautiful, loving, bright woman who is trying to find her way across the chessboard again . . .” He trails off as if he just finished telling a fairytale.

And like a fairytale, it leaves both beauty and longing behind. I want to touch the gleaming pieces so much that desire becomes physical pain, almost as intense as the way I crave him. I try, I really try to move one single finger, but my fists are locked shut—the way my body used to be before Aiden awoke it. And the air starts to thicken with a sadness that shouldn’t belong here, but it slithers in like a tear at the corner of the eye. Because even though this piece of art was made exactly for me, it can never be truly mine. It will never complete its destiny. The young woman will never play again.

“Are you trying to feel it?” Aiden caresses my knuckles.

I look back at his face—worried now, the V chiseled like golden rosewood between his brows. I don’t want to say the words, but they spill out as always under his gaze, “I want to,” I admit, feeling carved in pieces. “I want to play with you. I want to touch it so much, but I can’t.”

He brings a fist to his lips. “Of course you can’t. But would you let it touch you?”

A whisper of warm goosebumps blows over my skin. “Touch me how?”

“Do you trust me?”

“I trust you with my life.”

He flashes me a wistful smile. “Quite literally in fact, but tell me, what was your favorite chess piece?”

“The Queen.”

His smile becomes true and dimpled. “Mine, too. In black?”

“How did you know?”

“Because it’s the harder win. And it’s something else we have in common.”

Such a small thing to say, yet sadness starts to waft away with the rose breeze. He picks up the dark burgundy Queen so fluidly that the moment they join, it looks as though it’s part of him, shining in his long fingers. As he brings it closer, a trace of rosewood floats between us. I lean in reflexively to sniff it, but my fists quiver on my lap.

“Not your hand,” Aiden says, not missing the movement. “Your heart.”

And slowly, without releasing my eyes, he sweeps aside my locket and touches the Queen’s crown to my fluttering chest.

“Oh!” My breath stutters as the satiny curves brush my skin. They’re warm from Aiden’s touch. A million tingles erupt on the spot. I brace for any pain—perhaps a sting or icy chill—but he presses his palm over my heart, holding the chess piece between my lifeblood and his hand. And I only feel everything his touch always makes me feel. The gasp of surprise becomes an ah of desire. The panting of fear becomes a sigh. And my heart splutters with a different rhythm: no longer anguished or terrified. Freed somehow, leaping over four years of loss, bounding above each jagged flashback, only to beat in his hand.

“Listen to that!” Aiden smiles, feeling the boom-boom-boom. “How does that feel?”

“I can’t believe it!” I murmur, watching the way his hand rises and falls with my breath. “How are you doing that?”

“I’m not. You are.”

“Yes, but because of you.” My eyes flash up to him. Even on his knees, he towers a head above me. His face is glowing like the rosewood, dazzling with triumph. But the win is mine. Because a wondrous being like this is with me, healing in a single touch.

He rolls the Queen over my skin, drawing an infinity loop. Then he bends his head and presses his lips to my heart. Kissing the same symbol. Always. The heat from his mouth is no longer a flash burn across my skin. It becomes a slow, deep ember, smoldering away all melancholy, all fear. My back arches on its own, bowing to his lips as they flutter along the neckline of my dress.

He pulls back, his eyes tender, yet somehow still scorching. “More, Elisa?”

M-o-r-e. “Yes,” I breathe, eyes on the Queen glimmering in his fingers. Where will he take it next?

He trails the Queen slowly up my throat and along my jawline, his lips following the same path until his mouth and the Queen come to rest at my temple. He rolls the smooth curves into a circle. “Your mind, Elisa. It guides the chess pieces more than your hand. It moves them even now. You never stopped playing, love.”

When he says it like that, it rings true. “I guess not,” I inhale a chuckle, feeling the caress of the silky wood, like a part of his hand.

As he did with my heart, he removes the Queen and kisses my temple, my cheekbone, the spot below my ear. “More chess?” he whispers, his breath sending a shiver of pleasure down my neck.

“More you,” I sigh back.

I feel his smile against my skin as his lips follow the Queen across my cheek to the corner of my mouth. “Your lips.” He traces the burnished crown over the contours. “Because they smile when you play, even when you don’t know it.”

The warm tip glides effortlessly like a second skin, the fragrance of rosewood a second breath. My head is twirling with his scent, the aroma of chess, and the rose breeze floating around us. For a second, I wonder whether the wood is heat-resistant enough for his touch, for the flame that is blazing in me again. But his mouth replaces the Queen before she catches fire. It’s too late for me. The moment I taste him, my blood ignites. It scorches like lava in my veins, incinerating any remnant of the past. My fists fling open, fly up, and hook in his hair as always, soldering him to my mouth.

“Oh!” I gasp, feeling my fingers run through his raven strands, eager and free.

“Elisa,” he moans, and his kiss becomes a force. Exactly that. Slow at first, in that way he has of stopping time, of making the present moment last forever. Then deep and powerful, like it’s capturing me inside out. His tongue traces the path of the Queen, then moves with mine in a game of its own. He wins all of it. My body falls open. Legs around his waist, arms around his neck, fingers knotted in his hair, mouth melded to his. Yet it’s not close enough for me.

“Aiden, more,” I whisper, pressing feverishly into his torso. More of him, of his gift, of the wooden figure I never thought I could feel again.

A throaty sound whirls in his chest and echoes in mine. It sets of a frenzy in us both. I grip him closer and he winds his arm around my waist, straining me to him. His other hand with the Queen curves around my neck, pressing the warm rosewood against my pulse. His mouth seizes mine in every way. I surrender to the swipe of his tongue, the dent of his teeth, the sting of his bite. His kiss brands itself on my lips, embeds in my neurons, right next to words like h-e-a-l and t-i-m-e. Behind my closed eyelids—tinted red with desire now, not anger—the world starts to spin. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin. They kiss along my jawline to my ear.

“You smell better than the rosewood.” He sighs, breathing the Aeternum spot. “But don’t tell the Queen.” He combs the chess piece through my braid, untangling my hair with his long fingers. I’ll have to take his word for it. I can only smell and feel him. My entire body starts to tremble in his arms. Then abruptly he stops; his mouth is gone.

“Aiden, no,” I whimper, flinging my eyes open.

He is glorious before me, his face exultant.  My eyelids flutter under his gaze, unable to bear the force of his beauty, yet unwilling to miss a blink of it. Fully open now, my hands reach toward him, clasping his face, trying to bring him back to my lips. But he takes off my locket and sets it by the chess set—masterpiece next to masterpiece at the hands of the most beautiful masterpiece there is.

And this work of art unzips my dress and hooks his fingers under the straps, slipping them off my shoulders, raising goosebumps with his fingertips. Shivering with heat—what a concept. The dress pools in a rose-printed cloud at my waist. He lifts me enough to slip it off, tossing it behind him. And then it’s just me, a wet pair of lacy knickers, and a crimson glow over my skin—a panting, quivering, flesh version of the chess Queen next to me.

“Ah, Elisa, all of this under your roses.” His gaze descends from my eyes to my curled, bandaged toes. How can a look burn like this? How can it tighten and twist every muscle inside me?

“My turn.” My fingers grasp the hem of his T-shirt eagerly—were they ever frozen?—and peel it off him. And there he is. A flawless, real, billions-times-more-beautiful embodiment of the golden chess King. But this perfect figure stands to help me. My hands are quick now, snapping off the top button and unzipping his jeans, ripping them off his sculpted legs, feeling the dusting of hair underneath my sensitized fingertips. And he springs free. A different carving from a rarer wood—no Old or New World can source him. He is entirely singular from the bubbles like diamonds on his crown to the familiar woodgrain of veins shimmering on him.

He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. “Still not used to it?”

I shake my head. “I don’t think that’s humanly possible.”

“Good thing we’re human then.” He smiles godlike and lays me across the bed. “Now . . .” He climbs between my legs and picks up the rosewood Queen, flicking it between his fingers. “Shall we play, Elisa?”

And he takes the Queen to my skin, as he did with the feather quill the first time we made love. Wherever the rosewood glides, his mouth follows. Down my throat, over my collarbones, to the hollow indentation in between. The Queen strokes, his lips conquer. A game of chess unlike any other. A game I can play. A game we can both win.

He circles the Queen over my breasts, drawing loops around the nipples with the curve of the satin tip, his tongue swirling in its wake in a dizzying pattern. Rosewood, lips, tongue, teeth, breath, kisses, sucks, licks. I can’t hold still. I’m a breeze, an Aidonis butterfly, a piano string, a flame, a drumbeat—gasping, trembling, and burning under him.

“Shh, love, there are more moves still left.” My insides reverberate with the sound of his husky voice. And the Queen continues its advance down my belly, along my waist, over my hips. Strolling breath to breath, goosebump to goosebump like cellular chess squares on my flushed skin. Spelling words on me as he did on our first night. Some are the same, engraved there forever: I, mine, A.H.  Others are new: yours, love, Elisa. His mouth follows them like punctuation, a lick for a comma, a kiss for a period, a nibble as an exclamation mark. By the time he reaches the band of my knickers, I feel like a poem, like art, a war letter, a pleasure map, a chess game with only victories. The trembles become foreshocks, gathering like a storm at the epicenter of my body. My hips try to jolt off the bed for relief, but he has secured them to the mattress.

“Aiden, now,” I say his name like a plea, trying to find the breeze.

“Soon, love.” His nose skims down the lace of my knickers, inhaling in that way that makes my eyes roll to the back of my head. “Mmm,” he sighs. “There’s no rosewood that compares to this.” Before either my blush or shudder is over, the Queen rolls on the lace.

“Oh, God”! I cry out, looking down, bewildered. How can something I cannot even touch feel like this? I know the answer to that one, even crazed and shaking. Because it’s in his hand.

“Not God.” He glides the Queen over the lace again. “Just you and me and a game we love.”

He presses the rosewood into the lace, up and down, increasing the pressure until I topple back on the pillow, gripping the quilt, gulping the air, trying not to faint. In delirium, I feel his finger dip into the lace and pull the knickers to the side. The breeze cools my wet skin. The vibrations inside become violent. I can’t muster any part of my body—if I still my thighs, my hands are clawing at the sheets, if I grip his hair, my hips start writhing for his mouth.

“Aiden, please,” I give up and beg, quivering everywhere, voice to fingertips.

“Not yet, love. You have a game to win.” He blows on the tingling skin and slides the rosewood over the length of me. “Your Queen to my Queen.”

Then his mouth closes around me, starting a chorus of Aidens and Gods and cries and moans. At least my voice is free—no one to hear, just us. Each flick of his tongue is an advance, each suck a domination, round and round, circling me into a checkmate until I break, both winning and losing this game. Winning because pain became pleasure, fear became bravery, and chess became a love play. Losing because I shatter into a million pieces—like a waterfall, like stardust, like spirals of rosewood whittling away to form a new, shining queen. The last conscious thought I register is Aiden’s hushing kisses drawing an infinity loop over the trembling folds. And then I disappear.

But he finds me, brings me back as always. Filling my lungs with his breath. Restarting my heart with his hold. Wakening my mind with his words. I open my eyes and he is lying on his elbow next to me, one long leg parting mine, his steely lines welded to my melted curves. Everything about him is on fire, the sharp angles tensed and hard. Behind him, the white curtain billows with the breeze as though trying and failing to touch him. From my orgasm, his beauty seems to shimmer at the edges.

“Hi.” I take his face in my hands, feeling as though my whole universe is between my pink palms. He shudders once.

“Hi,” he answers, his voice low, his breath rough and fast against my lips.

“That was some game.”

He chuckles, his pectoral muscle flexing like a blade. “Is it over?”

I get lost in his primal, smoldering eyes. “No, it’s your turn to win.” I bring him back to my mouth and kiss him with the full wonder he makes me feel. A groan rumbles in his throat. I reach down and grasp him the way I know he likes. “Play, Aiden. Play like you want to.”

He growls my name. The deep sound vibrates from his throat to my core, and my body starts building again. My leg hitches around his hip but before I can grind against him, he grips my waist and rolls with me on the bed until I’m on top of him.

Your game, Elisa.” In his fingers, the Queen flashes like a beacon. “Touch me with this?”

One question, one fiery gaze, and everything changes again for me.

Would I be able to even consider it if he weren’t burning? Would my hand stay open if my body wasn’t quivering again with my overwhelming desire for him? Would my skin endure it if he hadn’t caressed every part of me with chess, bringing me to orgasm, not tears?

He sees the yes in my eyes before I know it. His smile is victorious, blinding as if he has already won. He takes my hand and kisses it—it falls open at his lips, a tremble flitting here and there on my fingertips, but not with anxiety. With desire for him. Then, light like air, he runs the Queen along my lifeline. My breath stops. The feeling is indescribable—like loving him, like coming home, like touching an Elisa petal in the garden.

“Your Queen.” Aiden smiles and surrenders it on my palm.

“Oh!” I gasp as the smooth weight of the rosewood rests on my skin.

“It looks beautiful on you.” The words sound natural in his voice, but I hear again that strong emotion underneath. He lifts my hand to his mouth, kissing the fingertips, the knuckles, the wrist, the palm, until I only feel his lips and my need to touch him. My fingers close instinctively around his jaw. Then he slips away and my hand wraps around the Queen.

“Hello, you,” I whisper, touching it for the first time in four years. Yet I know it will be even longer before I can play with it as it was carved to do. Suddenly, the Queen weighs more, like iron or lead, not rosewood. My arm feels weak with it. I know nothing has changed except in my mind. But Aiden is waiting for me, rippling with need. And the weight lightens. Because to touch him, I would carry anything.

I lift the Queen—hand trembling—to the corner of his mouth. His breath catches, fogging the rosewood with his heat. His lips lift into a smile as I kiss the spot, and a low moan whirs in his throat. Like the click of the briar wood lock, I grasp now exactly how much he likes this. Not just for me, but for himself even though he will never demand it. Sex and chess. This is what was in his selfish list. The realization marks a transformation, wipes away all my trepidation, the very weight of the chess piece. Because to please him, I would do anything.

Even hooded with desire, his eyes don’t miss my change. “Your move.” He nods and I’m unleashed.

Without hesitation now, I trace his sculpted lips with the Queen. They part with a gasp, his delicious fragrance and the rosewood making my head spin. I swipe the tip of my tongue along the contours, moaning at his taste. And a race begins between the Queen and me, which of us can kiss or touch him first. My fingers roll the rosewood over his golden skin, his jaw, down his throat, over his heart, as he did with me. Sometimes my mouth goes first, sometimes my tongue falls behind. I feel him shudder under me, each golden angle and bronze pane of him like a sentient chessboard of my own. His hand closes in my hair, his chest swells and dips with speed, but he doesn’t rush me. He lets me play over his body at my own pace. I get lost in the perfect ridges, racing the Queen with my lips over the carved valleys and peaks.

“You’re dangerous with that,” he murmurs, tensing with restraint under me. He watches me through his heavy lids, his gaze scorching in every way. His erection is pressing at the small my back.

No, he doesn’t rush me, but my own body does. My heart starts pounding in my ears, my throat, between my legs—everywhere I feel, there is a frantic pulse. I race the Queen down the V-shaped Adonis muscles between his hips. And finally, the queen reaches her king.

“You’ll finish me, Elisa.” He chuckles with a breathless sound and grips the headboard.

“Not before you win.” Then, slowly, I circle the rosewood around the crown and run my tongue over him. “Your Queen to my King.”

A guttural groan rips through his teeth, fingers tightening in my hair. I roll my tongue on him again and his hips tilt up, pushing into my mouth with a hiss. The Queen slips from my fingers; I only have touch for him. I take him in my hand and wrap my lips around him, sucking the glistening crown.

“Fuck, Elisa,” he growls. “Slow, I want to be inside you.”

I try to slow down like he wants but the taste of him . . . saltwater and honey and spice and heat, a bouquet that’s entirely him.  So much better than—

“Oh!” I gasp, jolting up.

“Perfect,” he sighs and pulls me up until I’m straddling him. “My turn to win.”

“No, Aiden, wait!” I cry out because above his incomparable body, as if spelled on his skin, strange things are happening in my vision, numbers, symbols, blurring and spinning.

“Elisa?” I feel him move under me, maybe a hand on my face . . . “Love, are you okay?”

“Shh, I’m having an epiphany!”

“An epiphany? About my cock?”

“One second!”

The images transform over the perfect shape of him, flashbacks now, a very recent memory. “Oh, my God!”

“Elisa?” His strained voice breaks through and my vision clears. Only now I see the scene before me. Aiden is sitting up, tense, eyes anxious, forehead lined, arms around me as if he is trying to protect me from dangers he cannot see. The King towers imperiously between us—even in my utter amazement, I can’t miss him.

“I’m okay,” I smile quickly to calm him. “But I think I just solved the protein.”

It’s instant. The tension wipes off his face and his eyes widen. “Christ! Is that what’s happening?”

I nod, still dizzy with my discovery.

“How?” he marvels, hands vising my face as if to shake me out of my stupor.

“Do you remember—of course you do—but last Saturday, when we were in the Room of Firsts, you said I mumbled ‘orgasms are oxytocin but taste better’?”

“Yes, that was one of your best comas.” He chuckles with the memory.

“Well, it’s been bothering me all week. I kept having this tip-of-the-tongue feeling, like I’m forgetting something, you know?”

“No.”

“Of course you don’t, but it happens to the rest of us and I finally figured out why.”

“And?”

“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before! Doctor Helen practically told me. She said my calming effect on you is like a shot of serotonin to your nervous system.”

“A powerful one.”

“Exactly, and it makes you calm, it erases your fears. Well, at the time, I focused only on the CREB part to help me sort out which oxytocin we needed. But I completely missed this! I have to add serotonin, too—the other form of love! Love for ourselves.”

“Love for ourselves?” His brows knit in confusion.

“Yes! Serotonin is a different love hormone than oxytocin. It’s a hormone related to confidence and self-esteem. And I make you feel it. I make you love yourself, like you do for me. It’s not just one kind of love that dad meant to add to the formula. To fight fear, we have to have faith in ourselves. That’s why the protein isn’t staying solid. It’s missing self-love! It’s missing serotonin!”

He has inhaled every word. The dimpled smile breaks over his face with a look of pure adoration. “All right, I’m caught up. But how does my cock in your mouth fit in, no pun intended?”

“Because, oh, it’s so perfect—”

“Thank you! I’m very attached to it.”

“No,” I laugh. “I mean yes, he is, but serotonin is not just the self-love hormone. It’s also tied to taste. People with low serotonin have lower taste thresholds. Conversely, when you’re happy, things taste better. And that’s what happens to me when I taste you. You said it yourself during my self-love game, only I didn’t realize it. We taste good to each other because we’re happy when we do this. And so my brain must have used that part to make the connection, but then I passed out after my orgasm and didn’t remember it until now that—“

“You were tasting me while more coherent, and it triggered your memory.”

“Exactly!”

He shakes his head with a look of unfettered, existential pride. “You’re unbelievable, you know that? You figured all that out from going down on me?”

I shrug, still dazed. “Apparently. But I think the King deserves a lot of credit.” I nod at the catalyst of my epiphany who is standing there absolutely livid at being ignored in such a manner, undoubtedly a first for him.

He laughs with my favorite sound and kisses me until I’m dizzy and the chandelier above is swiveling. “So you know the moral of the story, don’t you?” he asks when I can breathe again.

“What?”

“You should always, always have my cock somewhere inside you.”

Our laughter presses our bodies closer, leaving no space for anything else between us except the untamed k-i-n-g.  “Now for my win, Elisa.” His eyes become blue fire and he tosses me on the bed, laughing at my squeal. I’ve barely landed on my stomach when he lifts my hips up in the air, smacking my behind. “Your King to my Queen.”

And he slams inside, conquering every square of me, moan after moan, cry after cry, in our very own version of chess where we both play and we both win.

Later, when the lights are off and my chess set is sleeping on the dresser, I count Aiden’s breaths as he drifts off to Für Elise. In the moonlight pouring from the open window, his beauty is silver again, like a dream. Was it this same moon that shone while I was running from him? The same velvet night as the hilltop? T-i-m-e warps again, squeezing lifetimes into hours, days into blinks. Friend or enemy, healer or malady?

But tonight, it was an ally, a time of wins. I curl on my side, careful to never startle him from sleep, ticking our victories on his breaths like I used to count our self-defense weapons on the poppies. The Rose Cup, a place for solace that used to bring grief, a game of pleasure that used to bring pain, a new, old love back on my selfish list, a rare gift, a step closer to the protein, and the biggest triumph of them all: bringing us back on the same side of the fight. Just him and me.

My heart inflates, filling my chest, flowing up my throat, flooding my eyes. Science says strong emotions last only ninety seconds, but science is wrong again. Because I have hours of happiness in me.

Outside the window, the garden is quiet, the cottage only ours. The willows murmur, they’re here, they’re here. The r-e-e-l is waiting for us in the morning, but in this present moment, all is well. 

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 26 – ROSE THIEF

Hey gang and happy Fourth of July to all my U.S. peeps! I hope you’re all having a great long weekend with family, friends, or just a good book, however you want it to be. And to help with the weekend feel, here is a chapter for you. I took two weeks because it’s an important one, IMHO. And for those of you who read the snippet on Facebook, you might guess why. Hope you enjoy it. Lots of love, xo, Ani

26

Rose Thief

Everything is ready even though it’s only seven in the morning on a Saturday. But when you have an entire Rose Army at your disposal—as Stella has named Aiden, the Marines, and our security team—it takes only an hour compared to the ten it used to take mum, dad, and me to set up for the festival.

And now, after four years under a tarp behind the Plemmons’ shop, mum’s rose stand blooms in the heart of Priory Street as it did for the eighteen festivals our family blossomed together. I stare at it under the sunrise, resisting even a blink.

Dad built it in the shape of the cottage for mum. Just three lattice walls and a peaked roof with wooden slats, painted the same white as our home. Over the roof stretches a canvas of damask roses she bought on their honeymoon, their former pink now faded to the blush of the Clares. Woven baskets hang on the lattice like windows, brimming with roses from the garden: the Elisas in ivory, the Cecilias in cyclamen, the Reagans in magenta, the future Marias. But only the Clares are competing today. Their bouquet—forty-four stems, one for each year of mum’s life—bursts from her favorite vase on a beechwood plinth like a front door. And inside the trellis walls are eighteen rose wreaths with a photo of her from each summer she attended this festival, wearing the same rose-printed dress I’m wearing now and the same roses braided in her hair.

Her smile in the photos turns liquid in my vision.

“Is that a happy tear or a sad tear?” Aiden’s arms fold around my waist, and he kisses the droplet off my cheek as if we are entirely alone, not with a Rose Army around us or vendors throwing furtive looks at mum’s charm from a distance. Mrs. Willoughby seems to be weeping from her champion stand of speckled roses. I wrap my hands around his, eyes on the chime bells tinkling from the picket eave.

“Happy adjacent, I think.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Just because I miss her.” I shrug. “But also happy because I think she would have liked this.”

“Of course she would have. How else do you explain the pink clouds?” He turns me in his arms, his eyes caressing me in ways his hands cannot here. His fingers brush the roses woven in my hair as if the petals are my skin. “You look so beautiful,” he murmurs.

But how could anyone be called beautiful standing next to him? His surreal face eclipses everything, even if it’s still pale from the reel almost three hours later. The images hold him longer now—it takes a few extra minutes each week to bring him back. But he is still here for me, invincible and unwavering.

I trace the circle below his eyes with my fingertip. “How are you feeling?”

He smiles. “Happy adjacent.”

“Why adjacent?”

“Because I’ll miss you and your hair full of roses in a few minutes. But also happy because I have something that might help you with the adjacent part.” A glow falls over him, and the pallor disappears. His usual golden warmth infuses his skin. And even though the edges of the wound start burning at the countdown, I smile back.

“Does it involve a bomb shelter, a new security battalion, or body armor?”

He chuckles. “Not today.”

“All right, go on then. What is it?”

He nods once at someone behind me, and I look over my shoulder in time to see Benson turn the corner to Ivy Lane while the rest of my Rose Army spread out and occupy themselves in an apparent effort to give us privacy.

“So where will you be today while I’m showing off the roses?” I ask him, dreading the long day apart.

“Close enough to have my eyes on you in this dress and with this hair.” His heated gaze descends over me.

“That’s hardly fair,” I grumble. “You get to see me, but I don’t get to see you.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll leave breadcrumbs.”

“Breadcrumbs?”

“Something like that. Here comes Benson.”

Benson is striding toward us like our personal Big Ben, carrying a tall, thin cardboard box under his arm. “Here you go, sir.” He hands it to Aiden, winking at me before joining Max and Ferrars at our welcome table and promptly showing them a map—no doubt the battle plan. Aiden is still looking at me in that fiery way, a smile playing on his lips.

“Allow me?”

“You better. Papercuts are highly dangerous. Why didn’t you hire me a personal surgeon for this?”

“Don’t tempt me. I might throw in a second bodyguard and a bullet-proof vest. Although it would cover the best parts of this dress, I’m afraid.” His eyes linger on my décolleté. I’m about to suggest he builds us a private bunker where we don’t need clothes at all, but he opens the box with a pained sigh, and my snarky remark dies on my lips. Because he takes out a white sign with black letters like the cottage’s shutters:

Lady Clare’s Rose Gallery

“Oh!” I gasp, fingers flying to the painted words to caress the letters. Lady Clare—the name I gave the rose we planted together in mum’s honor at the Portland Rose Garden. “Aiden, did you do this yourself?”

He shrugs as though that’s not the best part. “YouTube and me.”

I throw my arms around him and the sign, hugging them both. “No, it’s just you!” I breathe him in through his T-shirt. “Thank you! I love it and I know mum would have loved it, too.”

He chuckles. “Well, I couldn’t very well leave you with a nameless rose stand. Mrs. Willoughby might have claimed it as her own.”

“And you with it.”

“Not me. I’m taken. I have a thing for Mrs. Plemmons.” He tips up my face, winking at our secret nicknames for each other. Will he always stun me like this? Or will there come a day, whether we win or lose, when I’ll get used to him? The answer might as well be a sign on my forehead: no, I never will.

He hangs the sign under roof, hammering the nails carefully into the slats. I try not to ogle at his arms flexing with the motion but fail quickly and absolutely. Thankfully he finishes before I do something obscene like drag him behind mum’s rose stand for a different kind of hammering with his parents six feet away. He rattles the sign to make sure it doesn’t move an inch.

“Perfect,” he says, regarding his handiwork and pulling me to his side.

I watch his profile, feeling his granite lines against me, inhaling his freshly showered scent.  “Yes, it truly is,” I agree.

He sets down the hammer and gazes down at me, but the familiar hesitancy before we part flickers in the turquoise depths. And the magic bubble pops. We’re back on Priory Street, surrounded by our army, the seconds ticking by. My chest starts to ache under my locket.

“Do you feel it still?” he whispers.

“Feel what?”

“The pain here.” His index finger taps the glowing sapphire.

I nod. “Only when you leave.”

“Me too. But do you remember what I think then?”

“What?”

He caresses a Clare in my braid. “This is just a petal,” he reminds me.

His love-making mantra makes smile despite the countdown. “That’s right, I forgot! The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“Exactly. Think about that with me, and before you know it, the day will be over. And we can celebrate your Rose Cup which I’m sure you’ll win.”

I can tell by the playfulness in his voice that he’s trying to cheer me up. But why is it harder to separate today? I go to work every day and I’m able to crawl out of the car without this kind of devastation. Is it because it’s mum’s favorite event and I want him here with me? Or because I know he’ll be close but stressed, trying to protect me? Whatever the reason, it seems to be harder for Aiden, too. His eyes don’t leave me for long, his body shifts closer every time I move.

“Celebrate how?” I ask to distract myself and him. “Just us?”

I know he hears the desperation in my voice because he smiles. “Oh, I never tell. But will you do something for me?”

“Anything you want.”

He plucks an Elisa from their basket and tucks it above my ear. “Wear something of yours today, too. Make this your day as well.”

He caresses my rose, lips parting, clearly wanting to do more. As do I. But things change quickly then. The horn of the Plemmonses flower cart blares at the end of the street, striking Aiden’s shoulders like a thunderbolt. His eyes harden as he scours the lane that starts bustling at the signal. People are already crowding at the gate. The street vendors start shouting final orders at their own armies. And the local band clangs their cymbals and tests the trumpets. Reflexively by now, our arms fly around each other’s waist—shield and talisman.

“You should go, love,” I say, each word a thorn in my throat. “I’ll be fine with your parents and Max and Ferrars. I wish you’d go fishing or hiking with the Marines, but I know there’s zero chance of that.”

He tenses as if ready to throw himself between the world and me at any moment. “Zero,” he agrees. “But don’t worry about that. Celebrate your mother and have fun.”

His words seem to act as a command to the Rose Army who have clearly been watching him. They spring into movement, even Robert and Stella, forming circle around us, awaiting his orders. Aiden shifts me against his side without releasing his hold on me.

“You relax and enjoy this, too,” he tells his parents. “It’s supposed to stay in the mid-seventies, but if you want to go back at the Inn for a break, Ferrars will take you.”

“Not a chance. We’re staying with Elisa. We have spots in the shade,” Robert assures him. Stella simply kisses him with her eyes. I can’t help but notice a trace of sadness in her smile. If I see it, Aiden certainly does because he bends to kiss her cheek before turning to Max and Ferrars.

“You know the drill. Stay close but inconspicuous. No mistakes. Elisa’s safety first.”

“Yes, sir.” They nod in their casual attire that blends in with the locals and start helping Robert and Stella heave the ice coolers of rose lemonade to our welcome table.

James, Hendrix, and Benson don’t seem to need orders. Like Aiden, they’re wearing more utilitarian clothes: jeans, breathable shirts, Timberland boots. They don earpieces in unison, already scanning the street, their expressions intense even behind their dark sunglasses. At their alert postures, my own spine becomes rigid with nerves.

“Is Jazz back at the cottage?” I guess.

“Yes, he’s betting someone will show up there, but you’re worrying again.” He pinches my chin as he does when making an important point. “Nothing will happen to you. All this is so we can find out what we’re dealing with, fix it, and get back to our life.”

I nod, but I still can’t calm the sudden shivers. Because it’s impossible to look at the lethal men around me and not feel that war is starting on Priory Street. And wars have casualties. What if someone gets hurt? Even worse, what if it’s not me? And what if mum’s day is tainted with this? I have no doubt there is no real danger here. I’m more afraid of what seven men trained to kill will do at Aiden’s direction if he perceives danger.

“Aiden, please be careful,” I beg him.

“Of course, I will. I told you, we’re built for this.”

I glance at the army quickly—hard, vigilant, destructive—and pull him aside by the bouquet of Clares. One of her roses brushes against his forearm like a kiss. “That’s my point love,” I whisper. “You’re trained for war, not this. We’re in Burford, not Fallujah.”

He is too tense to smile but he tries. “As stunning as you are, I still know where I am, Elisa.”

I take his hands in mine, caressing the jagged knuckles. “You know what I mean. It’s just a little country festival. Petals, not threats, love. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for danger. Please?”

He’s nodding before I’ve finished. “I will. Now go, play, let me worry about the rest.”

Before I can formulate a response, he arches me against his granite chest and presses his lips softly against mine. And then he is gone. Waving at his parents and bolting away from me after Hendrix and James, Benson at his side.

“Be safe,” I call after him, clasping my locket.

He looks over his shoulder with my favorite dimpled smile. “The breadcrumb is in the box.” His voice wraps around me, warm and velvet. I blink and they vanish into the rose-scented air as if they were only ever a dream.

The wound rips wide open, as livid as when I used to chase after him in my sleep. But my phone buzzes in my dress pocket instantly. I wrench it out, almost dropping it as I read his text:

“Breadcrumbs, not worries.”

Can he see me? I spin around, scanning the sidewalks and rooftops, even stupidly the sky. But I can’t see any of them. Not even our Big Ben or James’s tangle of red hair. Yet as much as I want Iraq’s ghosts away from Mum’s roses, my chest is burning. I almost tear the box that held the sign to search for my breadcrumb, but a folded piece of paper slides out easily in Aiden’s assertive handwriting:

First Time. December. Bring love.

I grin at the words, fighting the urge to kiss the note with his parents, Max, and Ferrars around. He didn’t make it hard for me to decode: Room of Firsts, at noon. A rush of heat flashes over my skin. It will be just us for lunch at least. I tuck the note in my dress and text him back immediately: “I can’t wait.”

But our date is four long hours away, and these hours belong only to mum. As she apparently still belongs in Burford’s heart. They haven’t forgotten her in the last four years. The moment the Song of Windrush kickstarts the festival, a long line of Cotswoldians forms at the end of the street, smiling and pointing excitedly at our stand with its brand-new sign. “Blimey, Clare’s roses are really back!” shouts someone. “I knew it!” answers another. “Mama, it’s the roses you liked!” squeals a little girl.

Everything else fades then as my throat closes abruptly with a different kind of tears. An acidic mix of grief and remorse. How did I erase Mum from this day? How could I have taken her away from them like she was taken away from me? I run my hands over her dress—so many sorry’s, I love you’s, and I miss you’s left unsaid. But that’s not what she would have wanted today. I skip at our welcome table with Robert and Stella by my side and wave at the crowd who cheers and shuffles forward as soon as the song ends.

“Good heavens,” Robert marvels, pouring mum’s rose lemonade frantically into paper cups. “There must be at least three hundred of them and it’s only the start.”

“She was so loved,” Stella croons, all thumbs and laughter.

But across the lane, Max and Ferrars are in a battle stance. They split up: Max moves between the incoming line and me, Ferrars strides parallel against it searching each kind face for danger behind his sunglasses. If I look closer, I can see their earpieces and quick lips coordinating with each other. A metallic taste builds on my tongue at their vicious expressions looking at the well-wishers who are waiting to welcome mum back and seeing nothing but threats.

“Max, please!” I hiss at him under my breath. “Let them enjoy this. They’ve waited a long time.”

He peers at me through his aviators. Or I think he does—only his furled eyebrows are visible above them. I have no idea what he is thinking but he nods once and crosses the street, strolling casually and looking more like a merry goer. Down the meandering lane, Ferrars starts doing the same. I take a deep breath and smile at the ribbon of faces winding through all the other rose stands for ours first. At the very front, Mr. Plemmons is leading the charge in his crocs and cane, wearing his straw fedora crowned with garden roses. Everyone slows for his hunched frame, tipping their hats at the festival’s official tsar for the last fifty years.

“Rose!” he rejoices when he reaches me, taking my hand in his knobbly fist and shaking it in the air like I have already won the Rose Cup. “Bless me soul! The stand looks beautiful—righ’ like yer mum did it. She’s proud up there, she is, I tell yeh.” He leans his head back, admiring the stand, a tear trickling in his mustache while I try to exhale. Other than me, the Plemmonses are the only two people alive who know exactly how much mum loved this. Over my parents’ hilltop, the pinkish clouds are floating like petals across the sky. Are you smiling, Mum?

“Ah, all the roses are perfect!” Mr. Plemmons declares. “An’ look at them in yer hair, Rosebud. Josephine will like this. She’s with Emma an’ Harry, they’ll stop by. Felix, Lavender, and Lily are here from London, too.” He grins under his bushy mustache at his grandchildren’s names.

“That’s wonderful, Mr. Plemmons,” I shout, handing him a cup of lemonade. “I’d love to see them again.”

He turns to Robert and Stella, whom he calls his good Yankee mates. “Good of yeh to be with Rosebud today, jolly good. Come by our stand for some nosh—Josephine has made canapes . . . but where is Adam?” He squints at the space between the three of us, his fluffy eyebrows furrowing like sheep’s wool at this new transgression committed by Aiden in addition to staying with me at the cottage albeit in the garden shed.

“He’s fixing a pipe at the cottage, Mr. Plemmons,” I scream, flushing as the whole line listens in about the mysterious, beautiful guest, while Robert and Stella nod fervently, their smiles too wide. “But he got me the sign for the stand, see? Isn’t it brilliant?”

That distracts him immediately. He totters closer to the stand, hitching up his spectacles as he squints to read it. “Adam did tha’?” His eyebrows and mustache wiggle with a smile—perhaps the first smile in the same sentence as Adam.

“Yes, he did! And he hung it himself,” I yell proudly as several necks crane up to see the sign too with admiring hums.

“Ah, tha’ is beautiful, tha’ is. Will save him a canape, Rose. See yeh three in wee bit. Stay out o’ this blasted sun and sprinkle the roses.” He waves and turns to face the line of cheery Burfordians, stomping his cane on the cobblestones for silence. They all fall quiet. “Today,” he wheezes with significance. “We welcome back one of Burford’s best roses. May she bloom like spring. Let the festival begin.” He blows his whistle and teeters back to his famous pony cart stand, harrumphing at all the clapping that follows him.

The whole line jolts forward with energy then, louder than the band. Max and Ferrars radiate waves of anxiety pacing across the lane, ready to hurl themselves at me as my hands get passed like coins handshake to handshake in a torrent of welcomes and cheers that gives me barely a second to breathe in between, let alone say anything other than “hello Mrs. So-and-So” and “thank you.”

“Elisa-pea! Welcome back! Happy Rose Day to beautiful Clare!” Mrs. Potts, the town’s grocer, cries as I hand her a cup of mum’s lemonade and a sachet of dried petals which she uses to dab her tears.

“Oh, how I’ve missed these wee baggies for me dressers. Voting for Clare’s roses, I will!” Mrs. Sterling, the stationer, cheers as she takes two sachets from my basket.

“No better-smelling roses in all of England.” Mr. Jenkins, the chemist, grasps my hand next. “Happy Rose Day, Elisa! Proper chuffed to meet you, Elisa’s friends.”

“Ah, to see Clare’s stand blooming again. Blimey, it’s like she’s here. Look, everyone, look at her pictures!” Mrs. Ashbrook, the milliner, claps her hands and grabs her lemonade cup.

“You look right like your mum in her dress, Elisa.” Mrs. Dawlish, the town’s hair stylist fixes a few roses in my braid. “Well-met, Sir. You have lovely hair, Ma’am. Dear me, I can see where your son gets his looks from—all the ladies bump their gums about him in my salon.” She laughs and shakes Stella’s hand, admiring her perfect chocolate waves. “But don’t worry, Elisa, I told them off. I said he already has the prettiest rose in town.”

Robert, Stella, and I are still laughing when Mr. Willoughby, the archnemesis competitor of Plemmons Blooms, steps up and takes a cup of lemonade. “Good luck, Elisa.” He gives me an icy smile and is the only one not looking at mum’s roses. From the corner of my eye, I see Max zip closer, pretending to admire the Elisas. “May the best rose win.” Willoughby nods curtly at the two beautiful souls next to me without waiting for an introduction and marches back to his champion stand where last year’s Rose Cup is gleaming in the shape of a silver rose stem. I clutch my locket at the sight. The Cup used to rest in our foyer, year after year. Let Mum’s roses win. Bring it back to the cottage for her, please. Above the hilltop, the pink clouds have burned off into a gossamer blue sky.

“There’s an oddball for you.” Robert frowns at Willoughby’s retreating figure with a stern gaze, which he obviously passed to his protective son.

“He’s an envious sort,” I explain. “But not dangerous. At most, he’d knock off a vase and mumble that it was an accident.”

It goes on like this for over three hours. Streams of Cotswoldians rush by the stand, babbling with their excitement about mum’s roses until her very name fills the air as if she were still here. Clare, Clare, Clare. Each time it’s uttered feels like her soft laugh tinkling in the breeze. By the time the torrent slows, we are long out of lemonade, sachets, breath, and tears, and Robert and Stella have met every single Burfordian except Willoughby, their families, and their guests, and have been invited to two weddings and four luncheons. Even Stella’s immaculate hair is fluffed Plemmons-style from the frantic greeting. My fingers hurt from all the hand-clasping. And Max and Ferrars look like they have aged at least ten years during the ordeal. A few stands down, I spot Hendrix who must have descended on Priory Street at some point for reinforcement. Flushed and dabbing their foreheads, they’re all reeling off something into their sleeves, no doubt reporting to Aiden and the others that not a single psychopath, pervert, stalker, or thief has managed to pluck one petal off a rose, let alone hurt me. Exactly as I said it would be. If they’re in this shape, I cannot imagine Aiden’s state. But at least he will be able to relax after this. As Hendrix and Jazz said, if someone was trying to hurt me, they would have shown up here today. Yet, the worst thing that has happened in three frenetic hours is Willoughby’s half-smile.

“That was something else!” Robert blows out a gust of air, folding down in his bistro chair and wiping a bead of sweat from his temple. “But I can’t say I saw anyone suspicious, did you?”

“Heavens, not one!” Stella laughs, plopping next to him in the shade and pinning up her hair. “We’ve made more friends in a week here than a year in the States.”

“They all love you.” I grin with pride, filling their cups with rose iced tea. “Except the Willoughbys, but that’s because she’s in love with Aiden, and he’s in love with the Rose Cup.”

“Well, good luck to her with Aiden.”

We burst out laughing while the object of the female obsession in town sends my phone buzzing next to my thigh.

“Are you plotting your security’s demise?” Aiden texts. I look around giggling, knowing I can’t see him, yet unable to help myself.

“Always,” I respond. “But I have a feeling I won’t have to plot long.”

“I sincerely hope you’re right.”

“I am. If anyone wanted to hurt me, I’d be mince by now.”

“Hilarious, Elisa.”

I can almost feel his glare through the pixels. I should know better. Nothing that suggests harm to me in any way is funny to Aiden. “I’m sorry, bad joke.” The three dots hesitate on the screen—sighing, I imagine. “I’m perfectly safe,” I assure him, wishing he were here so I could smooth the V away. “Except I miss you.”

He doesn’t hesitate now. “Miss you too.”

“I solved the breadcrumb.”

“Of course you did.”

“I’ll bring love.”

“I’ll take all of it.”

Am I imagining the sad tone in his text? “How are you feeling?”

“As I always do when I’m away from you.”

Yes, with a throbbing chest and a bitter mouth and a hollowness that erodes the flesh like acid. I know because all the smiles and warmth of the last three hours haven’t changed that. The wound still rages and burns. “Me too.”

“Just a petal, love. See you at noon.”

Noon feels too far away even if it’s only in forty minutes. I pluck an Elisa petal and tuck it in my pocket with the breadcrumb. “Love you.”

“Always.”

His text is immediate as his answer would be if he were right here, brushing my cheek. I stuff my phone next to the petal and duck inside the stand to prepare the love I’m bringing him. Across the lane, Max and Ferrars are relaxing on the sidewalk, but I’m sure their eyes don’t leave us. Hendrix seems to have disappeared. But soon we all will have their lives back. I can almost smell the freedom with the roses.

“Knock, knock.” A familiar voice wafts through the lattice walls. My head snaps up, gasping at my new guests. Edison and Graham are standing by the table—Graham no longer sickly green but still carrying the Encyclopedia and Edison holding the pot of miniature yellow roses that mum gave dad, which has sat in his office ever since.

“Professor Edison, I mean, Nigel! Graham!” I cheer, rushing out of the stand. “What a wonderful surprise!”

“Is it?” Edison smiles. “I used to stop by when Clare ran the stand. You don’t remember?”

“Of course, I do. You and dad played football once using the stand as goal posts.”

He laughs. “And what a lambasting we took from Clare. It never happened again.” He hands me the pot of roses. “I thought this little fellow might like to be at the festival, too. See some of its species for once instead of dusty textbooks and a dour professor.”

“Thank you.” My voice catches as I sniff the tiny rosette. “I’ll introduce it to some friends and bring it back on Monday.”

“No matter. You’re welcome to keep it—it was Peter’s after all.” His eyes fall on Robert and Stella sitting next to me, looking like patron angels of all roses. “Ah, these must be your guests visiting from the States?” Edison guesses.

“Yes, these are Robert and Stella Hale,” I introduce them, heart crashing against my ribs at a part of dad’s life connecting with Aiden’s parents like this. “And this is Professor Nigel Edison and his Chief Researcher, Graham Knightly. They’re my supervisors at Oxford.”

“A pleasure to meet you both.” Robert stands and shakes their hands. “We’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Uh oh, nothing confidential, I hope,” Graham half-jokes, half-panics.

“Not at all.” Stella smiles at him. “Only that you were close with Elisa’s father and how supportive you’ve been of her now that she’s back.”

“Oh, that’s not entirely selfless, I assure you.” Edison chuckles. “We’re hoping she stays this time.”

They all laugh while my heart rips in two as it always does when geography comes up. Especially with Aiden’s parents around. Because how can I take Aiden from them now that he’s back in their lives? But how can I ever abandon this festival again?

“How long are you staying?” Edison asks them.

“Only one more week, unfortunately,” Robert answers as Stella’s smile fades. I’m not the only one who detests the ticking clock.

“Ah, you’ll miss Peter’s bench ceremony then. Elisa is supposed to speak. I’m looking forward to her remarks.”

I feel blood drain from my face at the prospect. On the upside, it distracts me from the mangled ways in which my stomach is twisting at the thought of maps and transatlantic distance even if Aiden and I win. “Don’t worry, you won’t miss much,” I tell Robert and Stella, trying to force a smile. “My remarks will be: Hello. Thank you for coming. Here is Professor Edison for more.”

They laugh as I wanted them to, but I see earnest regret in their eyes. I know because it’s similar to mine. Like Reagan and Javier, they already feel so natural here. And because of that, my chest throbs faster. I usually lose those I love most. My hand flies to my locket. Make me strong, make me brave.

“Elisa, will you show us the roses that are competing this year?” Edison gestures to the stand.

“Of course. It’s only the Clares this time. The others are here for emotional support.”

“So everyone votes for their favorite rose and the one with the most votes wins?” Graham clarifies.

“Yes, but mostly they just walk around, eating, drinking, and smelling the roses.”

He looks utterly perplexed that anyone would want to spend a Saturday like this instead of in a lab. A lab where I desperately need to be without him. “Here, Graham, try it.” I give him a Cecilia to smell. “According to a recent study by the University of Freiburg, the smell of roses while learning and sleeping increases memory and learning skills by thirty percent.”

“That explains Professor Snow then.” He laughs but almost inhales the petals off the stem.

“Exactly. Keep this by your nightstand and sleep until Wednesday. I’ll bet you solve the protein by then.”

He tucks the Cecilia inside the Encyclopedia, while Edison laughs. “I better take one, too.” He chooses an Elisaand threads it in the loop of his tweed vest. “Bring the Rose Cup by the lab when you win it, like Peter used to.”

They cast their votes for Clares, drop them in the ballot box on the stage with the band, and leave shortly, wishing Robert and Stella a pleasant flight.

“How kind of them to come.” Stella looks at their figures as they melt in the crowd toward the car park.

“Very kind. Mum and dad would have been thrilled.”

She and Robert don’t mention Edison’s comment about me staying in England, and neither do I. But have their sharp eyes already seen the conflict in mine? If they have, they simply smile. Only when Stella turns to water the roses do I see a flicker of something in her face that I don’t think I’m supposed to see. It disappears before I find a name for it. But Robert must know it because he picks up the other spray hose and splashes her once.

“Bertie!” She squeals out of the way. “My hair!”

“Your hair is lovely—the town hairdresser said so,” he answers, reminding me of Aiden again.

They laugh together, but I’m no longer here. Because it’s almost noon, and my feet are already scrambling away. I grab the love I’m bringing Aiden and tuck it in a basket, covering it with my pashmina. “Stella, do you mind watching the stand for about an hour? I have to meet Aiden at the Inn.”

She is laughing at a drenched Robert. “Of course darling. Will Max be walking you?”

As if to answer her question, Max materializes at my side. “Looks like it,” I sigh. “Poor Max. You should be having a pint and enjoying the festival, not worrying about me.”

He laughs with a tired sound. “Worrying about you is my job, Elisa.”

“I know but it doesn’t have to be.” I grin at him as we set off. “Even you have to admit, there’s nothing and no one suspicious around.”

His smile is reluctant. “So far. But the day is only half over.”

“The other half will be just as safe, you’ll see.”

And Aiden and I will finally be alone again. I almost break into a run to the Inn. But as soon as we turn the corner onto Ivy Lane, I see him. Striding out of the Inn, hand through his hair, searching the quiet alley with urgency, no doubt for me.

“Aiden!” I sprint at him and launch myself into his open arms. He catches me in his iron grip, crushing me into his chest.

“Elisa! Thank God!” He murmurs in my hair, breathing me in as though he hasn’t drawn much air in the last four hours. Which is probably exactly the case.

“You haven’t been spending the last four hours imagining horribles, have you?” I kiss the spot above his heart, inhaling the scent of him, reveling in the feeling of air flowing in my lungs wound-free.

“That’s an understatement.” He sighs in profound relief, holding me closer and kissing the top of my head.

I wiggle in his steely hold to frown at him with disapproval. His turbulent eyes are clearing quickly as they roam my face. “Aiden, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re breaking Corbin’s rule. I was perfectly safe, even without the seven of you around.”

He chuckles. “I know you think that, but none of us expected the three hundred people that swarmed you. Not even me, and I know exactly how lovable you are.” He nods at Max behind me. “Well done, Max. Take a break. God knows you’ve earned it.”

He swoops me in his arms, basket and all, scanning every part of me as is his custom. But we don’t get far. His eyes widen when they reach my hands. “What the fuck happened here?” he snarls.

I see what he means. Sort of. My palms are as pink as the Reagans, but they make me laugh despite his obvious anxiety. “I think this is a combination of three hundred Cotswoldian handshakes and working in the dirt with roses. Don’t worry, they don’t hurt at all.”

He doesn’t look convinced. He carries me inside the Inn with speed, blowing up the stairs to the Room of Firsts, the creaky lift obviously too slow for him. The door must have been unlocked as he cradles me in one arm and opens it. I don’t even have time to register if anything has changed in our beloved room because he streaks to the domed restroom and sets me down on the counter.

“Now,” he breathes, and just his smell makes me more light-headed than his velocity. “Let me look at this.” He places my basket on the floor and takes my hands gently, blowing on my palms. The soft breeze of his breath makes my eyelids flutter. “Does that burn?”

“No.” I smile, caressing his tense jaw at my fingertips. “But it’s starting to burn in other places.”

He glares, still holding my hands like soap bubbles. “Be serious. Does it hurt when I do this?” He brushes my palm lightly with his pinky.

“Mmm,” I moan, and it’s not even fake.

His finger stops stroking mine. “Elisa, so help me God, answer or I’ll drive you to the hospital right now, festival or no festival.”

He is absolutely not joking. “All right, all right, calm down. I told you, they don’t hurt all. They’re just a little pink.”

“Just a lot pink. What about prickling? Do you feel anything else at all?”

“Oh! Yes, actually.” I pull back one hand, leaving the other in his. “It really tingles here.” I point at my mouth. “And here.” I trace my fingers down my throat to the rose in my décolleté. “And here.” My hand skims down my waist between my hips. “What now, Doctor Hale?”

His eyes follow the trail of my hand with a fiery hunger that tightens the muscles at the bottom of my belly. A slow, heated smirk lifts the corner of his lips. When he looks back at my mouth, his bold gaze turns my entire skin pink. “I will deal with you in a minute,” he threatens, and just his dark, husky voice sends my blood hammering. “Now, please,behave or the hospital it is.”

I hold still, trying to calm my pulse as he opens the faucet and runs my hands under the cold water, washing them gently with the rose soap, massaging little slippery circles on my palms that make the tingles bloom into full trembles. “It’s not going away.” He frowns, rinsing my hands.

“I’m sure it will.” I pull them back and switch off the faucet. “Just leave them alone and touch some other parts of me as soon as possible and they will be good as new.”

He smirks again and takes a fluffy towel from the rack. “Is that so?” he asks, patting my hands dry.

“Absolutely.”

He tosses the towel on the counter. “I see. So you’re adamant this redness is from too many handshakes and playing with dirt?”

“Of course I am. What else would it be?”

He looks at my hands, eyes narrowing at the corners. It’s not until I see the way the tectonic plates shift in analysis like they did the night of the supposed break-in that I realize what he is thinking. What he is concluding. “Aiden?” I choke, the warm trembles turning instantly to chills. “You’re not thinking this was some intentional act by someone to hurt me, are you?”

He doesn’t answer. He just turns my hands this way and that.

“Are you?” I demand, yanking them back.

He takes a deep breath and meets my eyes. The turquoise depths are pensive underneath, clearly still locked in inner analysis. “I’m just considering all options.”

“And these options,” I press, my voice rising with panic. “They include a theory that someone did this to my hands?”

His jaw flexes while his mind continues to process with blinding speed. “They have to.”

I stare at him in horror. He is not seeing less danger after today as I had hoped, as I was just dreaming; he is seeing more. “Why?” I whisper, losing all volume. “Why would you think that?”

“I don’t like thinking it, but it’s probable.”

And I try. I try very hard to control the spew of emotions that erupts inside— dread for him, grief for our life, panic about the end, sorrow that this is happening on mum’s day, anger at him for refusing to see things any other way—but they spin out like Bia’s centrifuge, rattling my skull until they settle on anger with a mental clang. It hijacks my body, and I hop down from the counter, blood flooding my face. “Probable?” I hiss, glaring at his eyes that are seeing yet another baseless threat. “You mean hypothetical at this point, right? Because there is zero evidence to support this one. Not even a crooked frame or fallen petal this time.”

He shakes his head in his defiant way, and I know I’ve already lost. “Of course there is. You work with dirt every day, and I’ve never seen your hands do this. It has been at least twenty minutes now since your last handshake and the redness has not faded. Yes, it’s possible you have an allergy to something, but you have no burning, itching, pain, or other sensations that go with contact dermatitis or sunburn. Therefore, I have to consider other alternatives, including the option that someone did this in some way for some reason I obviously cannot explain but intend to find out.”

I break then. Every speck of this last week—the hours of dread chasing an intruder who doesn’t exist, the constant surveillance, the relentless rampage in the name of safety, the mental war that has erupted in our cottage, the theft of privacy, the invasion of every nook and cranny of the life my parents built, this shadow over mum’s day—combine, overwhelming me with their force. And I can’t form words. Not because I don’t know what to say. But because nothing I say will make a difference. All my counterarguments—no matter how logical and reasonable—will mean nothing in the end. Once we resolve a threat, his mind will find another, and another, and another, trapping him in war. And me with him. A wave of terror crashes over me.

“This is never going to end, is it?” I whisper.

He blinks at me, shock flickering over his face. “Of course it will. As soon as—”

“As soon as you solve this,” I finish for him.

“Yes.” His answer is resolute, his eyes unyielding. He will either destroy the reel or the reel will destroy him. But in three weeks, despite his strength, the reel has already claimed our new lives, our peace, our happy memories, and now stifling even the fragile tendril of h-o-p-e that blossomed by my parents’ grave. Abruptly, I want to leave. Go back to mum’s day with memories and pain I know how to live with.

“Elisa, I will fix this. I promise you that.” He tips up my face as if to reassure me, but nothing can do that right now. Not even his touch.

I manage a nod as I squeeze past him out of the restroom. The gallery of our firsts spans around me with all its beauty. Everything is as we left it a week ago, except the garland of roses is gone and a small table in the open balcony is set with lunch and a Clare for what would have been our date. In one look, the room transforms from a mosaic of our beautiful firsts to a museum of our happy lasts before the reel ruined everything.

He is behind me, so close I can feel his body heat. “Elisa, what are you doing?”

“Leaving.”

He is in front of me in one second, his arms out as if to stop me. “Why?”

“Because I want to go back to the festival.”

He takes my still-pink hand.  “Love, come on. Let’s not fight about this. We’ve been fighting all week. Let’s celebrate your mother today.”

The reference to my mum on the day when she saw only goodness is too much for me. I pull back my hand—it balls up like his fists. “Celebrate her with you? When you only see danger and threat in the people she loved? You must be joking.”

A bolt of agony strikes his face. “Yes, with me. Who else do we have to celebrate her with, but each other?”

“Everyone else apparently,” I spit out, tears gathering in my eyes. “There are at least three hundred people on that street who loved her who aren’t enemies or intruders or poisoners or psychopaths or perverts or whatever other label you want to slap on them. They just miss her like I do. And right now, I want to be with them, not here with you debating yet another life-threatening scenario because my hands are a little pink.”

His arms drop to his sides as if I just shot him. “Elisa, it’s not—”

“Please, stop. Just stop! I can’t do this on her day. I just want to go back to the festival and be with her in my heart. Can you at least give me that?”

All expression drains from his face, leaving nothing but a beautiful, ashen barren land behind. He watches me frozen, his eyes shifting and aging with an ancient sadness. But he nods at last and opens the door, as I knew he would. “I’ll walk you out,” he whispers as I pass through.

He follows me in silence down the stairs to the lobby where Max is already waiting by the door with Benson. Of course he would be.

“So security stays after today then? Despite all the proof that there’s nothing wrong?” I verify, looking at their intense expressions as they dissect the ivy-covered lane.

Aiden’s hand curves gently around my elbow, turning me to him. I look up at his face reluctantly. I don’t want to see the staggering sadness in his eyes that still won’t change his determined gaze. “Love, it has to, until—”

“Don’t!” I interrupt him, pulling back my elbow. The point of contact shivers as though it wants to stay in his touch. “I don’t want to hear your reasons because they’re not reasonable anymore. This will hurt us, Aiden. I promise you that.”

I march past him to the door. He watches me leave with unfathomable eyes.

But with each step away from the Inn, my anger softens even with Max by my side. This is not how I wanted to say goodbye. Because the wound is festering, the clock is ticking, our lives are still entwined, and I already miss him. I almost go back then, but Hendrix and James are ducking into the Inn, talking to Benson, their faces set with warlike intention. Yes, I want to go back, but it wouldn’t change anything. We are now prisoners to the reel.

Priory Street is feverish when Max and I get there. Band clamoring, couples dancing, children giggling, and swells of people flooding the lane like River Windrush. Yet, I feel cold, as though the sun that’s glazing the stones no longer beams on me. From a distance, I see mum’s stand, glimmering like snow. The new sign pops with its black-and-white elegance against the bright colors of the roses thronging the lane. And the Hales are sitting at the table with the Plemmonses and the Jenkinses, laughing and eating canapes under Ferrars’ watchful eye. I change treks, unable to face them in my current state.

“Max, I need to walk around for a while. Just up and down the street.”

His eyebrows knit above his sunglasses. He has been quiet since we left the Inn, obviously seeing the jungle of emotion on my face. “No problem, whatever you need.”

I watch the jigsaw of rose stands, as familiar as the freckles on my hip or the lines in my pink palms. “The thing is . . .” I hesitate. “I’m not sure how to do that with a bodyguard around all of mum’s friends. They’ve known me since I was in nappies. They’ll think it’s mad.”

“Ah.” Max nods in understanding. “Why don’t you start ahead, and I’ll follow from a distance? Will that help?”

I nod woodenly, even my joints feeling stuck at the idea. But what else can I do? I start treading down the lane, stiff with opposition, half of me stuck back at the Inn, the other half here for mum. But this hour after lunch was the hour I had alone with her. She used to take my hand and say, “ice cream and roses, love,” and we would weave through the rose stands, picking our favorites and eating ice cream, just the two of us. Above the hilltop, the sun is glowing like a halo. Ice cream and roses, Mum.

The first few steps down the lane are hard with the pain in my chest and without her sandals on the cobblestones next to mine. But as I stop by our favorite stands to say hello like she would or buy a candle she liked, it gets easier. Each vendor gives me their signature rose for her—a cheery yellow, a fiery orange, a pure white, a bold cyclamen, a shy pink, a hearty crimson, a pensive lilac—until by the middle of the lane, my arms are overflowing, my hands are sore from all the clasps, and the tears have dried before they spilled. But my heart throbs exactly as it did when I left the Inn. How can a street with hundreds of bodies feel empty? How can the stones miss the heavy Timberland boots that never walked on them as much as they miss mum’s kitten heels? Perhaps the phrase “heart of stone” has a different meaning. Perhaps it doesn’t mean a hard, cold heart. Perhaps it means a heart that loves so much, it has become petrified. Frozen with terror of losing its love.

I buy mum’s favorite gelato—honey and rose—from Mr. Flaubert and weave my way through the crowd back to the stand. Only Aiden’s parents are there now, sipping chilled rosé.

“Sweetheart, look at all your roses!” Stella laughs, rushing to take some of them from my arms, but her smile falls when she sees my face. The walk must not have masked the snarl inside. “Oh no, is Aiden being a bear?”

I wish. Bears and dragons, I know how to deal with. The reel I do not. “Not at all,” I answer, forcing a wide grin and dropping the roses in a pail of water. “He’s just worrying about me when he’s supposed to stay in the present moment and not imagine awful things.”

“Ah.” She relaxes, smiling again. “It’s because he loves you, darling, and he doesn’t know what to do with it.”

“That, and it’s a bit of a Hale trait, Elisa.” Robert chuckles. “He gets it from me.”

Stella laughs again, taking me by the arm back at the table and pouring me wine. “It’s true. When I was pregnant, Robert didn’t get a full night’s sleep for nine months. Even the few hours he managed, he slept on the floor in case I’d roll off the bed.”

“Is he worried about your hands?” Robert guesses with genetic accuracy, gesturing at my palms.

I nod even though that’s not exactly true. Aiden is worrying about someone intentionally hurting me. And that’s why the stories about the Hale gene do not calm me. Because there is a difference between l-o-v-e and the r-e-e-l. Aiden’s love does things like move across the world and mobilize the CIA and the entire U.S. Congress to save my family. Aiden’s mind creates danger that robs us of our very life.

“I saw them too but thought maybe the dirt, the sun, and all the handshakes,” Robert reasons. And here is another difference: the Hale gene notices, understands, and protects. The reel notices, terrorizes, and destroys.

“Here, try some aloe vera,” Stella suggests, digging a small tube from her purse. “Save yourself a headache and Aiden a coronary.”

I rub the cool gel on my painless hands, trying and failing to see anything there that could make Aiden dream up a nefarious act. Who would do such a thing? Why? How when I’ve been surrounded by security? And more importantly, if someone was trying to harm me, why would they make my palms blush but not hurt, tickle, or burn in any way? When I think of it, why my palms at all and not some other part of me? I shake my head to dispel the dark, paranoid thoughts. Because today is mum’s, and she saw good—not evil—in everything.

The endless stream of people flowing by the stand don’t let me forget it. Some familiar, some strangers I’ve never met. Most with their favorite story of her, all different, yet all the same. All about her kindness and the way she made them feel. I string their memories of her like a lei, jotting them down in her old guest book, letting my mind get lost in her world. The rose oil she gave that girl to clear her skin, the hybrid she helped that old man cultivate after his wife passed. Story after story, until for a while it’s just mum and me, even with Max and Ferrars pacing, the countless guests filing through, and the sniper gazes I sense on me. Above the hilltop, the sun is starting to dip like a fervent kiss.

The church clock tower booms with a deep knell then, making me jump. In the same chime, from the stage at the top of the street, a line of trumpets pierces the air with their bright jingle.

“Is this it?” Stella shouts over the din as trombones and drums join the carol.

“Yes,” I yell back, bolting to my feet. “It means the votes have been counted and now they announce the winner.”

On cue, the crowd bursts into song, bellowing Rose, Rose on the Wall, Who Is the Fairest of Them All. But before the second toll clangs again, Max and Ferrars streak to my side with blinding speed, forming a wall of muscle in front of me as the throng starts to jostle along the narrow street. So much for being inconspicuous. I grit my teeth, trying to squeeze through the crevices of their backs to watch Mr. Plemmons who will be carrying the Rose Cup up to the stage, but it’s impossible.

“Max,” I scream over the clangor, tapping his shoulder as the clock peals again. “I can’t see!”

“What?” he roars back, pressing his fingers to his earpiece.

“I—can’t—see,” I cry again, and he finally hears me, pulling me in front of him as Ferrars, Stella, and Robert line next to us. But at least I can see Mr. Plemmons now, wobbling with the sparkling trophy in his hand, his mustache quivering as he laughs, his cane teetering on the stones, and his beloved Josephine at his side. The gate of bodies thunders with applause as they pass. My throat catches at the sight—how many festivals do they have left? As if to echo my question, the clock tolls again. I clap as hard as I can, not caring if my hands will throb or blister after this.

The crowd swells, following behind the Plemmonses, tugging me along. Max’s hands grip my shoulders to keep me from falling while Ferrars looms large next to Robert and Stella. The clock tolls again and, with a suddenness that knocks me breathless, I miss a different set of iron hands on me. But even though the horde is swarming the street like Aiden’s worst nightmare, my phone doesn’t buzz in my dress pocket. I cannot imagine the sheer life it’s costing him to give me the space I need. Except I don’t want space from him—I only want space from the effects of the reel. The idea of him in terror sends my hands flying for my phone despite my anger and our fight. I have to lean against Max to be able to thumb a text with the juddering horde around us:

“I’m perfectly safe. Max is right next to me.”

The clock’s bell reverberates in the stones under my sandals at the same time the phone vibrates in my cyclamen palms. “Don’t worry about me. Try to enjoy this.”

When the clock tolls again, it throbs through my chest, pulsing inside my ribcage like the wound.

“Roses and friends!” Mr. Plemmons shouts into the microphone from the stage when the pealing stops. I look up, startled that I missed the last minutes of his parade. I force myself to focus only on him and Josephine now, and their bushels of white hair above the podium covered with rose garlands. Mr. Plemmons sets the Rose Cup on it with a firm thud. It gleams exactly as it used to on our console where mum would tap it on her way out. My hand claws around my locket. Let mum win, please, bring the Cup back to the cottage for her.

“Can yeh hear me?” Mr. Plemmons wheezes and the crowd sings back, “Yes, we can.”

“Jolly good, because I can’t.” He waves at the throng that titters. “Another festival—gone! ‘Twas our biggest ‘un yet, and very special ‘t was too. ‘Un hundred and twenty more votes, we had. Five more competin’ roses. And two thousand tickets sold fer our school. Well done, Burford, well done!” The crowd whoops while my throat roils with emotion. “And now, before we’re sloshed an’ knackered at the pubs . . .” Mr. Plemmons splays his hands in the air with significance. “As me wooly ‘ead remembers it, the Rose Cup needs rewardin’. Like all me years of doin’ this, our rosebuds counted the votes thrice. But this year wasn’ close like other times. And yeh voted with yer hearts and yer eyes and yer noses, as yeh should. Makes me heart happy to say tha’ this year, the Rose Cup—” Mr. Plemmons pauses, his whiskery voice catching and starting again while I stop breathing. “The Rose Cup goes back home tonigh’ with Elisa Snow fer her mother’s rose, our kind and beautiful Clare.”

The crowd explodes in cheers, while I stare open-mouthed at Mr. Plemmons stomping his cane in applause and Josephine clapping and searching the crowd. I heard it right, I know I have, because Max taps my shoulder with a whoop, the horde starts chanting, “Clare, Clare, Clare,” and Stella and Robert pull me into a double hug. “You did it, dear. You brought the cup back to your mom.” Stella cries, kissing my cheek.

“She did it herself,” I whisper, eyes on the silver rose. Am I imagining the sunbeam shining directly on it? Abruptly the scene transforms for me. I see mum climbing the stage, beaming, a tear like a diamond in her eye, hugging Mr. Plemmons, waving the Cup, looking straight at dad and me and blowing us a kiss. This is for Elisa and Peter, she used to say. Behind the curtain of my tears, she dances off the stage and disappears with a faint pop in my heart.

“Rosebud?” Mr. Plemmons calls into the microphone. “Where are yeh? I can’ see yeh. Open up fer her, yeh lot.”

Stella gives me another peck, fixing up the roses in my braid. “You look beautiful. Go, get your Cup, darling.” She places her warm hand on my shoulder, nudging me gently as the crowd parts grinning at me, clapping like castanets, singing Clare, Clare, Clare. But suddenly the lane empties in my vision despite the hordes of bodies flooding it. And the hollow tunnel of homesickness blows through me like cold wind through a vacant crypt. Not homesickness for mum—she feels closer than any other time since she’s been gone. Homesickness for Aiden, to have him next to me even if angry and worried and terrified.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!”

Fragments of hundreds of voices rejoice, yet I don’t feel their cheers. And I know why. Because Aiden was right. Cheer is not cheer if I don’t celebrate with him. Nothing fills the void the way he does. I swallow all kinds of tears now—happy, sad, in the middle and adjacent to everything—and shuffle toward the stage, feeling more ghost than human. Max and Ferrars walk parallel on each side of me, Hendrix appears ahead. But at least there are no nerves. I know everyone, and country festivals don’t require speeches.

“There she is!” Mr. Plemmons claps as I climb the stage stairs to the chorus of Clare, Clare, Clare. They both teeter to me, glowing and sparkling with tears, carrying the Rose Cup. “Finally,” Josephine lullabies as she pulls me into her canape-and-roses hug. “The Cup goes home after such a long time.”

“Keep it there, Rose, keep it righ’.” Mr. Plemmons rasps gruffly. “Don’ go leavin’ the roses again.”

What can I say? That I love this little village so much I would bleed for it if it meant my blood could grow the roses forever? Or that I love a man so much my heart couldn’t even pump blood without him? “Thank you.” I hug them both—they’re so tiny, it only takes one arm. “I know she is giving you all her love.”

Their white heads turn up to the sky in unison, grinning at it. I turn to the crowd as mum would, waving the silver rose as she did, skimming over the faces because the three dearest ones are not here. And that’s when I see him.

He would be hard to miss even in the shade of the elm tree behind the crowd, flanked by Benson and James. Leaning against the trunk like a sculptural Adonis carved in golden marble. Every angle of him is hard with tension as he thrashes with his most violent demon to be here, but his eyes beam on me as if we are utterly alone. Even from this distance, his gaze heats my skin. I’ve never seen anything more life-affirming. And right now I don’t care that I am supposed to be angry with him. I don’t care that I’m terrified. Because I can feel the cheer now, I can feel the joy for mum, and every part of me is brimming with life, not pain. He’s here, he’s here.

The corner of his lip lifts in a knowing smile as my cheeks flush. He mouths something I can’t decipher from this far, but then he tilts his head at the crowd as if to remind me I’m gawking at him on a stage. But I still can’t blink away from him—here, despite his deepest fear, to share this moment with me, knowing exactly how much it means. He winks now, pointing at the crowd with urgency.

“Clare! Clare! Clare!” They are apparently still singing, breaching just enough through the spell to release my voice.

“Hello!” I speak in the microphone, startled by my magnified voice. Is that me? It sounds like mum. They all fall quiet, perhaps hearing the same note. “Thank you for remembering my mother and choosing her roses after such a long time.” I smile at the sea of faces, spotting Stella and Robert filming with their phones and Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix rippling around the stage. Nerves start to prickle but I know my only line—I heard it for eighteen years. “This is for Mum who loved this day so much.” I clutch the Rose Cup to my chest that feels full but well. “And for Aiden who made it possible for me to enjoy it again.”

A low ahh flitters over the crowd and they burst in applause as if I just gave the most riveting of TED talks, not utter exactly four sentences. Under the elm tree, Aiden shakes his head with a private smile and claps in a this-is-Churchill-the-orator way. And for the first time today, I feel like we got this right, like mum would have liked this festival as much as all the eighteen others before.

I almost run across the stage, trying to get to him as fast as possible but the moment I hop back on the street, a deluge of clasps and pats rains on me. The faces are a haze of grins as I sweep through, Max, Ferrars, and Hendrix storming around on all sides. Yet nothing happens to me, as I knew it wouldn’t—just a chorus of Clare, Clare, Clareblaring in my ears along with the festival’s closing jingle. I shake Mr. Flaubert’s hand last and clear the crowd, heading straight for Aiden under the elm tree. But as I pass our rose stand, a gusty hug from behind almost knocks me off my feet.

“Rosebud!” a familiar voice shouts, and that’s all I grasp. Because as I blink back at Felix—the Plemmonses’ grandson who went to high school with me—a massive shape whooshes past the corner of my eye, rams into him, and his arms tear away from my shoulders with a loud grunt. I whirl around, watching in horror as Felix plunges onto the stones under Ferrars’s body weight, and they skate together in an unstoppable collision course with the rose stand.

“Felix!” I shriek, launching myself into their path as Aiden’s voice reverberates under the clamor, “Elisa, don’t!” and Max yanks me out of the way. And I can’t stop it. Felix and Ferrars crash into the vase of Clares, shattering it into a million pieces and slamming against the rose stand with such force that the wooden slats shake to their bolts and the rose baskets and wreaths plummet to the ground in a mulch of petals, bark, moss, and leaves.

It’s utterly silent for one blink then a throng snaps around us with panicked cries. In the chaos, I’m vividly aware of Aiden’s terror for me as he must be trying frantically to break through the horde to get to me without triggering the startle. But of more immediate urgency are Felix and Ferrars still on the ground.

“Aiden, I’m fine,” I scream even though he can’t hear me in the bedlam, and rip out of Max’s hands, kneeling on the stones next to Felix as Ferrars jolts away from him with frenzied apologies. “Felix, Felix! Are you okay?” I splutter, checking to see if he hit his head. But he didn’t. He fell on his side, there is a gash by his elbow, but the rest of him seems all right. He blinks around, shocked and startled, and scrambles to his feet while I almost collapse on the ground sobbing in relief.

“What the bloody hell was that?” Felix blurts out, clearly not connecting Ferrars to me. Despite my remorse, I let him believe it because underneath my terror, something clicks with a silent roar. This was no accident, was it? It was intentional. Ferrars must have thought Felix—my sweet old classmate, born the same week as me—was about to hurt me.

“I’m so sorry, mate!” Ferrars blusters. “I tripped and crashed into you. Are you hurt? I can drive you to the surgery if you need.” He is checking Felix all over for injuries, proving my hypothesis. And dread turns instantly to anger, pulsing hot and livid, scorching all the joy until I taste iron on my tongue.

“No, I’m fine.” Felix swings his arm around as if to check its radius and turns to me with a smile. “Sorry about the stand, Rosebud. But it looks absolutely bangers still, only the roses fell.”

At his needless apology, the blistering rage blurs my vision with a reddish haze, making me dizzy with it. “It wasn’t your fault at all, Felix. Please, don’t even think it.” I manage to form words, wiping his cut with mum’s handkerchief. His blood stains the lacework, and I fight against my gnashing teeth so they don’t break through my tongue. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” And I am. How much worse could it have been? What if he had cracked his skull? And my frail Plemmonses, what would have happened to them then? I shudder. “Let me get you some bandages, Felix, come sit down. Want some water or iced tea?”

“No worries, it’s just a scrape. I’ll pop up at Gramps and change my shirt anyway. Congrats, Rose.” He gives me the hug he started so innocently, and the reddish blaze flares in my vision. “Chips and ale next week? We’re coming back at the weekend.”

“Absolutely, bring Lily, too. And be careful. Are you sure about the bandage?”

“Positive.” He chuckles, still breathless, and traipses through the lasso of people that loosens for him with angry glares and exclamations at Ferrars who turns to apologize to me. Has anyone connected him with me? And why should he apologize? Can I blame him when he’s only following strict orders to protect me from dangers no one else can see? No, there is only one man to blame for this, and he must be straining desperately to get to me. Was it only minutes ago that he righted my world back on its axis? Now it feels as though he’s razing it to the ground, turning each person into an insurgent and each place into a dessert of terror.

“I know you didn’t mean to, Ferrars,” I answer a little late. “I’m glad you’re not hurt either.”

He starts to mumble something, but his voice fades as does everything else when I finally dare to turn my eyes to the rose stand. The Elisas, Cecilias, Reagans, and future Marias have spilled everywhere like floral arteries on the cobblestoned hearts. The wreaths have survived, but some of Mum’s photos have cracked across her beloved smile. The shards of her vase glimmer on the ground like tears. And all the forty-four stems of her life are smeared on the stones, their blush petals like droplets of some magical blood.

Hot tears spring in my eyes. I start gathering the bruised blooms one by one, some thorns pricking my still-pink hands, some glass slivers nipping my skin. I wish they could lance my neurons instead so I couldn’t feel any of this. Nor the p-a-i-n, or the f-u-r-y, or the f-e-a-r—maybe not even the l-o-v-e.  None of the four-letter words that are wrecking our l-i-f-e. Tears splash like rain drops on the crushed petals as the sun starts to dive behind the hilltop, lighting it on fire, turning the street scarlet behind the reddish glare of my vision.

I sense him before I see him. I don’t know how he managed to cut through the crowd so fast, but the hum behind me falls quiet with the astonished silence that only he inspires. His scent blows in the breeze more beautiful than the dying gasps of my roses. And his tall, tense body crouches next to me on the stones. I don’t look at him.

“Elisa, love?” His murmur is breaking as he tries to take my hands away from the broken glass. “Let me do this, you’ll cut your hands.”

The reference to my hands—the trigger that started all this again—slices through whatever thread is keeping me together, and I start shaking with anger. A smashed Clare slips through my trembling fingers as if its first injury wasn’t bad enough. He sees it. He knows it, because his hand swoops down and catches it before it hits the stone. Then it wraps around both of mine. I wrench them back, blisteringly aware of all the eyes and ears around us. His parents squatting to save the blooms too, the Marines and Benson towering to guard Aiden’s back, and even worse, mum’s friends, admirers, and well-wishers muttering, “ah, that’s too bad,” “that bloke was bang out of order,” “poor Felix,” “poor Elisa,” “she’ll be all right, it’s just the roses,” “it’s lovely she has the Rose Cup again.”

I can’t look at any of them. I clench my teeth against the words I want to hurl at him and pluck all wisps of strength from all crevices of my mind so I don’t cause an even bigger scene.

“I’m fine,” I hear myself speak, but my voice doesn’t sound like mine. It’s just a sing-songy mask my mind must need right now. He hears it. He knows it, because he pulls back his hands that are reaching for mine again and his fingers reappear with a folded map as he starts sweeping the broken shards away from me.

“Sir, I’m very sorry,” Ferrars starts on Aiden too, sounding absolutely wretched, but I see peripherally Aiden’s hand fly up. I tense, expecting him to torch Ferrars alive right here, right now, but he surprises me even in my state.

“No need.” His voice is clipped and hard now that he’s speaking at normal volume. “This is on me.”

At least he knows it. Of course he does. Even without his brain, he could have decoded this one. I told him. I tried reason, logic, science, allies, heart, but he wouldn’t listen. He did this with his security and paranoia, not Ferrars. I move away from him, picking up mum’s broken photos, feeling his eyes on me constantly.

“It’ll be all right, sweetheart.” Stella is there, helping me tuck the frames in my basket. “I know your mom still would have loved this. I think she’s very proud of you up there.”

I nod because she is probably right. Mum found goodness in everything. She might have even laughed, but I can’t. The pressure inside my skull is becoming a cleaving headache. I am utterly unable to calm the gale of fury inside. All strength is going to keeping my face together for every set of eyes that are looking on with sorrow, pity, confusion, or any other expression I didn’t want for today.

The vendors start packing up their stalls now, and the crowd is waning toward the pubs. “Well done, Elisa!” “Stop by The Lambs Inn, Elisa-pea, we can toast your win.” “Ah, look at the Cup by Clare’s stand again, how brill.” I wave at them, a smile plastered on my lips, even for Willoughby who is watching me with a curious smirk that lifts his upper lip into a sneer. He seems even colder than this morning with the Rose Cup snatched away from him. I tuck it in my basket too in case he nicks it back.

As the horde thins, our guard all start helping pack up the stand. I see their hulking silhouettes from the corners of my eyes as I stack the wreaths. The broken glass is all gone.

“Where is the stand going tonight?” James asks as Aiden starts dismantling it himself.

“Elisa?” His body turns toward me, but I can’t look up. If I see his face or his tormented eyes, I will cry or scream or implode in some other way.

“Behind the garden shed at the cottage, please,” I answer, one brain cell wondering whether my voice will ever return back to normal. The rest of my mind is powering frantically to get me through the next few moments. But through to where? There isn’t a single place left in my world where I can just be. Every wedge of my life is under surveillance. The cottage, the garden, the garage, Elysium, Bia, Oxford, the open fields, the very people I respect and love, my very skin. Every single part of me. I grind my teeth against the sudden claustrophobia and start sweeping away the debris, trying to breathe petal to petal, trying to think.

But everywhere the broom turns, there is a muscular frame or a set of eyes or a question waiting. “Same for the table and the chairs?” “What about the sign?” “The coolers?” Aiden takes over, knowing everything, but abruptly, I can’t even breathe. Just one more smile, just one more nod, please. And then what? The stony lane tilts a fraction. Of course he doesn’t miss it. He is in front of me in a blink.

“Elisa?” His finger flies under my chin to tip up my face, but I step back automatically. I can’t handle his touch right now—the touch that makes me do anything. “Look at me please.”

It takes every last fiber of strength to resist his voice. I manage only by looking at the trashed Clares in the bin. “I’m fine,” I repeat, but even the strange voice is fading into a whisper. “I have to finish this.”

“I can do that. Why don’t you go sit?” He takes the broom from me. “Or do you want to go back to the cottage? I can finish up here—we’ll be very careful.”

The cottage? Our happy bubble that has been invaded by security more than any intruder? I start to shake my head, but a bubble of space opens up in my hermetic world as I try to look anywhere but at him so I don’t explode in the middle of mum’s favorite street.

“Actually . . . ” I grasp the bubble with all my mind, the contours of a plan forming. Because I need this, I need it for air. “I’ll go back to the Inn for a bit if you don’t mind.”

His answer is immediate. “I’ll walk you.”

“No,” I say quickly, knowing I don’t stand a chance if he comes with me. “I need you here.”

He doesn’t speak. His body is so close, his Timberlands are nudging my sandals. I try not to think of the way his bare toes look when they dance next to mine on the bedroom rug. Those moments no longer feel like our life. “Look at me,” he whispers at last, so quietly I’m not sure I really heard the words. I know he wants to say more. I know from the way his hand is closing in a fist that he wants to touch me. And for once I’m glad we’re not alone.

“Not now, Aiden,” I mouth back and turn away from him before he sees everything in my eyes.

I know he will never let me walk alone, especially now that it’s getting dark. I skim past all the faces around me—Stella tearful, Robert and Benson concerned, the Marines tense, Ferrars remorseful—for the only person I want to find. My choice surprises me as much as him. “Max, can you walk me to the Inn, please?”

“Of course!” He comes to my side immediately. “Do you need me to carry anything?”

“Just the Cup, mum’s photos, and dad’s plant, please.” I hand him the basket carrying it all.

“I’ll get the rest,” Aiden says behind me, and a look passes between Max and him. Max nods once, probably obeying whatever new order he just received.

“The hospital trolly will come for the wreaths and what is left of the roses,” I remind him needlessly and turn to thank the rest of them, even Ferrars, for helping today. Despite the way it ended, none of it is their fault. In a different universe, we could have gone to celebrate, I’d have given them my thank-you gifts that I prepared, but that’s simply beyond anything I have left.

“I’ll see you in a bit.” I wave at them, feeling guilty for the lie.

They all smile back in their own way—“Congrats, Pest, you kicked Willoughby’s shriveling ass.” “Don’t worry, Trouble, we got this.” “I’m sorry again, Elisa.” “Well done, kid.”—but Robert and Stella decide to return to the Inn with Max and me. Whether they’re tired themselves or worried or both, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter, they have their own room.

The Inn is empty and silent when we arrive, as I knew it would be. Stella gives me a silky hug in the lobby. “It was a beautiful day, sweetheart, even with this little fiasco in the end. Try to remember only the best parts because you can.”

“And the hard parts will pass, too,” adds Robert, patting my shoulder.

I think about that as the lift doors close behind them. I know they will pass—they always do—but what will survive? My parents’ favorite memories? Aiden and me? Our life? Or just the reel, not even stardust this time?

“Up to Mr. Hale’s room, Elisa?” Max prompts.

“No, Max. I’m staying in Javier’s old room tonight. I can take it from here.” His eyebrows arch in surprise, but it’s the only habitable place that holds a dear part of me and hasn’t been invaded. And the only room I know here that can give me what I need. Max still insists on walking me up, whether on Aiden’s orders or his own worry, I don’t know. As soon as we open the door to the familiar room, he sweeps it corner to corner, even the balcony despite the fact that we’re on the third floor. The room has been cleaned since Javier left. I manage the first deep breath, sniffing futilely for his homey peppermint and paint smell, but it’s long gone, like him.

“It all seems in order,” Max assures me, not knowing how wrong he is. Nothing is in order anymore, but for purposes of my physical safety, it’s true enough. He sets my basket on Javier’s dresser and leaves, asking me to lock my door even though he’ll be just down in the lobby and Ferrars with him. But I don’t argue. I thud the bolt home with a loud ding, listening to Max’s footsteps fade down the hall.

Finally alone now, I could cry or scream or curl on Javier’s pillow or call him and Reagan or work on the protein or just stare at the spot on the rug where Aiden held me a week ago as I was sobbing, telling me he would stay in England with me. But those are not the only reasons I came here, because this isn’t where I want to be. I grab the Rose Cup, and slide back the bolt quietly, millimeter by millimeter. When I crack open the door, the hallway is empty. I can hear Ferrars and Max’s indistinct voices from the lobby. I tiptoe down the corridor to the door behind the velvet curtains that leads down the old turret stairs where Felix, Lily, and I used to play hide-and-seek when mum and the Plemmonses would deliver roses to the Inn. As soon as I reach them, I leg it. Scurrying down the limestone steps, bursting through the back-alley door, leaping over the low hedge of briar roses, and darting around the corner to Swan Lane. Everything is quiet and empty—the whole town is in the pubs or lingering on Priory Street—but I still can’t help looking over my shoulder as I creep on the mossy cobblestones until I reach the riverbank and the protective canopy of oaks and willows. And then I break into a sprint. My heart is galloping at the same speed, but my lungs are pumping fresh air without effort. I glance back a few times, but there is no one behind me. I’m utterly alone. Bounding across the open fields that are turning inky with the early night, finally free.

Above the hilltop, the moon is glowing.   ©2021 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 25 – SCAR

Hey friends, happy Sunday and woe begone to Sunday scaries.  If you’re feeling them, here’s a chapter to help with that. As always many thanks to those who are reading and commenting. I love hearing your theories about what is happening to Aiden. Wonder what you think after this? Lots of love to you.  xo, Ani

 

25

Scar

Chronology has stopped making sense again. The Friday before the Rose Festival comes only six days later, but it feels like another lifetime to me. Both familiar and foreign in the same week.

Familiar because some days look more like my old home movies. The cottage has parents around who cook and pack my lunch. The fridge has homemade leftovers of our favorite dishes. The phone rings, the doorbell jingles. Our constellation is expanding again tonight with all the Marines descending on Burford from River Spey. And Aiden and I are back to our rhythm, trying to live present moment to present moment, reel to reel.

Yet it doesn’t feel like my life. Because under the familiar is the strange—new elements more intrusive than the intruder they’re trying to protect me against, rubbing against our days like a blister in a shoe or an eyelash in the eye. We no longer have a security guard, we have a security team: Benson, Max, and Ferrars who is assigned to Aiden’s parents. One of them is always outside the cottage, which is a compromise for the cameras Aiden wanted to install in the rose-covered limestone straight into the cottage’s flesh (“Why don’t you just drill them in my heart and forehead, Aiden, because that’s how it would feel.” He didn’t argue with me after that). And Aiden still picks me up and drops me off at work, but Max remains stationed at Café Vault across the street during my workday, which is an improvement from Bia’s lobby as Aiden wanted (“I’ll quit before I have a bodyguard in my dad’s second home around his closest friends and colleagues, Aiden!” “That’s an overreaction, Elisa.” “This whole thing is an overreaction!” “Fine, the coffee shop!”)

But worse than all these, there is no more love-making in the garden; no more sunrises skin to skin; no more blissful moments of just Aiden and me without someone’s shadow always around; no more rose bubble at peace. They are gone before they truly settled in.

And I miss all of it. The festering wound has doubled in size—once when we’re apart, once for losing the way we were. But I’m not giving up. I’ll try again today, even if it will mean another fight.

“So, are you almost ready for Professor Snow’s bench ceremony?” Graham’s voice startles me out of my planning. He’s been poring through the third volume of the Encyclopedia for the last five hours and looks slightly cross-eyed.

“Ugh, don’t remind me or my hands will start shaking again. I haven’t even written my speech.”

“Your fossil mates been keeping you busy, have they?”

“Not at all. They’re the model for ideal visitors—homemade food, strolls, quiet nights.”

“Oh, I see, you’re a fossil yourself. Everything makes a lot more sense now.” Graham laughs, rubbing his eyes and the deep purple shadows underneath.

“Graham, you look exhausted. Have you left Bia at all in the last week? I’m worried about you.” This is true. As I am worried about time to test the protein if he continues to usurp the lab.

“Of course I’ve left. How do you reckon I’ve been getting lunch?”

I shake my head at him, starting the centrifuge, but sweat dews in the back of my neck. This would be my life if Aiden had not come to England. This might be my life still if we lose, assuming I survive at all. “Maybe you should take a break this weekend,” I suggest. “Come to the Rose Festival tomorrow, get some fresh air—”

Edison blasts in Bia then at his typical sprinting pace, making me jump as usual. “How is the afternoon?” he asks before the door has closed behind his billowing lab coat.

“Abysmal. Eliser is trying to convince me to abandon my post and attend the local rose soiree. The nerve!” Graham chuckles but an enormous yawn overtakes him. He looks nickel green.

“Ah, yes, the Rose Festival.” Edison smiles, but his eyes sweep over Graham and the lab. “Elisa is right, Graham. You need to leave stat. You’re no help to yourself or the protein in your state. Pip pip!” He knocks on Graham’s desk as if to prompt him to blink and turns to me.

“You too, Elisa. I can finish testing today.”

I stare at him, trying to think. I desperately need the lab alone, but I wouldn’t have it with Edison here. “Are you sure, Professor? I can work until six.”

“Nigel, please,” he corrects me for the nth time. “And I’m quite certain. I know the Rose Festival meant a lot to Clare. She would want you to have time to set up.”

I lose all argument then. Because he is right—this was mum’s favorite event and I abandoned it for four years. Not to mention two hours with Aiden before the Marines arrive, hopefully without Max or Benson around.

“Thank you, P—Nigel,” I answer, feet already shuffling toward the door.

“Not at all, not at all.” He waves me off and, without a second glance at anything else, turns to the molecule of fear.

Max is waiting at his usual table by the window at Café Vault when Graham and I traipse outside. He stands immediately when he sees me two hours early, but to his credit, he gives me time to say goodbye. His sharp eyes follow Graham as he shambles under the weight of three tomes to his white Fiat. And even after he drives off at Mr. Plemmons’ pace, Max waits until he disappears around the corner before escorting me to his newly leased bullet-proof Range Rover.

“Would you like Mr. Hale to know you’re out early?” Max smiles as I climb in the back seat. One week in, and he already knows what to ask. Still, it doesn’t make his presence easier.

“No, he’ll like the surprise.”

“I’m sure he will.”

I watch the familiar St. Giles Boulevard flash by behind the tinted windows. My parents’ bus stop, their favorite bakery, Oxford’s golden tones all turn dark under Rover’s filter, as though I’m looking at them through the black veil I wore at the funeral. I lean my head back and shut my eyes. The trip is easier if I don’t look at the charred, smoky colors of my new life.

“Did anyone give you trouble today?” Max checks as he does every day.

“Some vials broke. Does that count?” My sarcasm is ruined by the thick sound of my voice.

“I didn’t notice anything strange around the building either.”

“Maybe because there’s nothing to notice,” I mumble to myself, but Max must read lips in his wide-angle mirror.

“There could be. We don’t know that for a fact.”

I flush but don’t answer. Because what’s a fact in a situation like this? With trauma so vivid, it becomes real, and reality so beautiful, it becomes a fairytale? I clutch my locket for bravery, trying to guess which sheep-dotted field the Rover is darkening.

“Seven minutes out,” Max informs me, clearly knowing my routine by now.

“Thank you, Max.”

“Is there anything I can do to make this easier?”

“No, you’re exceptional. I’m sorry if I seem ungrateful. And I’m sorry you’re spending your vacation in a coffee shop, staring at a lab.”

“I truly don’t mind. Mr. Hale is being very generous.”

Yes, generous, protective, and stubborn to a fault. And the toll is costlier than the bill. The toll on him, on me, and on the beloved hallmarks of my parents’ life. I run through my arguments in my head, trying to pick a winner after two lost battles.

“One minute,” Max announces.

Immediately, I open my eyes and roll down my window, unwilling to see Elysium or the cottage in shades of black and gray. The brocade of wildflowers is brilliant under the July sun except the inkblot at the border, like a scar. Even from here, I can see Benson standing guard by the willows. I inhale deeply, finding the first whiff of rose breeze that no longer blows through the cottage at night. As soon as Max pulls over by the garage, I wrench open the armored door, probably giving myself a bruise, and hop out.

Yet as soon as I step on the flowery tapestry with Max’s boulder shadow next to me, the field of my childhood looks forlorn. I know nothing has changed on it—the daisies, orchids, poppies, and forget-me-nots don’t know the difference—but the change feels real to me. I break into a run down Elysium’s bowl, leaving Max’s shadow behind, craving nothing but Aiden and me alone. I have no hope of outrunning Max, but he lets me go. After all, how much danger can I be in with three trained fighters within hearing distance? I wave at Benson without stopping and dash through the rose hedge, heading straight for the door, but there he is!

Sitting at the garden bench, his back to me—the only place in the world where Aiden allows his shoulders exposed. He is flipping through a thick binder of documents at eye-watering speed. His waves flutter in the breeze, longer than when he first stood in this garden. His sculpted arms glisten under the short sleeves of his white Polo shirt. And immediately the wound shrinks. Yet I’ve never missed him more. I wish I could sneak up and truly surprise him, but I can never do that to him.

“You shouldn’t sit alone like this,” I call across the garden. “The intruder might be Mrs. Willoughby. Have you considered that?”

His head whirls around in alarm. “Elisa?” He bolts to his feet and flashes to my side, scooping me in his arms before I have taken three steps toward him. “Love, are you okay? Did something happen?” His hand flies to my forehead and he scans me head to Byron trainers.

“Of course I’m fine,” I assure him quickly, locking my arms around his neck. “Edison let me go early for the festival.”

Tension drains out of him immediately and he tucks me closer with a relieved sigh. A dazzling smile wipes the worry lines from his face. “Why didn’t you call me? I would have picked you up.”

I kiss his cheek—it’s warm from the sun. “Because I wanted to surprise you.”

“What a great surprise.”

He nods at Max who has arrived at the hedge and strides back to the bench, eyes glittering.

“How was your day?” he asks as he drapes me over his lap, one arm tight around my waist.

“Very long and gray. Yours?”

“Interminable and pitch black until now.” His hand curves around my face, and he brings me to his mouth. “Welcome home,” he murmurs against my lips.

“Mmm, that sounds nice.” I sigh, tangling my fingers in his soft hair, breathing in his sunshine-and-Aiden scent. My lips shape themselves around his possessive mouth, folding to its pressure, now gentle, now hard. His arm strains me to his chest, and a current of warmth surges through me. I know there are important things I need to say, but his smell and his feel and his tongue moving with mine . . . I crush myself closer, moaning at his taste. Then Benson’s deep laughter drums over the blood that’s hammering in my ears, and I remember.

“Aiden—” I whisper through the kiss.

“Our bedroom.” His husky voice reverberates inside my mouth. I almost moan yes, my breath is already too fast and loud, but Benson laughs again.

“Wait . . . please . . . talk.”

His lips pause on mine—wet and delicious—but he doesn’t release my face. “Talk?”

I nod, trying to settle my breathing.

“All right.” He leans back, still cradling my cheek, but the V forms between his brows, crumpling my resolve. Because I know it will deepen as soon as I start talking. The smoldering light in his eyes will fade. And friction will enter the warm, velvet space between us. “What is it, love?” he prompts. The anxiety in his voice only makes me waver more. But Max’s cough drifts from the willows now, and the words tumble out.

“I miss you.”

“I miss you, too. I wasn’t joking when I said my day is black without you.” His thumb strokes my cheek as he frowns in confusion. “Is that what’s bothering you?”

“Not exactly.”

“What is it then?”

“Will you keep an open mind?”

He tenses around me. “I’ll give it my best effort.”

I choose my words carefully. “I miss being with you—the way we were a week ago. We had just begun this new life, and now it feels like the old one, with rules and dangers everywhere we turn. We’re not doing the opposite, love, we’re doing more of the same, maybe worse.”

The light burns out in his eyes the second he realizes the topic of conversation, as I knew it would. His hand drops from my face and he takes a deep breath. “Elisa, this part won’t last forever. I’ll take care of the problem, and we can go back to our new life. I miss it, too.”

“But how long will it last? It’s been a week without any incident of any kind.”

“Until I’m convinced you’re safe. I won’t take any chances with your life—you know that.” His voice is resolute and unwavering.

“I know you wouldn’t, but what will it take to convince you? Max has been watching me every day. He admits he hasn’t seen anything odd at all. Neither has Benson or Ferrars. And you’ve been searching the area twice a day. There is nothing, love. You have to let this go now.”

He starts shaking his head before I’ve finished. “A week is too short a time to conclude that. If someone is intent on hurting you, he—because I don’t think it’s Mrs. Willoughby—may not return right away.”

“But Aiden, you heard Doctor Helen. She agrees with me. She said the reel is pushing your vigilance to the extreme, priming you to see and fight danger at all times. Corbin thinks so, too.”

He closes his eyes and pinches his nose for patience. “Elisa,” he begins slowly, no doubt trying to keep from roaring. “For the fifth time, Doctor Helen didn’t agree with you. She said your theory is more likely, but she didn’t say mine is impossible, either.”

I will never win with him if I start arguing probabilities with my safety. I change tracks instead. “Okay, let’s assume you’re right for the sake of argument . . .” I pause, waiting for him to open his eyes. He does with a deep sigh from the effort to stay calm. “Why do we need a security team and bullet-proof vehicles? Who could ever get past you and Benson? Please, let Max go home and give us our happy cottage back.”

Shock flashes over his face despite his calming measures. He stares at me like I belong to the padded corner room of Burford Dementia Centre. “With the festival tomorrow?” he demands in disbelief.  “With hordes of people around, in the only place where I cannot protect you myself? Have you lost your fucking mind?” He shudders with tension at the mere idea.

“All right, all right,” I say quickly, stroking his scar to calm him even though the thought of security shadows darkening mum’s roses burns my throat like acid. “Not tomorrow but Sunday then, assuming the worst that happens is dropped ice cream cones like every year.”

But he shakes his head again, unyielding. “This isn’t a joke, Elisa. I can’t do that. I don’t know what we’re dealing with—I’ll be the first to admit it. And until I do, Max stays.”

“But—”

“No, no more buts. It’s too soon. Later, when it’s safe, I promise I will let security go.”

Later. Tic toc, tic toc. When did s-a-f-e become a dangerous word? “But we may not have until later, Aiden!” My voice rises in panic even though seconds ago I was trying to calm him. “This may be the only time we have, and you’re wasting it with this.”

I’ve shredded the last vestige of his control. His jaw clenches as his eyes harden into blue slate. “Waste?” he hisses through his teeth, fury descending over his face like thunder. “Nothing is a waste to me if it keeps you safe. Absolutely nothing. I—will—not—take—more—risks—with—you. Full stop.”

There is no compromise in his voice, no room for any more arguments. He glowers at me in a way that only Aiden can. I try to glare back, but I can’t find my anger. It vanished somewhere between each second ticking away. Instead of anger, I feel something else. It takes me a moment to find the name for my throat closing, for the windy tunnel in my chest, for the strange hollowness in my stomach. Homesickness. It grips me now, like it did on my parents’ hilltop. Homesickness for us, for how we were, and how we could be. On their own, my fingers knot in his hair, pulling him closer.

“Please, Aiden?” I whisper, giving up on logic. “I miss us on the petals. I miss looking at the colors outside without bullet-proof windows. I miss having the cottage to ourselves at night without worrying who hears us. I miss making happy memories alone with you. I don’t ever want to lose that, and definitely not before our ninety days are up. I think that’s just as dangerous, if not more. Please?”

While I’ve been pleading, he’s been breaking. Ashen, mouth set in a grim line, rippling around me with tension. I hate the war I’m causing in his eyes, wounding a precious part of him whichever side he chooses: risk his peace or risk my safety, risk our happiness or risk our harmony?  R-i-s-k.  But I hate losing t-i-m-e with him even more. That will harm us more than any intruder, real or imagined. If I know anything down to my DNA’s double helix, it’s that.

He’s still strangled in conflict. With a deft movement, he slides me off his lap. “Give me a minute,” he says, his voice almost hoarse.

“Aiden, where—” But his fingers brush my cheek once and he streaks across the garden inside the cottage.

I stare after him, frozen on the sunny bench, heart in my throat. Did I win? Or did I make everything worse? Jittery with nerves, I jump to my feet and start pruning wilted petals from the Reagan, reciting the periodic table in my head. When I’ve run through it four times, he comes out—calmer now, no longer blanched, eyes clear, my rucksack on his back.

“Aiden, what are you doing?” I run to him immediately, crashing into him by the Clares. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry—”

He catches me and folds me in his arms, pulling me into his chest. “Of course you didn’t. You just reminded me that I can’t protect your safety at the cost of your heart. I have to figure out a way to do both.”

I should have known he’d find a way to make it harder on himself. I press my lips to his shirt over his heart. “You don’t need to do more, love. You need to do less.”

I feel him shake his head in my hair and he drops his arms but takes my hand. “Come with me.”

“Come with you where?”

“You’ll see.” The sparkle returns to his eyes and, with a gentle tug, he starts towing me down the stony path.

“Aiden, wait!” I pull on his arm, breathless from the abrupt change. “What about our conversation?”

One warm hand frames my face. “Elisa, I heard your arguments. The ones you made and the ones you didn’t. And right now, we need to do this.”

“But James and the others are coming in three hours. I have to get ready and—”

He places his finger over my lips. “We’ll be back by then. My mom has already marinated the steaks. And you’ll have me, Max, Benson, Ferrars, Cal, Hendrix, Jazz, and my parents to help you set up the rose stand exactly as you want. But until then, you are right. You need to be with me and I need to be with you. Just us and no one else in the world, making a happy memory. Will you come with me?”

And he unleashes the full force of his beauty on me. It grows in that surreal way, lighting him from within, until it stuns every thought and nerve into oblivion. He takes full advantage of my open mouth and closes it with his. The moment our lips touch, my resistance crumbles. Not because I’m giving up. But because this is exactly what I want right now too, what I’ve missed. To be alone with him.

He feels my change. “Perfect,” he smiles against my lips. With a gentle breeze over my face to restart my brain, he releases my mouth and takes my hand again, striding down the garden path while I wobble next to him trying to find things like feet and knees.

“Sir?” Max and Benson stand from the willow shade in unison when they see us.

Aiden raises his free hand. “Just us for now, gents. You have the cottage. We’ll be back by seven.”

I think they nod but I’m not sure. My eyes are fixed on Aiden as we set across Elysium just him and me with no shadows around. Can the daisies feel this difference? I think they can.

“So where are we going to make this happy memory?” I ask, not that it really matters to me. He could take me into a ditch on the side of the road at this point and I would be happy.

“I don’t have a name for it. That will be your job.” His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile.

He doesn’t take the bullet proof beast when we reach the garage. Instead he helps me in our Rover and sets the rucksack in the back seat.

“What’s in there?” I look at the overstuffed nylon that seems about to explode as he backs out of the garage, scanning the area around us.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” He winks as he repeats my own words to me from two weeks ago.

Then we’re off. Driving South down the country road slower than his usual speed. And my chest heals—as though the wound never existed. A sense of wellness floods my airways, and I breathe in the luxuriant feeling.

“Look at the colors, love,” Aiden says, rolling down our windows. Wind blows in, flinging around my hair and playing with his curls. But even though I griped about seeing the world through dark windows, now that they’re open, I turn on my seat and look only at him. How happy he looks right now—eyes on the open road, sunshine over his face, dimple in his cheek. He weaves his fingers with mine and brings my hand to his lips. “I’m sorry about the bullet-proof Rover. I didn’t think about the black windows. I can see why that would be depressing to you. I’ll check if they have one with clear glass. If not, I’ll live with a regular one.”

My heart starts sprinting an exultant rhythm. “Thank you,” I breathe. “Does this mean you’ll give up on the other things, too?”

He chuckles and rests our joined hands on the console. “Things? I didn’t realize you had other objections besides armored cars and a security team. Please do tell.”

“Well, if there’s no reason for bullet-proof beasts, then there’s no reason for a guard outside the cottage when we’re home. It’s upsetting the roses. They’re not used to this.”

He laughs the first carefree laughter I’ve heard in a week and glances at me. “Please tell the roses the overnight guard and the daylight one for that matter are there to protect them from the rose thief. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

The victorious galloping of my heart slows. “I really doubt it. They’re highly logical plants. Shall I tell them anything else?”

“Yes, tell them I love them very much. So much in fact that I’m willing to be scratched by their angry thorns on a daily basis to keep them safe.”

I cup my ear, pretending to listen outside the open window. “They say thank you but they miss their happy bubble and will not compromise.”

“My, my, stubborn little plants, but neither will I. Do they have any other objections besides private security, bullet-proof beasts, and cottage guards?”

“Yes, they’re very offended by the closed windows at night. They think you no longer like the way they smell.”

“Oh, that is grave indeed. Do assure them I’m going to prove shortly how much I like their smell. In fact, I miss it right now.” He lifts our joined hands again and inhales my wrist. The bottom of my belly tightens, trying to imagine what proof he is planning. “Do they know some of the windows stay closed because a certain someone can’t be quiet during certain activities we can’t name for the roses’ ears?”

I flush. “Yes, but that certain someone wouldn’t have to be quiet if there wasn’t an overnight guard.”

“I see. Well maybe that certain someone’s mouth will need to be silenced somehow. Tell the roses I will consider it.”

A sense of buoyancy floats inside me like the rose breeze. “They say thank you and they love you too.”

He chuckles. “They’re very welcome. Do they have any other demands that don’t involve compromising their safety?”

“No, other than these they’re very happy little plants.”

“They’re perfect, which is why I have to protect them even if they don’t like it,” he answers with a dazzling smile and presses a button on the wheel. “In their honor.” Kiss from a Rose floods the car, as harmonic as his laughter. I watch him spellbound as his lips move to the lyrics in a low murmur. Neither of us will surrender today. But I tuck all that aside for now, sinking in this present moment of us alone. Beyond his profile, the shamrock hills rise and fall like an emerald heartline.

He kisses the back of my hand when the song is done and turns down the volume. “So how was your day aside from your grievances with me? Is Graham still occupying the lab?”

“He was, but Edison ordered him home. I hope he’ll stay away this weekend so I can test the new oxytocin dose after the festival.”

“Are you excited for the festival now that you’ve chosen the roses? I think you’ll win the Rose Cup.”

“More nervous than excited, I think.”

He glances at me with the worried V between his eyebrows. “Why nervous?”

“Because it was mum’s favorite event. I want it to be perfect for her.” My voice drops, but he still hears it. As he hears the words I didn’t say because his hand tightens around mine when he answers.

“Don’t worry, love. We’ll be discreet. No one will even know we’re there.”

“But I will know. And I’m worried it will feel like a war instead of the cheery, happy event she would have wanted it to be.”

He strokes my palm with his thumb in reassurance. “Elisa, I think your mother would have wanted you to be safe above anything else. I don’t owe this just to you, I owe it to her too for what she did for me.”

How can I argue with him when he says things like that no matter how much I hate the thought of deadly Marines stalking the festival? And even worse, how can I tell him that the wound will rage tomorrow no matter how well the festival goes because he can’t be with me? I can’t—he would hate himself even more for his startle reflex then. “Fine, but if a single rose stem breaks, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

“Very sensible.” He laughs and turns up the volume as another rose song starts. The Making of You.

It makes me laugh too, sliding tomorrow away. “Have you made a playlist for roses like you did for ICE in Portland?”

“Well, we can hardly have a rose festival without a rose soundtrack. What would the Plemmonses say?”

I curl up in my seat, listening to his compilation for me, perfectly content if this entire happy memory is just this drive of the two of us, hands knotted, wind in our hair, and that smile on his lips. But it only lasts for three more rose songs.

“Here we are.” Aiden veers to the side of the road at the border of a grassy expanse like a jade sky, with oak and beech families clustered together here and there in their own earthly constellations. River Windrush glimmers through them like a liquid Milky Way. There is no sound except the arias of skylarks and song thrushes. And not a human silhouette in sight.

“I love National Trust Land,” I inform him, hanging my head out of the window and breathing in the clover air. “Do you know they have about 1,600 wildflower species here?”

He chuckles. “Well, we’re not going into Trust Land right now, but I think you’ll like this, too.” He climbs out of the Rover and picks up the rucksack. I strain to listen for any clues to its contents but it’s utterly quiet. “Will you be okay walking for about ten minutes?” he asks as he opens my door. “Or shall I carry you?” He looks eager for the latter.

“Hmm, tempting, but I think I can handle it. Who knows what you might need to save your strength for?”

“Oh, all manner of activities, Elisa. Arguing about your safety, making you faint, silencing your mouth—these require every ounce of strength a man has.” He takes my hand, leading us across the swaying field.

There are some things I’ll never have proper words for. His beauty, for one. His kisses for another. The way he makes love. The whole totality of him, in fact. But somewhere in the list is the experience of walking with him in open space without a ripple of tension. It’s as though he never takes a single step for granted. Where the rest of us put one foot in front of the other without thinking, focused on where we’re arriving instead, Aiden seems to treat each stride as its own destination—flowing in his graceful way step by step through this elusive freedom. I shiver when I think of the reasons behind it and hook my arm in his as he strolls at my pace, lifting me over a shrub or branch and scanning the verdant grassland.

He stops as we approach a thicket of beechwoods, oaks, and yews, and tips up my face. “Will you humor me with something?”

“Anything you want.”

“Then wait here. You’ll be very safe.” And he lets me go, bounding toward the trees.

“Anything but that,” I call after him, but I only hear his carefree laughter as he plunges through the woods. While I wait, I run an experiment on time by setting the chronometer on dad’s watch as I search the ground for four-leaf clover. Aiden emerges from the thicket only three minutes later, but my hypothesis is correct. Emotionally, it felt like twenty minutes to me.

“What was that about?” I ask, trotting toward him.

“You’ll see.”

He lets me lead to the trees, following quietly. I hear the click of his iPhone as he takes a photo of me, but I ignore the chill that trickles down my neck when he does this because the lopsided smile on his lips is worth a million ice pricks. From the canopy of leaves ahead filters a spicy scent of wild roses and sweet water. It propels my feet faster and I zig-zag through the ancient trunks into the most beautiful tiny meadow I’ve ever seen, second only to Elysium. It’s a perfect circle, smaller than the cottage’s garden, wreathed with pink wild roses. In the very center is a spring of water in the exact shape of the bluest of eyes. A pair of Adonis butterflies—the male blue, the female brown—tango in the hazy sunshine. But all this beauty is not the reason why I feel moisture in my eyes. It’s our blanket and pillows spread under the shade of a sweetbriar rose, along with the empty rucksack. A silver Baci chocolate twinkles on my side.

“Aiden,” I whisper, spinning around for the blue eyes of the Adonis standing behind me. He is watching me in that way of his that absorbs every pixel from the moment.

“Like?” he smiles.

“Like? I love. However did you find this?”

“When I was searching the area yesterday. Even you can’t object entirely to my security regime if it led me to this.”

“Yes, this one part is tolerable . . . but only this one.”

He laughs and pulls me by the waist into the molten meadow. But as we reach the blue eye in the center, the laugh gentles away and his expression becomes intent.

“You wanted us on the petals.” He tilts his head toward the wild roses and our blanket. “You wanted to make love without worrying who hears us.” He gestures to the dense trees. “And you want us to keep making happy memories.” He waves at the crystal spring. “I know I can’t replace the cottage or the rose garden but for the next two hours, will you settle for this?”

I push aside the wisp of homesickness for our bubble and press myself closer to him. “Well, that depends.”

“On?”

“On what name we choose for this place so we can make it ours. That’s my job, remember?”

The lopsided smile turns up his lips. “Of course it is. Any ideas?”

I have to look away from his mirage face to think. I should fear engraving him all over England with our dwindling days, but I don’t. The less time we have, the more I want him spread like pollen on every blade of grass or moss-covered branch, as he already is in every molecule and cell of me. So he can live on here somehow even if we don’t.

The two Adonis lovers are fluttering over the wild roses. “Well . . .” My eyes fly to him again as I make my choice. “I have Elysium. And now you have Aidonis.”

His eyebrows arch—Aiden would never expect anything named after him—but the surprise turns quickly into a chuckle.

“For the myth of him being Aphrodite’s lover?”

“No, for the myth of his own beauty.”

His eyes smolder. “Let’s christen it then,” he murmurs, and his hands seize my face. But the meadow disappears as soon as his mouth touches mine. I feel only our hands ripping off our clothes. I see only the shimmering planes of his body in the gilded air. I hear only the free sounds of our love. And I taste only his incomparable flavor as he pulls us into the sapphire water.

 

He keeps his promises, I have to admit—whether to make our first swim a memory worthy of the Room of Firsts or to keep us on schedule when I forget my own name, let alone the time. We make it back to the cottage with exactly seven minutes to spare, hair dripping, my legs still shaking, while Aiden strides in his self-assured way as if he didn’t just transform an adult woman into a trembling mass of Adonis butterflies.

“Status?” he asks Benson and Max who are setting up a long table and chairs for dinner on Elysium. Professionals that they are, they don’t comment on our sodden state, although Benson’s lips press together in amusement.

“All quiet, sir. Max rounded twice. The Marines checked in at the Inn and should be on their way. And your parents are with the Plemmonses but will be over for dinner with Ferrars.”

“Thank you. See you both then.” Aiden wraps up quickly, feeling my fingers twitch with nerves. I cannot possibly face James dribbling again, not to mention Hendrix and Jazzman whom I’ve never met before. What was I thinking letting Aiden drag me into that spring a second time? I wasn’t, that’s the problem. His mouth—with its lips and tongue and taste and words—is the real danger, not any intruders.

I’ve barely finished toweling off my hair in our bedroom when the Marines’ raucous laughter clamors from Elysium.

“Bloody hell, Aiden!” I groan, scrambling into the first dress my hands touch—my blue maxi apparently. “Why did you have to go back into that water? I’m a mess.”

He laughs unrepentantly and helps me zip up despite the fact that he is still shirtless. “I recall no objections from you, Mrs. Plemmons. In fact, I’m certain I and the entire National Trust Land heard at least four Aiden-don’t-stop’s.” He kisses my cheekbone that’s blushing. “And you’re the opposite of a mess. You’ll devastate their brain cells for the next decade. I should know. I saw you in a painting once and now I need fMRIs.”

I shake my head at his absurd, Javier-filtered image of me.

Behind him, on my nightstand, the dried poppies tremble at the ponderous footsteps treading up to the cottage like a stampede. “STORM!” James thunders from what sounds like the willows, and it’s impossible not to think of Javier again. “DROP WHAT GOD GAVE YOU AND COME TO THE DOOR!”

“Hurry!” I whimper, throwing on my locket while Aiden continues to gaze at me in the same way that got me into that spring a second time. Another bass voice booms from the hedge.

“Are you sure he lives here, Cal? It smells too good to be his place.”

“Put on your shirt!” I hiss at Aiden. “Now!”

He laughs again but wisely obeys. Then he gives me a quick kiss— “Mrs. Plemmons, I adore you”—and swoops me in his arms, blowing down the stairs with me as James’s fist rattles the door, making all the frames dip. I raise my eyebrow at Aiden as he smirks and opens the door.

“Fuck, Cal, you’re breaking the cottage!” he growls, but they’re both laughing as they fist-bump each other. A familiar sense of wonder fills me as it does when I watch Aiden—so extraordinary, he’s feels magical to me—do normal things like this.

“Hey, pest!” James grins at me, or at least I think he does. He looks even wilder than when I last saw him. Only his hazel eyes are visible in the jungle of ginger hair that’s exploding out of him in every direction. His vast height is blocking Hendrix and Jazzman behind him.

“Hi, James, welcome back.” I hug his branch-like arm that saved me.

“Someone fucking with you?” Through the auburn tangles, his sniper eyes flash with danger.

“No, just your brother.”

He barks another laugh. “Oh, well, he can’t help it. It’s in his nature. Here, check this out.” He pulls out his iPhone and shows me his screensaver—it’s a photo of his massive hands holding a silver salmon the size of my leg. My dad’s fly is hooked inside its mouth. “Caught him on the first cast—made your pops proud, heh?”

“Yes, you did, James. Well done.” I smile at the fly, heart in hooks, wondering if dad didn’t send that salmon swimming up that stream once his fly was floating again.

“Cal, get the fuck out of the way, man! You’ve already met her.” The bass voice grumbles behind him while James ducks past me with another ringing laugh, revealing Hendrix—I recognize him from his photo in the reel. He is long and lean where James is bushy and hulking, with bristling chestnut hair and chocolate brown eyes. He locks hands vertically with Aiden in an alpha way and tilts his head toward me. “Is this the trouble?”

Aiden glows in the most embarrassing way possible. “Hendrix, this is Elisa. Elisa, this is Ryan Hendrix, but we haven’t used his first name since our Crucible when the drill sergeant unwisely started calling him Ry-cry.”

“Nice to meet you, Hendrix. Welcome to Burford.” I smile at him.

He regards me with amused deliberation. “How can something so small wreak so much havoc?” he demands of everyone.

“I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately.” I sigh only half-joking, and they all laugh in understanding.

“Don’t worry, Trouble. If anyone fucks with you, he’ll breathe his last.” Hendrix winks at me, and I don’t think he’s joking. But they seem to find the idea of taking down my supposed intruder hilarious and satisfying. It sounds like James is cracking his knuckles in anticipation as Hendrix squashes himself past Aiden and me. But my eyes are rivetted on the threshold where I finally see Jazzman—the Marine I have most wanted to meet. The one whose life Aiden saved in his final act before being knocked unconscious and changed forever.

Aiden tried to prepare me for this. But, like the reel, no amount of preparation could have immunized me to the sight before me. Lankier than the others, Jazzman is two entirely different men in one. Half of him is handsome in a Paul Newman way. The other half, from his bare scalp to his left calf visible below his shorts is covered in livid burn scars, ash-grey and raised above his skin as though he has been woven out of a macabre fabric into a living flag for what these four men lived through. But his marred beauty is not why I can’t blink despite my preparation. It’s the way his eyes lock on Aiden before anyone else, and Aiden’s eyes on him. For a long, quiet moment, memories flow between them. I know from the agony on Aiden’s face and the reverence in Jazzman’s expression that they’re both remembering the same moment: when Jazzman was burning in that Fallujah schoolyard under gun fire and Aiden saved him with his last shot.

Behind me in the foyer, James and Hendrix are silent too. They must be used to this wordless exchange that inevitably occurs when Aiden and Jazzman first set eyes on each other after a long separation. I take my cue from them and remain quiet but lean closer to Aiden so my arm touches his. At our contact, he blinks and his lips lift in a smile.

“Hey, Jazz.”

“My brother.” Jazzman steps up to Aiden and hugs him. Just one arm barely touching Aiden’s shoulders, but they still tense. Yet, Aiden doesn’t step away as he would with others. He lets Jazzman hug him like he does with Stella. And that’s when I see the depth of their unique bond. Two brothers—disfigured from their former selves in such different ways—who are willing to relieve their most excruciating moment over and over again for their friendship.

Gently, I rest my hand at the small of Aiden’s back to help him, and his tension drains away. Jazzman must feel it too because he releases his savior and his eyes—one bright blue, the other glass—flit to me with a smile. “Aha! You are obviously Elisa with the calming effect. I’m Jazz.” He holds out his scarred hand. I take it, both careful and curious to feel his skin. Its texture is like starched lace and very warm, as though he’s been resting his hand on a space heater.

“I’m glad to finally meet you, Jazz.” And I am—not just him, but all of them who have saved Aiden as much as he saved them. Exactly as Stella said.

“I gotta say, I thought Storm dreamt you up at first.”

“So did Storm,” Aiden agrees, and they all laugh together. When Jazz laughs, the terrifying scars seem to fade even if they pull the right corner of his mouth down into a vicious grimace.

“Can you calm other people too? Is it like a superpower?” Jazz holds out his hand again, fluttering his fingers in invitation.

“I don’t think so.” I laugh, meeting his fingertips. “But I can definitely put you to sleep with chemistry lectures if you want. Or rose tea.”

Aiden chuckles, swooping my hand in his. “Stop trying to touch my woman, Jazz. Get your own.”

“Right you are, brother. You found one, how hard can it be?” Jazz’s laughter reverberates through the foyer that’s about to collapse. He squeezes around Aiden and me, ruffling my hair in his passage, and follows Cal and Hendrix into the living room to give Aiden space.

As soon as their trainers vanish around the corner, Aiden’s hands close around my waist, pulling me to him. “Thank you,” he whispers even though his words would never carry through the boisterous baritones echoing from the living room.

“For what?”

“For calming me so quickly. It made it easier for both Jazz and me.”

“He seems very kind, Aiden. I love seeing you all together.”

He chuckles. “Why don’t you wait to decide until we’ve been up until midnight, drinking? You might change your mind after that.”

“I really doubt it.” I stroke the scar above his eye. Its toughened ridge presses against my fingertip, cool and smooth, so different from Jazz. Abruptly, my mind starts bartering with the universe again, like it does during the reel. What if it had been Aiden stuck in the fire and Jazz tortured in the classroom with Marshall instead? Would I rather that Aiden had livid scars on his skin? Or as he is now with the scars within, marring the peace of his mind?

“What are you thinking so hard about?” he murmurs.

“How glad I am that you made it. That you’re here.” I run my fingers down his flawless cheek.

I can see from his eyes that he knows what I mean. Not just here in my cottage, but here-here—a star on earth. “Me too,” he smiles.

Me too. Such big little words for him. Two months ago, Aiden would have never thought them. Two months ago, he wanted Marshall’s place, not this. I find an odd peace with the universe then—an acceptance I haven’t felt since before the reel, since Aiden told me about Marshall at the Portland Rose Garden. Because it doesn’t matter to me where his scars are. I’ll always want him exactly as he is. What matters is that he finally wants to live.

“Elisa, is Storm’s dick blocking your way?” James bellows from the living room right as Aiden lowers his head to kiss me, and I burst out laughing. “Stomp your foot if you need help.”

“You’re still never getting anywhere near my dick, Cal. No matter how much you want it,” Aiden calls back, kissing the corner of my mouth. “Come. With some luck, my dick will be blocking other things tonight and we can keep the window open.”

I follow him to the kitchen, flushing while he takes out dad’s whiskey glasses and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc for me. He knows scotch is like chess: too painful to sip.

The living room furniture is in danger again. James takes over half the sofa. Hendrix is hunched in one armchair, his knees almost to his chin. And Jazz—while the smallest star in their stellar quadrant—is still overflowing in the other. They have already opened a bottle of Glenlivet from Speyside and fill the glasses as Aiden takes the other half of the sofa, propping me exactly where I want to be: on his lap. I lean into his iron chest that feels more comfortable than a feather mattress to me, ready to enjoy the waterfall laughter that will spring once James starts to speak, but James chooses to destroy every tingle of warmth I’ve felt since Aidonis.

“So what’s happening with the perv? Any sign of him?”

Aiden’s fingers press gently on my hip—don’t scratch Cal, he’s saying—but he shakes his head quicky for my benefit. “No change from my first recon.”

“Sneaky fucker.” Hendrix sneers, his dark expression positively alarming. Like Benson and Max, they seem to accept Aiden’s theory without question. And why shouldn’t they? They have relied on his mind for decades in everything, whether to guide them through the fire maze of Fallujah and save their lives or to build an empire so vast that none of them ever has to work again if they choose. Who would question such a mind? But they don’t know about the reel. Doctor Helen, Corbin, and I are the ones who know and the only ones who remain unconvinced.

“So what’s the battle plan for tomorrow?” Jazz looks at Aiden for direction, but Aiden’s fingers draw soothing circles at the small of my back.

“Well, the festival was very special to Elisa’s mother and to her,” he answers. “So rule number one is non-interference. I’ll walk you through the strategy later.”

All of them nod once in unison with identical serious expressions as though they are receiving military orders. And tension wrings my insides. What strategy? What will they do to mum’s happy day? I open my mouth to ask, but Aiden turns to me, sensing my alarm. “Don’t worry, this just means we won’t intervene unless you’re in danger. Otherwise, we’ll simply watch and you won’t even know where we are, except Max and Ferrars who will stay closer but receive the same orders. That way you can enjoy the festival as if this didn’t exist. Or as close to that as possible under the circumstances.”

I nod as I finally realize why he is keeping the details from me. But how can I enjoy it without him? I force as big a smile as I can manage to stifle the question. Because no matter how much the wound will burn, fester, and throb at his absence, I know it will pale to his agony that he cannot be there next to me. And I’d rather give up some of our remaining days than cause him more pain.

He doesn’t buy my enthusiasm. “I won’t be far,” he comforts me, his voice controlled but I know it too well to miss his anguish underneath.

“Maybe if I know where you are, I can sneak away for a bit.” I try to cheer him up, keeping my smile on my face, but it no longer feels forced at the idea.

Something twinkles in his eyes but before I can ask, James rumbles. “I hope the fucker is dumb enough to show tomorrow.”

“Of course he will.” Hendrix is supremely confident. “Open, crowded space where no one can notice him lurk. He won’t be able to resist.”

“I agree. He has no way of knowing we’ll be waiting for him . . .” Jazz drifts off with a lethal smile that makes me shiver. As if missing Aiden tomorrow is not enough. As if his mental strain doesn’t already terrify me as much as the reel does. Now the festival is a military operation too, instead of the precious tradition that brought mum perennial joy.

And even though I barely know James, Hendrix, and Jazz, even though I already tried today with Aiden, abruptly I want to run through all my arguments again. One by one, right here, right now so that the festival can be how it was when mum loved it, so that Aiden can rest and we can get back to our reel of brilliancy for the time we have left.

But I can see from their faces—James’s determined eyes, Hendrix’s set jaw, Jazz’s grimaced smile, and Aiden’s steely arm around me—that no matter what I say will make a difference. Tomorrow, while roses bloom on the cobblestoned lanes of my childhood, seven lethal beings will find only danger. Make the festival happy for mum, please. Give Aiden peace. Bring us back to us.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 24 – CIRCLE

Happy Sunday, friends! It’s been a dreary, rainy weekend here in Portland, perfect for moods and writing. Wanted to thank all of you who read and wrote to me about the last chapter.  I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Real v. Reel? I can’t answer that, but I’m loving your comments and theories. Here is another chapter. Hope you like it. Lots of love, Ani

 

24 

Circle

Chronologically, a sunrise lasts only two minutes. Emotionally is another matter. Because right now, waiting for Aiden, the seconds between the first glow above the horizon and the first rays scattering across the sky ooze like congealed blood from an open wound. Each willow murmur sounds like footsteps, each lark song like a familiar melodic voice—but there is nothing. He’s not here, he’s not here.

I jump to my feet, unable to sit on the garden bench without him a second longer. Max’s alert eyes follow me from the hedge as I dash to the hybrid rose behind the shed. Chills prick my skin like thorns at the reel’s proximity. Does the evil inside know it hasn’t been unleashed today? Will it avenge itself on Aiden later? I shiver and force my mind to scour my work bench for any disturbance. But nothing is missing here either. My brain stutters to produce any differences—is that pot of dirt closer to the edge? Has the Elisa graft moved an inch? I stare without blinking, yet I can’t decide if I’m seeing differences or missing them.

Then things strike fast like the sun bursting over the hilltops. Max rumbles, “Good morning,” Benson’s voice booms through the air, “News?”, and I break into a sprint.

“Aiden!” I shriek, rounding the shed, jumping over a Clare, losing a slipper, and launching myself at him the moment he streaks through the garden hedge. His gasp whooshes in my ears as he swoops me in his arms and tucks me in his chest while I run my hands frantically over him to make sure he’s okay. He is—not a single scratch on his beautiful head.

“Hey, hey, I’m fine,” he assures me, but he’s doing the same with me, scanning me from my hair to my bare toes. His shoulders sink in relief when he sees everything is the exact mess he left it. “Elisa, what the hell are you doing up?” he chides, tracing the circle under my eye with his fingertip. “I thought I told you to go to bed.”

I lock my arms in a stranglehold around his neck, blubbering in his throat. “But you—not here—worried—I couldn’t—”

“I also told you not to worry.” His exasperated voice has never sounded more like music to me. “You don’t really think someone can hurt Benson and me, do you?”

“No, but—you’re tired—and stressed—and—”

“Shh, it takes a lot more than that to take me down.” He cradles me in his arms and kisses my hair, all anger seemingly forgotten—or vanished I should say, for him.

“I’m glad you’re home,” I sniffle, crushing myself closer to him and inhaling his scent.

“I’ve told you this, too.” He sighs again, but his lips stay in my hair. “I’ll always come back to you.”

The cottage door flies open then. “Aiden?” Stella cries and hurtles down the path, Robert on her heels.

“Oh, fuck, does no one listen to me?” Aiden mutters under his breath, setting me on my feet without releasing his hold around my waist as he turns to reassure his poor parents. I peek at Benson in his usual spot behind Aiden. He winks at me, but there is a shadow of worry in his brown eyes.

“Are you okay?” I mouth at him behind Aiden’s arm as Aiden keeps saying I’m fine to Stella.

Benson nods with a smile.

“And him?” I tilt my head slightly toward Aiden.

“Worried,” Benson mouths back and the smile disappears.

I tighten my grip on Aiden’s arm, resting my head against his stony bicep. It softens at the point of contact, but I still don’t let go of him or he of me as we troop back to the cottage. His eyes devour the garden corner to corner, and he crouches at the Clare to pick up my fuzzy slipper.

“Here you go, Cinderella.” He slides it back on my foot, his exhausted smile more dazzling to me than the new sun. Then he squints across the rose bush at the garden shed and the hybrid behind it.

“I checked,” I say immediately so he doesn’t have to wonder or spend any more time on his feet.

The V appears between his eyebrows. “And?”

I shake my head, aware of all the eyes and ears on us. “Everything is there, but I can’t tell if they moved an inch or two. I’m so sorry.” My last three words stun us both. Until they slipped out of my mouth under his gaze, I didn’t know I preferred a real intruder to giving Aiden this news.

As if he heard that thought, a trace of the same hurt flickers in the turquoise depths, and he stands, taking my hand. “Don’t be sorry. I’d rather be wrong than have you in more danger.”

And I’d rather be in danger than have him be wrong. But worse than that is that four-letter word—m-o-r-e. No doubt he used it because he believes the first and foremost danger is him. “I’m never in danger if you’re with me,” I answer, knowing he won’t argue with everyone around us.

And he doesn’t—the only sign of protest is his clenched jaw.

Inside the cottage, Stella has been busy while I was staring at empty fields and cluttered working benches. The smell of fried eggs is wafting from the kitchen, but she herds us into the living room, where she has set out coffee, rose water, scones, jam, cream, strawberries, and mum’s soup tureen full of scrambled eggs on the coffee table that’s creaking under the weight.

“Eat something, Aiden. Benson, Max—you too. Elisa, darling, I’ve got your tea right here, in this pretty cup. There you are!”

It’s not until I see the food that my body registers hunger. Or maybe it’s because Aiden is home, and I can feel something else other than my throbbing chest. We all load our plates and scatter on our old seats from the night, Aiden folding on the sofa next to me, except now our arms and legs are touching.

“So what happened, son?” Robert asks when Aiden finishes his scone. “Did you find anything either way?”

Aiden blows out a gust of breath, not touching his coffee, while a shiver whips over my skin. “Many and nothing,” he answers, his voice controlled. If I didn’t know it so well, I would have missed the faint hard edge underneath. “There are tire tracks on the roadside gravel by Elysium but, as Elisa is no doubt thinking this very second, that’s not surprising because it’s the main road to town.”

He nods at me, as if to say I’m considering your theory. I vow to do the same for him. “What else did you see?”

“This was by the garage,” he answers, taking something from the back pocket of his jeans and handing it to me. It’s an After Eight mint wrapper. “It wasn’t there this afternoon when we pulled out of the garage to go to the Inn,” he explains as I pass it around. “But it could have ended up there in any number of ways. Someone could have tossed it out of a car window for all we know.”

“Does it mean anything to you, Elisa?” Stella asks, sipping her tea.

“No, After Eights are popular around here. I’d wager every cottage in town has them. My dad used to love them, but I haven’t bought them since . . .”

Aiden takes my hand, hearing the unspoken day in my drift. There are shadows under his brilliant turquoise eyes, his skin shimmers less, and the ray of sun beaming through the window fractures over his drawn cheeks. Yet he is still here, caring for me.

“Aiden, love, why don’t you get some sleep?” I plead, clasping his fingers. “We can finish this later. You’ve been up all night.”

He shakes his head. “We’re almost done. Benson, show them what you found.”

Benson sets his clean plate on the floor and digs in the liner pocket of his jacket. His massive hand covers whatever it is, but he tosses it at me. I see as it somersaults through the air that it’s a tiny ball of crumpled paper. It lands in my open hand with uncanny accuracy. I smooth it out, looking at the random doodles like concentric circles.  Five necks crane to peek at it with me.

“Any thoughts about this one?” Aiden prompts.

“Umm, not really. It looks like scrap paper. Anyone can doodle like this.”

He nods with a deep sigh. “I had the same thought. I’ve seen you draw circles like this, and seventy-eight other people in my life. It’s in blue ink—also your usual choice—but blue pens are hardly unique. I can’t prove this came from the cottage or was meant for it. There’s nothing unusual about the paper either—just a generic lined notebook.”

I look at it again. I have notebooks like this. As does Reagan. As does the town’s stationer, Mrs. Sterling, and probably everyone who buys notepads there. The doodles are symmetric, it’s true, but I see nothing in them to link them only to me. “Where did you find this?”

“Down the road toward town.” Aiden gestures the direction with his thumb. “Why? What are you thinking?”

I shrug. “Just trying to consider your theory as fairly as mine. This does look like something I would draw but, as you said, so could anyone.”

Aiden runs his hand through his hair in frustration. His eyes zoom on the empty fireplace like last night, the tectonic plates shifting back and forth, back and forth as if he is looking at a chessboard.

“Did you see anything else?” Max wonders, gulping coffee.

“Random details, equally ambiguous,” Aiden answers, his eyes not breaking the inner analysis. “There’s a broken rose in the climber by the garage door, but that could have happened when the door closed behind the car. There’s a cigarette butt further down the road but it could be anyone’s. There are no footprints because, of course, it’s been dry.” Then his eyes flit to Max. “Did you check for footprints under the windows?

Max nods with vigor. “As soon as it got light out. There’s none in the dirt or the rose beds.”

The faithful V forms between Aiden’s eyebrows, and something quick passes between him and Benson.

“If there are no footprints where there should be, that means either they swept them or we’re left with the key theory,” Benson rumbles.

“Or mine,” I offer, looking only at Aiden, feeling like we’re stuck in a circle. I’m about to ask him to stop this now and go to sleep, but he takes my hand.

“Elisa, I know you have serious doubts about this, and if I only listen to logic, I have them too. But I can’t shake off this instinct that I’m right. So, I’ll ask you one more thing about this that you will hate, and then I promise I’ll be done for today. Will you please call the Plemmonses and ask them if they ever gave the cottage key to anyone else? They’re usually up by now, setting up the shop.”

I’m about to say “no bloody way” but the lines of worry on his beautiful face stop my tongue. How can I not give this to him if it helps him sleep and fight the reel later today? How can I not give him everything after the story his parents told me? Exactly as he would do for me.

“If I do this, will you go to sleep?” I ask, brushing his knuckles.

“I promise.”

“And you will stop worrying?”

“I can’t promise that, but I promise I will drop the subject for today.”

“What about security? If the Plemmonses say no, as I’m sure they will, can we let Max enjoy the rest of his vacation? He’ll get so bored guarding me from doodles, he’ll have to steal roses himself for entertainment.”

He shakes his head before I’m done. “I can’t do that—not until I figure out what we’re dealing with.”

I watch his set jaw, knowing this is the best he can give right now. As he must know from my eyes that this isn’t over. I nod, reserving all my arguments for when he’s rested, and pick up my phone from the sofa corner, where apparently it’s been sitting forgotten all night.

“Thank you,” Aiden says simply as I dial.

Mr. Plemmons answers on the seventh ring, and it takes several different shouting volumes to establish the right level of bellowing for him to hear.

“Is summat the matter with the roses, Rose?”

“No, Mr. Plemmons, but I have a quest—”

“Wha’ ‘bout the Festival?”

“I’m all set, Mr. Plemmons, but—”

“Did yeh like the garland, Rose?”

“It was beautiful, Mr. Plemmons, thank—”

“Is Adam being a gentleman? I told him, I said, ‘only because yer parents ‘ull be here, Adam, but yeh keep yer hands off our Rose! An’ we ‘spect to meet them, we do. Didn’ I tell him, Josephine?”

“Yes, you did, Harold. You scared him right off. The man promised he’s sleeping in the shed.”

The first chuckles of the day susurrate around me, Stella’s in a pillow, Benson’s on his knuckles, Max’s in his elbow, and Robert’s in his palm. Aiden is too stressed and tense to laugh or do anything but pinch the bridge of his nose and breathe deeply with his eyes closed for strength.

“Mr. Plemmons, I have a question,” I yell at the top of my lungs into the receiver to delay the stroke that is surely coming for Aiden.

“Wha’ is it, Rose?”

“Did anyone ever borrow the cottage key when I was in Portland?”

“The wha’?”

“The cottage key, Mr. Plemmons!”

“The key? I don’ think so, Rose. Josephine, do yeh remember anyone ask fer the rose key?”

Some silence on the other side presumably as Mrs. Plemmons scratches her head with her knitting needles. “No, I don’t remember anything like that,” she wheezes after a while then her voice rasps closer to the receiver. “Has something happened, Rosebud?”

“Nothing at all, Mrs. Plemmons. Not a thing. I’ll bring by some roses and Aiden’s parents later. They’re coming to the Festival.”

“Oh, how wonderful! On with you, Harold, on with you! I have biscuits to bake for Aiden’s parents.”

“Stop calling him Edmund, Josephine. His name is Adam.”

They are still arguing about Aiden’s name when Mr. Plemmons hangs up without saying goodbye.

“Feeling better?” I ask Aiden as his parents, Benson, and Max are catching their breath from laughing.

He runs his hand over his thick stubble with a deep sigh. “How much can we rely on their memories, Elisa, really? The man believes I’m sleeping in the shed.”

I caress his tense jaw. “And you might well end up sleeping in the shed if you don’t drop this right now like you promised. Now on with you, Adam, on with you. Go to bed and sleep this off.”

The first real smile since the Suite of Firsts lifts his lips. “Oh no, not the shed.” But he stands without further argument, and everyone stands with him.

Fifteen minutes later, after his parents leave with Benson while Max insists on staying guard outside until we wake up, Aiden and I finally climb the stairs to our happy bedroom. With each creak of the old boards, the terror of the night starts to dissipate. First as a wink of a smile at the corner of Aiden’s mouth when he steps on the fifth stair, then as a sigh in my throat when his hands curve around my hips, until the moment we cross the threshold of our room, we both transform. The glow returns to Aiden’s face, warming his ashen skin back to gold. His jaw relaxes, the V releases his eyebrows, and every wisp of tension floats away from him until his long, graceful body moves with his patent fluidity, half-water, half-man. And every debris of fear and anguish disappears from his eyes until they gleam the clearest shade of turquoise.

As for me, I’m back to the drooling state I started this night with.

“Are you having déjà vu?” Aiden smiles as he closes the bedroom door.

“How did you know?”

He flows to me and wraps his arms around my waist. “Because I’m having it, too.”

“Déjà vu to what?”

“To entering our Room of Firsts. You?”

“Me too.”

“Mmm.” He lowers his face to mine as he did last night, pausing an inch from my lips. “Can you make us a protein to turn back time?”

“I wish.” My voice turns to vapor under his heated breath.

“Let’s try to repeat it then.” His eyes become molten and descend over me like fire. I have exactly one second left for thought. Already my body is arching toward his.

“Oh, no!” I lean away, pushing against his chest. “Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Plemmons. There will be no female nudity of any kind. You’re here to sleep.”

He laughs with that waterfall sound as I quote his words to me from Oxford’s University Park but doesn’t release my waist. “But I sleep so much better with female nudity around, Elisa.”

“Well, maybe Mrs. Willoughby can oblige.” I push weakly against his chest again, but he brings his lips to my ear.

“I don’t want Mrs. Willoughby.” His hand trails up my spine. “I want your hair . . .” He sweeps aside my tangles. “And your skin . . .” His fingers trace my throat. “And your smell . . .” His nose skims along my jaw. “I want everything of yours on me.” He molds me to his shape as his lips brush mine. “If I have all that, Elisa, no one on this earth sleeps better than me.”

His words stop but it’s not silent. My heart is thundering, my blood is hammering, my breath is hitching. He blows gently over my lips to open my eyes I didn’t know I had closed. “Can you still give all that to me?” he asks as soon as I blink at him. “After everything I put you through last night?”

It only takes that change in his voice—from amused to tender to uncertain—to clear my mind. “They’re always yours.”

The dimpled smile sparkles on his cheek. “Then may I have this dance?”

We have danced together to Für Elise fourteen times now, once before each sleep. I know his steps by heart, yet each time feels new. He takes off my clothes and I take off his, and we sway together, skin on skin, each piano note as vital as a heartbeat now that I know how it became the soundtrack to our dreams.

“I’m sorry, love,” he murmurs, his voice more melodic than our lullaby. I look up at his incandescent eyes—there isn’t a single trace of fear, hurt, or anguish there now. Only peace.

“Why are you sorry?” I whisper back, letting the melody reign over us.

“For getting angry when you were only trying to reason with me. For worrying you. For making you lose sleep. For being unable to drop this like you wish I would.”

“Shh.” I press my finger on his lips—he kisses it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. I know everything you’re doing is to protect me. I’m the one who should apologize.”

His raven brows arch in shock, and he stops mid-turn. “What do you have to apologize for?”

“For hurting you when you were only trying to save me. For yelling at you. For not believing you like you wish I would.”

‘Shh.” He smiles, pressing his finger on my lips—I kiss it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. You did the right thing. I need you to challenge me. Always, but especially now.”

He picks up the dance, nose in my hair, as Für Elise plays on. I debate whether to tell him I know how he found it, but I don’t want any painful memories to enter this bubble. ‘I can’t be anywhere else,’ he told his parents the night I left him. I lean into his body before chills whip my skin. What happens this time if we lose? Or if the reel takes him from me before time does? Will there be any place left in this earth for him or me now that we are so deeply entwined together I no longer know where I end and where he starts? I press myself closer to him, inhaling his pure, vivid scent that keeps the goose bumps away.

Für Elise ends with its last poignant note and starts again. We curl into our cotton bed that smells like us, and he takes his anti-nightmare pill while I pray for the protein. Make him brave, keep him whole.

“How long should we set it for?” he asks, programming my song.

“Don’t—sleep as long as you need. We can do the r-e-e-l whenever you wake up this time.”

He doesn’t argue or flinch like I do. Still invincible, still braver than me. He wraps his arms around me and pulls me to his front, every curve of me to every angle of him. I can feel his desire, but he keeps his promise. He just buries his lips and nose in my hair, breathing me in. “Don’t worry, love.” His fingers trail down my arm. “I’m built for this.”

“But it’s different now, with all the trauma you’re revisiting.”

A deep sigh flows through him and washes over me. “I know . . . same answer.”

From the beech tree outside the window, a lark starts to warble, harmonizing its song to Für Elise. “Is there any part of you that thinks the r-e-e-l might be causing this?” I whisper, not wanting this question to interfere with either melody.

He caresses my arm, back and forth like piano keys. “Maybe I’m afraid to think it,” he whispers, too. “The idea of not being in control of my own mind . . .”

I turn in his arms, placing my hand over his heart. “You are in control. You’re just learning new ways of thinking. Don’t doubt your mind. Only your reactions to stress. I’m sure Doctor Helen will agree. You should talk to her about this.”

He nods, weaving his fingers with mine, looking at our joined hands. His lashes cast long shadows over his cheeks. “Will you answer something for me? The full truth, no diplomacy or sparing of feelings.”

“Of course,” I answer, surprised by the uncharacteristic request. His eyes usually see my truth before I even know it. But right now, they’re locked on our folded hands as he speaks in a slow, deliberate voice.

“If the reel fixes the startle but breaks my mind, would you still want to be with me?”

His question makes me gasp, but not only because of the heart-wrenching words. I stop breathing because I finally realize why he is afraid. It’s not fear of losing his mind, it’s fear of losing my heart.

“Aiden Hale.” I lift his chin as he does with me so I can see his eyes. They’re steady and bold, except that flicker of pure hurt that now I fully understand. “I will want you no matter what the reel does—whether it changes your mind or not and even if it doesn’t fix the startle. I know you don’t like hearing that, but you asked for the full truth. I’ll always love you, and no distance, or time, or reel can ever change that.”

He has inhaled every word, breathing them in like air. And I know he believes me. I know because the painful question clears from his eyes. “So, it’s not just my brain that you’re attracted to?” he smiles, gesturing to the photo of his brain and heart waves on my nightstand.

I grin back. “No, sorry. It doesn’t even make the top five.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” he chuckles. “But I’m curious now, what are the top five?”

“Oh, that’s easy. Your heart, your character, your strength, your laugh, your mouth—”

I’m about to continue, but he kisses me with a low throaty sound. “Mmm, this mouth business seems to be important.”

“Very.”

His fingers braid into my hair and he strains me to his shape until I can feel his heartbeat on my skin. The moment I taste him on my tongue, I realize that until now my own mouth tasted bitter, but it wasn’t the night. It was the hours apart. His lips brush away the acrid residue until I only taste his honeyed flavor.

“Ah, Elisa,” he sighs, freeing me for air, but his breathing is almost as uneven as mine. He turns me around—all iron and silk—and presses his lips in my hair. “Our top fives are the same, you know . . . except mine also include your faith in me and your patience and your humor and . . .”

I’m about to point out that this is more than five, but a deep breath of cinnamon air swirls in my hair and his weight becomes heavy around me. I peek around, and he is asleep, his lips parted in a soft smile.

“Like cookies, my love,” I whisper. I lie here as always, counting his breaths, and happiness shifts again despite the night. It becomes his puffs of sleep to my song in our humble bedroom with the dried poppies of our weapons in this fight: our love, his strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love, our families, the team of scientists, my calming effect, Für Elise, hope, laughter, and, if I can finish, the protein. I still don’t know if they’re enough to win against Aiden’s past. And after today, I no longer know if they will be enough to see us through the reel.

Abruptly, sleep vanishes, and I feel wide awake. More than awake—drumming with nervous energy and fear, making my feet and mind twitch. Instead of poppies, I can only see Bia and the protein’s formula in my head. It’s no longer just urgent—after last night, it’s imperative. I can’t afford to lie here when I can calculate Oxytocin Twelve doses instead. I finish counting the one hundred and fifty breaths that it takes for Aiden to drift into deep sleep, and inch out of bed, jittery and tense.

Dad’s library is filled with sunlight when I tiptoe there. The gauzy curtain billows with the rose breeze, and Max’s reflection plays on the windowpane, sipping his coffee by the hedge. Was it only five hours ago that I stumbled in this room shuddering in terror? Now the idea of an intruder sitting on Dad’s armchair or touching our unfinished chess game under the glass case feels fuzzy, like a distant nightmare that has left only its startle behind.

I switch on old Bod, wishing I could run to Bia instead, but there is no point in testing until I understand exactly how much O-12 I should add and why else the formula didn’t hold yesterday. I’m blurry eyed with calculations when Skype’s jingle dings loud enough for Max’s head to snap up toward my window. Reagan! I answer it immediately, not wanting to wake Aiden.

“Top o’ the morning, Rose.” Reagan’s curls explode on the screen and her feigned British accent chimes through the library. As soon as I see her sparkling smile in her pajamas, an urge to hug Bod overpowers me. I blow her a kiss on the screen.

“Hey, Reg—how was the flight? Did you find everything okay?”

“Oh yea, okay and empty and boring. I’ve decided rhododendrons are highly overrated compared to my rose.” She glares at her window where our old pink rhodie is blooming. “I miss England already.”

“And England misses you. How was Javi on the flight? Any progress?” Between meeting Aiden’s parents and dealing with real or reel intruders, I’ve been itching to ask her since Aiden found the sketch of her eyes at the Inn.

She blows a ringlet off her face, and her smile disappears. “Well, we fought for half of it so no—unless you define ‘progress’ as conversation in which case, yes, it was an improvement over the dour silence that filled the other half.”

“What did you fight about?” I ask even though it doesn’t matter. The real reason is Javier being invisible for all his formative life and now he is unable to see when he is seen.

“Everything—no matter what I say or do, I seem to aggravate him. I don’t know, Isa, but I’ve thought a lot about it. I have to let him be . . .” She wipes her eyes with her sleeve.

“No, Reg, don’t give up yet. Javi loves you—he just doesn’t know how.” I trap my tongue between my teeth, so I don’t mention the sketch. I can hear Aiden’s voice, even asleep, thundering through his synapses to tell me to keep my mouth shut. And as much as I hate to admit it, he is right.

Reagan just shakes her head, mopping up more tears.

“I’m serious,” I tell her, clutching the screen as if it were her shoulders. “Let Javi open the gallery and get some confidence, like Aiden said, and I think he’ll come around.”

She wipes her nose this time and nods. “He’s very excited about Solis Art—he’s named it already. But enough about me or I’ll cry all night. How did it go with Aiden’s parents?”

I want to keep talking about her and Javier, but I can tell she needs the space. And I can’t even berate her for not warning me about the fact that Aiden’s parents make the Beckhams look like garden compost. “They’re so sweet, Reg. I wasn’t prepared for how kind and supportive they are.”

“I know, right? They’re exactly who I would have picked for you. Stella already posted a picture of your roses on Facebook, quoting Shakespeare, ‘Of all the flowers, methinks a rose is best.’ Here, look.”

Reagan holds up her iPhone to show me Stella’s profile, but I stare at it without seeing as shivers scrape my skin at the mention of the charlatan. Does he creep up on other people’s lives like this or is he only haunting mine?

“I have to hit the pillow, Isa,” Reg says after I manage a nod. “I’m still jetlagged, but I have to go to work tomorrow. Who invented jobs? Horrible person.”

Probably Shakespeare. “Love you, Reg. Sleep well.”

“Love you, too. Say hi to our dragon. Tell him to prepare in advance because in September, I might even hug him.”

She hangs up with a laugh before she hears the whisper that hushes out of my lips of its own volition. If we have until September . . .

I listen for any sign of Aiden upstairs, but there is nothing. Hopefully he is dreaming of cookies while I stare at my lined notepad waiting for a stroke of brilliance. That odd sensation I felt in the Room of Firsts, like a tugged thought, flutters again now for some reason. What was I thinking about when I first felt it? Oh, yes, I had mumbled “orgasms are oxytocin but taste better” in my sex coma. And there it is—the same curious feeling, like a tip-of-the-tongue hesitancy . . . I try to analyze it but can’t find any clues in it. It must have been because I tasted the protein earlier at Bia and it didn’t taste as good as Aiden. But why did it fizz away?

Outside the library window, Max’s pacing shadow rolls over the roses. And on my notepad, my pen draws concentric circles over my calculations without a single answer.

©2021 Ani Keating

 

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTERS 21 & 22 – ANSWER & THE HALES

Hello friends, and welcome to tea! Or rather to two chapters since I didn’t post on Sunday: Answer and The Hales.  Hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed writing them. I’m savoring these moments with our couple, you’ll see why.  More soon, and thank you as always for reading and writing to me. Hope the week wraps up well.  xo, Ani

21

Answer

Reagan and Javier’s last hour in Burford comes too soon. Where did two weeks go? How has it been only two weeks when they feel so permanent here, as natural as the roses? How can I watch them go? And what then? Continue living goodbye to goodbye?

“You know we’ll come right back if you need us, right?” Javier asks Aiden and me as we’re all sitting in the Inn’s terrace Friday evening for a final toast before they go to Heathrow Airport. Not that I can swallow anything. Aiden’s arm hasn’t left my waist since he picked me up from Bia four hours ago.

“We do, thank you,” he answers now for us both—my voice has disappeared.

Amorcita?” Javier takes my hand across the table. “I promise. You just say the word.”

“Absolutely, Isa.” Reagan takes my other hand. “As often as needed until you two figure this out and come back.”

At least my blanched face can be blamed on the goodbye this time. At least I don’t have to force a smile. I manage a nod.

“About that,” Aiden adds. “These are for you.” He hands them the two first-class tickets he has bought them. “They’re for . . . September.”

I know he chose the bare minimum words needed but a chill whips my skin anyway. September 18, when our ninety days are up. In case I need Javier and Reagan here then. In case we don’t win.  His hold on my waist could crush the boulder in the river but it’s still not tight enough for me.  He throws his jacket casually over my shoulders.

“That’s when you’ll find out if things have improved?” Javier confirms, his voice lower.

Even Aiden can’t form a verbal answer now—he simply nods, pulling me closer.

“And then what?” Reagan starts but Javier elbows her.

“Reg, don’t.”

“Why not?” she fires back at him, eyes flashing. “Why can’t we discuss the elephant in the room, Javi?”

For a moment I don’t know if she is talking about them or us—there has been no progress with them on that front—but Javier shakes his head. “Because it’s not our elephant to discuss.”

“What did you want to discuss, Reagan?” Aiden asks my question, no doubt for my benefit.

She glares at Javier and, hesitantly, takes Aiden’s hand too. I feel tension jolt through him. It strains him more now the longer he watches the reel. “I don’t care if I’m interfering, I have to say this part. I know you have serious things to deal with but I’ve also seen how much you love each other. And that kind of love is rare. Don’t throw it away.”

“Reg, for the love of God!” Javier explodes—very rare for him. “Isa could get hurt! And not just hurt, but really fucked up! Is that what you want?”

“Of course not!”

“Then what the fuck? Isn’t it hard enough without reminding them how much worse it can get?”

I barely hear Javier and Reagan’s loud voices over the shudder that rocks through Aiden and the snap of his teeth at the mere idea. Javier and Reagan notice it too, and stop mid-fight. Javier takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Aiden. I didn’t mean to—”

“There’s nothing to apologize for. You’re absolutely right.” Aiden’s voice is clipped, filled the terror and self-hatred twisting every band of muscle in his back. That snaps me out of my self-pity.

“No, you are not!” I yank back my hands from their hold, my voice a lot louder and sharper than I ever thought I could produce against Javier. “You don’t know Aiden like I do. He’s working hard at it every day—harder than you could ever know—and he will not hurt me!”

Anger burns my throat and my breath is coming out in hard gusts. I’ve never yelled at Javier before—this is not how I want to say goodbye. But even worse is saying goodbye with him thinking of Aiden this way.

“Elisa, love, it’s all right.” Aiden’s voice—so tender with me when seconds ago it was so vicious against himself—makes me even more furious.

“You stop it, too! You’re worse about it than Javier. Can’t we all just have some . . . some faith in you? In who you are?”

He raises his eyebrows, taken aback by the force of my anger. As we all are. I scowl at the veranda’s balustrade, hands in fists. I don’t understand my fury right now. The last minutes with Reagan and Javier are ticking, I’m more terrified of losing Aiden than ever, yet I’m fighting with them for worrying about me. But I do understand this: I’m not scared of Aiden hurting me physically. I know that’s mad given our history, but I just cannot feel that kind of fear. I’m terrified of what this fight will cost him, of losing him if he doesn’t beat this when I would want to be with him no matter what. Exactly as Reagan said.

She nods at me in understanding.

The two most self-loathing men on the planet heave a similar deep sigh. I don’t want to imagine the arguments Aiden is having with himself right now—they might as well be scrawled in blood across his forehead. At last Javier nods. “Okay, Isa, I can see your point. And I do have faith in you, Aiden. I don’t think you’d ever hurt her intentionally. It’s accidents I worry about.”

“As do I,” Aiden answers, ignoring my huff.

“But I also worry about you two all alone here with so much hanging in the balance. I’m glad your parents are coming tomorrow but after they leave . . . Isn’t there a way for you both to come back while you deal with this? We still have your million dollars. Come back to Portland where we can all be together and support you more.”

Javier looks straight at me now, and whatever blood boiled to the surface from anger drains off my face. Behind him, the moon glows over the hilltop with my parents’ grave. The cottage’s rooftop looms across the field of epiphanies. And in my chest, the locket with my father’s dream is pulsing next to my heart. Tears spring in my eyes, and I have nowhere to look, nowhere to hide.

I know they have seen everything under the veranda’s lanterns. I hear it in their silence, in Reagan’s sigh, and yet I cannot form a single word, I cannot gaze anywhere except at the mental image of a ribcage torn apart like the one in the reel of torture.

“The thing is, Javier,” Aiden breaks the silence in a measured tone as chill after chill flays my arms. “The scientists who are helping me are here. And this place is a bit easier for me right now, quieter, more open. So I’ll have to impose on you to be here for us this summer.”

He just took it all from me and put it on himself so I don’t have to choose or even answer right now. I don’t know if it works on Reagan and Javier, I can’t look because I finally can meet Aiden’s eyes when this topic comes up. They’re the softest blue—softer than the moonlight. Is this how they’ve looked at me every time I’ve hidden from them?

“In that case, we’ll come here as you need us,” Javier says without further argument. “We can revisit if—when—things work out.”

I know he corrected himself for me. I know because he smiles when I manage to look at him.  And then it’s time. Benson comes into the terrace, telling us the van is ready to take them away. All my anger and indecision disappears—the only thing left is anguish and goodbye. No, don’t go, I want to shout in front of that van, but they have their own troubles, their own lives.

“I’ll come with you to the airport,” I sniffle as they stand.

Dios, Isa, no. You wouldn’t get back here until midnight. Aiden’s parents are coming tomorrow.” Javier grins despite my earlier yelling.

And that does make me smile. I get to meet the two people who created the most beautiful force in my life tomorrow, just as Aiden planned it so I’d have something to get me through today.  But I still don’t know how I get through the next few minutes. Only Aiden’s hand in mine keeps me standing or walking as Benson and his mate, Max, start carrying out Reagan’s and Javier’s suitcases one after the other, double in number now because of Reagan’s new hats. Then Aiden’s hand squeezes mine.

“Have a few minutes with them,” he says, kissing my temple. “I’ll be in the lobby.” His eyes follow me as I shamble to Javier’s room in the quiet Inn.

Reagan and Javier are both there, double-checking Javier’s travel parole documents. As soon as they see me, they pull me in their arms in a three-way hug, as they did when they showed up on my doorstep exactly two weeks ago.

“We’ll call as soon as we land, and every day after that,” Reagan says. “I’ll be back before you know it. Take care of my rose until then.”

“I will.” I take their hands and put them together. “And you take care of each other, okay?”

“Don’t worry about us,” Javier answers while Reagan stares at her trainers.  “It’s you and Aiden you need to worry about.” They drop their hands at the same time.

“Love you,” I tell them both. “Love you so much. I’m so sorry I yelled at you, Javi.”

He laughs, mussing up my hair. “Don’t worry about it. That’s how I know we’re family.” Then his face becomes somber, and I know before he speaks that he’ll say something that will ring in my ears long after his plane takes off.  “You know we’re family, right?”

“I do.”

“We’re never going to replace your parents on that hill, sweetheart, but we’re here, flesh and blood. Life is long—you need family with you. Heal Aiden here but come back to us.”

He gives me another peppermint hug, Reagan kisses my cheek, and with a love you corazon y alma, they walk out.

I sink on the rug of Javier’s room as their footsteps fade, clutching my locket, trying to breathe, trying to see the present moment instead of the torn, unknown future ahead of me. But there is nothing visible through the tears that are gushing now. The whole world has become liquid like transatlantic oceans, drowning me in it.

It takes Aiden exactly two minutes to find me here, gasping and weeping on the floor. He folds down next to me, cradling me in his arms. And at first, it’s worse. Because that terrified part of me that’s drowning imagines another goodbye—his—and sobs wrack my lungs so violently that he tightens his hold and starts rocking me in place, murmuring words I cannot hear. I grip the collar of his shirt and another image—this one of gripping the marble grave when I first came back—flashes in my own reel of torture.  But wafts of cinnamon breath wash over my face one after another, and eventually I can find the present moment. I’m in Aiden’s chest, his shirt is soaked, his hand is cupping my cheek as he keeps murmuring, “I’m here, I’m right here, I love you, they love you.”

And though the tears are still trickling, I can breathe through them and it’s not the worst goodbye of my life. I take strength from that. And I’m not alone. Even though my mind dreads his goodbye, in the present moment, Aiden is with me, I’m in the fortress of his arms. And I’m able to lift my head, look up at his eyes.

Just in time to wish I hadn’t. Because the agony there is so staggering that it suffocates my lungs. I’m adding to his pain when the reel already brutalizes him each dawn. And its toll is getting higher each week, each day. The reel holds him longer; it takes a few extra minutes to bring him back; he is more vigilant, seeing more dangers; and his eyes lock in memories more often. Yet he’s here, trying to comfort me, absorbing my tears along with Fallujah’s bombs.

That’s when the tears stop. Immediately as though his anguish switched off my tear ducts and restarted my mind.

He notices. “Elisa?” His voice is panicked, as though he’s not sure if it’s over or about to start again. “Talk to me, please.”

“Hi,” I croak, wincing at the hoarse sound of my voice. He doesn’t speak, but his hand feels my forehead, my pulse. “I’m okay,” I assure him.

“No, love, you’re not. I’ve never seen you in so much pain.”

But I’ve known a lot worse pain. Losing him for one. Losing my parents for another. But he doesn’t need to hear that. “I’m just awful with goodbyes, Aiden, but I’m better now.”

He wipes the moisture off my cheeks, the V a deep canyon between his brows. “It’s not just goodbyes this time though, is it? It’s having to choose: half your heart here, half in Portland, and you don’t know how. That’s why you hide your face when it comes up, why you can’t look at me or anyone else.”

He has seen it all—I never fooled him for a second. I nod a weak yes, limp in his arms. “I didn’t think . . . I didn’t know I’d feel this way . . . until I came back.”

He watches every flicker of expression on me, and I let him, relieved for the truth to be out even if painful. “I’ll fly them over as often as possible,” he offers. “All of the Solises, not just Reagan and Javier. I can buy them a cottage here if you want. Would you like that?”

But they all eventually would leave. Unless I abandon everything I love here, we will always be apart. These are not burdens I can lay on Aiden’s tense shoulders. I stroke the worried V to smooth it—it doesn’t give. “I know you would, but they have their own lives in Portland. They’ve sacrificed so much to be there. I can’t uproot them. I’ll just have to choose which half of my heart I can give up. ”

“Tell me what to do, Elisa.  How do I help you with this?”

I rest my head on his chest, listening to his heart. “This is enough. Just be with me.” No matter what, even if we don’t win, I add in my head, because if I have him, I can live through anything. But that’s the one request that would be excruciating to him, the one thing in the world he would not give to me.

He shrugs as though he doesn’t think he’s enough. “I’m yours, you know that.”

I do know. I just don’t want him to be mine from a distance. I snuggle closer, like a second shirt over his soaked one. He strokes my arm, no doubt noticing the goose bumps. “Will you promise me something?” he asks.

“Anything. Unless it’s some self-loathing nonsense.”

“No, it’s not about my . . . renovations. Will you promise me you’ll talk to me about this next time? You won’t try to hide it like you’ve been.”

I nod, kissing the spot above his heart. “I promise. I don’t know why I try to hide anything from you. You see it all anyway.”

“I do, and the answer is yes.”

His heartbeat is even, calmer than mine that is abruptly galloping again. I look up at him, and his eyes are serene, the V is gone. “The answer to which question?”

“To whether I would consider living here if I become safe for you. Isn’t that what you’ve been wondering?”

I watch him stunned, unsure he spoke the words, but the small smile on his lips is evidence he said them. “You would?” I whisper.

He nods, brushing my cheek. “I can’t promise I will become safe, but I can promise that if I do, I will not make you choose. Whatever you decide, I would support you. Does that help?”

It takes several thundering heartbeats and another waft of cinnamon breath for me to form words. “More than you know,” I answer, the rush of gratitude muting my voice.

His smile widens. “There, you can take that off your list of worries.”

So many other things I want to ask—whether he would want to live here for himself, whether I could ever ask him to give up his life, his empire, his parents with whom he is trying to rebuild his relationship —but I don’t because they’re still just if’s. What matters in this present moment is the love behind them. I take his face in my hands and bring him to my mouth. His lips are willing but hesitant—probably wondering if I’m well enough to be kissed—so I crush myself against him, my lips leaving no room for doubt. Instantly, his body responds, and his mouth starts moving with mine in his possessive, healing way. One of his hands curls in my hair, his other arm tightens around my waist, straining me against the steel lines of him. And that’s when I remember.

“Aiden, oh my God!” I gasp.

“I prefer being your man.”

“No, I mean, do you know what time it is?”

His fiery eyes smolder in a way that sets my skin ablaze. “I’ve known what time it is since five fifteen.”

“Bloody hell, that’s four hours of no condoms! Why didn’t you remind me?”

“You were ups—” His answer fades in my mouth. I can’t kiss him deep enough, taste him long enough, touch him fast enough. My hands swoop down on his belt, snapping the buckle. His fist in my hair tightens as he tilts up my face, and his other hand closes like iron fetters around my wrists. It takes a few moments of rolling frantically on his lap to realize his strength is not possession now—it’s restraint.

“Elisa,” he says, his voice suede and warm—a direct counterpoint to every hardened angle of him. “Will you please stop grinding against my cock?”

“You don’t like that?” I gasp, unable to locate my hips, let alone stop them.

“Clearly I very much do, but not now.”

“What?” His words stop my hips wherever they are. As a rule, he never says no to this. He chuckles at my bewildered expression. “Why not now?” I ask, brain glitching.

His beauty transforms in that fluid way of his that leaves me breathless—or it would if I wasn’t already panting. “Because I’ve thought about feeling you that way hundreds of times, maybe thousands. And now that it’s here, I don’t want it to be right after you’ve been sobbing. Or on Javier’s floor for that matter.”

I try to think through the way his words make my pulse and other things race. “But I’m fine now. And we can go to your room here—we haven’t tried that bed yet. It looks a bit like the one at Chatsworth. Who knows what kind of fainting it would cause.” My body arches futilely against his restraints.

He smiles at my attempts to seduce him. “All painfully excellent points, but I still want my first memory of us together like that on a happier day.”

“Oh!” I breathe, brain finally reconnecting. His memory would always associate our most intimate moment with a day of tears. Perish the thought. “You’re right, definitely not today. I almost ended the world.”

He laughs and releases me now that he knows I won’t attack him. “Come on, my dear Mrs. Plemmons. If memory serves, there’s still one last condom hidden in garden shed to save our lives the old way.”

He starts to stand with me still soldered to him, but something catches his eye. He frowns at the floor under Javier’s dresser. “I think Javier forgot something.”

He reaches under the dresser and drags out a sketch. His low whistle mingles with my sharp inhale. Because there, in carbon pencil, vivid even in black and white, are Reagan’s eyes. Unmistakable and inquisitive as though they’re looking at the man who drew them, asking why not, Javi?

“Wow!” I marvel.

“Quite.”

“I have to talk to him. He has to tell her!” I reach for my purse but Aiden stops my hand.

“Don’t. Let him have this secret if he needs it—we’ve already won.”

“Won how?”

He taps my nose with the sketch. “If I recall, the goal was to make Javier see. Well, he very clearly sees. What he does with that is up to him. Besides, you and I have more urgent things to worry about right now.”

“We do?”

He rolls up the sketch and takes my hand with humor in his eyes. “Of course we do: we have a condom to ruin, scones to bake, that infernal silver tray to polish for the sixth time, parents to meet. These are heavy things, Elisa.”

I laugh as we leave Javier’s room and walk into the sultry night to the cottage. Because I’m with him.

***

Most goodbyes are followed by a hello—even the hard ones, even for me. Like a glistening morning after a night of squall to get us through storm to storm. And that’s exactly how Saturday’s sunrise is, even after the reel. As though all my stars have custom-ordered it for Aiden’s parents’ arrival. I gaze out of the open kitchen window, trying to see my nook of the world with visitors’ eyes. Loving, worried, overjoyed visitors who are finishing off five thousand miles right now to reconnect with their only son and meet his girlfriend for the first time.

The rose bubble around the cottage is shimmering with a golden mist. River Windrush seems more glass than liquid—a flecked mirror from the slow current underneath. On its bank, the willows sway like vermeil sirens in their hushed duet with the larks’ opera. And Elysium’s velvet of wildflowers is so dense it could be a tapestry worthy of Chatsworth’s gilded staircase. If I squint, I can see a thread of grass here and there in the brocade of daisies, forget-me-nots, poppies, wild orchids, and columbines. Even the sunrise is molten today—a dome of gold silk without a single cloud.

Yet despite the magnificent welcome nature has mounted, I feel utterly unprepared. How do people do this? Google was no help for my case. For one, Robert and Stella are the forces that created Aiden—enough said. For another, this is their first extended time with him since he hurt his mum and exiled himself from their life for their safety over a decade ago, as he did with me. There are no etiquette books about how to meet parents like these.

I wipe mum’s special tea set on the kitchen counter for the nth time—the gold rim and blush roses gleam like the rest of the cottage. What would you do, Mum? I laugh, thinking of her journal entry for meeting dad’s parents. The entire tea was an ordeal of epic proportions culminating with mum spilling hot earl grey on Grandpa Snow’s lap. “And we made it,” she wrote. “Just let them see your love, dearest. And bring roses.”

Outside the kitchen window, my million roses are sparkling with welcome, the blooms twinkling with dew, their perfume almost visible in the air.

“If you polish that teapot one more time, a genie will come out of it.” Aiden’s arms wind around my waist, making me jump. “Shh, just me,” he says in my ear. Just him—my entire universe. His freshly showered smell stuns all the roses. “What would you wish for?” He kisses the hollow spot below my ear.

“You.”

“Something you don’t already have.” His lips brush down my throat, blowing away my thoughts. “Wishes?” he murmurs again, like the willow song he hears.

“Umm, that I don’t spill tea on your father’s lap, that I solve the protein before your parents come, and that the plane is a little late, but not too much.”

He chuckles against my neck, sending tingles everywhere. “I will pour the tea, although it’s my lap you should worry about.” He nibbles my earlobe. “And you’re going to Bia this morning while I go to the airport so you might solve the protein.“ His lips flutter over my jaw. “As for the plane, it’s on time, but we’ll grab some coffee first and I’ll take the long way back.” His mouth presses at the corner of mine. “How is that?” He turns me in his arms, and all the other wishes disappear.

He is glowing before me more brilliant than the morning outside, in a white linen shirt and his staple jeans—a droplet water like a diamond in his still wet hair. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful, but I try to see him as his parents might. He looks playful, but his sculpted cheek is more drawn from the reel, and his eyes change more often. Although not now—his smile is as blinding as the sunrise.

“Will I do, Mrs. Plemmons?”

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.” He sighs with exasperation as he does when I check on him like this. “They are my parents, Elisa. I’ve met them before. From the minute I was born I’m told although, thank God, that is a moment I don’t remember.”

“I know but it’s—”

“Complicated, yes, I’m aware. But today, it’s easy for once. They’re meeting the woman I love, and I couldn’t be prouder or happier about it. Can we leave it at that?”

As if I can resist him in anything, let alone for happiness that has shifted again and now looks exactly like him. “Whatever you want.”

“I have everything I want in my arms. Now why don’t you tell me what you’re feeling that’s making you polish that tea set for the twelfth time that I’ve counted?”

I shrug. He’d be late for the airport if we covered all my nerves. “Mostly I want it to be a special time for you and them. And I want them to see our love, not just the danger.”

A dozen emotions flash across his face, from disbelief to amusement, but he settles for tenderness. “Elisa, the fact that this is happening at all is special enough. None of us could imagine this happening a month ago. Or my whole life for that matter. As for the love, how could they not see it? What other sane reason would any woman have to be with me?”

I frown at his choice of words. “A million.”

“All right, maybe that’s true on paper, but physical safety seems to be a basic prerequisite in life. And you endanger yours every day to be with me. My parents, more than anyone else, understand the love it takes for that. And the love it takes for me to allow it. So—stop—worrying.” His eyes are piercing as though trying to tattoo this very elemental truth straight into my brain.

“Can I worry about one more thing?”

“No.”

“Please?”

He sighs in that give-me-strength way, but cannot resist. “Fine, what else is worrying you?”

“Do you think they’ll like the scones?”

“You’re impossible.” He brings me to his mouth, kissing me in a way that should be banned and illegal. By the time he releases me, I can’t even remember my name, let alone my worries. I just droop in his arms, the kitchen twirling. He chuckles, although I think his hand curved around my neck is feeling my pulse—checking to make sure I won’t faint no doubt. “That should do it,” he says, satisfied. “Now, please, for today, could we try to be just Aiden and Elisa doing this very normal thing and enjoying this present moment without worrying about what’s behind us and what’s ahead?” He unleashes the full force of his eyes on me, like he did with his mouth. It takes multiple heartbeats, blinks, gasps, and a whistle from the kettle for my brain to unscramble. Even then, I can only manage a breathy, “yes.”

His dimpled smile almost incapacitates me again. “Thank you,” he says softly. He holds me a moment longer until my legs can support me. “Benson is here. Shall I send him to the airport alone while I resuscitate you from my kiss?”

He sounds serious, except the eyes dancing with humor at my expense. “That little peck? I’ll survive. Besides, I have the rose petal jam to taste—much sweeter than you.”

He laughs and throws a tea towel over my head like a birdcage. “Relax!” He kisses me through the other side of it as if I cannot handle his bare lips a second time, which is absolutely true. By the time the towel slides off my face, he’s in the foyer. “The scones are delicious. And be safe at Bia,” he calls behind him as he closes the front door.

I watch him lope gracefully down the garden path to Benson who is standing like another beech tree at the garden hedge, waiving at me. The moment they’re out of sight, two things happen at the same time: the wound starts festering and the nerves start humming. If I stay here much longer, I’ll end up cleaning the cottage to the studs again. Bravery is more urgent. I turn off the stove, throw on my locket and dad’s lab coat, and dash across Elysium to our garage shed for the Rover. Far in the opposite direction of the country road, I think I see the dot of Benson’s van racing toward Heathrow Airport as Reagan and Javier are still charging toward PDX.

22

The Hales

Bia is empty when I bustle in. It’s only eight fifteen on a Saturday morning after all—perfect for under-cover work. I steady my hands and start testing the oxytocin options. Seven down so far, ninety more to go from Aiden’s list inside my locket. As though to contain my nerves, my hands move faster—like they did the day of Javier’s trial—and I eliminate an eighth, ninth, and tenth oxytocin formula within the first two hours, one eye on the combusting vials and the other on the clock. I have only one hour left before I have to go. Another oxytocin ampule explodes, a shard of glass nicking at dad’s initials on the coat. If all fails, I’ll talk about the weather. That’s a good, solid British philosophy. And if his parents ask me whether I’d ever return to Portland, I’ll say what? Have more tea? Do you like the scones? I’m an undecided mess and I couldn’t decide anyway until our terrifying experiment with your only son is over? Because if we lose, there will be no place in the world for me? And if we win, he promised he would support me if I choose England? The questions are so deafening that I almost miss a change in the lab’s atmosphere, almost like a creeping sensation. I look around startled, but there is nothing. And then I finally hear what I sensed: utter silence. The vial in my hands has not exploded.

The gasp-gasp-gasp-gasp of my breath shatters the precious quiet as I stare at the lilac liquid in disbelief. Could it be? Is it possible? What was I doing? Which oxytocin was it? The twelfth! Was this it, Dad? Did “December” have two meanings? Not magnesium the twelfth element, but add the twelfth formula of love? Trembling, with my heart in my throat, too afraid to move, I gently shake the vial. It doesn’t break; there isn’t a single crack on it. But the substance is also liquid, not solid as it should be. In an unforgivable, inexplicable, and utterly mad moment, I tip it to my lips for a tiny drop. I know there’s nothing toxic in it, but no serious chemist would ever do this. Only the desperate ones. I almost hear dad’s voice thundering down on me. Yet the liquid doesn’t sting or hurt in any way. I smack my lips—it’s a bit sour, like lemon. Certainly nothing like what my love tastes. Maybe one more drop? I lift the vial again, mumbling “Salud,” when BANG! It explodes in my gloved hand at the same time that the droplet fizzes on my tongue. I deflate on my lab stool, heart plummeting in my stomach with disappointment. The good news is my stomach doesn’t heave or expel its contents. The bad news is I still don’t have the protein. Or any time left to test more today. As soon as that thought reenters my consciousness, I’m forced to surrender with a groan. Of course this would happen today of all days—on the other hand, it’s better than the ninetieth day. I tuck the oxytocin ampules back in their fridge and start sweeping the shards into the glass disposal bin. Yet underneath it all, I feel a frisson of joy—at least we know which oxytocin it might be. But why on earth is it still falling apart?

“Oh, hey, Eliser!” Graham’s voice blasts behind me. “What are you doing here? I didn’t know you worked Saturdays.”

“Hi, Graham!” I turn to grin at him, saying a fervent and silent thank you to any angel up above, including to my furious father, that Graham didn’t arrive ten minutes ago. “I just came in for some testing, but I’m almost done.”

“You’re becoming as obsessed as me. That’s brilliant, that is. Any luck?” He stows his satchel and tosses on his immaculate coat while I scan my area for any evidence of my work. Luck is indeed on my side—the only sign left is the usual shards of glass.

“Look for yourself,” I answer, inclining my head toward the splinters.

“Oh, more broken vials—that’s novel!” He laughs as I sweep away the crystal fragments. “Well, I’m not giving up, I’ve had an idea.” Graham pulls up the first volume of the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology and plops on his lab stool. “I think we’re missing something. Edison is adamant this is the formula he developed with your dad, but it can’t be complete. So I’m going to sit here today, tomorrow, and the rest of the year if that’s what it takes, looking through each substance in this abomination and see if I can come up with anything. Interested? It’ll be most riveting.” He flips open the tome to letter A with another laugh.

I forget sometimes how much I like Graham and his uncomplicated single-mindedness. All he seems to want in life is chemistry—that’s it. With more strength than I realized I felt, I hope he succeeds. I hope he finds the oxytocin on his own, and we can be true partners again. “I’d help but I have to run. A couple of friends are visiting.”

He looks up with a frown. “More guests from the States?”

“Yes, but don’t worry,” I assure him. “They’re retirement age and they’re staying at the Inn so there will be no wild parties to make me late for work.”

His forehead relaxes. “Eliser, I never thought I’d say this to anyone but myself, but you need a life with people your age. What will you do with your fossil mates?”

I laugh, wiping down my counter with ethanol. “Plenty. Tea today, out to dinner tonight, the Rose Festival next weekend . . .” Graham pretends to fall asleep and snore. “Good luck with your abomination. See you Monday.” By the time I close Bia’s door behind me, he’s already absorbed in the Encyclopedia, seeming lost to the rest of the world.

The golden morning is even more brilliant when I park the Rover in the garage, but the nerves are prickling like thorns. I snap off a wilted bloom from the climbing clair-de-lune roses and scuttle across Elysium’s wildflower carpet. A shiver runs through me as I pass by the spot of the reel at the edge—it’s visible from here, the wildflowers are flattened to Aiden’s body shape like an inkblot on the vivid tapestry. I trot to it, fluffing up the daisies, poppies, and trefoils as much as possible. I don’t want Aiden to see his own imprint, although if I noticed, his eyes have certainly not missed it. I roll a Baci quote inside an orchid for him to find after tomorrow’s reel and dash through the field to the cottage.

The moment I reach the garden, the nerves soften a little. The roses have never looked more magical. They went through a rose spa this week, as Reagan called it. We pruned all the wilted blooms, withered petals, and dried leaves we could reach, and now the roses twinkle, draping like Chantilly lace from the rooftop to my feet.

“Well done, you,” I mutter, caressing the Clare rosettes. Whatever else Aiden’s parents will think about us, no one can resist mum’s magic.

Her spell flows inside the cottage too as I look for any speckle of dust with visitors’ eyes. But there is none left. The cottage sparkles—the dove gray velvet sofa, the blush pillows, the heather-plaid armchairs, the vases of roses everywhere. Even the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights are painted in rose tones to blend in—courtesy of Javier. All my wellies and Aiden’s shoes are hidden away, although mum’s parka and dad’s tweed scarf are still in the coat hanger where they will always remain. The sight of home is so overwhelming that it stops my blinks. Will Aiden’s parents like this? Not just in vacuum, but for their son? By Reagan’s account, their home is straight out of the pages of Architectural Digest, which makes sense since Robert is, indeed, an architect.

My phone vibrates against my behind with a text. Aiden: “Dropping off luggage at the Inn. 20 minutes. Good or detour?”

The nerves explode with full force like the vials. “Good,” I manage to text back as I sprint up the stairs, hair and heart everywhere. Because the hardest question that I’ve not dared to examine too close is now clamoring over the bright white walls: will they like me for their son?

Of course they’ll love you. Who doesn’t? said Aiden, the man with Javier’s filter over his eyes when it comes to me. I hope he doesn’t embarrass me with his this-is-the-only-woman-in-the-world nonsense. I scoff, pawing through mum’s dresses for the dusky rose linen dress that Reagan and I selected for the occasion. Then I busy myself with peeking through the lace curtain of the kitchen window, tasting jam and reciting the periodic table.

I hear them before I see them. A deep hearty laugh that has to be Aiden’s father, a soprano one that must be his mum, and my favorite sound in the world—Aiden’s waterfall laughter. Then the three of them emerge through the willow garlands, and my mouth falls open. If there has ever been a more attractive family, I’ll broadcast dad’s bravery formula on BBC. I don’t know how or when, but somehow, someday, Reagan Starr will pay for not warning me about this.

Aiden’s father is the Old Aiden of my visions, tall and leonine, with a full head of hair that glimmers snow-white, which makes his steel blue eyes brighter even from my sneaking spot. I absolutely must not spill tea on his taupe slacks or oyster shirt. Yet my eyes drift to Stella now standing with her mouth open like me as she takes in the roses.

“Oh, my stars!” she gasps—I like her already. Her hair falls in chocolate waves to her shoulders, and she has a heart-shaped face. But it’s her eyes that hold me. Although Aiden’s eyes have no parallel, it’s clear that his neutral sapphire came from her. She is petite, wearing black linen pants, a cream turtleneck, and a caramel purse like the one on Reagan’s dream wardrobe Pinterest account. “It’s like a fairytale,” she swoons, but her eyes never leave Aiden’s face for long. He stands a few steps behind her, and she looks over her shoulder at him with a shining love I’ve only ever seen in my mum’s face in our home movies.

“It does feel like that sometimes,” Aiden answers, and now I examine his face. There is a different beauty about him when he looks back at her. Softer, almost with longing, and something dawns on me that I should have realized by now: unlike most of us, Aiden has not forgotten those initial emotions in life, that first powerful bond between mother and child. That’s exactly what he must be feeling now. How has he been able to endure their separation?

“Come, meet Elisa,” he says, and his voice becomes suffused with pride and excitement. Yes, he’ll definitely embarrass me. They start walking up the path while I sprint to the front door, smoothing down my dress and hair and checking my lips for jam.

“How many roses are here do you think?” I hear Stella ask. According to Aiden, she loves gardening.

“Oh, I’ve estimated just under a million. Many of them have a story, some have names. Elisa can introduce you to them later, she does it better than me.”

“Names? How precious!”

I take a deep breath and open the door. The three exquisite creatures look at me with varying smiles: Robert’s dignified, Stella’s warm, and Aiden’s dazzling as his eyes lighten to my turquoise.

“There she is,” he says, stepping next to me and wrapping his arm around my waist. I hear a low gasp from his parents—perhaps seeing my calming effect on him for the first time?—and feel my face burn. “Elisa,” Aiden breaks the short silence. “These are my parents, Robert and Stella. Parents, this is Elisa.” If there was pride in his voice before, it’s nothing to how he sounds now.

“You’re very welcome,” I say, flushing. “I’m glad to meet you.” The words no longer feel rehearsed—they are true in every syllable because I’m meeting the two most influential people in Aiden’s life.

“It’s so wonderful to finally meet you, Elisa,” Stella says with feeling, reaching out her hand. I take it and, to my surprise, she pulls me into a gentle gardenia hug. “You’re even more darling than in Maria’s and Reagan’s pictures. Thank you for inviting us.”

“It was Aiden’s idea actually, but a good one as usual,” I answer, suddenly wanting her to know this. She beams at him behind me while Robert extends his hand.

“A pleasure to meet you, Elisa.” He doesn’t hug me, but his grasp is warm and firm.

“And these are the roses,” I add breathlessly, and they all laugh. “I can give you their names later. Please come in, you must be tired.”

“Oh, not at all, Aiden spoiled us,” says Stella, referring to the first-class flight he bought them, no doubt.

We make it to the living room despite the small foyer, Aiden’s arm never leaving my waist. They seem to anticipate his movements to the millimeter—much better than me, and only a degree below Benson—despite more than a decade of distance between them.

“Oh, this is lovely,” Stella enthuses as she looks around. “Exactly like a fairytale, I just telling Aiden.”

“Beautiful architecture,” Robert approves, his eyes tracing the ceiling beams.

“Thank you. It was falling to ruin when my parents bought it, but they restored it. Please take a seat. Would you like something to drink before tea?”

“No, no, we’re fine,” Stella chimes. “Come, sit with us for a while.”

They take the armchairs, insisting that we take the sofa. At first, I think they must like the squashy seats, but then I notice a sense of wonder flit through their faces each time they see Aiden touch me. Like right now as he winds his long fingers with mine.

“Do you play, Elisa?” Robert asks, inclining his head toward mum’s upright in the corner.

“Only a little. Not as well as my mum and definitely not as well as Aiden.”

“She’s being modest,” Aiden interjects in his this-is-Beethoven voice, his thumb drawing a half-moon on the back of my hand. “She’s an excellent player. We usually play after dinner together.”

“Speaking of music.” Stella looks at me with another smile, and I get the feeling she is trying to make me feel welcome even though she is in my home. “Aiden just had us play the willow game.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter while I melt. “Yes, mom, tell Elisa what you heard.”

“I swear they say ‘more shoes.’”

Robert chuckles too—maybe this is why they were laughing earlier. “Darling, you don’t need more shoes or willows to tell you that.”

She laughs. “Because yours was so much better? Fishing, fishing, fishing?”

I listen to the sound of their family—so new for the cottage, yet so familiar—trying to find nuances and similarities to what I know despite the different cultures and tragedies that have struck our families. They are there: the easy manner with which they show love, the way they tease each other. And the nerves fade. Aiden and I have something in common beyond our connection forged in the fires of Iraq and Javier’s brushstrokes. Our families do not seem that different. Yet could I ever take him away from this even if we win? When I know exactly how it feels to lose it?

“I’ll go set out the tea,” I say, standing. “Please make yourself at home. Or we could have it in the garden if you prefer?”

“Wherever is easiest for you, dear. I can come help.” Stella starts to rise from her armchair, but Aiden stops her.

“I’ll help Elisa, mom. You relax.”

He takes me be the waist to the kitchen, and I sense marveling eyes follow us there. As soon as we turn the kitchen corner, Aiden pulls me in his arms. “Hi, you,” he murmurs, his eyes doing that part-fire, part-adoring thing.

“Hi,” I breathe.

He arches me closer, lips at my ear. “You shouldn’t look this stunning. It’s excruciating with parents around.”

“Me? Have you seen the three of you? You make the rest of us look like wet tea bags.”

He chuckles, kissing the corner of my jaw, inhaling the Aeternum perfume. “Ah, Elisa.” His lips brush to the corner of my mouth. “They like you, you know.”

I push weakly against his chest—his mouth is already messing with my thought process. “Let’s wait for the verdict, shall we? I’ve barely said five words.”

He releases me with a sigh, his eyes still on fire. “I don’t need to wait. I know my parents.”

“They’re so sweet, Aiden. I’m so glad they came.”

“They’re absurdly over the moon. I’m certain every time I touch you, my mom’s heart has arrhythmia.”

He helps me arrange the infernal silver tray—or rather watches me as I do it, his gaze enflaming my skin even though I avoid looking at him so I don’t break mum’s china. “Aiden, behave.”

“What?”

“You know exactly what.”

He chuckles again and this time helps me fold the rose-embroidered napkins. The good news is his heated gaze leaves my skin. The bad news is his fingers brush against mine now and then, giving my own heart arrhythmia. But thankfully he takes over when it comes to the scorching kettle. “I believe I promised to do this for the sake of my father’s lap. Although there’s only one lap burning in that living room and it’s quite the safety hazard.”

A scone drops from my fingers on the silver tray. “Aiden, please!”

“All right, I’ll behave. Tell me about your second wish. How was Bia?” He starts filling the rose teapot, guarding my hands away from the blistering stream.

“Hopeful at first, then it fell apart again.”

“What happened?”

“The twelfth formula stuck for a minute and then exploded.” I decide he doesn’t need to know about my reckless taste test. He would have a dragon fit, parents or no parents around.

“Maybe a dosage issue?”

“That was my first thought, too. I’ll start recalibrating on Monday.”

“It does sound like the correct oxytocin though. It rings true with the December code.”

“Yes, it feels like the sort of thing dad would do: layer meanings in his clues.”

“Just as his daughter does.”

We end up in the garden for the tea under the deep shade of the beech trees in the bistro table and chairs that mum used for al fresco dinners. Stella is bubbling like the Bollinger champagne Aiden is now pouring. “Robert, look at this! There are rose petals in the bubbly.”

“And in the tea.” Robert chuckles with an indulgent sound.

Stella looks at me, her eyes soft—they change almost as quickly as Aiden’s. “You’ve gone to such trouble for us when you’re dealing with so much. We would have been happy with just toast and water, but I can’t deny I love this. Thank you.” There is an old ache hidden well in the velveteen folds of her voice.

“It was no trouble at all,” I assure her. “Besides, Aiden helped me with all of it.”

“Oh, yes,” he answers in a tone so uncharacteristically light, I think he’s trying to banish the ache in hers. “The rose petals in the Bollinger were definitely my idea. Not to mention taking the scones out of the oven and making sure the oven was off.”

Her bubbling laughter returns immediately and she picks up a scone. “I’m not surprised. You were always a helpful little boy.” She turns to me, spreading rose petal jam on her scone. “Would you like to see some pictures, Elisa?”

“Oh, dear God!” Aiden groans, sitting up in his chair and turning to his father. “I thought we discussed this.”

Robert chortles, raising his hands. “I’m sorry, son, I tried. At least she only brought one album. There were five packed in her suitcase before I discovered them.”

“Aiden, stop it,” I laugh. “I want to see them. You’ve seen mine.”

“That’s different—yours are hanging on the wall. I have to see them.”

“And I have to see these.” I scoot eagerly close to Stella, ignoring his resigned growl, as she takes a small album the size of her palm out of her purse.

“Here he is, a month old,” she croons, flipping through the pages, while I try to muster heart, tear ducts, lungs, and ovaries. Because baby Aiden was something entirely wondrous. Even in those early months, his eyes were shockingly aware for an infant under his mop of black hair—certainly more so than Anamelia, for example, when she was a baby. I watch him over the years in this different reel, shooting up and filling out, blowing out candles, riding the blue bike I saw during his MRI, and transforming out of the innocent baby to the somber child with the burden of his entire world imprinted on his mind. Yet his eyes do not change—they remain sentient in every way. I can tell exactly when Stella was the photographer and when it was Robert. Because the child’s gaze holds that undercurrent of longing for Stella and a strand of deference for Robert, until the last photos of pre-teen Aiden who never looks at the camera again.

“All right, that’s enough.” Adult Aiden’s long arm swoops across the table and takes the album over our protests. “I’m confiscating this for the next two weeks.”

“And you accused me of being the cutest kid,” I say, but my throat feels full—full of bubbles, full of his baby smile, full of his memories.

“And I was right.” His otherworldly gaze meets mine, and I wish we were alone so I could ask what he is thinking in this moment. Do I want to know? Under the table, his hand grasps mine, his thumb drawing an infinity loop on my palm.

“Stella, I think we’ve embarrassed our son enough for the rest of the year. Why don’t you show them what the Solises sent?” Robert interjects casually as if he senses exactly the wave of emotion that has suddenly swept the garden.

“Oh, yes, good idea.” Stella scrambles inside her purse again with a grin. “Here, Elisa, this is for you.” She hands me a small glass bottle full of dirt. On it, with sparkly craft paper letters that could only be the work of Javier’s sisters, it says: Isa’s Home. “Apparently, it has dirt from Casa Solis, your apartment with Reagan, and Aiden’s backyard,” Stella explains.

I smile at the dirt, trying to breathe, unable to meet their eyes. Of all our family, Robert and Stella are the ones who absolutely cannot see my conflict—not when they are only now getting their son back. “It’s brilliant,” I whisper, bringing the bottle to my lips and setting it at the center of the table.

“And Maria sent you this.” She takes out a floppy something wrapped in more sparkly paper. I unwrap it, and this time cannot stop my sigh. It’s a handkerchief crocheted with Maria’s lacework and all our family initials embroidered in icon blue. “She made it while Javier was . . . unavailable,” Stella adds softly.

“Of course she did.” I kiss the handkerchief too and set it on top of mum’s rose napkin before I need it for tears.

“And, Aiden, this is only for you.” Stella laughs, handing him an envelope with so many Hello Kitties on it, the paper is not visible. “It’s from Anamelia and she gave us strict instructions that no one else is to open it.”

He pulls me close as I lean in to see. Inside is a drawing and two words sprinkled with more sparkles. Aiden + Anamelia, she has scrawled in pink crayon. Below the words are two stick figures, a tall one with big black hair and a small one with pigtails. Around them, she has drawn a giant heart. Despite the emotion, it makes me laugh. She thinks Aiden is her special friend and the rest of us are allowed to borrow him on occasion.

“She has her brother’s talent,” Aiden chuckles, folding it carefully and setting it on top of my handkerchief. Then his hand grips mine under the table again. “I’ll have to draw something back, won’t I?” he asks me.

“Yes, and right away. She’s probably waiting by the mailbox.”

“Christ.”

“And this,” Stella says with a flourish. “Is from Cora.” She hands us a photo of Aiden’s backyard where the American Beauty roses we planted together before I left are bursting with crimson blooms. And my throat feels full of bubbles again. How can I miss that yard where I barely spent a month as much as I miss this where I’ve lived most of my life?

“Speaking of roses,” Aiden jumps in, no doubt seeing my torment. “Elisa, why don’t you introduce my mom to the ones here?” He strokes my hand under the table, and I know he picked this moment on purpose: to give me a breather and allow me a chance to showcase my life here.

Strolling the garden with Stella is like nothing I can compare it to. She is a bouquet of familiar blooms—kind like Mum, warm like Maria, perceptive like Aiden—yet with something entirely her own. She gives me time between roses, asking just enough questions to draw me out but not enough to push me, and I sense she is being careful, that this is as new to her as it is to me.

“It’s beautiful here,” she says after I finish telling her about the Clares. “I wish I could have met your parents. I’m very sorry you’ve been through that.”

“Thank you. It’s better now than it used to be.” Especially here, so close to them.

“I feel I can imagine some of the pain from losing that kind of love after losing Aiden for so long.” She looks over her shoulder at Aiden and Robert talking at the tea table, Aiden’s eyes checking on me every few minutes. “But he seems happier and calmer than we’ve ever seen him, except as a child of course. That’s why Robert and I are so happy he has found you, dear.” Her sincerity is etched in every line of her smile, in every softly spoken word. “We had stopped hoping he would ever allow himself any love.”

Her openness disarms me so much that my own truth comes out with ease. “I worry about that still,” I admit. “But you’re right that at least now he wants to.”

She nods as we stroll to the Elisas. “How well you know him already! But we must have faith, mustn’t we? For him and for ourselves?”

“Yes! That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.”

She smiles, fluffing an Elisa bloom. “Isn’t it funny how love works? We are the only two people in the world he has hurt, and the two who have the most faith in him. I prayed every day I would be the only one, but if it had to happen again, let it be to a good end. Let it be so he can overcome this.”

Yes, let it be. There is no other end that’s acceptable, no option where Aiden is lost not just to me and his parents, but to himself. Abruptly the garden seems darker despite the bright afternoon sun, as though Aiden’s star flickered with my thoughts. “He’s working very hard,” I say with force to silence the abstraction. “I’ve never seen more determination or strength.”

Her forehead is creased with worry as I lead her to the Reagans. “He has been vague about this experiment. I’m sure he’s keeping all sorts of horrifics from us, and I won’t ask you to tell me. But please tell us what we can do to help. His father and I are here for you both in every way. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can’t ask of us.”

“I think being here and spending time with him will help. I know he wants to rebuild his relationship with you very much.”

“But there must be something more we can do,” she presses. “Please.” Her voice catches with her breath, and her index finger presses against a thorn absentmindedly. She pulls it back quickly, but it was enough—enough to see the deep fear that must be scalding her insides like mine, even with the faith we’re trying to keep. And enough to see how desperately she needs to do something for him.

“Well, the most important things are to avoid the startle at all costs and stay in the present moment. And, hard as it seems, we’ve been trying to build as many happy memories as possible to counteract the trauma. It might help for you and Robert to do the same with him, especially while I’m at work.”

Her face brightens immediately. “Yes, yes, that’s perfect! We can do that. And I can cook or help with anything else you need—the garden, the cottage—so you can just be.” She sounds lighter, eager, as though she wants to get started right now. Her pace picks up, but then she seems to remember where she is. “We won’t interfere with your time,” she assures me quickly. “We’ll stay at the Inn and give you privacy. More than us, more than anyone else, we know Aiden wants time with you.”

We’re at the garden shed now where the reel lives, and I lead her around it into Elysium. “You and Robert . . .” I hesitate, unsure how to phrase this. She gives me time. “I don’t know how to ask this, except directly I suppose. You don’t mind that I’m here for now? That I have my own . . . baggage?”

She rests her arm on my shoulder with a smile like the daisies. “No. You’re whom Aiden wants. And maybe it’s exactly that . . . history—” she chooses a different word for me—“and this beautiful place that have enabled you to capture him so entirely when no one else ever did. You must understand, we’ve never seen Aiden chase a girl or even hold hands with one, and he chased you all the way across the world, learning rose breeds and drawing for Anamelia and hosting tea. He has completely lost his head. We love it.”

For the first time in this conversation, she laughs freely—the sound flitting through Elysium like a skylark’s song—as though the idea of Aiden losing his mind in such a fashion is her personal bravery protein. The bubbling sound is infectious, and for a while we’re both laughing. Then the laughter becomes an easy silence as we stroll around Elysium. She steps carefully around the forget-me-nots, like me, but seems to avoid the purple wild orchids too. A sense of comfort sweeps over me exactly as in my childhood memories in this meadow despite the newness of my companion. And the vivid tapestry seems as sparkly as it did then. Not like new stars have entered my constellation, but rather like I’m seeing a star that was always there, just on the other side.

I turn us around before we reach the inkblot of the reel. Carefully, asking permission with her eyes, Stella hooks her arm in mine. “It will work out,” she says, gazing at the willows. “Somehow. The willows said that right after the shoes, although I wouldn’t tell the boys.”

I laugh. “What else did you hear?”

“Just that: somehow.”

Aiden and Robert appear from the garden then, striding with a similar step toward us, although Aiden’s fluid grace is not something anyone can match.

“How many baby stories have you told, Mom?” he asks when they reach us.

“I was just about to start on the first time we visited Oxford.” She releases my arm to him immediately.

“Too late.” He grins, tucking my arm in his. “I beat you to that one.” And very chastely he kisses my lips.

“Oh!” Stella gasps, her hand over her heart, while Robert’s arm flies around her. Their eyes are liquid seeing for the first time their son kiss on the lips.

Aiden laughs with my favorite sound. “I picked a good one, Mom, just as you said.”

For once, his pride does not embarrass me. Because underneath, I finally see, it is also pride in himself.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 20 – GIFT

Happy Sunday, everyone! Hope you’ve had a great weekend. Here is a chapter close to my heart for a lot of reasons, including that it is one of the last times we see Reagan and Javier in the books. Thank you to all for reading, and especially to Wattle Ido, HN, Liz, Linda, Darla, and all the others who are writing to me. Your good cheer and love of this story means a lot. xo, Ani [credits: Chatsworth Estate; viator.com.]

20

Gift

I never used to give much thought to happiness. I either had it and took it for granted or I lost it so deeply that thinking about it wouldn’t help. But I think a lot about it now. Not about what it means, but rather about it is. And I notice how different it looks each day, each hour, even minute. An hour ago, happiness looked like two bodies wrapped together in twinkly lights, bursting like halos around each other’s sun. Then it looked like hunting condoms hidden under petals in a rose garden while drinking coffee mouth to mouth. And right now it looks like Aiden and me watering the roses together, waiting for Reagan and Javier for our overnight trip to Pemberley, or rather Chatsworth Estate that Jane Austen immortalized as Mr. Darcy’s abode. Of course to me, Chatsworth is happiness for an entirely different reason: my own Mr. Darcy and the surprise that awaits him.

Happiness is a shapeshifter.

“Well, I’m disappointed,” my Mr. Darcy says, watering the Cecilias in a fresh white shirt and grey jeans while I label the cyclamen floribunda rose I’m dedicating to Reagan. “The woman who breaks chemical protein codes while kissing only managed to find five of my hidden condoms fully caffeinated. That won’t cover us even for tonight.”

“We’re not all CIA-trained analysts, Aiden. Some of us need clues.”

A smile ignites his eyes until his face lights up with that surreal beauty it takes on at certain moments, like when he asked me to meet his parents. My brain couldn’t solve a clue right now even if he gave it to me. He drops the nozzle on the grass and takes the three steps between us, holding out his hand. “Fair point. Close your eyes.”

“That sounds even harder,” I grumble—why would I want him out of sight?

“Come on. I’m trying to be romantic. Don’t ruin it for me.”

“Fine,” I sigh, closing my eyes. “But if you’re being romantic with condoms, you better hurry before Javier comes. We’re really pushing his aneurism.”

He chuckles but cups his hand over my eyes. “No snooping this time.”

Whatever plans he must have for this condom must be hazardously good. He leads me down the path by my waist in the direction of the garden shed, his body brushing against the cerise summer dress he brought me back from Portland. He stops us a few steps later and frees my eyes. “Everything you need is here.”

We’re at the workbench behind the shed where I’ve been trying to cultivate a new rose—a hybrid between the Elisa and the American Beauty I bought from Mr. Plemmons. Not that I’d ever admit to Aiden I’m trying to breed our roses. My excuse is that I’m preparing for the Burford Rose Festival, which is technically true. But maybe he guesses anyway if he put a condom here. I search through the bench mortified, my face matching my dress. “Umm, I don’t see it,” I mumble, looking under my tools and in the plastic pots of dirt, but then something in the Elisa bloom I’m using for grafting catches my eye. “Oh, wait—what is that?”

It’s not a condom. Condoms do not sparkle. There, nestled in the heart of the ivory petals, something blue is shimmering. I inhale a low gasp, fishing it out. Dangling on a fine gold chain is a filigreed locket embedded with a brilliant sapphire the color of his eyes. “Oh my God, Aiden!” I whisper, looking up at him. The delight in his face dims even the radiant gem in my hand. “Is this . . . this is the surprise that will make my heart melt!”

He smiles casually, but I sense a strong emotion underneath. “In part. Open it.”

I stroke the engraved lid, noticing the filigree is an intricate rose vine. “It’s so beautiful,” I murmur, lifting the clasp. A small roll of paper is tucked inside in a message-in-a-bottle kind of way. I pick it up carefully so I don’t drop either it or the locket with my shaking hands.

“Allow me,” Aiden says. He takes the locket and clasps it around my neck, sweeping my hair to side. His fingers brush my collarbones, raising goose bumps in their wake. “Now you can read the note.”

I unroll the strip of paper—it’s longer than it seemed—and I lose my breath again. It’s his assertive handwriting, albeit much smaller—I’d know it anywhere after reading his war letters. But this is not a love note. It’s a list. A list of the oxytocin options that meet the CREB test for the protein. “Good heavens, Aiden! You already solved them?”

He shrugs as though that’s not the most astonishing part. “It’s still long, love, I’m sorry. No matter how many combinations I tried, we still end up with ninety-seven. But I’ve listed them in order of potency—hopefully that saves you some time. I’ll keep working on it if you have other id—”

He never gets to finish his sentence because I throw myself at him, dangling like a locket over his own heart. “Aiden, this is everything! I thought we’d end up in the two hundreds still. Do you realize what a huge leap we just made?”

His arms fold around my waist. “It’s still a lot to test on time. There must be something else I can do.” The V forms between his eyebrows, and abruptly I see how much he wants this now. Why is that? Is it still to help me sleep or is the torture draining more of him than he lets on? I hold him closer to fight a shiver.

“You just did in a week what would have taken me months. Let me worry about the rest. One way or another, I’ll make this for you, I promise.” I try to smooth away the V, but he shakes his head.

“I don’t want it for myself, Elisa. I want you to have it every morning since you insist on staying with me.”

And there it is, the reason why the protein has become just as vital to him as it is to me. I kiss him, unable to find words—they’ve melted away with my heart as he promised. The strong emotion in his eyes is in his mouth too, the way it moves with mine in ninety-seven different forms of love.

He has to break the kiss when I start hyperventilating—there’s no question of me being able to pull apart—and at last I find some words. “Maybe we can share the protein. Like we do with Baci or your coffee?”

He chuckles. “Well, if there’s anything that will convince me to take an ounce of it for myself, it would be your mouth.” He takes the long ribbon of paper, rolling it back into its papyrus form. “I have this memorized just in case, but I tried to think of a way for you to carry it around without anyone suspecting.” He tucks the list back inside my locket and secures the clasp.

“It’s perfect.” I pat the sapphire, not wanting to imagine how much it cost. “Wherever did you find it?”

“The antique shop you told Reagan you liked. Obviously jewelry is not my expertise, but I thought it was a good fit for this. A locket for a secret. And the roses for you.”

“And the sapphire for your eyes.”

He shrugs. “If you want.”

“You forgot the most important part.”

“What’s that?”

“It rests on my heart, like you.”

His eyes gaze at the spot like a caress. “What a great place to rest.”

There are a million other things I want to tell him. How the gold reminds me of his heart, how its strength reminds me of his character, how someday I want to give it to our daughter. Instead of embarrassing or terrifying him with any of that, I just rest my head on his chest and say, “Thank you. I’ll love it forever.”

Benson drops off Reagan and Javier only fifteen minutes later on his way to London to pick up his mate, Max, whom Aiden is flying over for a few days to keep Benson company. Reagan is wearing the most resplendent hat for Mr. Darcy’s home. It’s an ivory wide disc with a coral silk rose blooming underneath the brim. The rest of her glows in a matching linen dress as she practically runs up the garden path to me.

“Reg, you look like art,” I tell her, choosing the word for Javier.

“Never mind me. What’s that on your neck?” Her emerald eyes widen when she spies the locket.

I caress it as I’ve been doing every few seconds. “Aiden got it for me.” Even I hear the gloating in my voice. He shakes his head next to me with an indulgent smile.

“Well-done, Aiden,” she grins at him. “Very Mr. Darcy of you.”

“I’m assuming that’s a high honor.”

“The highest,” she says, lifting her chin. “Speaking of Mr. Darcy, where the hell is your hat, Isa? You promised you’d wear it for him.”

“He’s not real, Reg.” Javier laughs behind her. “It’s not like he’ll be there.”

“He’s real to us, Javi,” she retorts. “He’s gotten us through hell. And now Isa won’t even wear a hat for him! We’ve been waiting for this day for four years!”

“Reg, calm down,” I laugh. “I have my hat inside. But first I want to show you something.”

All indignation disappears from her face and she smiles. “Oh, whew, I thought you had lost your mind. What is it? Did Aiden get you a tiara, too? Because that would be even better than a hat.”

“No, this one is just for you.” I take her hand and nod at Aiden. He pulls out his phone to record the moment for me.

Reagan looks between us with a grin. “Oh, this must be good. Is it a present? Wait, how does my hat look?”

“Better than Duchess Kate,” I assure her and lead her up the path past the Cecilias, the Clares, and the Elisas to the magenta floribunda bush by the bench. And even though this is her moment, suddenly it feels like my own throat is full of petals. “Here it is,” I smile, holding out my hand toward her blooms.

She blinks at them confused, but then her eyes fall on the rosewood plant marker stuck in the dirt. Reagan Starr, it says in mum’s calligraphy. “No way!” Her hand flies up to her mouth, and she curls down on the petaled grass, stroking the bright blooms. “Isa, is this for real?”

I kneel next to her. “Of course it is. Every woman in my family has a rose in this garden. And now you do too.”

Her hug almost knocks me flat on the grass as Aiden and Javier chuckle above us, now both recording. “I love it so much!” she blubbers. “It’s my spirit plant.”

“And it’s the kind of rose my dad gave to my mum on their first date. It brought them nothing but luck in their love.”

A knowing smile sparkles in her teary emerald eyes—she understands why this is the rose I chose for her.

“You need luck in love, Reg?” Javier pipes up, still recording.

“Duh!” she answers without looking at him. “I’ve been in England for a week and I haven’t seen Gandy yet.” She gives me another hug, this one gentler like all the vulnerability she must be feeling. “Thank you,” she sniffles. “Do you think it will do well in Portland? What am I saying—your green thumbs can grow anything.”

“It will do beautiful in Portland,” I answer her question, unable to touch her assumption. But the petals in my throat just turned to shards of glass at the idea of leaving this garden or being away from any of my three stars. In a blink, their brilliant constellation goes dark. I feel Aiden’s unerring eyes on my face along with the phone cameras and smile the widest smile I can manage. “All right, here’s a Reagan to take with us.” I snip off a bloom and tuck it in her hat. “Now let’s get going. It’s a two-hour drive.”

If Aiden saw the way my heart just ripped in two, he says nothing. He just takes me by the waist as we climb up to our bedroom to pick up our suitcase—just one suitcase, my knickers with his boxers, our socks balled up with each other, our toothbrushes together for our first overnight trip.

“That was a beautiful thing you did for Reagan,” he says as he zips it up.

“She deserves it.” I shrug and pretend to make the bed, glancing at the picture of our kiss and the wilted poppies on my nightstand. Why is fear punching so hard now that I’m carrying the key to the bravery protein in a locket right next to my heart? Can fear sense its end is coming? Or is the end coming for me?

Aiden’s hand covers mine as I am smoothing the pillow, trying to fight the sudden shivers. How many times has he kissed me on this pillow by now? How many times are there left still? He pulls me around and tips up my face. “What’s wrong, love?”

The peaceful beauty that floods him in this room has a shadow of worry, like stubble over his dimple. But the moment his turquoise eyes meet mine, abruptly the shivers start to recede. “I broke Corbin’s rule,” I admit. “I looked ahead instead of at the present moment.”

His hand curves around my cheek. “It comes out of nowhere sometimes, doesn’t it?”

“Yes! For you too?” It’s a terrible thing to give me relief, but it still does—like we’re together even in fear.

“Oh, yes. Sometimes, the more beautiful the moment, the harder it hits.”

“That’s exactly it. I couldn’t understand why it happened just now until you said it. We had the most beautiful morning and then . . .”

“Here, try something with me,” he suggests, folding me in his arms. “You’re better at this than I am, but I’ll start. You’re in my arms, too beautiful for words, with your head on my chest, exactly where I want you to be. Now your turn.”

“Okay.” I smile as I realize what he is doing: bringing me to the present moment. “I’m wearing the locket you gave me, the dress you gave me, the knickers you gave me, and the perfume you gave me. I’m wrapped in you.”

“And we are in the happiest bedroom in the world.”

“And there are only six days and fourteen hours of condoms left.”

He chuckles with me, now continuing out of fun, not fear. “And there are three more condoms in the foyer for you to find on our way out.”

“And you still have your surprise to see.”

“And you still have yours.”

That derails me. “You already gave me mine.” I clutch my locket as evidence.

“I said I gave you part of it. The best part is still ahead.”

“The best part? What could be better than bravery?”

He presses his lips to mine. “Love, Elisa,” he whispers. “Love.”

And just like that, happiness shifts. It becomes this present moment in a tiny bedroom with a white bed, wilted flowers, and a worn rug where we dance.

“OI!” Javier hollers from the garden. “I’M BECOMING AN INSTAGRAM PHOTOGRAPHER DOWN HERE. CAN YOU HOLD IT IN FOR LATER?”

It never ceases to make Aiden laugh. He picks up the suitcase and glances around our bedroom. “You know, despite Chatsworth’s luxury, I’d still rather be here tonight.”

Abruptly I miss this room and we haven’t even left it. “Me too,” I say, grabbing our pillows on a whim.

***

Visiting Chatsworth is not something you are supposed to get used to, no matter how often you do it, and I have visited twice. The magnificent house glows in yellow stone surrounded by hundreds of acres of lush gardens and serene woods, with the Emperor Fountain like a liquid mirror reflecting the opulence of both nature and man. History flutters in every leaf, glimmers in each drop of dew, flows through River Derwent, and settles like pollen over the emerald expanse of the parkland.

But visiting Chatsworth with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier makes all that history feel new, the grand house a bit like home, and Mr. Darcy just a hero in a book. Not because Aiden has reserved the public part of the house for the afternoon and booked the exclusive Park Farm Estate for the night—I know now that, underneath the lavish expense, these are nonnegotiable safety measures and that, deep down, Aiden dreams of being able to visit such places in a crowd as much as a tourist might dream of being him. No, today is breathless for an entirely different reason: because today my life is better than the fairytale. And happiness has changed shapes again. Now it looks like Aiden, Javier, Reagan, and me plopped on a picnic blanket under an ancient alder tree at the farthest border of Salisbury Lawn. The park is quiet today despite the Saturday sunshine, perhaps because soon the house will be closed to the public for us.

“I just can’t get over it,” Reagan says, downing the last drop of her bubbles from a paper cup. “A week ago, Javi was in jail about to be deported, Isa was here in hell, Aiden—I don’t have the words, and I was visiting a jail. And now, we’re all here together, waiting to visit that palace in private, and I have a rose named after me. Anyone else think they’re dreaming?”

“I was, until Aiden started kicking my ass,” Javier answers, frowning at Aiden’s chessboard where is he ensnared in the Budapest Defense and his king will be mated in five moves.

I haven’t been able to look away from the hand-carved mahogany board since Aiden set it up, despite the plush gardens around us. It’s the same board I saw in his library on our first night together. A rich scent of musk and cigar wafts from it with the woodsy breeze. The chess pieces glow even under the alder’s shade.  How many times have Aiden’s fingers touched them? Hundreds, thousands from his seventh birthday when his parents gave the set to him until now.

I haven’t touched a chess piece since my father died, since that unfinished chess game that sits in the glass flower case in the cottage’s library. But even if I could move a finger to stroke the curves of Aiden’s queen or the sharp angles of his knight, I wouldn’t dare. Because Aiden playing his favorite game is formidable. He seems to play entirely in his head, gazing at the board only to see what mistake the mortal in front of him makes next. I’m certain he is letting Javier persevere out of chivalry—he could have ended this game on move six.

Every so often I sense his eyes on my face through the birdcage veil of the fuchsia fascinator I’m wearing for Reagan. Aiden knows what this game means to me. Yet he has never once asked me to explain my decision to lay it at rest. And for that, impossibly, I love him more.

“Some help?” he invites casually, raising a perfect raven eyebrow at me.

I shake my head. “If I help anyone, it would be Javier.”

“Perfect.” His voice is still casual but something warm filters through his eyes like the sun through the alder leaves. He controls it immediately but it was enough. Enough for me to see what he is doing. What he really wants but will never ask. A game with me, even if only through Javier.

I try to picture moving my hand for him, wrapping my fingers around Javier’s bishop to fall for his queen, so Javier’s king can die a dignified death. But I can’t. My hand closes into a fist. It will not open no matter how much I want to give Aiden everything. Apparently even though my body could give him the forehead kiss, it cannot overcome this.

“Sorry, Javier,” I say, straightening the veil over my cheeks. “May your king rest in peace. Reagan and I have to go see Darcy’s stairs.”

“Now you’re talking,” she hops up, arranging her hat.

I pick up my picnic basket—the other reason why I’m leaving, to set up Aiden’s surprise—but his hand wraps around my fist as I stand. He says nothing but presses it to his lips. One light quick kiss, but I know what it means. I saw you. I feel his eyes on me as Reagan and I stroll away toward the great house.

“So any progress with Javi?” I ask, pretending to look at a wild orchid by the rock I’ve been eying to hide a clue for Aiden.

Her delicate snort distracts me from my subterfuge. “As if. Sometimes I think he’s looking at me, but then I look at him and there’s just . . . nothing there.”

I tuck my arm in hers. “Maybe it’s not nothing. Maybe it’s something he’s too afraid to see.”

“Or maybe I’m not his kind of rose.” Her hand strokes the Reagan bloom still in her hat.

“That’s not true. This is an issue Javier has with himself. That’s what Aiden thinks, too. He thinks Javier needs to feel more secure before getting involved.”

“Oh hell, Aiden knows too?”

“He figured it out on his own, I didn’t say anything.”

“Of course he did. The only one who doesn’t want to see is Javier himself.”

“Just give him a bit more time,” I coax her. “It’s only been a week. And if he doesn’t wake up, Aiden said he’ll help us.”

She giggle-sniffles. “God help Javi if Aiden enters the ring.” Then she looks at my basket of roses. “What are you doing with that?”

“Oh, I’m setting up a scavenger hunt for Aiden and I’ve hidden the clues under the basket liner so he couldn’t see. Come, help me plant them.”

She giggles despite the melancholy in her eyes that seems to have become part of her. “Oh fun, what are you giving him?”

I caress the small gift under the liner—it doesn’t give but it’s hard and warm, like sunny marble. “It’s just something small. He’s impossible to buy anything for. It’s really more the game he’ll like.”

We curve around the grand palace where the last groups of public visitors are filing out for our private tour later this afternoon. The baroque facade is gleaming honey-gold under the molten sun.

“So, how are you doing with all of this?” Reagan asks as I tuck my next clue in the grass by the reclining statues of the Emperor Fountain. “I’m worried about you.”

I shrug, marking the clue with an American penny. “We’re just living moment to moment—it’s too hard otherwise.”

“And if . . .?”

Just two small words and the wound rips wide open so abruptly that it makes me gasp. “Oh, Isa! I’m sorry I brought it up. Take a deep breath, sweetie, I’m here.”

I clutch the locket, trying to stay in the present moment. The Darcy stairs are ahead, the bravery protein is literally in my grasp, Reagan’s arm is around my shoulders, Aiden and I are still together, there is beauty, there is love.

Reagan rubs my arm. “It’ll work out, Isa, you guys love each other. One way or another, love has to win, right?”

“Right.”

How can I tell her it’s a lie? How can I tell her about the Romeo nightmare at night even though Dante walks to me each dawn? She needs to believe love always wins for her own happiness right now. But love doesn’t always win. In some cases—some rare, once in a big bang cases—love even kills. Not with daggers and poisons and accidents and bullets. Love kills with beauty, with loss. I clutch my locket again, pressing it against the throbbing spot between my lungs. Make us brave, make us last.

“What a pair we are, huh?” Reagan says, her tone lighter as we stroll up the boardwalk and climb Darcy’s stairs to meet the housekeeper. “My Darcy just got out of jail and yours has a violent startle, and they’re determined to hate themselves while we’re determined to love them. Maybe I should just move here, and you and I adopt a pair of corgis instead.”

“They’re definitely more obedient.” I laugh, keeping my eyes on the gilded fairytale doors for the present moment, for reality. We have family and friends who love us. There is laughter, there is pleasure, there is hope still. For at least eighty-two more days.

The doors open, and the housekeeper comes out. “Miss Snow?” She looks at us both unsure who is the woman who pleaded with her on the phone for this.

“That’s me, Mrs. Redmond. Thank you so much for allowing this.”

“Oh, not at all. The public area of the house is yours for the afternoon.”

“Here, these are for you.” I give her the bouquet of roses. “I’ll be very careful, I promise.”

By the time we make it back to our Darcy’s, happiness looks like handwritten clues, each a quote from our happiest memories, for the man who forgets nothing.  I try not to run to Aiden but don’t do a great job of it. It’s more like a leap and a trot. He pulls me close with similar urgency as I curl next to him in a blanket.

“Oh, good, right on time to watch me beat Aiden.” Javier laughs, clearly dying another painful death on the chessboard, while Reagan folds by him, swallowing the last grape.

“Speaking of beating,” Aiden says as he executes Javier’s knight. “The IRS is auctioning off Feign’s properties to cover his tax bill.”

“Good. Fuck him.”

“Including Feign Art.”

Javier blinks and loses his bishop. “Really?” His voice softens as though unable to hate the only place in the world he was able to do what he loved, even in misery.

Aiden nods, looking at the chessboard as though he is studying it, which of course he isn’t. “I bought it,” he adds in a casual tone, advancing his queen.

Three gasps meet his announcement. “You did what?” I ask, while Javier and Reagan watch him with identical open mouths.

“Correction: I rescued it,” he says in that same casual tone, looking up at me.

“Why on earth did you that?”

“A few reasons, but the main one is that Feign Art is where I first saw you, where your painting hung. I wasn’t going to let it fall into the hands of some other asshole or become a soulless thing like a parking lot.” Through the rosy tint of my veil, his face takes on that surreal beauty it held this morning when he gave me the locket, and I recall his words. Is this the other part of his surprise? The glow in his eyes is a clear yes.

“So you own it now?” Javier’s voice is full of the same awe I feel, while Reagan still hasn’t closed her mouth.

“Technically we both do, if you’re interested,” Aiden answers, and I gasp again as I realize the full extent of his surprise—better than a gift to me, it’s a gift to Javier.

Javier is beyond blinking. “Come again?”

“Well, I can’t paint.” Aiden shrugs, advancing his knight. “But I’d like the gallery to stay what it was—a place of art, the place that brought Elisa to me. That’s where you come in.” Finally, the reason for his casual demeanor becomes obvious to me. It’s to entice Javier to say yes or to keep the significance of this gift modest so Javier doesn’t feel indebted.

Javier finally blinks. And that’s all he does while Reagan starts bouncing next to him, chanting, “OMG, OMG, OMG.”

“Aiden, I don’t know,” Javier hesitates but his voice is soft, almost like he’s in a dream as Reagan said earlier. “This is too much.”

“Is it? For a place that abused you and Elisa, that can finally allow you to do what you’re passionate about and makes everyone who loves you happy?” Aiden’s eyes flit to Reagan, and I register another layer in this gift. He’s giving Javier confidence, not just a dream. “It doesn’t seem like too much to me. But, if it makes this easier to accept, you have my word I bought it at a steal. The IRS doesn’t sell for profit.”

For the first time in this conversation, Javier’s eyes squint as they do when he is sketching the first lines, seeing the finished masterpiece in his mind long before his talent brings it on canvass. “How would it work?” he asks tentatively.

“You would run the place. Paint, commission, distribute—your prerogative.”

“And you?”

“My only interest in this endeavor is that it stays a gallery and you finish Elisa’s painting that you started. Other than that, you’re a majority owner.” Aiden’s voice is still casual but something about his words pulls at the edges of my memory. From the time he offered to be a passive investor in my supplement so I would be free of him. Is that what he’s doing now? Giving me distance if we don’t win? A chill whips through me, and I scoot closer to him, clasping my locket.

“Deal, partner?” Aiden asks Javier, holding out his hand.

Javier meets his eyes for a moment, then looks at Reagan and me. Her face is pure bliss; I can’t even feel mine. “Deal,” he answers, shaking Aiden’s hand.

Reagan loses it then and hugs Javier with her usual exuberance. “So happy for you, Javi.” I don’t realize I’m crying until Aiden’s finger wipes a tear with my veil. A single tear as happiness shifts in the shape of an eave above a door, saying Solis Gallery—Fine Art in elegant script. Still shocked, Javier takes me in his minty hug. “How about that, amorcita? We couldn’t even use the front door and now look at us.”

“No, look at you.”

“Can’t wait for you to come back, and we can all be together.” Javier speaks softly, but his voice rings like a gunshot over the gardens for me, cleaving me in two—one part by this pond of lilies, the other across the transatlantic pond. I can feel my blood draining out of my skin, filling the entire ocean with it. I hide my face behind his full beard.

“Love you, Javi.”

“Love you too, kiddo. Is everyone calling me Javi now?”

“Yep, it’s stuck.”

I stay in his hug a few seconds longer—all the years with him at Feign Art flashing like its own reel in front of my eyes. How can I not see Javi every day? How can I stay eight thousand miles from him? A camera clicks, and I meet Aiden’s gaze, his quiet strength fortifying me. I smile, willing the pixels not to show the chill that just whipped through me.

“Pip pip,” Reagan cheers, and a shower of Reagan petals sprinkles over us like confetti as she shreds her rose for the occasion. “Aiden, forget what I said earlier,” she laughs. “This is your most Darcian thing.”

“Darcy is overrated, Reagan. Elizabeth Bennett was the star.” He takes another photo of me, his eyes full of things too big for me to understand.

Mrs. Redmond emerges on the other end of the lawn then, beckoning us toward the great house. And the future—suddenly so bright for Javier, hopeful for Reagan, and utterly unknown for Aiden and me—disappears.  There is only this present moment of giving Aiden a beautiful memory.

“You guys go first,” I say, winking at Reagan. She drags Javier away faster than I can reach inside my picnic basket.

“Finally,” Aiden says, but he doesn’t stand. He pulls me onto his arms. “A minute just with you.”

He looks surreal again, in his white shirt as bright as the futures he creates. “Thank you for what you did for Javi. You were right, it’s better than even bravery. I’m afraid your surprise doesn’t compare to this.”

His lips lift into my favorite lopsided, dimpled smile. “Ah, yes, my surprise. I’m sure I’ll love it if you prepared it.”

“We have to walk around for a bit, but the grounds are almost empty.”

“Hmm . . .” he tilts his head side to side, pursing his lips, and my heart freefalls—did I miscalculate?

“It’s okay if you don’t want to.”

“Well, it depends.” I think I hear an undercurrent of humor in his voice, but his eyes are smoldering.

“On what?”

“Will you wear this hat?”

I giggle breathlessly in relief. “If you like.”

His lips brush along my jaw, following the trim of the veil to my ear. “I don’t like that it hides your face . . .” He kisses down my throat. “But I like the way it makes me feel.”

“How does it make you feel?” The veil flutters from my quick breath.

His nose skims my collarbone exposed over the neckline of my dress. “Forbidden.”

“You’re never forbidden for me.”

“Not even from making love to you right here, right now?” His mouth presses at the hollow of my throat.

“Oh, that.” My voice shakes. “Yes, nudity is strictly prohibited in the park.”

“Hmm.” His lips hunt up to my chin and stop on the other side of my veil as it wafts back and forth from our breath. “Then show me my surprise, Elisa, so we can go to the Park House where nudity is most certainly allowed, in fact required.” His mouth presses on mine over the veil. It takes all my power of concentration to form words.

“Okay then.” I push against his chest with difficulty—I can’t think with his lips on me. He chuckles and gives me space as I reach in my picnic basket and hand him the first folded clue. “Read it.”

He unfolds the scrap with that same boyish curiosity he had when he was solving the riddle for the twinkly lights. “What are men to rocks and mountains?” he reads, sounding perplexed.

“It’s your first clue. We’re doing a scavenger hunt. You have to guess each clue, until you find your surprise.”

Unrestrained joy breaks over his face as the tectonic plates shift. “I haven’t done one of these since I was ten,” he grins, looking back at the clue while I bounce on the spot—he loves it! “So this clue is obviously Elizabeth Bennett’s quote that we paraphrased when I was giving you a tour of my library on our embargo night.”

“Correct.”

“A very happy memory.”

“That’s the idea.”

The only times I’ve seen him move faster is when he picks me up to make love. He cleans up our picnic spot in seconds. Then we start our hunt, basket with the chessboard in my arm, folded blanket over his. The grounds of Chatsworth are so open and vast that Aiden’s ever-tense shoulders are not rippling, the bands of muscle at his waist are not straining. They’re in their permanent vigilant setting that doesn’t release him even asleep.

“So I’m looking for a rock,” he says, scanning the Salisbury lawn. I almost start skipping because now his vigilant eyes are searching for something fun, not threats.

“My lips are a locket.”

“Your lips are a magnet. Oh, Elisa, what is this? I believe it’s a rock with a purple flower on top.” He found it in two minutes despite the countless mossy boulders dotting the border of the lawn as it slopes into wilderness.

“That’s a wild orchid, and it brings luck.” He tucks the first clue in his shirt pocket and finds the folded note under the rock with an impatient sparkle in his eyes.

“‘We can’t mess with luck,’” he reads, and the plates shift as he summons his memory of this quote. It takes three seconds. “Another happy memory. The fountain at the rose garden in Portland on our first night. You wanted to make a wish to bring you luck, and you wished for another day with me.”

“This is too easy for you,” I grumble, but loving every bit of it.

He brushes my collarbone with the orchid. “That’s not the term I’d use.”

“What would you use?”

“Beautiful,” he answers, and his face beams with a most unAidenish playfulness. “So the fountain next then?”

I nod, but he doesn’t move. “Will you let me add something to the hunt?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Each clue I guess right, we hike this little veil an inch higher.”

“A millimeter”

“A centimeter.”

“Half.”

“Deal.”

He drops the orchid in my basket and lifts the veil half a centimeter, kissing the dip below my lower lip. Then drapes it back down, and we stroll to the Emperor Fountain although I am already wobbling. The spectacular jet stream shoots up three hundred feet in the air today. Aiden’s quick eyes scan the perimeter. This should be harder—the fountain’s lake is a water mirror of eight acres, framed with another lawn of blooms and grass. It would take me an hour to hunt around this. But Aiden knows the way my mind works better than my own. “I have a feeling this clue is hidden by the reclining statue, Elisa, because it looks like it’s lying on a bed, albeit a very uncomfortable one, and you love bed with me.”

I watch in awe as he searches around the sculpture and, in exactly fifteen seconds, he spots the clue on the grass in front it. “Well, well, well, what’s an American penny doing at Chatsworth?”

“Seeking asylum?”

He chuckles, tucking the rock clue in his shirt pocket, and picks up the folded note under the penny. “‘I’d like to discuss an unconventional proposal,’” he reads his own words to Kasia at Feign Art. “Ah, of course! You were eavesdropping.” He looks ridiculously happy about it. “Another good memory—commissioning my full painting of you. So next we go to the gallery in the Painted Hall?”

“Yes,” I smile, raising my face for him to lift the veil by another half a centimeter. He kisses the corner of my mouth with a sigh and drapes it back over. “I should have stayed strong at one inch. Can I throw the penny in the fountain and renegotiate?”

“No, they don’t allow that either.”

“Tyrants. No nudity, no coins in the fountain—how do they live?” I’ve never seen him more playful. He tosses the penny in my basket and tucks my arm in his as we climb the Darcy stairs that are now empty.

The Painted Hall of Chatsworth was built to take breaths away. And in both my prior visits it has stumped me, but not today. Today, the black and white marble floor gleams less than Aiden’s chessboard in my basket. The vivid demigods and nymphs adorning the staggering ceiling are dimmed by Aiden’s seraphic face flooded with the sunlight pouring from the high windows. We are all alone in this gallery of classical art, but the real masterpiece is framing me with his arms.

“It’s not my favorite painting,” he says, eyes on the frescoed ceiling. “But it’s certainly impressive. Now where would the next clue be?” He roams the hall, his footsteps ringing on the marble floor, gazing at each mural and antique. But the clue isn’t in the crimson settees, the delftware vases, or the marble busts. “Difficult,” he murmurs. “Very difficult—I like it.” His eyes absorb the scene with hunger, his mind focused on solving this happy clue, not reliving horrors.

I know exactly when he has found it because his eyes zero in on the spot in an almost audible way. “Aha!” He strides to the gilded staircase, lined with the burgundy velvet tapestry. “The fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“Yes!” I twirl as he jogs up the stairs and digs the clue from under the carpet, laughing his waterfall laughter. I skip to him and snap a picture with my iPhone as he unfolds the note.

“‘La Virgen. Are you sure you want to do this?’” His voice is soft as he reads the question he asked me in his bedroom before making love to me for the first time. But there’s nothing soft about the blue fire in his eyes as they meet mine. “My favorite painting, my favorite night.”

He lifts the veil another half centimeter, his teeth grazing my lower lip exactly as they did then. I hang in his arms, knees like air under me. Why did I hide so many clues? Why couldn’t I have ended it here so we could go back to the Park House and set fires there?

“The Sculpture Room next then,” he says, solving this clue. He tucks the stair note in his shirt pocket with the others—they’re starting to look like a paper boutonniere of happy memories—and sweeps me in his arms, the basket dangling from my elbow.

“Aiden, no! They’re not used to this here, we’re supposed to be modest and respectful.”

“We’re being both,” he answers, climbing the sweeping staircase. “This is modest compared to what I want to do. And it is respectful because there’s no one here and I have compensated them generously to give us privacy.”

What’s the point of arguing with him—I’m exactly where I want to be. He carries me down the splendid empty hall that he memorized from a map, his footsteps ringing in sync with my heartbeat.

“This is it, I believe.” He stops at the next gallery and sets me on my unsteady feet. We weave through the marble sculptures, Aiden more carved and graceful than any of them, until we reach the kneeling Vestal Virgin, her white veil flowing over her marble face as she guards the sacred flame of her temple.

“Do you think the flame she’s guarding represents her desire?” Aiden asks. “Or her life?”

“Both.”

“There is no difference sometimes, is there? When you want something so much it could kill you if you lose it.”

I grasp my locket, forcing myself to stay in this present moment as he picks up the clue on the floor before the virgin, his expression no longer playful. “‘She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies,’” he reads, and the Virgen’s flame is in his voice too. “A lot of happy memories there.”

He pulls me close and lifts the veil another half a centimeter to the part of my lips. His tongue traces it slowly, his breathing as rough as mine. “How many clues are left to burn me?”

“Umm . . . only two.” The tip of my tongue meets his.

He folds the veil back in place—it flutters and billows with my breath—and the playfulness returns to his face. “The library for Byron next?”

“Yes, but you have to behave there—we were told not to sit on the sofas.”

“What makes you think I would misbehave?”

“Your mouth.”

Shh, Elisa, you’re scandalizing the virgin,” he chuckles and leads me out of the room. As soon as we clear the delicate Sculpture Room, he lifts me in his arms again, basket and all. I’m sure the dignified portraits that adorn the corridor are as horrified as the virgin at our behavior, but I don’t see any of it. I only see the angles of his profile as we wind through the empty splendid halls. Briefly I wonder where Reagan and Javier are—I hope this gallery sparks something for them now that Javier owns his.

“The library,” Aiden announces, setting me down at the door.

The library is not part of the public tour but apparently at the right price, the exclusive doors open to a fortunate few. The stunning room has two floors, like Aiden’s in Portland. About thirty thousand leather-bound volumes line the walls with ladders leaning against the shelves. The precious emerald velvet sofas frame the marble fireplace.

Aiden glares at them as he strides to the carved pedestal on the corner for the library catalog. He flips through the pages quickly until he finds Byron. “Case six, shelf fourteen,” he grins, taking my hand. “Where will you lead me next?”

He finds the clue under the cover of the Venetian red leather volume only seconds later. “‘The most beautiful place in my life,’” he reads his words to me from a week ago when we were snuggled together at Oxford’s University Park. “Our bedroom,” he solves it without hesitation. “The happiest memory there is.”

“You’re impossible,” I laugh as the library clue joints the paper boutonniere and he tucks Byron’s volume back in the shelf.

He lifts the veil another half centimeter, exposing my upper lip, and presses his mouth on mine. The picnic basket feels suddenly heavy on my limp arms. He blows over my lips and folds back the veil with a pained sigh. “To the state bedroom, God help us,” he solves the clue.

As soon as we clear the library, he picks me up again, marching down the hall to the state bedchambers built for William and Mary. The bedroom is dominated by the bed, hung with curtains of crimson and gold and cordoned off in case there is any doubt whatsoever that we are not to lay on it.

“As I said, absolute tyrants,” Aiden says, but his arms wrap around my waist. He walks me backward to the wood-paneled wall until my back is against it and his body is pressed against every line of mine. My breathing is too fast, making the veil flutter as his lips take full advantage, kissing each sliver of exposed skin. I try to settle my lungs but it’s impossible with his mouth on me. The royal bedroom starts to spin.

“Aiden . . .” My picnic basket tumbles from my hand. “Be good . . .”

“Isn’t this good?” His mouth presses at the corner of mine as the veil blows open from my gasp. “I think it is.” Another huff, another fit of the veil, this one exposing my lower lip. He captures it with his teeth. “So good, Elisa.”

“Please?” I breathe. “They’ll make a fuss.”

“They’re not here . . .” His fingers skim my thigh lifting the hem of my dress and he plays hide-and-seek with my veil that doesn’t stand a chance against his mouth. His lips flutter over my jawline to my ear. He nips my ear lobe and trails his mouth down my throat and over my collarbones, kissing my skin as he would another part of me that is on fire. My head is whirling with his tongue. He dips it at the hollow of my throat, pressing into me through the thin fabric of my dress.

And I collapse.

“Elisa?” he asks alarmed, holding me up.

“Yes,” I gasp, shaking my head.

“Are you all right?”

“I think—your kissing—lightheaded.”

“Christ.” He pulls back a few inches to give me space but his arms don’t release me. He blows gently on my lips. “Hydrogen, 1.008, helium . . .” he starts. My giggle comes out shaky and weak.

“I’m okay,” I assure him, reaching a finger to smooth the worried V. “You’re just too good at this.”

He chuckles, still holding me up. “How can you nearly faint from kissing but handle everything else we’ve done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want to sit? Or some water? Or fresh air?” He feels my forehead and I have to laugh.

“No, I’m fine. I get dizzy when you touch me all the time. Besides, we have your last clue.”

He watches me for a long moment as though to be sure I’ll live to tell the tale of his kissing. When my breathing finally evens out and my legs stop trembling, he chuckles again and releases me. “I think it’s this damn room. I better find this clue fast.”

He is probably right. There’s no telling what I would do if we stay in this room much longer—cordoned off bed or not. Besides the next part is guaranteed to cause more breathing problems. He scans the bedroom quickly, searching for anything resembling a clue. “Tricky,” he says, his eyes alighting on the off-limits bed, the dresser, the vanity, the porcelain vases, but there is nothing there. “Where would you have hidden—?” And then he smiles. “You wouldn’t have hidden this behind a painting, would you? Say, a painting of a river and grass and woods? A panting that looks a bit like the University Park where I told you our bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life?”

“You’ll have to find out.”

He strides across the room straight to the painting and peeks behind it at the small scrap of paper I wedged there. I hold my breath as he fishes it out because the happy memory he’s reading now is not ours. It’s his.

“‘When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.’” He reads his mother’s words from April 12, 1987—his first visit to Oxford—with a thick sound in his voice. A deep emotion enters his eyes and for a moment I worry I’ve triggered a horror. But he gazes at the scrap of paper with something like longing that I hadn’t seen in the dark park. “A happy memory from my life before you,” he murmurs.

I pick up my basket and teeter close to him, wanting to take a picture but not daring to ruin on the moment. “You’re done,” I say. “Kiss the first girl you’ve kissed, and you can see your surprise.”

He places the clue in his shirt pocket—the final scrap in the paper boutonniere—and pulls me against him, his eyes deep. “Can you handle this kiss?”

I nod even though I don’t know. I can barely handle his gaze. He hesitates a moment as though to prolong the memory and lifts the veil all the way this time, folding it over the rose on my fascinator. Then his hands curve around my face and he brings his mouth to mine.

I have lost count of how many times Aiden has kissed me—how each kiss feels both home and new, some slow, some urgent, some gentle, some hard, some deep, others light like air. But I’ll always remember this one. It’s like his mouth is combining all the kisses he has given me into this one, a boutonniere of lips imprinting everything he must be feeling on my tongue.  When he pulls away, too soon so I don’t faint again, I’m not the only one gasping.

“Thank you,” he says, each word sliced by his harsh breathing. “Whatever the surprise is, I will always remember the hunt.”

“You always remember everything.”

“Not by choice. But I choose this. If I could forget, I’d still never forget this.”

I reach under the liner of my basket, hands shaking, lungs in shreds, heart in my throat, and pull out the little journal. Its yellowed cream cover is embossed with roses.

“Here is something you remember but don’t know,” I say, handing it to him. As soon as it touches his skin, a wave of warmth spreads over me and I’d like to think it’s a hug.

He must see my emotion because he doesn’t ask anything even though curiosity raging in his eyes as he opens the aged notebook. “Clare Emilia Brighton,” he reads my mother’s maiden name quietly. “Is this your mother’s journal?”

I nod. “She kept a journal all her life. Go to the page I’ve marked.”

He lifts the silk tassel and inhales a sharp gust when he sees the date. “April 12, 1987.”

“Read it,” I whisper, leaning over to read with him even though I know it by now.

April 12, 1987

What a day today, dearest! Only six months at the Ashmolean, and I already wonder what on earth was I thinking! Had I listened to Mama, as you know, I would be gallivanting the world for a while before settling. And had I listened to Katherine I would be dating Fawkes—perish the thought. But instead I chose this. The job of a lifetime, the dream —you know all about that, of course. Oh, but how difficult it is! All day, I am squished in this cupboard of an office in the bowels of the museum with only pipes around me and not one window. My chair, I am convinced, used to be a torture implement under King Henry VIII. But I do not mind. It is the Old Beards who are difficult—the senior curators of the Grand Ash. They still will not entrust me with anything older than 1970. I knew as a fellow I would not be allowed to touch the artifacts—it should take years for me to do that. But can I not handle at least something more than gluing ripped textbooks or dusting the shelves? Must I be treated like a schoolgirl, not the scholar I am? Yet I despair that is all they see in me. For months, I have been wondering whether I am foolish to hope I will ever be allowed to restore anything of value. Why, it did not seem like that would ever happen, did it? Until today. It was quite brilliant, as you will see. A neuroscientist came to our dining hall before supper, Doctor Helen Brahms. She is quite respected at Oxford already although not forty yet. She marched straight to the Old Beards sitting together in their grandeur (I am not invited to sit with them, for which I count my blessings—Old Sturgis is positively medieval with his chewing). 

“I need Ashmole 611 restored by the end of the week,” she said. “I just took it out for a consult, and it’s in tatters, an absolute disgrace for the earliest study of human memory.” 

She seemed mortally offended. The entire hall was watching. But the Old Beards peered down their noses at her although she stands taller than six feet. “That cannot happen,” cackled Old Sturgis. 

“It can and it must,” she argued. “There’s a little boy who needs it.”

They ignored her, returned to their pea soup. 

“Did you hear me?” she raised her voice. “There is a seven-year old boy who cannot forget anything, and that manuscript might have something to explain it.”

Not one of them looked at her, dearest. Six feet tall and brilliant and still not good enough while a little boy needs help. I could not bear it. So I jumped up and said, “I’ll do it. I will restore Ashmole 611.”

The Old Beards were apoplectic, shouting and telling me off. “She hasn’t touched a page older than 1976,” yelled Old Sturgis. “She will not touch Ashmole 611.”

“Well obviously neither will you,” Doctor Brahms snapped at him. 

I admitted it was true, but said, “I’m good, and I will do it for you.”

More shouting—Old Sturgis spit his soup on his beard. But she smiled at me.

“I shall speak with the director. He is a close family friend,” she said loudly for them to hear, and they all fell quiet then. “You will restore Ashmole 611. What is your name?”

“Clare Brighton,” I answered, a bit church-moused now that I realized how well-connected she is.

“Well, Clare Brighton, let’s leave them to their pea soup, shall we?”

And that was it, dearest. She arranged with the director to move me to a proper office and I have been repairing Ashmole 611 until now. The little boy is here with his parents from the United States for the week. I must finish it by then. Can you imagine how that must feel? To never forget? A fearsome power to behold, I reckon. I do hope Doctor Brahms can help him. Meanwhile, she helped me. I have a window now and a director who agreed to mentor me. It was a good day. Goodnight, Diary! 

By the time I finish it, I know the seven-year old boy who grew up has read it multiple times. But when I look up at him, his eyes are still on the page despite having already memorized it. A tear gathers in my eye but I dash it off while Aiden still reads. I give him time until he is ready. When his eyes meet mine, they are unfathomable.

“I can’t believe it.” His voice is low and husky.

“I know. I’ve been searching through her journals ever since Doctor Helen told us the date, and I finally found it. I read through her other journal entries for that week. You can read them next if you want. They’re just about her gluing up Ashmole 611 and giving it to Doctor Brahms. Here, see?”

He flips through the pages, reading them in seconds. “She barely slept that week to help me.”

“Yes, but you helped her too.”

He watches me for another long moment. No words, eyes unfathomable still. “Good surprise?” I ask. He nods, still seeming unable to speak. “What are you feeling right now?”

“Happy . . . terrified . . . I don’t want to hurt her daughter . . . or lose you.”

I place my hand over his thundering heart. “You won’t. And you cannot lose me, I’m yours.” For as long as he will have me.

He closes the journal, and places it carefully in the basket. Then he takes my face in his hands and he brings his mouth to mine. So we add love, kiss after kiss— we have learned this trick now—until fear recedes. Because sometimes happiness can look like a monster but it never is. Right now, happiness morphs, looking like Aiden and me in a foreign bedroom with guardian angels above us in the frescoed ceilings and a locket of bravery beating by my heart.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 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 17 – WAR

Hello again friends! Hope you’re having a wonderful Sunday. It’s sunny in Portland and warm enough for shorts, which are a nice change from pandemic sweats.  Here is Chapter 17 as war starts for our couple. I hope it gives you a good break today from everything you are facing in your lives. Thank you as always to everyone for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

17

War

The lab that has studied Aiden’s mind since childhood is the size of Goliath. A dizzying number of screens glow from the vast white walls and the runway of white desks lining them—neuroscientists apparently use computers like chemists use vials. Monitors hang even from the ceiling. In each corner are clusters of futuristic equipment that looks like it belongs at the helm of a starship. But more overwhelming than all this is the platoon of neuroscientists waiting for us. Seven white coats stand in line as we walk in, two more are on video screens projected on the wall and—the only colorful wink in the white expanse—Corbin is smiling at us from yet another video screen straight from Portland.

“Aiden, Elisa, great to see you!” He waves at us in a checkered sage shirt.

“Victor,” Aiden nods at him. I wave back but I’m riveted by the woman standing in front of the line of the white coats. She is Amazonian in stature, white and silver from the crown of her short, swept back hair to her grey eyes and eyelashes. Her skin is ivory lace, each wrinkle a neural pathway leading to her steady, penetrating gaze. She is regarding me with gravitas, and I see a flicker of recognition in her eyes.

Aiden pulls me close as he introduces me with unrestrained pride. “Doctor Helen, this is my Elisa. Elisa, this is Doctor Brahms or Doctor Helen to me.”

“You are a daughter of Oxford,” Doctor Helen states like an edict. Even her voice is regal, with a ring of authority that silences the beeps and signals tweeting from the monitors.

I have to resist the urge to bow. “You knew my parents, Doctor?” My voice bends with the reflexive reverence she inspires.

“I did. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” I whisper as Aiden’s hand clutches my waist.

“Your mother was my favorite,” she adds in her commanding tone. “She helped restore Ashmole six-eleven—the very first manuscript in existence to discuss human memory.” She turns her dignified gaze on Aiden. “That was the manuscript I had to unearth the day I met you.”

At her words, the icy expanse of the lab’s tundra thaws for me, as though Mum’s warm hands are molding it to back to spring. Aiden smiles. “April twelve, 1987, six thirty, I believe. You said to my mother there was no such thing as fate to explain me.”

Doctor Helen’s grey eyes shift with a sort of wonderment when she looks at him. “I have yet to see evidence of fate. But I’ll allow serendipity. Speaking of both . . .” She turns to her team and they rumble as one. “We have a lot to do. Let’s get started.” She pivots royally to her desk, her lab coat billowing like a mantle behind her as the other researchers scramble to catch up with her ringing footsteps.

Aiden and I take our white seats in front of her—the white is so absolute, I wonder if it’s intentional to avoid triggers—and Doctor Helen introduces us to the rest of the platoon. “On the screens behind me are Doctors Nagapan and O’Connor from Edinburgh. You already know Doctor Corbin, of course, and this is our Oxford team.” She pulls out a binder from below her desk and I thaw further. It’s the only warm, personal detail against the white blank slate. The binder is covered with a collage of Van Gogh’s most famous prints—the wheat field with crows, the vase of sunflowers, the blue irises, the French Alps, his self-portrait—Javier would like it. She flips the binder open with a thud.

“Right then,” she announces. “Our plan today is to test Elisa’s calming effect on Aiden and see whether it’s simply placebo or whether there is scientific evidence of it. This will help us implement an experiment for the next eighty-seven days to reconsolidate Aiden’s memories with the hypothesis that the traumatic ones generally, and his startle reflex in particular, will decrease in intensity once allowed to freely associate with Elisa’s effect on him. Questions?” She reels all this so quickly that I have to blink a few times to realize she is looking at me—who else would have a hard time understanding this in such company?

“Umm, why does it matter whether my effect is placebo or real if it helps Aiden?” is the first question I manage, feeling utterly out of my depth. Chemicals are so predictable—memories and emotions are like fate.

But Doctor Helen regales me with a stately smile. “Excellent question, indeed. Therapeutically, Doctor Corbin would say perhaps it doesn’t matter in the short-term. But for this experiment to hold in the long run, as I understand you both wish, your effect must be real and significant at that. Any other questions?” More rapid-fire decrees, but I also can’t help but feel she wants me to keep asking. Next to me, Aiden is beaming with pride as though I’m the Einstein of neuroscience, not a blob of nerves.

“Ah . . . how do you plan to test my calming effect?” Me again, the Einstein. Except abruptly I feel exposed, riddled with a new fear I did not expect. We have taken for granted my calming effect. It’s our lodestar weapon—the mother of our bombs. Is that about to be eliminated too like the protein was this morning? And then what do we have left but our love and Aiden’s strength?

“You’ll see shortly. Aiden, did you bring the scent we requested?”

“I did,” he answers and nods at me. With trembling fingers, I hand my precious vial of Aeternum, feeling like I’m cutting out an artery of my heart. One of Doctor Helen’s assistants takes it from me with hairy bear fingers instead of the gentle, rose-breeze hold it deserves.

“Please be careful!” I urge before I can control my tongue.

“Don’t worry, Elisa, we only need a microliter of it.” Doctor Helen nods at her bear mercenary who marches out of the lab, taking my artery with him. But I can’t even stare behind it because Doctor Helen fires at us again. “Any more questions?”

Aiden asks his first. “How do you plan to trigger my startle reflex without me seeing it coming if it has to be in a controlled setting?”

Personally, I think it’s a brilliant question at the crux of the matter, but Doctor Helen simply waves her hand. “Obviously, I cannot tell you that, but trust me, I have a plan. I have known you for twenty-eight years, Aiden.”

“And this plan,” he retorts as his chair creaks with tension. “Guarantees Elisa’s safety?”

She doesn’t even blink. “It does. And if you need further reason to believe that, I owe it to her mother.”

That seems to pacify him for the moment while my nerves are buzzing like the hundreds of monitors around me. “And your sleep?” Corbin pipes up. “Have you tested it together with Für Elise?”

I clap my eyes on the Van Gogh prints, and let Aiden handle this one. “We have,” he answers in his controlled tone. “Two nights so far. Full eight hours the first, only three last night, but that was an exception and it’s changing tonight. No nightmares. Little movement. Some increased . . . nocturnal activity.”

The Starry Night is a true masterpiece, isn’t it?

“Full eight hours, really? That’s two hours extra than just Für Elise alone. Let’s keep track of that. Now, what is this increase in nocturnal activity?”

Artists are so warm unlike my next of kin in science who decide to torture me more with questions about our nocturnal activities—all of which make Corbin gleefully happy and Aiden monosyllabic with Aidenisms. I stare at Van Gogh’s self-portrait in the asylum, feeling like our most precious moments, our secret parts—every touch, every caress—is being siphoned into their clinical files. And although I know they’re our allies, maybe even generals in this war, my nerves disappear and abruptly I feel anger. Anger at science, anger at fate that Doctor Helen says doesn’t exist.

Finally the interminable discussion of nocturnal activities ends and Doctor Helen stands. The rest of them stand with her—very clearly not daring to blink without her command. “Aiden, you know this next part. We’ll need your heart rate and brain electrical activity. Elisa, you may stay with him for this. We’ll instruct you on next steps when you’re finished. Everyone except Morse, out with me.” She closes her Van Gogh binder and strides out of the lab with her court of scientists at the same time that the Edinburgh team and Corbin turn off their screens. The only one left is old Morse. He is a Graham-thin fellow in his seventies with wispy, static white hair; Aiden clearly likes him.

“How have you been keeping, Morse?” Aiden asks as he stands, holding out his hand for me. I take it, clueless about where we’re going, wishing I could take the Van Gogh binder with me.

“Oh, older and slower, Master Aiden. You are the one with the exciting life. Falling in love—golly gumdrops, I thought the monarchy would fall before I saw that.”

Master Aiden winks at me. “Old Morse is a monarchist. He’s been handling this part of the circus since I was seven. No one could get me to sit still for this back then except him. You’ll see why.”

I smile at old Morse as though he is Aiden’s Mr. Plemmons. He shuffles with us across the colossal lab to a monitor the size of a windshield, which is attached to a dashboard of countless buttons and dials the way a cockpit looks on TV. Next to it are two more white chairs.

“Morse has to attach a few electrodes on me, Elisa. Have a seat.” Aiden brushes my cheek and starts unbuttoning his blue shirt. I fall down on the chair and with every pore of his revealed skin—the warm skin I love, the skin I have kissed more times than I can count—the anger returns. Anger that his golden skin has to be exposed under harsh fluorescents, attached to electrodes in the cold, sterile air of this lab, only so that we can be together. Only for this simple, human dream of being in love.

“I’m fine,” Aiden assures me, seeing it all on my face. Shirtless now, he takes the chair in front of me and old Morse starts hooking him to a wheat field of wires over Aiden’s temples where the bead of sweat glimmered as he was climbing the oak, over his forehead I kissed only this morning, through his hair where I knot my fingers when we make love, over his chest where I rest my cheek. When Morse glues the next one over Aiden’s heart, I stand, unable to sit still.

“Elisa, love, this doesn’t hurt, I promise. Old Morse knows what he’s doing.”

“Oh, I know, I just want to look around.”

I glare at the blank monitor screen attached to Aiden’s electrodes, its beeps cawing around us like the wheat field crows. And suddenly I become Van Gogh’s sunflowers—firing seeds like bullets at the world. I am his cypress tree darkening your sky so my star can glow. And I can understand preferring an asylum to a world that did this to my love.

“Don’t touch the red, dear! You don’t want to fry Master Aiden’s brain now, do you?” Old Morse cautions me as I hover over the dashboard where the wires are ready to extract the inner Aiden, reducing the wonder that is him to more beeps. How could I have been excited for this? How could I have bounced on my car seat this morning? Now all I feel are murders of crows diving in and out of me.

“Of course not!” I spit out more sunflower seeds, glaring at the row of red buttons on the dashboard—the blood hue feels jarring to Van Gogh’s colors swirling in me.

But Aiden is perfectly still. His eyes are the blue irises, lightening and darkening as I flit in and out of his vision.  His torso is the inverse mountaintop of the French Alps despite the adhesive discs on his skin. His eyes are following me with concern, and he opens his hand in invitation for me to sit back down. I perch like a raven on the chair next to him and grip his warm, strong hand in both of mine.

“Please relax,” he says as though he sees all the madness inside. “I’ve done this dozens of times, although I’ve never enjoyed it until now. And in about three minutes, you get to meet my brain. You love that part. Think about that, okay?” The dimple winks like the starriest star of the Starry Night as he tries to comfort me. The man who needs peace the most is trying to assure me. At that, the rippling stops inside me, and the crows disappear. I am here for him, not the other way around. I force my body to be still like his, willing my calm effect to fall around him like a shield. Finally the last electrode is attached, old Morse flips a switch on the dashboard, and the monitor glows to life. After a flicker, Aiden’s brain waves oscillate brilliant blue on the huge screen and right below them, in gold, is his heartbeat.

“Oh!” I gasp, my hands flying to my mouth, all anger draining out of me.

Shh, listen,” Aiden says with a smile and I cup my ear as we did with the willows. After a static whirr, I can hear his mind speak. It’s a humming sound, a bit like soft waterfall and echoing wind. And every few flickers of the brain waves, his heart beeps as though not wanting to be outshone. Except this beep sounds like a piano note—not a caw—to me, more beautiful than Für Elise.

“Can you make out words from this one?” Aiden’s eyes are dancing in response to the wonder he must be seeing in mine. Peripherally, I register old Morse leaving us but I’m lost in the music of Aiden’s mind and heart. Mmm, ding,

“Mine,” I decide, eyes on the monitor. How could I have wanted to shatter it five minutes ago?

“Yours.” The waves flutter gently on the screen and my eyes fly to Aiden’s face—he is smiling. “Come here, Elisa,” he murmurs as if we’re in our warm bed, the only two people in the world. He pulls me on his lap and takes my face in his hands. His eyes seem to take in the moment, as his scent washes over me—headier than the Aeternum perfume. Then his lips brush against mine. At the some moment, a beep chimes from his heart.

“Oh!” I gasp again, eyes flitting to the monitor, lips glued to his. The gold line of his heart is spiking. His hands tighten on my face, bringing me entirely back to him, as he parts my mouth with his tongue. More beeps ding—the song of our kiss—and I close my eyes, listening. Ding, ding, ding. We chuckle together, mouth to mouth.

“Look,” he whispers, freeing my face as his lips start their favorite trail along my jawline to my ear, inhaling the perfume there. I open my eyes and gaze at the screen even as my eyelids want to flutter close. But I cannot blink because the heart waves are swelling and dipping. Then suddenly the beeps go wild—I panic but then I feel his body hardening against me on his lap. He chuckles again. “This, I have to see.” He meets this part of himself—the visual transcription of his desire for me—with curiosity. I hope he can turn it into self-love, I hope he can see what I see.

“Now you look,” I tell him and let my lips travel over his sculpted jaw down to the hollow on his throat away from the electrodes. The dings go mental, and his waterfall laughter washes over us. How are we ever going to pull apart?

But Doctor Helen’s brisk voice blasts through the lab over some sound system. “All right, you two. We need a baseline reading. Some neutral thoughts would help, Aiden. Elisa, if you could go across the room. In fact, if you could please wait outside the lab altogether while we finish. You can see Aiden afterwards.”

“Look what you did.” Aiden grins while I spring away from his lap, cheeks burning.

“They could see us?” I whisper in mortification.

“Of course not. They must have just received the data, and they know how to interpret it. Go on, love, I’ll finish here soon.”

I leave him there with all my strength, looking back at his face every few slowing beeps—his smile is fading with each step I take. The moment the heavy lab doors close behind me, the wound starts to fester again. I pace at the threshold, arms around my torso. If it hurts so much when we’re only apart for a few minutes, how will I live with it if this experiment doesn’t work?

One of Doctor Helen’s assistants enters a room down the hall, and I sprint behind him to sneak. The metal door has a narrow glass pane at the top, and I have to rise on my tiptoes to reach it. Even then I can only see more screens on the wall showing the monitor in the lab. To my untrained brain, it appears Aiden’s brain activity and heart lines are straighter than when I was there. I stare at every slight undulation, barely breathing.

“All right, Aiden, we have what we need. Morse will clear you and I’ll give you time to go to the fMRI room for the next part,” Doctor Helen says from behind the closed door. I race back to Aiden’s lab for a glimpse of him. The moment he comes out in his jeans and open shirt, all electrodes and adhesive discs gone, I can tell from his guarded eyes that he is not excited about this part. But he smiles when he sees me and pulls me against him with a sort of urgency.

“What happens now?” I ask as he starts walking down another white hallway opposite from the kiss lab. His long stride is slower.

“This is when they scan this beast.” He points at his temple.

Before I can find any useful words, he has stopped by yet another white door at the end of the hall. “I have to go in, Elisa. I’ll see you on the other side.” He kisses my hair and then he is gone without a smile. The door closes behind him with a click. A spike of fear lances the wound’s raw edges, rooting me here, palms against the cold door. There is no audible movement for a while, then it sounds like another door is opening within the same room. The sound releases my feet and I dash back to the control center, reaching on my tiptoes to see. But all the screens on the wall are dark. No one says a word as my toes start to wobble . . . Phosphorus, 30.974 . . . silver, 107.87 . . .

“Aiden, can you hear me?” Doctor Helen finally calls from behind the door. I can’t hear Aiden respond, but she must because she adds, “Very well. This will be hard, but you know the process. Lie still, blink and swallow as little as possible, and look at the photographs that will appear on the screen right above you. Forty-five minutes as usual, but after that, Elisa will join you. Try to hold on to that. We start in . . . three, two, one.”

Then the room goes dark and there is total silence. Not a single syllable or movement. Not one sound to tell me what is happening to Aiden. The pain in my chest rises up my throat, constricting it with panic. The white hallway becomes a tunnel of ice, and my teeth start chattering. It takes exactly one minute to realize I cannot breathe through forty-four more minutes of this. Without a second thought, I pound on the door. One of the researchers opens it with wide outraged eyes, but I’m past caring.

“I have to see,” I say, my own voice sounding foreign to my ears.

“Let her in,” Doctor Helen calls, and I step inside quietly, squishing myself into the corner behind the door. The control room is pitch-black except the monitors. Each scientist is at his or her desk, studying their own screens displaying numbers and patterns I cannot comprehend. One central monitor shows what I assume is Aiden’s brain and the way blood is flowing through it like a storm. Doctor Helen sits at the helm of the room, her back to everyone else, but that’s exactly what I need. Because I can see the wide screen she is commanding where a reel of photographs plays with eye-watering speed. I try to blink as little as possible as I realize these must be the images she is feeding Aiden in the MRI machine. They seem innocuous at first, without a visible pattern to me. Traffic light, Christmas tree, chess set, a blue bike, on and on, a few hundred. Then abruptly my own face startles me—the photo of me sleeping, the only one Aiden had before he came to England. And after my face, the reel changes—people now. Some I know, some I don’t, some I can guess: Aiden’s parents, Benson, Cora, James, two others I assume to be Hendrix and Jazzman, a military headshot of a young Black man in his Marine blues, countless unknown others, again in the hundreds, again with no pattern I can decipher. Then the reel changes quickly a third time—these images are more familiar, warming me. An Aeternum rose, a stave of music from Für Elise, Javier’s fateful painting of my jawline, a Baci chocolate, purple eyes . . . My eyes fill with tears as I realize she is feeding Aiden every image he must associate primarily with me.

I almost miss the next abrupt change of the reel from my tears. Then once I see it, I wish I had never seen. Because the images they are blasting on Aiden now are of terror, gruesome to the extreme. A military helmet splattered with human brains, disembodied torn human limbs, an imploded rib cage glistening in the sun, half a little boy, a flayed corpse, a face that once must have been human before it was peeled, eyes gauged out, nose, lips, and ears scraped off, and the young Black Marine who, with a strangle in my throat, I conclude must be Marshall.

“Stop!” I shout, bolting to my feet, my voice echoing in the control room as all the scientists except Doctor Helen gasp and leap off their seats. I jump forward to—what, do something, anything to the screen of horror—but the bear assistant throws himself in front of me, glaring in disbelief. “Don’t show Aiden those! Please!” I cry, trying to get around him.

But it’s Doctor Helen who speaks in an even tone never looking away from the screen or stopping the reel of terror. “We have to, Elisa. Now, please, we need quiet, or I’ll ask you to leave.”

The bear blocks my view of the screen, towering over me until I fall back on my corner and sink to the floor. He flits back to his desk, freeing my line of sight again. I should close my eyes, but I don’t because if Aiden has to see these, so will I. My stomach heaves violently, bile rising to my clamped teeth—over and over until my insides are burning with acid. A knifepoint pain stabs through my skull, dulling even the throbbing in my chest. I clamp my arms around my knees, pressing my back against the corner, rocking in place to fight off the shudders, as Doctor Helen triggers Aiden’s traumatic memories, searing his retinas while he is captive in the MRI machine with hundreds of sickening, macabre images. It’ll be over soon. It’ll be over soon, my love. Only twenty minutes left. Then we can go back to the cottage where Mum’s magic will help you, and you can sleep while I go back to Bia—to the lab that is trying to fight fear, not inflict it.

Doctor Helen changes the reel again, now alternating the horrific images with the images Aiden associates with me. Marshall—my face, flayed corpse—my face, dismembered body—Aeternum, on and on. Bile rises again and I grip my skull as I stare in horror at what he is living through for us. Then the speed of the reel skyrockets until the images become so blurry I can no longer distinguish them from each other.

“Is he truly processing at this speed?” Doctor O’Connor’s voice pipes through a speakerphone, and I realize the computer is feeding the same images to him in Scotland. Rage burns my throat as I try to find air now that the images have blurred for me.

“Yes, he is,” Doctor Helen responds in a majestic tone that makes me want to scream. “He is extraordinary. We cannot explain him.”

“But maybe we can help him,” Corbin says over the phone with a protective edge and, if he were here, I would hug him. Or ask him to hug me.

Doctor Helen does not respond in any way. Her silence strangles me more than the reel of terror, more than the failed oxytocin this morning. Is she silent because she doesn’t think we can win? Because she doesn’t think we can save Aiden?

“Last wave,” she announces and, for some reason, they all sit up straighter while I shrink smaller. The reel is still too fast for me so I fix my eyes on the image of Aiden’s brain. The brain I wanted so much to meet. The brain that is absorbing image after image of trauma so that Aiden and I can be together. But now that it’s here in front of me, I only see Aiden’s heart.

At long last the reel stops, landing with the image of me sleeping. My face fills the screen—calm and peaceful, hopefully filtering that peace straight into Aiden’s mind.

“Aiden,” Doctor Helen speaks on her microphone, and I jump to my feet again, fighting off dizziness. There is no response from him whatsoever. “The worst is over. Remain still and keep your eyes on Elisa’s photo.” Then she turns to me. “Elisa, if you could join Aiden now in the fMRI room, please? Richard will show you. Quickly. We need to capture these next few minutes.”

I barely hear her last words because I’m already bursting out the door, not waiting for Richard who runs after me. I streak down the hall toward the last room Aiden entered, but Richard leaps in front of me.

“Miss Snow!” he cries, hands out to stop me. “You have to remove your clothing in this room first and all metal from your body. The MRI machine is very strong. There are lockers for your valuables and another door that will lead you straight to it.”

“Fine, fine,” I shout, ducking past him and shoving open the door. It’s some sort of antechamber, but I see Aiden’s belt, shoes, and clothes folded neatly on a bench. I rip off my blouse and jeans, cursing the underwire of my bra. My only valuable—Dad’s watch—goes inside a locker, and I throw a gown over me. Then I wrench open the other door, plunging down another endless hall to the clearly labeled MRI room. I burst through those doors too, wanting nothing but to take Aiden in my arms away from all these computers and horror. But I can’t because he is still inside an astronautic-looking MRI pod.

“Elisa, are you in?” Doctor Helen’s voice blares through an overhead speaker.

“I am,” I gasp, hoping she can hear me.

“Good. Aiden, this part is new to you, too. We have never done this before. We will slide out the bed so that you’re out of the bore waist down. Then we will continue the imaging, so don’t talk or move. Starting in . . . three, two, one.” She counts evenly and the MRI bed rolls out, exposing Aiden’s long legs and narrow waist. He is covered with a pale blue sheet except his toes.

“Now, continue to remain as still as you can. I’ll ask Elisa to come stand next to you and say your name when she’s there. Do not speak. Elisa, now please.”

I sprint to Aiden, forcing myself to say his name as I normally would, not gasp it. I hope I sounded calm, I hope he can hear me.

“Very good,” Doctor Helen coaches. “Aiden, same orders: no movement or talking—we are still imaging. You will be smelling Elisa’s perfume in . . . three, two, one.” A stream of air blasts everywhere, making me shiver in my thin gown, but not because it’s cold. Because the scent of Aeternum floods the room and presumably the MRI bore. I gulp it, closing my eyes, gathering all my strength from every corner of my mind like he gathered roses across the globe for me. The perfume fortifies me like a tonic, and I brace myself for whatever comes next.

“Now then,” Doctor Helen speaks. “Elisa, please take Aiden’s hand gently and again say his name when you do so. Aiden, continue not to move, no matter how much you might want to. In . . . three, two, one.”

I reach under the blue sheet and find his hand. It’s curled into a shuddering granite fist. I wrap both my hands around it. “Aiden,” I say, and the shaking slows a fraction, but the fist remains locked.

“Well done,” says Doctor Helen. “Now the last part. Elisa, I’d like you to talk to Aiden. I want you to describe the present moment to him as if he is unable to see it. Bring him back to you, as it were. Aiden, your job is to focus every single thought on Elisa, continue to watch her image on the screen, and stay away from the images you just saw as much as possible. Feel what you need to feel, but listen to her voice and continue to stay still. We will start in . . . three, two, one.”

Wait, I want to call. Wait, I’m not ready. But Aiden is stuck in some horror while I scramble to find words. I draw another gulp of Aeternum air, and start. “Hi, my love,” I say, not caring who else hears except him. “I’m here. Where is here, you might ask. Here is a white room, with four white walls, smelling like the most beautiful memory in the world. Or in practical terms, like hundreds of Aeternum roses that you shipped for me from Kenya because I had never seen them. Isn’t that incredible? But more incredible than that is this moment right here. Just the two of us, you inside this white MRI machine under a blue sheet and me in a matching blue gown standing next to you in my rose socks, holding each other’s hand because this moment right here is your our fight and I’m so proud of you. That’s why this moment is more important even than Aeternum night. And also because I can see your toes. I’ve never told you, but I love your toes. Who knew there was such a specific type of love? But there it is, making my own toes wiggle in response. There’s some track lighting too—it’s a bit harsh, you wouldn’t like it, but I like it because it lets me see some of you even if you are under a sheet. I hope you’re not cold. It’s a little nippy here. But my hands are warm around yours so think about that and come back to me when ready. I’ll be right here. I love you.”

I stop talking, worried I said too much, too little, too fast, too slow. I don’t know—but I tried to deploy some of our collected weapons: our love, humor, his fighting spirit. Maybe that helped. The fist stopped shaking and has opened.

“Excellent work, both of you.” Dr. Helen’s voice booms over the intercom. “We have what we need. Aiden, you can relax but try to stay in the moment. We’ll give you some time and privacy, and then we’ll discuss.”

The static of the microphone cuts off and the MRI bed slides out, jettisoning Aiden in front of me. I immediately find his eyes—they’re bottomless ocean blue, the depths ravaged by the horrors the images must have triggered, but they are lightening. Specks of turquoise are already flickering.

“Thank you,” he says, and the hell he must have lived through is in his voice, too. It’s slow, hoarse, the way one might sound after a long illness. He takes a shuddering breath and stretches, searching his body that tenses here and there. I give him time as he opens and closes his hands, rolls his wrists and shoulders, wiggles his toes. He smiles then—a worn, exhausted smile that barely lifts the corners of his lips, but a smile still. “Toes?”

“Toes and everything.”

I sit on the edge of the narrow MRI bed, ready to give him more time but he opens his arms—they seem heavy. “Come here,” he says as he did before.

I lift his sheet—he is wearing his grey briefs underneath—and lie gently on top of him because the MRI table is too narrow for both of us. His heartbeat is fast under my ear. He folds his arms around me and I feel his lips in my hair. He is Van Gogh’s Alps again but this time in wrought iron, shoulders rippling like the wheat field, skin frozen like the Alps’ snow, breathing wounded and clipped. He doesn’t talk. I search through our weapons to help him stay in the moment and find one. His words of self-love. “You’re loyal. You’re strong. You’re loving. You’re fucking smart. You’re an excellent fighter. You always win. You’re thoughtful. You are loved.”

And Aiden comes back with a shaky breathless sound that could be a chuckle. His fingers trace my spine over the thin cotton of the gown. I lift my head and watch his eyes clear as they gaze back at me until they beam with my turquoise. At that moment, he kisses me lightly, holding his mouth to mine. I follow his lead, and at length his body comes to life. The heaviness becomes strength—I feel it in his hold, in the way his hands clutch my waist, travel up my arms, and knot in my hair. His lips brush along my jawline, down my neck, and he pulls the gown off my shoulder, kissing to the very tip. By the time he is back at my mouth, the Alps of his body are a different mountain—vibrant and warm, rippling with a faint breeze of desire. But he simply holds me, his fingers memorizing my skin.

“It was a lot easier this time . . . with you.” His voice is back to its beautiful husky timbre, although slower.

I kiss above his heart, fighting a shudder at his words. If this was a lot easier, how was it without me? At least he has a three-month break until he has to be inside this torture chamber again. At least the next eighty-seven triggers will be just Aiden and me in our cottage with Mum’s magic. And I’ll do everything I can to make them the best eighty-seven days of his life. A thousand happy memories to each horrific one.

The telltale static of the sound system makes us both tense. “Aiden, Elisa, if you feel ready, could you join us in the control room?” Doctor Helen calls.

We climb off the MRI bed, neither of us looking back at it. We help each other get dressed in the antechamber—not because we need the help, but because we need the touch—and plod down the halls to the neuroscientists.

But only Doctor Helen and her Van Gogh binder are in the command center now, as well as Corbin over the phone. We take the two seats in front of her, never releasing each other’s hand. Did we win this battle? Or are we about to lose more?

“Aiden, how are you feeling?” she starts with him, as she should. Yet, I taste anger in my tongue. Even if she’s trying to help us, she will always be Doctor Pain to me now.

“Better,” he answers politely. “Much better than five years ago when we last did this.”

“That’s wonderful,” says Corbin; it sounds like he is clapping. “Well done, both of you.”

“You certainly look better and sooner,” Doctor Pain agrees. “And that’s a good place to start. With the encouraging news.” She bestows a nearly invisible smile on us—noticeable only because the gravitas of her face is so absolute. I grip Aiden’s hand tighter. “There is little doubt now that Elisa’s calming effect is more than placebo. It’s very much real to you and its impact on your brain is no different than a powerful injection of serotonin.”

“Of course it’s real. It’s too strong to be anything but,” Aiden responds with conviction as if he never doubted this part, while I draw the first effortless breath since smelling the Aeternum. We get to keep the mother of bombs.

Doctor Pain gives him one stately nod. “That strength, however, is hard to quantify. But based on the fear-related brain areas with heightened CREB protein, we guess Elisa’s effect reduces your terror by about twenty-thirty percent.”

Something about her words tickles a memory of my own but I have no power to chase it because she just drained me with her last two words. “That’s all?” I ask, unable to control the fear in my voice.

“That can’t be right,” Aiden argues. “It feels a lot stronger than that. You saw how quickly she brought me back. About half the time of my best record on medication.”

“I saw. And it’s possible that Elisa’s effect is stronger—our experiment is limited by laboratory conditions. We tried to approximate her presence as much as possible inside the MRI bore with her picture, smell, voice, and touch, but we were lacking the sense of taste and of course the sum of her and the two of you alone together without my voice interfering which of course you associate with unpleasantness and pain. But the point is that we are unable to give it beyond twenty-thirty percent.”

When neither of us can speak—I because all I hear is eighty percent chance of losing this war, Aiden for whatever reason that’s making his jaw clench—Doctor Pain continues. “That said, there is something surprising we discovered about Elisa’s effect on you. It appears to be particularly effective at counteracting images of war.” She gives us another regal smile that I cannot return.

“What does that mean?” I ask. “Is that good or bad?”

The regal smile remains, but her eyes seem to soften when she turns to me. “I believe it to be encouraging.”

“By all means, take your time to explain,” Aiden says in his arctic tone, and I have a mad Van Goghian desire to laugh, if I could move my face.

Doctor Pain’s near-smile becomes more visible. “It means that although Javier’s painting is what brought Elisa’s effect to life, it was very clearly conceived a lot earlier by you yourself, Aiden. We believe it goes back to your war letters. In a nutshell, when you were surrounded by war atrocities, you calmed yourself by writing letters to an unknown woman. And your powerful memory started to associate the idea of being in love with this mysterious woman with being at peace. When Javier practically handed such a woman to you in a frame, he completed a process that had already started twelve years before. That’s why Elisa is able to bring you back from images of war much more quickly. Because you chose her. Your memory itself gave her that power. And I hope in the end that will make a difference.”

“How big a difference?” Aiden’s voice is soft now, perhaps with the same wonder, the same H-O-P-E that is flooding me. Somehow knowing that my effect on Aiden is by his mind’s own choice makes me feel like we belong together in a real, not magical way.

“Unknown. All of this is conjecture at this point. We are not operating within known scientific concepts when it comes to you.”

“But you have designed an action plan for us?” Aiden prompts.

“We have. You just did your first session of it. You’ll need to trigger yourself with traumatic images and have Elisa bring you back to the present moment as she did now but to the full extent of your senses, every day for the next eighty-seven days, at the same time, the same place away from the bedroom or anywhere you associate with rest.”

Aiden nods tensely in understanding, but I no longer feel the chair underneath me. “Excuse me, what do you mean ‘first session’? What do you mean ‘traumatic images’?”

Aiden’s thumb rubs my palm as if to comfort me, but she picks up a box from the desk and brings it on her lap, glancing at me with a trace of concern. I watch in horror as she takes out a monitor wearable over the eyes, like a virtual reality headset, and hands it to Aiden. “This has been uploaded with all the images you saw during the fMRI. You will have to watch them every day, Aiden. I’m very sorry, but it’s the best way.”

“No!” I gasp, jumping to my feet again and grabbing the headset before it can touch his fingertips.

“Elisa, be careful with that!” Doctor Pain’s clinical tone betrays the first note of anxiety as she stretches out her hand. The Van Gogh in me wants to smash the implement of torture on the polished floor. I clutch it to my chest instead.

“Love, what’s the matter?” Aiden rises on his feet too, brushing my cheek—still slower than his usual reflexes. “This isn’t like you.”

“I don’t want you watching these images again. I saw them, Aiden. They’re awful.”

Where the prospect of watching the reel of terror eighty-seven more times didn’t shake him, hearing I watched it once does. He blanches and his entire frame locks in horror. “You saw them?” The strangled question is clearly meant for me but he turns his lethal gaze on Doctor Pain, and for a moment he looks truly frightening. He looks exactly like the Marine who lived the atrocities I only saw in pictures.

“It wasn’t her fault,” I intervene despite my own problems with the regal neuroscientist. “I barged in after snooping. And yelled at everyone.” I peek at Doctor Pain, face hot enough to power all the monitors. “I’m very sorry about that, Doctor.”

“It’s quite understandable.” She nods and meets Aiden’s sniper glare without flinching. “She had a right to see them. This is her fight, too. She clearly loves you very much.”

He turns his eyes back to me, but they’re wild with anxiety now. He cups my neck, except it feels like he is checking for vital signs. “Are you all right?”

“How could I be all right, Aiden? I’m worried sick about you. Watching these horrors every day is torture.”

His hands come around my face, light as if I might break. “Love, please sit. Don’t worry about me, I can handle it,” he pleads. His voice is tender with the concern I’m adding to the agony that must already be burning him. I drop on the chair, gripping the torture headset. He sits down too but shifts his chair so close to me that our arms are touching. His hands are open, ready to catch the monitor that will brutalize him in case I drop it.

“Doctor, please!” I look only at Doctor Pain now, and all my anger at her drains away, all that’s left is terror for him. “This is too much. Why can’t Aiden simply summon a memory on his own instead of watching these? I thought that was the plan.”

“I’m sorry, Elisa, that was our initial idea but it won’t work based on the tests we just ran. Aiden’s brain is too powerful for that, his memory too smart, too quick and adaptable. We have to meet it at its level, while combining exposure therapy with reconsolidation. Please trust that we considered all other methods.”

A total silence follows her words, and I wish Corbin would speak or Mum and Dad would alight from above to put an end to this, to show us another path that doesn’t involve Aiden walking barefoot through the fires of Iraq to come to me. But Aiden pries the implement of torture from my grip—pries it by gently opening each finger one by one—and takes it from me.

“I’ll do it,” he says with finality, leaving no room for argument. There is no hesitation in his voice, no fear. Nothing but resolve.

“Wait!” I gasp again. “Can’t he at least alternate—one day with images, one day by himself? Or would it help if I watched with him on a TV or something? Please?”

“Over my dead body!” Aiden snarls, angling himself as though to hide me from the world. He holds the headset of horror behind his back where he knows very well no one will reach.

Doctor Pain’s face softens in a maternal way that startles me, and she takes my hand. Her touch is not cold, as I expected it to be—it’s warm and tender, like crimpled organza. “Elisa, daughter of Clare, you are so very much like your mother even though everyone says you have Peter’s talent. How I wish I could say to you there was an easier way. But Aiden’s startle reflex is too strong, child. This is the best method that stands a chance at helping him. Many others are more traumatizing or dangerous if you can believe me.”

Abruptly, she becomes Doctor Helen again. Next to me, Aiden relaxes now that she has ruled in favor of him being the only one to watch the horror. “How high is that chance?” he asks. “Knowing that I’ll do this regardless.”

Doctor Helen releases my hand, but the maternal edge stays on her face when she looks at him. “Unknown. Unknown how high. Unknown if it will work at all. Science can’t give you any answers for this. You will have to give the answers to science.”

I grip Aiden’s hand again, and Doctor Helen sees it. “But you do have a choice.” She regards us both now, and the gravitas returns to her face.

“We do?” I whisper, and I no longer know to whom. To science or magic?

Doctor Helen is the only one who answers. “Of course. There is always a choice. Option one, you do this—you stand to risk everything or gain everything. Option two, do nothing—continue as you are but risk Elisa’s safety and Aiden’s sanity if another attack happens again. Option three, you say goodbye now—you lose each other, but perhaps someday science discovers something new, although we cannot promise that will happen.”

A deep chill falls over the control room—or perhaps it’s just me. And the space feels cavernous, but perhaps it’s the wound in my chest that just ripped wide open. The air feels muddy and liquid too—but maybe it’s the river water. And I don’t see the overhead track lighting—it’s extinguished like the dark void before and the dark void after Aiden. No stars, just endless night.

I realize now that Aiden and I have turned toward each other reflexively. His eyes find mine, agonized as though he is back in the MRI.

“We’ll give you a moment,” Doctor Helen’s voice sounds faded but Corbin speaks for the first time.

“One second, Doctor, if I could add my two cents. You are the memory expert and I’ll defer to you on that. But in my experience, Aiden and Elisa’s connection to each other is just as unique on its own right. We cannot underestimate the risk of significant new trauma to them if they lose each other. I fear they would also lose themselves.”

His words light a single candle in the darkness. A candle like the one that burned by Romeo and Juliet.

“Well said,” Doctor Helen agrees. “Aiden and Elisa, you have a difficult choice before you. We’ll leave you alone now so you can decide.”

The door closes behind her as our foreheads fall against each other. Aiden sets down the headset of torture, and wraps both my hands in his—fingers knotted together like the branches of his oak tree that we climbed today. Was it only today? Has it only been one day of war?

“They say it’s a difficult choice,” he says. “But to me, that’s the easiest part. Option one is the only option I can live with. I cannot risk your safety or give you up without all my fight.”

“Are you sure, my love? It’s too much pain, you would be hurting too much.”

“We knew this would be hard.”

“Not this hard. We didn’t know you would have to watch those horrible images every day. Was that M-Marshall?” Despite my resolve to be strong for him, tears fill my eyes. I try to wipe them, but he is there first. He dries them with his fingertips before they spill and pulls me gently onto his lap, folding his arms around me like he is trying to fit me inside his heart.

“Yes, but he is gone, love. No matter how hard I’ve tried to keep him here, he’s gone. All of it is gone, and I’m trying to lay it to rest. I’m just sorry you saw them. I’m sorry they’re in your head. I’m sorry they touched any part of you. I’m sorry I’ve dragged this torment in your life. I’m sorry I am the way I am—”

I place my hand over his mouth. “Please, don’t.”

His eyes rage with acute conflict between fury that I know it’s at himself and desperation to give me what I want.  His jaw is flexing as if to contain all the sorries left unsaid. He takes my hand from his lips and rests it on his cheek. “You’re right,” he finally says. “I’m sorry for so many things that don’t matter anymore. All that matters now is us. Do you choose option one? Will you still fight with me now that you’ve seen all this?”

The direct question leaves me breathless—because it was never really a question. “Of course I will. I promised you that.”

He shakes his head, eyes still agonized. “Not because you promised. I’d understand if you change your mind. A part of me still wants you to—you’d be better off. But I will never force your hand again. Do you want to fight with me now that you know what it will take? Do you have faith in me, Elisa, to overcome all that?”

He asks that last question in a hard, jagged tone—a counterpoint to the vulnerability he must be feeling. I realize with horror that, in my fear for him, I’ve made him question this most axiomatic truth, instead of protecting him as I was trying to do. I grab his face not at all gently like he does with me. “Aiden, I have faith in you most of all. Your strength and our love are the reasons I said yes. Nothing I’ve seen today changes that. If anything, I’m more in awe of you. And I didn’t think I could love you more but I do. Don’t you ever question any of that. Of course I want to fight with you.”

He nods as much as he can in my tenacious grip, his eyes no doubt seeing the pure truth in mine. But his arms tighten around me like a vise. “That’s all I needed to hear. All those images, I can watch them every day, every hour if I have to, if I know you’re on the other side waiting for me.”

“I will be. And after you watch them, we will make the rest of the day so happy that even you will forget what you saw.”

He releases my finger-hooks from his beautiful face, bending it to mine. Love is a strange, powerful weapon. We are in a clinical, cold room, surrounded with monitors whirring with danger, bombarded by the beeps of the risks we’re taking, suffocated by horrific images of the enemy ahead and the enemy within, yet we both smile as our lips meet. And the monitors go silent—there is only the soft sound of our mouths and our breath, hitching with desire, not fear. Or maybe it’s not love. Maybe it’s madness. Maybe we are not in Van Gogh’s paintings. Maybe we are Van Gogh himself—cutting off ears, eyes, and hearts for each other’s love. Whatever it is though, I don’t care as long as I am with him.

He breaks the kiss first, but seems as unsteady as me. “Let’s call them in so we can go home. You need sleep and I need you.”

Sleep is not in the formula for me this summer, but he doesn’t need to know that right now. He sets me back on my chair and strides out of the door to locate Doctor Helen while I sit here processing how a room that seared him with so much cruelty became a place of love. When they return, Aiden sits next to me, arm around my shoulders while Doctor Helen dials Corbin to join over the phone.

“Elisa, Aiden says you have made your choice,” Doctor Helen starts.

I nod, smiling that he waited for us to tell them together. “We choose option one.”

Neither of them seems surprised by this. “In that case,” Doctor Helen says with significance. “Three rules. First, self-care. This will take its toll. In Aiden’s case particularly, sleep is crucial as the memories begin to reconsolidate. Continue to follow the routine of that first night and keep track of everything. Let us know if you start noticing any changes.”

“We will,” Aiden nods.

“Second, endorphins. Live the life you want to live as fully as possible, and stay in the moment. That’s the point of all this. We stand a much better chance if Aiden has as many happy memories as he has traumatic ones.”

“We will,” I promise while Aiden’s fingers draw a happy circle on my shoulder.

“And third—the startle reflex.”

The happy fingers stop and Aiden turns into stone at the mention of the formidable foe. His hand in mine closes into the shuddering fist again. Doctor Helen nods, her face severe as she notices his lockdown. “I’m sure we don’t need to explain how imperative it is that you guard against the startle reflex during this time.”

Corbin interjects in a forceful tone. “I couldn’t agree more. For both Elisa’s safety and Aiden’s mental health.”

Identical shudders run through Aiden and me at the same time—probably for different reasons. I shudder at the fear in Corbin’s voice when he talks about Aiden. I’m sure Aiden is over there in his chair terrified for me.

As if he feels the shudders himself, Corbin continues, “To help with that, we think you should implement some safety measures since you’ll be living without Benson. Maybe things like pepper spray or some other method to incapacitate Aiden should the startle get triggered during this process.”

Aiden is nodding in vigorous agreement before Corbin has finished while all I hear is incapacitate Aiden. “Agreed. Benson and I are already working on some options.”

I watch Aiden terrified about what options of self-incapacitation the most self-loathing man in the universe is contemplating. At my look, he backtracks quickly. “Correction, Victor. Elisa and I will be working on some options.”

He rubs the goose bumps under my sleeve, raising his eyebrows at me as if to ask, is that better? I nod, somewhat relieved, while Corbin chuckles. “My wife wishes I could learn as fast as you, Aiden.”

Aiden smiles, but his turquoise eyes that have absorbed so much trauma today stay on me. Abruptly I want to leave. I want to go back to the cottage—just us and Mum’s roses that will heal him as he sleeps, while I try to be Dad and solve the protein that can protect him when he is awake.

Seeing the urgency in my eyes, Aiden stands. “We need to go,” he announces. “It’s been a long day.”

Things wrap up quickly then. One minute, we’re collecting the box with the torture headset, the next Corbin is gone and Doctor Helen is walking us through the door.

“We’ll be in touch to schedule the next scan. In the meantime, here is your perfume,” she says, giving me back my treasure that immediately warms my fingertips. “Oh, and I thought you both might like this.”  She takes a polaroid out of the Van Gogh binder and hands it to us. “It’s a picture of your kiss,” she explains as I take it with trembling fingers.

There, on the black glossy paper are Aiden’s electric blue brain waves and his golden heart line, spiking and swelling as we were kissing.

“May it bring you both calm when you feel the most fear.” Doctor Helen casts the words like a benediction.

From her binder, Van Gogh’s brushstrokes look suddenly ordinary compared to the brushstrokes of Aiden’s mind, but my own brain waves are abruptly spiking. Because Doctor Helen may have just given me another gift.

“Thank you!” I say with fervor.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 16 – SHOCK

Happy Sunday, friends! Hope the weekend was a relaxing and happy one. To help with Sunday Scaries, here is Chapter 16. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks as always for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

16

Shock

Monday morning at precisely four o’clock, I want to laugh despite the indecency of the hour, my bleary eyes, and gelatinous legs. Because the Dragon that is driving me to Oxford is very clearly not a morning beast now that he is able to sleep in his den. As it is, my giggle is stifled by a yawn, followed by two of his.

“I really would have been fine riding the bus,” I tell him, my voice still raspy with sleep. “That’s what I had been doing.”

“Fuck, don’t yell!”

“I’m serious,” I whisper, gripping the edge of the seat of his newly leased Range Rover not to laugh.

“No bus!” He glares at the dark road as though he is about to carbonize it into volcanic rock with his fire breath.

“All right, if you want to be gallant and protective, then at least go back to hibernation after you drop me off.”

“What part of my face says joking is welcome at this ungodly hour?”

“The fangs.”

This yawn is more like a fuming roar. The talons grip the wheel. But despite the scales, I have an overwhelming urge to pet him. He needs sleep more than me right now to consolidate his memories, yet he dutifully rose an hour ago, helped me with my breakfast, and now is driving the long way to Bia so that I don’t have to pass by my parents’ accident site.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I have to go in this early so I can test the protein before Edison and Graham show up. Dad didn’t want anyone to know for a reason.”

“This—” yawn “—is exactly what I mean by don’t stress yourself for me, Elisa! I don’t want you operating on three hours of sleep.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have had three hours of sleep if someone hadn’t insisted on avenging my self-love game on every surface of the cottage once the pestilent soreness was gone.”

It works some. One reference to our happy, albeit obscene night and the claws are retracted but he is still glaring. “Yes, well, that ends after tonight. Going forward, sex will be at eighteen hundred hours sharp! You will be asleep by twenty-one hundred.”

“That’s a good thought, Lieutenant. There’s still an awfully lot of floor left.” The scales smooth out and the fangs disappear. The lips almost twitch in a smile. “Not to mention half the stairs,” I continue.

The Dragon flies out of the sunroof and my Aiden is back on the wheel. Because, as I discovered through gymnastics I did not realize I could accomplish, the stairs are Aiden’s favorite, second only to our bedroom. He gulps some coffee from his fourth cup, much calmer.

“You’ll be okay today?” he asks, his voice now a muted, slow key instead of a growl.

“Of course. I’m not handling any dangerous chemicals. Just the protein.” I decide he doesn’t need to know about the way it combusts into flames exactly like him.

“Maybe I should reschedule our meeting with the scientists so you can come straight home after work.”

For a second, I’m distracted by the flutter in my stomach when he calls the cottage home no matter how casually. But only for a second. “Absolutely not. I’m as excited to meet your brain as I am about the protein.”

He sighs, frowning at the road, but doesn’t answer. A heavy feeling—like his memory heard its name and is rising, shifting all its vast weight around us—fills the Rover. Abruptly, I feel selfish, buzzing with excitement when the process must be difficult for him.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “That was thoughtless of me.”

“Of course it wasn’t. How can I be upset with you for loving every part of me no matter how unlovable it is?”

“You’re violating the self-love rules. You know what happens when you do that.”

“It’s not self-loathing if it’s a fact, Elisa.” The melancholy in his face changes to anger as his hands tense on the wheel again. “If I had a normal brain, you wouldn’t have to wake up at this hour. You could sleep in, go to work at a reasonable time, develop the protein at your pace—not exhaust yourself to save the man you love. And then you could come home where we would be together without every tick of the fucking clock feeling like an IED. And I could fall asleep with you in my arms without dreading what I might see next to me when I open my eyes in the morning. So yes, if that violates your self-love rules, so be it.”

I never know what to say when he speaks truths like this—truths that are true in abstract, but completely untrue to me. He is glowering ahead, but I know it’s not at the windshield. It’s at his own reflection. “This isn’t feeling like the opposite,” I mumble. “It’s feeling like more of the same.”

“The opposite doesn’t mean a lie, love.”

I snatch that last word—small as it is, shuddering with anger and fear—and tuck it into every thought. It cancels all his other words. “If truth is what you’re after, if you had a normal brain—whatever that means—we might have never met. And even if we had, it wouldn’t be this kind of love. I’d rather love like this than play it safe.”

More four-letter words, so I grip L-O-V-E tighter. It’s ours—no torture, capture, or war can take it from us while we are still breathing.

His face softens, whether at my words or something else, I don’t know. But he takes my hand where it’s clenched into a fist on my lap and brings it to his lips. “You’re right. I can’t hate anything that brought me to you.”

I caress his lips and the tension of his jaw drains away. I see his mind rearrange the tectonic plates in his eyes as he glances at my profile for a second and finds his peace. When he sighs again, the sound is light and his lips lift in a sleepy smile. “I really know how to kick-start the day, don’t I?”

I grin. “You definitely woke me up.”

He chuckles, the soft sound flitters around the Rover’s cabin, carrying away the memory’s weight on its wings. “Let’s hit restart. I’ll meet you outside your lab at six and we can walk over to the WIN Centre together. And you can look at my brain as much as you want. God knows it loves looking at you, so it’s only fair.”

I smile at his familiar shorthand for the Wellcome Centre for Interactive Neuroimaging. And I love the WIN part for our fight. “Do you think we ever saw each other when you were coming to Oxford and I was little?”

“We didn’t. I wondered about that as I was looking at your childhood photos. I never saw your parents either.”

“Well, maybe I saw you,” I muse, looking at the Oxford road sign. “Maybe little me saw teenage you and tucked your face away so I would recognize you later. Maybe that’s why you feel like home to me, too.”

His hand tightens around mine. “Maybe you did, love.”

I like the fantasy of that. Little us, old us—all sprinkling a pinch of stardust from every time dimension to help us through this one. I will take every bit of help I can get, real or imagined.

Aiden pulls over in the parking lot of the Chemistry Building, and the dimple wakes up in his cheek. “This brings back memories of parking at Reed to ambush you at Denton’s lab for our first coffee date.”

I pick up his coffee cup and sip a mouthful, placing my lips exactly where he drank. Then I reach over to kiss him, pouring some of it in his mouth. “To coffee dates, Aiden.”

He swallows and laughs. “I’ll never enjoy drinking coffee out of a cup again compared to this.”

With his memory, this might actually be true. “What will you do with yourself today?” I ask, prolonging each last second.

“Go for a run on the hills, work at the Inn, miss you.”

I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here in this dark car, drinking coffee mouth-to-mouth, listening to his quiet chuckle, watching his sleepy eyes awake. There is still so much to catch up from the last two weeks. I don’t know every hour of his days without me. I don’t know what he read, what he ate, what songs he listened to, which favorite pajamas he wore, whether Cora made him his chocolate chip cookies—all these insignificant details that blend into a vital whole, the full totality of him.

“And you wanted to take the bus?” he smiles, reading my thoughts on my skin. Or maybe on his own.

“Terrible idea. Don’t ever let me think such lunacy again.”

I force myself to stumble out of the Rover—force only by thinking of the protein we so desperately need.

“Here, you forgot your snacks,” he reminds me, whirling down his window. “And your purse. And your kiss.”

“Bloody hell, I think I forgot my brain.”

His mouth takes it easy on me but I still feel the heat of his lips and the flame of his eyes as I plod across the parking lot to Bia.

“Be safe,” he calls behind me as always when we part. His gravelly morning voice would make Beethoven weep. It almost makes me turn around. As it is, I pause at the front doors to wave at him. He waits for me to go inside, but I peek through the glass panel, watching the lights of the Rover fade down St. Giles Boulevard. The moment they disappear, the livid wound in my chest rips open—as furious as on Friday—like the only anesthetic that soothes it is gone with him. My arm flies around my torso and I shamble down the hall to Bia, trying to remember how I lived with this. How did I think around it to get through the day? Did I lose the micro-layer of strength I had gained? Or has the pain at the thought of losing Aiden magnified, multiplying to the nth degree each second I spent in the bubble of his unrestrained love these last two days? A shudder of terror runs through me and I sprint toward the protein.

Bia is dark and quiet when I go in. It feels like I was here a lifetime ago, not on Friday. Because it was a lifetime ago—an entire dark existence of grief and loss. If its agony had not been etched on my insides, from my lungs full of river water to the festering wound, I wouldn’t have believed the woman who scrubbed these beakers on Friday was I.

I run straight to the cooler of chemicals but the moment I open the pressurized doors, I almost collapse on to the tile floor. Right there, in neat rows with clearly marked labels are hundreds and hundreds of ampules containing oxytocin in one form or another. By the time I’ve calculated four hundred compounds of it, I sink down, head between my knees, palms against the cold tiles, trying to gulp air. But all oxygen is gone. There are not enough days left to test all these. I will not be able to finish on time. Aiden’s cold lips flash in my vision from the nightmare and I cannot breathe. The tile floor starts spinning like a centrifuge. I lift my head to look at the periodic table on the wall but it is blurry with speed too. I can’t even see the lab. All I see is Aiden’s frozen body in permanent sleep. And the boulder’s sickly lapping sound hisses like high pitch through Bia so resonant it could shatter the oxytocin ampules: violent ends.

I throw my hands over my ears and lean my forehead against the cooler door. I should have worked all weekend. I should work all night. But even if I spend every single hour in this lab—not only the secret hours—I’ll never have enough hours to test all the oxytocin options. Even I confide in Graham and Edison—against Dad’s wishes—we do not have enough time. How can I tell Aiden? How can we lose one of the very few weapons we have? How can I kill the tendril of hope before it has even blossomed?

I try to focus only on the cold air blowing from Bia’s temperature-controlled vents. At the same moment, my phone buzzes in the pocket of Dad’s lab coat. Only Aiden would text me at this hour. Only he could get my hands to move or my eyes to see something other than my nightmare. I open the text and the picture Aiden took of us on the poppy field fills the screen. Right below it are his words:

“Does my first selfie count as self-love if we’re in it together? ”

Could he sense I was falling apart? Is his chest hurting like mine? Is that how he knew to send me the only thing that could restart my lungs?

I gaze at his face full of life—the turquoise eyes that manage to look sentient even in pixels, his vivid lips—until I can breathe regularly again and Bia stops spinning. Then I wrench myself upright. I still have to try, don’t I? For the face on the screen, I will do anything.

And right now, I know he is waiting for me. I take a deep, shuddering breath to steady my fingers, my thoughts, and text him back.

“Yes! And it’s extra points. Use them well.”

The three dots indicating he is typing race on the screen. “Then I’ll meet you on the fifth stair before bed, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“I’ll be there.” Until the very end, until my own heart stops beating.

“Present moment until then,” he reminds us both, and then he’s gone. But he brought me back to me.

I stare at the lines of ampules in the cooler. Which of these bottles did it, Dad? Why did you keep it a secret? There are no answers, no miniature roses waving from the marble stone. He lives in you, Graham would say. You are your own brilliant scientist, Aiden would argue. I close my eyes, still seeing blotches from the cooler’s fluorescent bulbs like a Rorschach test. Dad believed the simplest solution is the most elegant. So I begin there, too. I select the purest, most elemental oxytocin compound and prepare the 2-AG blue liquid. I don’t even know how much oxytocin to use. I only know when to add it. And I try. Over and over and over again. But no matter how much I modify the measurements, the vials explode. BANG! BANG! BANG! Each a shotgun bullet straight through my chest. Each broken vial a Juliet flashback. Each explosion decimating the few allies we had managed to collect. Graham’s usual arrival time ticks closer and I’m forced to clean and destroy all evidence of my efforts despite the utter failure. And that was only one ampule of love.

“Top of the morning, Eliser!” Graham calls, bursting through the door right on time. Even though I was expecting him, like all good clandestines, I still jump and whirl around, hand clutching my throat. He laughs. “Every morning! You’re as good at getting startled as you are at handling the pipettes.”

He wastes exactly two minutes hanging up his jacket, donning his lab coat, disinfecting his hands, and marching to his own bench to my left.

“How was the weekend? Did your friend arrive?”

I have to remember what I told him on the last day of my dark ages. Right—only Reagan was visiting then, every other star was imploding or was already gone.

“Yes, she did,” I answer a little late. For a second I contemplate telling him about my other visitors, but the last thing I need right now is for Graham or Edison to think I’m too distracted by social obligations. I need their full confidence now more than ever.

“It must have been quite the weekend,” Graham observes, beginning to allocate the fear molecules futilely.

“Why do you say that?” I go through the allocation motions, feigning concentration when I know very well his method will fail. But I cannot feel enough guilt to share Dad’s last secret. Not when my love depends on it.

“Because you look almost normal. Still your pale self, but no dead eyes. They were a bit spooky. No offense.”

This morning’s meltdown must have bleached all the pink in my cheeks that Aiden so energetically painted there last night. “None taken.”

“Go on then! What did you do?”

Why, of all the mornings, is Graham choosing this one for small conversation? “Not much. Explored Burford.”

“All the eight streets and eight hundred fields?”

I think he is joking so I force a laugh. It sounds like a maniacal screech.

“By the way, did Edison tell you yet?” he asks.

“Tell me what?”

“They’re finally naming the bench out in the quad after Professor Snow. Where he used to sit, you know. I think there will be an inaugural ceremony—plaques, speeches, and all. Mad, isn’t it?”

My hands tremble so hard I spill some of the fear molecule.

“Ugh, watch it, Eliser! Bloody hell!” Graham tries to recapture the spilled drop frantically while I concentrate on breathing. It is too early for so many emotions. Dad’s favorite bench. The bench where we secretly carved PEC beneath the seat with a lab scalpel.

“At least you only spilled a few microliters. What the hell is the matter with you this morning?” Graham demands, his voice half-puzzled, half-mad. There is no bigger crime in Graham’s eyes than wasting his beloved 2-AG.

“I’m sorry, Graham. The bench ceremony distracted me.”

He takes a deep steadying breath. “Yes, all right. But it’s not until August, Eliser. And you’ll get to go. I know they’ll want you to speak now you’re back.”

Another hand tremble and only half a spilled drop this time but Graham doesn’t miss it. “You’re not handling the 2-AG today,” he fires me summarily. “You’re on peptide duty.”

“What? No! I’ll—I’m very sorry. I—I just have a fear of public speaking, that’s all. Here, look, hands steady as forceps now.” I hold them out as evidence.

“No.”

“But—”

“No, Elisa. I’m sorry, but this is vital. Not to mention expensive.” And without a word, Graham—the only semi-friend I’ve made here—turns his back and starts measuring the blue fear liquid with the pipettes.

I gather the refrigerated volumetric flasks of bubblegum pink peptide bonds, fighting off tears. My throat and eyes are aflame like Graham’s Bunsen burner that I cannot touch. I’m not angry with him. Graham is right and, although he doesn’t know it, I already wasted some 2-AG this morning with my first oxytocin disaster. But that’s not what hurts right now—what hurts is my father’s lab coat that suddenly weighs a million pounds. A million pounds of embarrassing him. I swallow wave after wave of tears, not letting one spill, stealing looks at Graham’s back clad in his own brilliant white coat that has never been stained by shaking hands and undisciplined emotions. Because he is a true, grown-up scientist. Not a child whose only accomplishment for access to the exclusive doors of Bia seems to be her last name. Sophie, Rupert, and Elena come in about fifteen minutes later, and I hear their footsteps pause when they see me demoted to the peptide bench. I can’t look at their reflections on the glass cabinet doors in front of me. Without a word, their trainers shuffle to their own workstations, leaving mine next to Graham sterile and empty. I separate all the peptide bonds, not needing brain or attention for it: I learned this from Dad when I was fifteen. I try to find one peaceful spot in my mind to rest my thoughts—one without fear, shame, or pain. But everywhere I look, there is only loss. Either loss in the past or loss in the future. Either loss of life or loss of love. And the present moment is uninhabitable. I squeeze through my neurons, weaving in and out, looking for any image to get me through this day. I find it at last—Aiden’s waterfall laughter. The carefree sound, blasting away all the debris of the mind. I replay it in my head like he does with Für Elise. And the hours pass.

Before lunch, Edison blows through the door with his usual marathon step. And as with Sophie, Rupert, and Elena, I hear his Oxfords skid to a stop on the tile floor.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demands. “Why is Elisa at the peptide bench?” I steal a glance at his reflection on the cabinet doors. He is facing Graham.

“She’s not feeling herself today,” Graham responds charitably, but his voice wavers under the weight of Edison’s authority. I’m sure the other three are pretending to look at their workstations like me.

“Elisa?” Edison turns to me. I draw a quiet breath and turn, unable to look Edison in the eye and missing Denton so much.

“Graham is right, Professor, I’m sorry.”

The tip of his Oxfords taps the floor slightly. “Are you feeling ill?”

Do invisible chest wounds count? “No.”

“Are you under distress?”

Yes. “No.”

“Has anything whatsoever happened to you that makes you unable to perform your regular lab duties today?”

“I was a bit nervous about the . . . the bench ceremony, Professor, and my hands shook. But I’m better now.” I risk a peek at his face but I cannot understand his expression. “Graham was right to assign me the peptides,” I add loyally.

“Elisa, return to your workstation and resume your duties. You are Peter’s daughter. You do not allow anything—absolutely anything—to get in the way of his dream and now yours. Not time, not exhaustion, not failure, and most certainly not nerves. And if you ever forget what you are made of, come talk to me.” The Oxfords pivot on the tile floor and stride out of the lab.

I still cannot face the others so I return to the peptides, pretending to mix the viscous mass while trying to muster things like lungs and tear ducts and fingers. Every molecule wants to sprint out of Bia, go sit on that bench, and text Aiden to come pick me up and hide me away. He would. He would take me into the deepest forest or the highest mountain top—he’d find a way through borders, passports, memories, and rules—and we could camp in my little tent, just the two of us, and wait out the next eighty-eight days. It would be a kind of heaven in Dante’s nine circles of hell.

But I resist all that because Edison is right. In the end, even I fail with the protein, I would at least have stayed true to Dad. I would have tried.

“Come here, Eliser. You heard Edison,” says Graham.

I step up to my workstation, stretching my fingers to make sure there isn’t a single tremor there. When I pick up the pipette, it is so steady it might as well be an extension of my bone. And I start piping the fear molecule into vials, never missing a single drop, no matter how useless I know this method to be.

“I’m sorry I was harsh,” Graham mumbles under his breath.

“No, you were right. This is vital.” For the love of my life, for my dad, for me.

Graham and the others ask me to join them for lunch but I turn them down. I cannot waste a single minute. As soon as they’re gone, I start thinking of ways to eliminate oxytocin options without needing to test everyone. But I don’t dare test a second ampule. I’ll have to come back tonight. I shudder when I think of the fight that would cause with Aiden. I’ll have to leave while Für Elise keeps him asleep. The wound throbs at the idea of missing even a minute of sleep with him. But what else can I do?

Graham returns early, and I’m grateful I didn’t attempt testing more oxytocin.

“Listen,” he starts. “I feel awful. I was a tosser.”

“No, you weren’t. You’re a real scientist, Graham. Able to turn off emotion to benefit the protein before all else, as it should be. I wish I could do that.”

He grins his sunbeam smile. “You just did. I’ve never seen a steadier hand. Not even your father.”

I clench my hands into fists, as Dad taught me to do during lab breaks. His never shook in a lab though.

“Mates still?” Graham asks.

“Mates still,” I smile back.

“All right, you drive the 2-AG today. I’ll finish the peptides.” And without waiting for a response, he demotes himself to the peptide bench of shame.

The day improves then. Not only because I can use my time with the molecule of fear to understand it more—how it bends, how temperamental it is, how sensitive to the smallest flicker of change. And not only because the lab feels warmer with Graham’s sunbeam on my side. But because the minutes are passing and I will see Aiden’s face in three hours, two, one. With each tick of the clock, the familiar energy builds in my tissues like electric current. But my fingers do not tremble, even if everything else starts palpitating at Aiden’s arrival.

“Well, there’s another day with no breakthroughs,” Graham declares the obvious with a sigh. “We try again tomorrow.”

I watch him clean up, riddled with guilt. Should I drop just a little hint? A feeling in my stomach—like slammed brakes—seals my lips. I let him and the others leave first, unable to walk along them with my secret.

By the time I sprint through the front doors, I almost crash into Aiden himself. He has ventured into the quad, leaning against the wall, my personal statue of Adonis sculpted in a way that would make Michelangelo resign.

“Aiden!” I squeal, running straight into his chest. He opens his arms at the exact moment I leap into them. We have this move so synchronized by now that it makes him chuckle as he folds me in his embrace. I listen to his strong heart and gulp his Aiden scent, and instantly the wound seals shut as if it never existed.

“You’d think we’re at the airport and she hasn’t seen him in a year!” Javier’s voice floats from somewhere. It’s only then that I notice him, Reagan, and Benson standing almost right next to me, laughing.

“It’s called love, Javi. You should try it sometimes,” Reagan responds, pulling me into her own version of an airport hug. “We hitched a ride with Aiden so we could see where you work and tour Oxford while you two meet with the experts.” She has reserved an elaborate hat for the occasion that is an art form in itself. A pearl-white beret covered with silk ivory roses.

“It’s perfect,” I tell them—the hat, their smiles, the four of them right here on Dad’s quad, everything.

“Is this where you’re geeking out these days?” Javier points with his chin at the monolithic building.

“Isn’t it brilliant?” I say, squinting at the way the sunset is breaking over the straight, precise lines and reflective glass windows.

“I guess, if you want to go blind. That’s the problem with you scientists. You have no sense of style at all. Let’s go, Reg. There’s real architecture to see around here that’s not made up of four boring walls.” Javier laughs, unfolding a map of Oxford from his back pocket. I circle the places they must see and they take off while Benson waits for us.

“This day really did feel like a year, didn’t it?” Aiden says. He’s still lounging against the wall, in a blue shirt that matches the eyes behind the Raybans and his staple dark jeans. I knot my hands and feet so I don’t run straight to his mouth. Not here in front of Dad’s work or mine.

“A decade,” I breathe.

“Should I assume from your current pretzel position that I am not to kiss you here or that you need to use the restroom before we go to WIN?”

“The first.”

The dimple blows a kiss at my forlorn voice anyway, and he takes my hand. “Probably for the best. After a decade without kissing, we’re guaranteed to be late.”

We cut across the quad, Aiden made of granite and Benson close behind even though most summer Oxonians are either still behind office, laboratory, and library doors or off to supper at this hour. Aiden asks about my favorite spots and I show him the bench, RadCam, the cobblestone where Mum broke her kitten heel the first time Dad saw her, the Ashmolean’s columned rooftop in the distance, but despite these keystones of my life, I cannot take my eyes off Aiden, off the reality of him walking the same paths that Mum, Dad, and I walked.

“So how was your decade-long day on three hours of sleep?” Aiden asks as we take the quiet Queen’s Lane to avoid the busier Magdalen Street.

I pretend to look around to make sure we’re alone but in fact I’m trying to compose my face and words so his eyes don’t see the awfulness of my day. “No breakthroughs yet,” I shrug. “But guess what?”

“What?” The dimple is still there. So far, so good.

“In August, the Chem department is having a ceremony to dedicate the quad bench to my dad. And I’m supposed to speak.” I only shared this so he would attribute any flicker of fear on my face to public speaking but as I say the words, I hear another truth. The truth of how much this ceremony means to me, how much I want Aiden there.

“Is that what’s worrying you? The speaking?”

I nod, not needing to pretend anymore. “I’m terrified of it. It’s my spider.” If only there was a way to have the protein by then. But there is no longer hope for that.

His brow puckers in confusion. “How could that be? You seemed so calm during your supplement presentation to Samson and me.”

“That’s because I had worked on it for four years, practiced for hours with Denton, and had a whole box of paperclips with me. And I still barely slept the night before.”

“Well, you could have fooled me.”

“You really didn’t notice?”

He smiles, shaking his head while I miss his eyes behind his Raybans. “I had a lot on my mind.”

“Like me trying to sell you my supplement for a million dollars?”

“No, like me trying to stay in my seat and behave normally when I knew you were the woman in my paintings.”

I stumble over a cobblestone, grateful I’m not wearing kitten heels. “That’s when you figured it out?”

He nods, looking down at me but all I see is my wide eyes and open mouth reflected on his sunglasses. “As soon as I saw your jaw and neckline without the scarf you were wearing at Feign’s gallery, I knew. I was barely able to function after that.”

“Well, you could have fooled me.”

He chuckles and we both look ahead on the walled ancient lane, but I’m certain we are both lost on that day. For me, despite the nerves and anguish, that’s the day I first touched his hand, heard his chuckle, felt the electricity of his skin on mine. But now it’s more than that. It’s the day his memory brought us together by a scrap of skin.

“We can practice your speech together, if you want,” he offers. “You knew your father longer than you knew your supplement. You’ll do great.”

I want you to be there, I think. I want to add an A to PEC. But he cannot come because there will be a crowd, even if small. Unless we win this fight, he will always be absent from moments like this. “Careful what you offer,” I answer. “I’ll probably need to practice every day for the next two months just to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ for something like this.”

“Sometimes, those are the most important words.”

It’s true, isn’t it? Bookend words that open and close entire conversations, even relationships. The high stonewalls curve with us toward WIN, Benson’s shadow over us like a shield.

“How are you liking England, Benson?” I ask him, suddenly worried he is missing his home, that he resents being conscripted into this fight with us.

But his smile is bright and genuine as always. “It’s practically a vacation for me. All these open fields and scientists will put me out of a job.”

Aiden chuckles. “If that day comes, Benson, you have my word you will never need a job.”

They laugh while I break Corbin’s rule and catapult myself into the fantasy of such a day. Saying thank you to Benson as our guard, saying hello to him only as a dear friend. Strolling without his protective shadow, just Aiden and me. The beauty of the daydream pierces me like a new siren song, stunning me with longing as strong as the dream of sleeping with Aiden. I tear my mind away from such dreams—they’re enemies still. They’re the apex assassins in this fight.

WIN with its artless four walls that would offend Javier emerges at the end of the street, and Aiden tenses further—not just his shoulders now, but all of him.

“We got it from here, Benson,” he says. “You know this drill as much as me.”

“I’ll be back in two hours, sir.” And with that Benson turns back the way we came.

“Benson used to come here with you?” I ask.

“Of course, every five years since Iraq. Before then, it was my parents.”

“And everyone we’re meeting has been with you this entire time?”

“The lead neuroscientist, Doctor Helen—Doctor Brahms, of course, but I used to call her Doctor Helen when I was seven so it stuck—has been with me since then. She knows my brain better than anyone. Her research fellows have changed over the years except old Morse—you’ll like him. And the Edinburgh team is new for this. They’re all itching to meet you. None of them has ever heard of such a thing as your calming effect on me.”

Abruptly I’m nervous. “Should I have prepared, Aiden? I feel like I don’t know anything.”

He shakes his head. “They didn’t want us to prepare. I expect that’s part of the plan. They wanted you to be you and us to be us—as much as we can be with all the circus.”

I nod, wishing for a paperclip. Hydrogen, I start in my head but he interrupts me. “Before we go in, there is something I’d like to give you. We have a few minutes. Come.”

He takes me by the hand to the back of the building—a place new to me. But that’s not why I’m surprised when I see the grove of oaks. It’s because of a simple playground to the side, clearly for all the children who must need neuroimaging here. Only two swing sets, a slide, a couple seesaws, and a merry-go-around.

“Oh!” I gasp. “Aiden, did you play here when you were a kid?”

He laughs, but it’s not a joyous sound. It has a hard edge, like a “no.” He marches us past the playground that abruptly looks desolate—the swings swaying empty in the breeze, the seesaw squeaking. He stops at an enormous oak—the Benson of trees. It takes me a moment to grasp it’s not just one oak, it’s two conjoined ones, like two open hands attached at the inner wrists. The branches are thick gnarly trunks on their own right and the canopy of leaves is its own green sky.

This was my playground,” Aiden says, tilting his head toward the two-headed tree. The hard edge is in his voice too.

“Take off your glasses, please.”

He almost huffs but takes them off. And his eyes tell me everything—the way the blue has hardened too, the plates grinding with all the memories this place must hold for him. For the seven-year old boy with a gift no one could understand, a weight he could never share—a lone star, away from childhood and childish things. I step into his tense arms, knowing they will wrap around me like the oak’s branches. “It must have felt so lonely.” I kiss above his heart. Is the past tense really appropriate? Does he still feel lonely now?

He shrugs but the pectoral muscle softens slightly under my cheek as my calming effect fights with his memory. I wish I knew a way to intensify it. Maybe there is. “Show me how you would play. Do we have time?”

He deliberates, but the conflict in his eyes is not one of terror. It’s one of sadness. For what? A lost childhood? Lost time? “Come on,” I coax him. “Let’s play for two minutes.”

His lips lift in a tight, closed smile and that rare flicker of shyness glints in his eyes.

“All right,” he says with a sigh. “Look inside.”

I peek between the two oaks. At the ground where the roots grew together, they left a perfectly round circle surrounded by the thick trunks, like a well. Small enough for a seven-year old boy to play without triggers of any kind.

“I stopped fitting in there by the time I turned twelve. After that, I just climbed the branches.”

“When was the last time you climbed?”

The smile grows bigger, eyes softer—my calm is gaining ground. “When I was seventeen. But I get a feeling I’m about to climb again now.”

“Climb, Aiden!” I grin at him, and the calm advances further. He looks up at the oak canopy of leaves and back at me. Then before I can blink, he lifts me by the waist, making me gasp, and secures my arms around his neck and my legs around his hips. And the calm wins. The plates release and sudden excitement flares in his eyes. His mouth lifts into the dimply smile.

“Hold tight, Elisa!” he warns, and with one jump that makes me shriek, he grabs onto the lowest branch.

“Aiden, I weigh more than my rucksack.”

He laughs, but now the sound is happy and carefree. “Hah! But not much more than full battle rattle.” Then with another laugh, Aiden starts to climb. I solder myself to his front, laughing with him at the different kind of hardness I feel now. The thick branches are so enormous that he might as well be climbing up a steep trail or a rock. But he remembers each knot in the ancient wood, each bough. I’m lost in the way his body ripples with strength, not tension; the way his breathing spikes with athleticism, not fear; and the way he chuckles now and then, both seventeen and thirty-five. In minutes, we reach the thickest branch near the top, like a wooden bridge that has grown between the two trees.

“Hold on to me,” he says, only breathless from the climb that would have made the rest of us faint, drop, and maybe die, and sinks down carefully until he is sitting on the hulky trunk, me coiled tightly around him like the wood’s knots. “Well, this is it.” He shrugs, the dimple forming in his cheek as he takes in the tree of his childhood and adolescence. “It hasn’t changed much—just grown even more massive.”

I wipe a bead of sweat at his temple. “It’s incredible—like its own universe.” I follow his eyes through the dome of branches and leaves, trying to remember everything like him. “What did you do here after you climbed?”

“Usually nothing. I’d climb after all the imaging and the memory tests and the rest of the circus you’re about to see. Mostly I was just hiding if I’m being honest.”

“Let’s hide together then.”

I kiss his lips like leaves. They flutter back, quick as the wind of his breath. A brush of tongue like the tip of a reed, then two mouths joined like the oaks around us, our arms branches knotted in each other’s tree. We don’t have much time, but his memory only needs a blink. And now this kiss is climbing his memories too, hopefully softening their bark with desire and calm.

He smiles. “I’d never have believed this when I was hiding here.”

“I barely believe it now.”

“I need you to do something,” he says. “I planned to give this to you on the ground, but your way is always better.”

“Give me what?”

“Reach carefully in my shirt pocket,” he says, tightening his arms around me as I do what he says. Inside is a tiny two-milliliter lab vial of some kind of oil, sealed hermetically shut.

“What is—” I start to ask but then I gasp because as I bring it close to my nose, despite the laboratory seal, a faint whiff of its scent blows with the wind. “Oh, my God! Aiden, is this—is this what I think it is?”

He laughs his pure waterfall laughter that got me through today. “If you’re thinking it’s the perfume from your Aeternum roses, you would be right.”

I blink at the vial, speechless. I barely mouth “Wow!” and sniff it again, wishing I could break the seal now without risking dropping it. I never thought I would see this, I never thought I would smell it again except in memory.

“I have to admit, at first I was not sure about this,” Aiden murmurs. “I thought I wouldn’t like you in perfume. I worried it would change such an intimate part of the way I perceive you. But then I got this and it’s so perfectly you. It smells like my Alone Place that night, like one of the best memories of my life.”

“Mine too. How did you get it? Did Denton give it to you?”

He nods. “Yes, we need it for this meeting apparently so I reached out to him last week. He’s still processing the rest of the roses. He thinks by the end of it, you might have nine milliliters. He misses you, by the way.”

“I miss him, too,” I breathe, smelling the vial again, leaning in to kiss Aiden’s lips but, in an unprecedented move, he pulls back. His eyes are darker, but with desire, not memories.

“If you do that, we’ll miss the meeting,” he explains to my startled face.

“Oh, right!” The meeting, his mind, his childhood, his memories, his everything. He says he needs to be flooded in me, but I’m flooding in him. And the deeper I sink into his depths, the less I want to come up for air.

“Tonight on the fifth stair then, Mr. Plemmons.”

He laughs and starts climbing down carefully after I tuck the rare bottle of Aeternum oil back in his shirt pocket. “So why do we need this today?” I ask.

“I’m not sure—” a huff as he negotiates the branches. “Doctor Helen told me—to bring a smell I associate only with you—which proved incredibly hard when I remember every smell I’ve ever smelled. But since I cannot bottle you up—this was the closest thing.  And once I got it, I had a vague dream of giving this to you here—in my only other Alone Place . . . by this tree.”

The moment we touch ground, I tear off the seal and dab a drop of Aeternum oil behind each ear. The indescribable scent makes my head whirl—more beautiful than any rare chemical in Bia. Aiden pulls me against him, burying his face in my neck, inhaling deeply with something like hunger. His nose skims along my throat with a low moan. Despite the perfume, I stop breathing and hang limp in his arms, trembling knees, racing pulse, and good goose bumps exploding everywhere. He seems unsteady too—where the oak branches didn’t shake him, the Aeternum scent does.

“Fuck!” he hisses and wrenches himself away, running his hand over his hair. “Rostóv, rubbing his eyes that seemed glued together, raised his disheveled head from the hot pillow . . .” And Aiden starts marching a foot away from me back to WIN, reciting War and Peace.

Rostóv is fighting with Denísov when we reach the lab. But neither of us needs him anymore. Because the moment we enter through the lab doors everything becomes real and Aiden morphs back to stone. Our war has started.©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