NINETY DAYS CHAPTER 41: REAL

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

41

Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what memory is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No?”

“No.”

His lips flutter along my jawline. “More?”

“Most.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Doctor Helen,

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

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

We came with dreams, but you gave us reality.

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

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

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

For every time you fought alongside us, thank you.

Aiden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just fine. How about here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we are off in the lilac dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The world,” I correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were right.” Aiden nods once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait a moment, Elisa, please.”

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

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

“Elisa, you need to stay here.”

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

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

“Why?” I demand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s his choice!”

“Elisa, please—” Corbin tries to intervene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free at last.

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

“Elisa . . .”

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

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

“I’m here, love.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aiden, Aiden, Aiden . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2022 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 37 – STOP

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

37

Stop

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

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

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

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

“You know what I mean.”

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

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

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

“I’ve missed them too.”

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

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

“They like your pun.”

“I like their everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never questioned that.”

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

So that’s what I do now: pretend.

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

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

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

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

“You know, I can walk, Elisa.”

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

“It helps you with the calm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do they sing now?”

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

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

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

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

“It’s everything,” he finishes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elisa—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Depends on the word.”

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

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

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

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

But will it be enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were there!” he whispers.

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

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

“That’s not it,” he murmurs.

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

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

“What makes no sense?”

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

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

He frowns. “Why?”

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

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

“Hmm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, and I’m very late at it.”

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

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

“A good guess but keep trying.”

“Peace?”

“No, but it could have been.”

“Air?”

“No.”

“Coming home?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know, I was high.”

“All the better.”

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

My love, he is reading,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours,

Elisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it enough?”

“No, nothing is worth this pain.”

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

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

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

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

“Then what is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“I finished the entire War and Peace.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss what?”

“Loving me that way. Without fear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why that one?”

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

Almost? Don’t you mean equal?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elisa, there you are. How is he?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never.”

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

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

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

“I’ll be right back, love,” I murmur.

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

“James, can you help me with something?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop!”©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 36 – FORTIS

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

36

Fortis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There, now we can set off into the night. How far to the pipes? Let them come. Laugh with Marshall because it stinks. Guide your brothers the way only you know how. Lead them out into the fresh air. I’m right there with you because we’re both untouchable now.”

Under me, impossibly the shudders double over his body. His neck jerks to the side, teeth vised together as if he’s saying no. I search through every space of my mind—it’s still clear, still holding—and I need all of it now. I need everything I learned and saw to get this right. “Is it the schoolyard? Don’t fight it. Look around in your memory, not just at Marshall. Look at the last place you were together, well and alive. Is it so different than where we are now? You said there was a market. Are there veggies, like the flowers here on Elysium? Bright tomatoes for poppies, leeks for daisies, eggplant for orchids, a hijab like this blanket. Where is the ancient Euphrates River? Is it flowing by you like River Windrush? Now search closer. What do you hear? Are there cars? Is there music like the willows? What is it singing?”

A sharp inhale of breath burns from his lips. Hotter and guttural. Can Aiden see what I saw, hear what I heard? Is his mind racing ahead like mine is? The chill of fear starts crawling towards my elbows.

“Let’s find Marshall together. I know it’s about to start. You can’t stop it, sweetheart, it’s already there. Waiting . . .”

Another gasp of breath. His chest jolts against mine—once, twice, three times with the IED that is deafening him now. I slide off gently to his side to lessen the weight and bring my lips to his ear. “Shh, love, listen to my voice, to Für Elise. Look past the smoke, past the broken little boy—what do you see? Anything familiar? Ignore the fiery sky; it’s just a hot sunset. And the black smoke is just like that boulder in the river. Both dark and deadly, but neither won in the end.”

Aiden’s heart is still thundering under my hand. And although the fists stay locked, his pupils start racing again. Searching or finding? Or losing himself even deeper in the terror?

“We’re almost to the end, love.” I keep going as the chill reaches my shoulders. “Let’s run inside the school where Marshall is waiting. You’re still his best hope, trust me.”

His thighs vibrate against mine like the imploding desert. His neck jerks again to the side as though he is trying to pull away.

“Take me upstairs with you, step by step, like Für Elise before bed. This is just another dance.” The ice starts biting my heels, frosting up my legs. “Here we are. Marshall is already there. You still have time together, fight again. Save Jazz. He’s stuck in the fires below, you know that. Search through the smoke. What do you see? Something old? Something new? You remember it. Now see it, hear it all—not just the horror.”

Another shudder ripples through Aiden’s body, another gust of breath. Because he saved his friend? Or is his mind weaving the memories together, giving him a new angle?

“The blank minutes are coming now. Let’s use them.” I stroke his heart, counting its thunderous beats as my chest starts throbbing. “Look around the classroom you remember. Let’s find the safe, the familiar in this place. It’s always there.” I scan through the images my mind captured. They’re still crystal clear but in the horizons, dread is rolling in like clouds. “Are there desks like dad’s library? What’s on the walls? And the floor? Is there a pattern there? Maybe like the chessboard you gave me or the rug of planets where you fell and came back again. Because you will come back from this, too. Trust me, trust yourself. Is there a blackboard like every classroom? Is there anything on it? Something different than the horror?” Yes, there is, the rose in chalk, I just hope he is able to find it. “Hold on to that, my love, as it begins. I’m right here.”

The tremor that runs through him shakes my very bones. It seeps through my skin as the chill spreads over my scalp. But the agony is chewing my heart, taking flaming bite after flaming bite. Will it not fade as fear sneaks in? A shiver scurries down my spine. I fight it back by curling next to Aiden’s body heat. Maybe my chilled limbs will cool him. Fire and ice—how will our world end?

“I know Marshall is suffering,” I tell him, peeking at my phone. An hour and ten minutes past the reel. How much longer is it safe? “Try to look away, that’s not where your fight is. Find the safe things you saw earlier. The blackboard, the walls, the floor. I know there’s blood, but something else is that same color, too. Something happy, something ours. The American Beauty roses we planted together in Portland at your house. They’re growing, just like our love.”

If he hears me, I don’t know it. His shoulders strain against the cables that are binding him, utterly unchanged. Another tremble flitters down my neck; the ice spreads to my belly. Quickly, the vast skies of my mind are shrinking, smaller and smaller.

“Aiden? Hold on a little longer, love. This is the hardest part. Turn to Marshall. Look at him now. Can you see his face? You said you know he smiled. Is he saying something?”

Not your fault, my brother. Not your fault, Marshall gasped, but could Aiden hear him as low as it sounded? And how can I tell him without him knowing what I saw? Already my memories of his words, the reel photos, and the video are blending into a macabre mosaic of horror.

“You know what Marshall would say even if you can’t hear him. He would say he loves you. He would say it’s not your fault. He is right, love. Listen to Marshall, to everything you have just seen in your own mind. Listen, then let him go.”

But if he is trying, the past won’t let him out of its jaws. The shudders are still rocking his body, unabated. His pupils are still racing. Have I failed already?  Did I make the wrong choice? Should I have let these last days run quietly to our closure? Can I still go back? But if I can’t bring him from this torture, what other chance is there? Each question claws at my brain as the shield of the protein starts to crumble.

“Aiden, love, it wasn’t your fault. Not your fault. Not your fault, sweetheart,” I repeat, blowing my wintry breath over his lips and scrambling for my phone. It slips through my no-longer sure fingers. I pull up the name, tapping away with one hand as the other cools Aiden’s burning forehead.

“Dr. Helen, you there?”

Her text is immediate, as if she was waiting by the phone. “Elisa, thank goodness. Did you start the reel?”

“Yes. Aiden still away. Over an hour. High fever. Not dropping. Why is that?”

Her answer is not immediate now. The three dots pulse on the screen once, twice, as another shiver trembles in my fingers. Then: “Is your protein holding?”

No, but I want the truth. “Yes.”

The three dots don’t hesitate now. “It sounds like psychogenic fever. It can happen when the mind is under severe duress. Particularly, if in his memory, Aiden is locked in the desert, with the fires burning for such a long time. Do you have anything cold nearby?”

Just my frozen body. “Yes.”

“Good, try to cool him as best you can. It should return to normal once he breaks free.”

But why does even a minute longer feel too far away? “How much longer before it’s unsafe?”

Another fire-quick answer as she thinks me still unbreakable: “Unknown. Theoretically Aiden’s memory can stay in the past forever. At this point, it’s all up to it.”

A shudder riffs through my fingers. The ice spreads to my throat. Forever? “No!” The savage denial clangs through Elysium. No, no, it can’t do that to him. I won’t let it.

On the screen blinks another text: “Elisa?”

I force my icicle finger to the phone again. “Not all up to it. I’ll text when he’s back.”

More dots race on the screen but I no longer have eyes for them. “Aiden, love, listen to me.” I press my cold palms to his cheeks, blowing on his lips. “Let Marshall be at peace. It’s not the goodbye you should have had. There shouldn’t have been a goodbye at all. So let’s have a different one now until you’re grey and ancient. Tell Marshall what you want to say. Tell him you love him. Tell him you miss him every day.”

Aiden’s breath rips and snags through his teeth as though he is suffocating with his own memories. I curve one icy hand over his forehead and the rest around his volcanic neck. “Tell Marshall he’ll always be your best man.” I keep going with every last brave breath I have left. “Promise him you’ll live. You’ll start playing his song more. We’ll have his favorite food. You’ll love the girl in the letters. Tell him he’s the one who gave you the idea. Thank him. Thank him from me, too. I’m so grateful he loved as he did in a war, writing to Jasmine with that flashlight in his mouth. Because without Marshall, I may have never been born in your head, giving you calm even then. He gave us that example, this dream we still have. Thank him, love, and give him a hug. Hold him as long as you need. And when you’re ready, tell Marshall to rest in peace.”

But Aiden’s body is still locked in chains. His heart is still mortar fire between us, ripping to pieces.

“Take my hand, love.” I force my voice to stay calm with every last whisp of the protein and wrap my chilled fingers around his fist where the new blood droplets are blooming. “Can you feel it? Take it and let Marshall go. You’re not leaving all of him, you’re keeping his soul, his love and courage. We won’t relegate him to the physical loss. Tell him goodbye and come with me.” I tug on his fist as though we’re walking. “It’s just us, down the stairs now, across the burning yard. Follow me. Let’s go for a walk along the Euphrates River like we do here.” I blow over his forehead like a breeze. “Take a handful of cold water, splash it on your face.”

I press my free fingers to his cheeks again. His skin is as hot as the scorching agony in my chest. The only spot in my body still burning. Oddly the flames are raging higher there, as if racing the ice that has spread everywhere else. But they will lose in the end as I become more and more myself. No more a super-hero or Cinderella in a fairytale. I’m just Elisa, the ballgown in rags, the clock is ticking to midnight, closer and closer to the moment both Aiden and I dread. Yet I’d take it, I’d take it a million times over only for the chance to bring Aiden back.

“Wash your hands in the river, love,” I continue bravely for as long as I can, grabbing a tissue from my purse and wiping the blood droplets from Aiden’s fists. “There’s no blood there. Not Marshall’s or anyone else’s. It’s just cold, clear water, cooling you after the flames. And then when you’re ready, the two us can come home. Not back to what we’ve lost, but back to what we’ll always have. Our love. Even if we can’t be together, you and I will always belong to each other. So come back with me, come back to our s—side.”

My voice breaks. And with a final gust of arctic air, terror finally reaches my chest. As though to escape the inexorable dread, my burning heart leaps in my throat. But there is no escape. With a racing thud-thud-thud, the ice fills my heart chambers. The boundless universe of my mind snaps back, rattling my skull. And with a mighty shudder that rocks me from my stomach to my fingertips, the last wisp of the protein blows out of my system.

Just like that, bravery is gone.

I know because its veil is ripped from my eyes and the world comes into its usual focus. The emerald sheen fades from the grass. The breeze cuts like December. Elysium is darker than I had realized, the sun long buried behind the hilltops. And before my frozen eyes, I see the true terror, unsoftened by the protein: Aiden’s torment. I thought I was seeing every stab of torture on his body, but I was wrong. I should have known the protein had blurred the agony to let me function. Without it, the image becomes incomprehensible. Even after five hours of burning, my unfortified mind cannot absorb pain like this. Every pore of Aiden’s face is flooded with it, every harsh breath trapped between his teeth. The fever is a lot hotter than I was feeling, the varnish of sweat like a second, liquid skin, dripping from his lashes like tears. Under the bluish dimness of twilight, he looks vigil-like, suspended in that infinitesimal fragment of time between beginning and end. Yet his beauty somehow stays the same—just as impossible, just as dazzling. Even throttled in terror I can see that. I try to move a single finger glued to his chest but the terror of all terrors freezes me beyond all capacity for thought or movement as if it revived every other fear that was erased from the past. I just stare in horror, unable to remember how to breathe or blink or stand.

But under my frosty hand, Aiden’s heart throbs faster, tolling out each beat like a death knell. Thawing me back.

“Aiden!” I wheeze through chattering teeth, scavenging for every crumb of strength left. “Aiden, love, I’m here. It’s over now. Marshall is at peace. Now it’s your turn. Let’s go back. Come home with me, please.” I try to sound calm, but my breath shatters into sobs. Glacial tears gush from my eyes. And once I move, my own body starts shaking violently in tandem with this. “Aiden, I love you, I need you,” I whimper, scrambling to call Doctor Helen but as my tears splash down on his lips, everything shifts.

Aiden’s chest heaves as if he’s resurfacing from drowning, and a ragged gasp strangles from his teeth.

“Aiden?” I cry, bolting up on my knees.

A long tremor shivers down his body. His muscles snap up like knives, vibrating as if he’s breaking through the cable chains, and a low snarl builds in his throat. It tears from his lips and becomes a single word. My name.

“Elisa,” he rasps, and the incredible eyes fling open. Darker than I’ve ever seen them, almost midnight, locked in undiluted torture. So hollow, like his very soul has died, but open and seeing again.

“Oh, thank God!” I bawl, collapsing on top of him, grabbing and kissing the first spots in my reach. His hair, his scar, his eyelids, the deep V between his brows. “There you are!” I sob between each kiss. “There you are, you brave, strong man! I’m here, I’m right here!”

His arm coils around my waist and he sits up unsteadily, covering me like a shield.

“Aiden, lie—” I protest, but one of his hands shudders up to my face, tilting it so his ravaged eyes can see me. Instantly, they widen with a terror that seems to break through his own bravery. “The protein,” he chokes in understanding. “When did it end? How long­­ have you been like this?”

“Never mind me!” I splutter, pressing down on his chest. “Aiden, lie back down! You’ve been through hell. You’re still in it.”

Another shudder rocks his great frame, but he doesn’t relent. “How—long—Elisa?”

“Shh, just a few minutes ago,” I reel off quickly so he can relax. “I’m truly alright, just worried about you. Please,you really need to rest.”

I don’t convince him. “How do you feel other than worried?” he demands, his eyes scanning me urgently. But as they search my face with visceral dread, the faintest speck of turquoise flickers in the tortured depths.

Such a small light—the farthest star in the darkest abyss—yet it brightens my whole vision more brilliantly than the protein even in the pit of terror. Not with the razor acuity that magnified every pixel, but with the supple softness of the whole. That togetherness that turns blades of grass into fields, notes into music, places into—

“Home.” I tremble with forceful longing, reality fully dawning on me only now that he is here, only now that I can tell him. “I feel home. Except home is so much better than I ever knew, with you next to me.”

His eyes see my truth even in torment—all my ability to hide things from him is gone. He can read me like his war letters, knowing every spoken and unspoken line. Exactly as I love it. I realize abruptly how much I had missed the world with fear, with myself, with Aiden and me, precisely as we were made. Was that another lesson dad wanted me to learn? That the emerald grass is not greener on the other side? That we are imperfectly perfect as we are?

“Oh, Aiden!” I cry again, locking my arms around his neck, burying my face there in his delicious, warm scent.

His shuddering arms tighten around me. “What’s wrong?” His hoarse, anxious voice is more melodic than Für Elise in my normal ears. The most perfect harmony, heavenly and mine.

“I’m just s—so glad we’re both back. I missed us s—so much.”

Another tremor rocks through his body. His breath is so shallow and fast, his muscles vibrating steel, but he pulls me closer and runs his fingers through my hair. “Shh, you never left, and I’m here . . . I promised you I would come back.”

I nod even though I know soon he will leave again, this time forever. But at least he’s back from Fallujah even if its flames are still scorching him, dragging him with their scalding fingers into the inferno. The vicious shudder that runs through him reverberates down to my bones. It snaps me back to my senses. What the hell am I doing? How can I give him one more second of worry? I wipe my face and clutch his feverish shoulders.

“I’m sorry, love. I really am fine, just deliriously relieved. It’s you we need to worry about. You’re burning up.” I press my cold palm gently to his forehead, even though I don’t need to. I can feel the heat waves emanating on my tongue.

“What?” He frowns as he registers himself at last. For the first time since they opened, his eyes drift to his own chest. Instantly, the turquoise light dies. His gaze seems to search inward as though he is trying to recognize his body but perhaps can’t. The weight of his arm suddenly presses down on my waist, heavier as if the torture of the last few hours—the last twelve years in fact—is crashing on him again. “Is this . . . heat . . . part of the protein?” His voice drops too. “My dose must be burning off faster than yours . . . I was terrified for you just now.”

I trail my fingers to his cheek. Even his beard is hot, the way my hair feels when I run it through a straightening iron. “I’m not surprised at all that fear is returning after what you’ve been through. The terrors you’re facing are a lot worse than mine. But I don’t think the fever is from the protein. I texted Doctor Helen, and she thinks it’s psychogenic fever. From the trauma. You were gone for almost two hours after the reel. How are you feeling?”

His eyes round in disbelief. “Two hours?” he staggers, finally blinking away from our heat dome to scan the area around us. Dusk has cast its velvet cape. The half-moon is glowing like Aiden’s lost smile, gilding his stunned face. That’s when he sees the blood on his blisters that I couldn’t reach. From the moonlight, the droplets shine silver like mercury. He turns back to me, eyes burning with that unspeakable agony, wiping a spot on my cheek. “I left you—alone for almost three hours—terrified and hurting?” His low voice is half-strangled again, sharpening in that sword-edge against himself.

“No, you didn’t. I was invincible until five minutes ago. You came back exactly when I needed you most.” I take his hands quickly, dabbing off the blood with my tissue. “I don’t know how you managed it, but you did. You’re braver even than the protein.”

He doesn’t seem to agree. He looks haunted, eyes drifting in and out of time and space. His shoulders rise and quiver, as if the invisible chains have bound him again.

“Sweetheart, please lie down. Give yourself some time so the fever can break.” I press on his chest, but he is still staring into the invisible terror, somehow both here and far. His irises seem to be tracing the rapid movement of his mind with a look of unmet expectation. “Aiden? What is it? What are you feeling?”

“I’m just . . . trying to process.” His voice triggers a memory of my own. It’s slower and adrift like the night Edison struck, after Aiden was wrenched awake by my scream. I taste panic in the back of my throat.

“Please, don’t! We can do that later. Just look at me—give yourself some calm. Everything else can wait for now.”

Maybe he is worn even beyond the limits of his immense strength. Or maybe it’s because he gave me his word. Whatever the reason, he rests his gaze on me. And in a few heartbeats, the turquoise light gleams back like his soul, trying for life again and again. So celestial that tears spring in my eyes.

“Shh, don’t cry, Elisa,” he murmurs, wiping them with his fingers. “Don’t cry for me.”

How can I not? He is my everything. But I mop up my eyes and force a smile.

“They’re happy-adjacent tears,” I mumble. “Even though you’ve banned that word.”

“How do I make them . . . fully happy?”

I swallow hard against a sob. “Just stay with me in this present moment.”

He must see my terror twisting into frantic need—or perhaps he needs it too—because he gives in and lies back on the blanket, pulling me against his chest. His clasp on my waist is bruising with urgency, his hold instinctive, familiar like my own breath. And for a precious, fleeting moment it feels like the old times even if they’re forever gone.  “Shh, Elisa” he whispers again. “Don’t worry . . . I’ll be alright.”

Will he? The shudders aren’t slowing at all. The fever isn’t dropping. He almost seems worse. What if it was a mistake to walk with him through Fallujah? What if it was a mistake to restart at all? My mind gives me no answers anymore. The inability to doubt myself is gone. All that’s left is terror and pain. I nestle into his body heat, trying to think of what I learned about how to cope with this. Try to stay only here with him, I suppose. Grip my faith with both hands even if all confidence, bravery, strength, and clarity have disappeared.

“Yes, you will be,” I tell us both. “You’ll be okay. You will heal. I know it. I know it.”

His heart is thudding more heavily under my palm. Its beat echoes in my ears like our bodies are hollow pipelines, carrying thunder from point A to point B, from glowing tents to blood-soaked classrooms and back again.

“Thank you,” Aiden murmurs after a moment, his voice still rough.

I prop myself up on his chest to peek at him. His eyes are still haunted. “For what?”

“For not giving up. For the faith it took to stand by me that entire time . . . For everything you must have done . . . I can’t seem to access it all yet . . . but I know this one was . . . hard.” He meets my gaze as he admits this out loud for the first time.

I want to ask what happened, if he could hear me, if he could follow, if he held Marshall’s hand and said goodbye, if Marshall spoke back, if any of it made any sense, if it helped or made it worse in the end. But I’d rather die here and now than have him think about that horror one more second. Maybe later, when the fever has dropped, if he ever wants to speak of it again.

“I will never give up on you. The protein fading didn’t change my faith in you at all.”

“I know . . .”

K-n-o-w. I hope he always keeps that knowledge inside him. “Try to think only of that faith and this present moment. We’re both safe, Für Elise is still playing, the stars are twinkling—”

“And you’re in my arms,” he finishes, pulling me tighter against him even though there is no more space between our bodies for air. But agony is flowing in his eyes as his memory tries to drown him back.

“And you still have your surprise waiting for you,” I blurt out, desperate to distract him.

It works. His eyes narrow as though he’s searching through the black smoke. “So you really did say something about a surprise . . . that wasn’t a memory?”

I cannot fathom how deep he must have been wading in the foundations of his psyche to be unable to tell a memory from the present. What has it done to him, merging the past and the present so closely?

“No, you’re right. I did tell you about it but it was early on. Do you want to see it?”

“More than anything . . . except your face.”

His voice, his words, so him, yet so far. My body blisters like the brave pain is returning to finish me off without the protein. “Well, you’ll have to look away but only for a few seconds. It’s by your feet. Or at least the first part is.”

That distracts him again. His eyebrows unfurl out of the worried V into surprised arches.

“There are two parts?”

I nod, wishing there could have been a thousand for what he lived through. He sits up on his elbows, still unsteady, holding me to his side. And then he sees them. The words I Sharpied on the soles of his wading boots like he engraved on my sneakers on our first date. The words that mean so much to us.

“He walks in beauty.”

His expression transforms into a prism of emotion, changing in that quick way that always leaves me a step behind. Surprise, longing, tenderness, settling at last into a ghost of the worn half-smile, so beautiful I almost start sobbing again.

“You know,” he says, and the kaleidoscope of feeling is in his voice too. “I think Byron is turning in his grave right now.”

“That’s okay. I’ve broken up with all poets except Dante.”

“Especially Shakespeare?”

“Don’t mention that charlatan to me—I’m banning his name.”

The frayed smile fights valiantly against the weight of his memories. “How do you manage to find a way to make me smile even now, Elisa?”

I push up the corner of his mouth to help the smile win. Every point of contact tingles with that same electric charge I felt during the protein, and for a blink, the diamonds of sweat might as well be the sparkling halo again. “The same way you healed me. We just add love. It works.”

“Yes . . . it does.”

His eyes linger on mine, ravaged and tender, then fall on my mouth. His grip on my waist tightens, a shudder ripples from his iron fingers into my flesh, and his sharp breath brushes my lips. Just a heated breeze but it catches in me like madness. A hallucination of halos bursts in my vision. His own lips part as if to taste my air. The dusk changes between us—charging with longing, desire, need, everything we have lost, everything we will miss. And just like that the reality of our shattered love rips through the flimsy gossamer layer of dreams. The impossible weight crushes us both, strangling me and bending Aiden’s shoulders with a new wave of torture. Agony over agony over agony—all of them untamed. When does it end? The fledgling turquoise light dies under the gravitational force of pain. It stops his breath. His blazing grip loosens and drops from my waist.

I take his hand in both of mine, barely finding air myself. “Aiden, love, come home. You need to rest. Everything else we’re feeling—that’s pain for another day. Tonight, all that matters is your health.”

He watches me with his burning eyes. “I never wanted to give you pain, Elisa . . . Not today, not any other day, yet I keep doing it over and over again.”

“No, my love, you don’t. You’ve never given me pain. But tonight, we can give each other some peace. We don’t have to go back to our bedroom. But you need to be with our other happy memories so you can heal, and I need to take care of you like you take care of everything for me. Then you can see the second part of your surprise, too.” I actually have it here, but anything to lure him back.

He doesn’t answer, still breathless.

“Think of it as another embargo,” I invent wildly, desperate for any scrap of argument before he manages to recover enough oxygen to protest. “A night with no plans, no decisions, no changes, nothing at all except rest. Please? Or I’ll stay out here with you, too. Because there’s no universe where I’m leaving you alone tonight.” My voice breaks twice as I try my best shot, my last chance. For I know in my heart that if he doesn’t come to our home tonight, Aiden will never find home again.

He is still looking at me with war on his shoulders, fire on his skin, bombs on his chest, shamals in his breath, but the faintest light kindles in his eyes at the memory of that first, perfect day of our love. Maybe it’s that memory or my threat to sleep outside. Or the sound of my pain and the palpable fear blowing out of me like the fever from his body. Or perhaps his own need has reached a level that defies even his strength. I don’t know which reason does it, but he doesn’t argue as I expected. He searches my face in his way of seeing everything and I gaze back in my way of hiding nothing. After an immeasurable moment, he folds our fingers together, warming my skin with his touch.

“Embargo then,” he agrees as he did on our first date, three months ago. “For tonight.”

Forever, I want to answer, but that chance is lost for us. “Thank you,” I say fervently, nearly collapsing again in relief. I lean in to kiss his cheek, as I did then, too. The thick beard tickles my lips, making me shiver. A heated sigh flurries in my hair at the touch. When I look up at him, his eyes are a little lighter under the anguish. “Let’s go, love. I think you’ll like the second part of your surprise. It’s not a Nikon camera, I’m afraid. Or flowers from every genus in the world.” I reference his gifts to me from our embargo, trying to keep the happy memories going.

“I don’t need a camera or every flower. I’m partial to only one.”

We rise precariously, mostly because now that I have to be vertical, my legs are shaking too hard for balance. Somehow, Aiden manages to stand before me, pulling me up and supporting my weight despite the shudders still roiling over him. But he is worn, more worn than I’ve ever seen him. His graceful movements are slower, heavier; his breathing harsh and labored. The fever has hooded his gaze. And every few moments, his eyes drift out of focus, deepening and hollowing, as if searching for something he cannot find.

I try to beat him to the evil headset, but he swipes it up before my fingers can tremble in its direction. As soon as he touches it, he gasps as though the metal zinged him. “Marshall Fortis,” he murmurs, flashing his wide eyes to me in shock. “Marshall the Brave.”

My heart kicks my ribs as I realize what he is remembering, but at least as triggers go, it’s not the worst, or at least not as excruciating as what came after it. “Don’t think about that right now, love.” I take the monitor from his frozen hand and hide it inside my parka before he can wrestle it back. “There will be time to revisit. You really need to give your mind time to rest.”

But he is looking at me in astoundment. “Elisa,” he breathes. “Is this real? You’re naming the protein after . . . Marshall?”

We almost never say the name—the torture is too raw for that—even though Marshall is always with us, in every heartbeat. But as Aiden utters it now, there is a note of wonder under the blistering agony. A note worth every sleepless night, every broken vial, every scorching minute of my own pain.

I reach on my tiptoes, caressing his scar. “Yes, I am, if you think he would have liked it.”

I can see memories play in his eyes—light and dark—but he studies the lines of my face. “I’m sure he would have. But do you? . . . Or are you doing this for me?”

“I’m doing it for both of us. I already named the nutritional supplement after dad, and I always thought I’d name the protein after you because you’re the bravest person I know. But now, after everything, I think we should give Marshall something good. Something he deserves. Don’t you?”

A million emotions flit in his expression, too deep, too fast for me to follow. I think I glimpse tenderness and pain and something else I can’t name. “Thank you,” he says after a moment, his tone subdued. “For honoring him like this. He does deserve it . . .  He deserves it a lot more than—”

“Don’t,” I put my hand over his lips to stop the words I know will come. A lot more than him. “You deserve it most of all because you didn’t live that horror only once. You live it over and over again without a break. But you deserve something else above all: peace. And if I ever manage a protein for that, I’ll call it Aiden Liber—Aiden the Free”

He doesn’t answer, but his lips press gently inside my palm. It’s a chaste, reverent kiss, yet firelets spark on my skin at the same time that tension bolts through him. With a clenched jaw, he removes my hand from his mouth, but doesn’t let it go. He just holds it, entwining our fingers. But something about that joining rivets him. He stares at our folded hands with that same searching look, as if he is seeing them for the first time. Why is that?

“Hey,” I squeeze his hand, inching so close my parka brushes his bare arm. “Let it go for now, whatever it is. Embargo, remember?”

He shakes his head, his inquisitive gaze flying to the blanket, still seeking, hunting for something he doesn’t seem to find. “It’s not that, exactly.”

“Then what is it?”

He squints again with a rare look of confusion, of an unanswered question. I can almost see his brain racing in the background. “I’m not sure. Something feels . . . different.”

“Different how?”

He blinks back at me, the tectonic plates in his stormy eyes shifting. “Hard to explain. My memory’s speed seems to have doubled . . . or tripled. Images are flying by faster, reshuffling before I can reconcile them . . .  It has to be the lingering effect of the protein. You said there is more space to process without fear.”

I nod, but an icy shiver flays my skin and I grip his arm for us both. Doubled or tripled? How is that possible? What do we do? We’re barely surviving the usual extraordinary speed of his memory. What hope do we have against this one that has been unleashed? I shudder again.

“Come, we need to bring down this fever and you need to sleep. Maybe things will settle in the morning.”

He nods, still looking unsettled. “I’m sure you’re right. Don’t worry about me . . . You need rest, too.” He throws the blanket over my shoulders, not missing the trembles, and hands me my purse and phone. Then we set off across Elysium, him carrying most of my weight, me trying do the same with my arm around his waist as we tread home together at last.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 15 – HOPE

Happy Sunday, friends, and Happy Easter to those who celebrate! Hope it’s a day of rest and renewal for all of you. In that spirit, here is a new and (IMHO) important chapter. Thanks as always for reading, writing, and following. Lots of love, xo – Ani

15

H-o-p-e

Something soft and weightless pulls at the edge of sleep like a forgotten dream. I breathe against it, too comfortable and warm to wake up. It flutters again, like a puff of breath or a rose dancing over my lips in a familiar way. Memory and consciousness strike at the same time.

“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.

Aiden is lying right next to me, his face more radiant than the sun, taping an Elisa rose over my lips, exactly as he did on our very first morning together.

“Good morning.” He smiles, his voice still gravelly with sleep.

“Aiden!” I rejoice and throw myself on top of him, quilt, sheets, and all.

He laughs and wraps me in his arms, burying his face in my hair as I burrow in his warmth.

“Elisa, we just woke up together,” he sighs with a profound note of relief. “You and me, and all your perfect ten fingers and ten toes. I checked, they’re all there. Can you believe it?”

“Yes, I can,” I answer, looking at him and believing everything. Not just because he is glowing on the white pillow, under a beam of sun, with the lightest blue sky in his eyes. I believe it because of last night—because of who he is. A whisper from my nightmare hisses like an echo, but I shove it back. Not today.

“What is it?” he asks, looking at the goose bumps that erupted on my skin at the nightmare’s hiss.

“Today will be another good day,” I declare to him and the goose bumps, kissing his lips. He engulfs me in his body heat, and we kiss like this for a while in our hot, sunny bubble. I breathe in his scent until my lungs hurt. He smells like a cinnamon stick inside a leaf of sandalwood wrapped with a rose petal warmed in the sun all tucked inside a heavy cloud of an unknown pheromone blowing out of some pagan sex god—all in concentrated form here under the sheets with me. He frees my mouth when I start hyperventilating and sweating, and throws off the sheets, letting the cool breeze tickle my back.

“I’m sorry, I’m a warm sleeper.” He blows on my flushed cheeks.

“Perfect because I’m usually cold. How did you sleep?” He looked so peaceful while I was keeping vigil, but I don’t know what happened after.

His eyebrows arch in bewilderment. “The best sleep of my life, Elisa.”

“Really?”

He nods with something like awe. “I don’t think I even had any dreams. I must have rolled onto my back at some point but I’m not sure I moved after that. Corbin will want to know.”

That’s true. He never moved while I was awake. And although he doesn’t know it, there was enough commotion to wake him up. “Do you think it’s because you were so tired from the flight and all the awfulness of the last two weeks?”

He shrugs. “Maybe. We’ll see, I suppose. My guess is it’s you but I’m not sure.”

I love that. The idea of giving him a full night’s rest. “Why do you look worried?”

“Not worried exactly. It’s just a very sudden, big change. Full eight hours, no dreams, no movement. I didn’t have that even before Iraq. I don’t know how long it can last.”

And there it is. Tic toc, tic toc. We’ve been given so much in the last twenty-four hours. Is this the held breath before the war?

“Did you sleep well?” he asks, his index finger tracing a circle under my eye.

I’m grateful my goose bumps can be blamed on the breeze this time. “My favorite part was when I was awake.”

He looks at me with a raised eyebrow. “Were you watching me?”

“Of course. You used to do it to me all the time.”

“That’s true. I’d like it better if we were both sleeping though. Were you afraid?” The first V of the day forms between his eyebrows.

Not from you, from my own mind. I smooth the V away. “Not at all. I was just getting to know you.”

He smiles. “Yikes. How the tables have turned. Do I want to know?”

“Oh, nothing serious, only eight erections by the time I fell asleep.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter. “Eight? My, my. Sounds dire. That will make for an interesting conversation with the experts at Oxford tomorrow.”

I prop myself up on his chest—his strong heart thuds there reassuringly alive. “What should I expect tomorrow? I want to get this right.”

“Well, Corbin will Skype in—you’ve already met him. They’ll scan my brain to compare it to five years ago before I met you, and again in eighty-nine days. And they’ll go over their plan with us. Just be you, and you’ll get it right. Look how far you’ve brought us with me completely against you. Maybe we can travel a little farther now that we’re on the same side.”

His voice becomes soft, colored with the h-o-p-e he is holding for us both. Maybe it’s that tone or last night’s nightmare or the loneliness of him carrying this little torch alone, but I let my mind tip-toe around the edges of h-o-p-e. How would it feel if I stepped inside its pool of light? Would it blind me so I can’t see the horrors ahead? Would it stun me so I cannot fight with a rational mind? Would it give me life so it can kill me in the end? Is h-o-p-e the dagger to the chest? I shake off the image, but even with that sliver of thought, the goose bumps return.

“What are you thinking?” Aiden asks, brushing the goose bumps on my arm. “These left and now they’re back.”

So much for the breeze as an excuse. “I was breaking Corbin’s rule and looking ahead instead of at the present moment.”

He nods, rubbing my arms until the goose bumps disappear. “Easy to do. How about my virginity Baci? Only happy memories in this room.”

I laugh despite my current love-hate relationship with Baci quotes and pick it up from his nightstand. “Make it a good one.”

He peels it slowly while I remind myself that I am a woman of science and took an oath last night against superstitions. My hands don’t care—they still clutch the sheets as though he is detonating an explosive device. But Aiden smiles as he reads the note.

“Oh, Elisa, you’ll love this. ‘Everything I know, I know because of love.’”

“Who said it?”

“Our closest friend and confidant, Tolstoy. Straight from War and Peace.”

“Yes!” I squeal, half-relieved, half-furious with myself for my reaction to this most trivial and nonsensical ritual.

“Share it with me.” Aiden pops it in my mouth and chases it with his tongue. We have learned to melt these little chocolates together by now—not a single crumble or drop ever spills. And they no longer taste as good on their own, without the taste of him. He doesn’t stop the kiss when the Baci is gone, and neither do I. His mouth changes, becomes full of slow, heated things. Things my body understands instantly, the way it catches fire and moves on top of him, searching for a precious blink of skin-on-skin.

“Elisa, you seem to be after something. Is there anything my twentieth erection and I can get you? We’re taking requests.”

“Yes, please.” I try to glide against him but he’s too quick. He lifts me an inch, where I can feel all his heat and none of him.

“Behave,” he says darkly when I whimper but tilts his hips a fraction for the faintest brush. “Is this what you want?”

My “yes” is more of a sigh, and he presses a finger gently into me. I tense, feeling the effects of last night’s homecoming.

“Are you sore?”

“No,” I breathe.

“I don’t believe you.” And the finger disappears.

“No, Aiden, more!” Oxygen becomes rarefied, and I try to find the rose-scented breeze.

He chuckles. “The headboard, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“The . . . the . . . the what?”

“Like this.” For a scarce heartbeat, he lets go of my hips and takes my arms, stretching them over him until I can grab the headboard. I take advantage of my hip freedom and brush against him.

“Hold on to that,” he says with a growl and locks my hips again. “I’m going to chain these, Elisa.” He smacks my behind while biting my breast, hard. It makes the fire worse. And the new problem of shaky arms. I grip the headboard as he pulls my prisoner hips upward until I’m hovering over his mouth.

“Wait, no, no—yes!”

His warm lips smile against me. “Now you can dance,” he murmurs. And he releases my hips while his tongue begins gliding as though it’s melting another Baci. Finally free, my hips tango to his rhythm. If he draws circles, they roll. He traces figure-eights and they shimmy. When he blows, they sway. Then his mouth changes again. Instead of a tango, it becomes a tribal dance—pressured, fast, and heavy until with one quick flick, I spiral and fall, sliding down the headboard and all over his face into an inert mass of trembles and whimpers.

He rearranges my melted arms and legs on top of him with a self-assured chuckle, while I try to regain some composure. The clock on the nightstand informs me that my entire transformation from adult woman to blob of molecules took him less than five minutes.

“Are you pleased with yourself?” I try to sound sarcastic and self-possessed but it comes out like a string of drunken slurs.

“Exceptionally. This is one thing where I’m above reproach as a partner. Don’t take it away from me.”

“Not the only thing.” I press my lips over his heart. “But you could certainly improve on self-love.” I wait for my body to solidify, the vague contours of a plan forming in my head. A rational brain cell warns me that I have no clue what I’m doing. But I only have so many weapons, and I promised to fight with him. And the fight has to include this.

“Speaking of self-love,” I say, sitting up and straddling him when I’m steady. His abs flex against me—hopefully an ally in my current incursion. “I’d like to play a game.”

He grins. “What kind of game?”

“It’s quite simple. Someone with your expertise should have no problem.” I press myself gently against his abs, but even the light contact tingles my still-sensitive skin.

Instantly, his grin becomes an arrogant, lopsided smirk. “Is this a sex game, Elisa?”

“It can’t be, can it? As you so thoughtfully observed, I’m a little sore. Which means we can’t use this—” I brush over the length of him, not bothering to hide my sigh. “Or these.” I knot my fingers with his. “As you’d never want to hurt me, right?”

The smirk disappears. “Of course not.”

“Exactly. And we already used your mouth but it just . . . how do I say this . . . it didn’t hit the spot.”

“What the fuck?”

“Yes, I think it left something . . . to be desired.”

He looks almost enraged—as though he has never heard such words in any of the twelve languages he speaks. “Encore,” he hisses, trying to bring me closer to his mouth, but I have his fingers locked with mine, knowing he’ll be gentle while in my hands.

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” The words slice through clenched teeth, as though all the strength I have neutralized from his hands has seeped into his jaw.

“Because your mouth and I have reached an impasse.”

“Excuse me?”

I press myself against his abs more firmly and they nudge back—reflexively swearing allegiance to me. Good, I need reinforcements. “Yes, you see, your mouth—despite its considerable talent—has an awful habit of saying terrible things about you. So your mouth will not have any part of me until we fix this problem.”

His eyes darken as he catches up to my game. The good news is that the fury disappears from his face. The bad news is that it’s replaced with his patent fire. On command, my skin bursts into flames. “That’s a grave impasse, indeed.” The fire is there his voice too—low, with an after-sound building in his chest like smoke. “And how do we remedy this transgression according to you?”

His abs ripple under me, fueling me on. “It’s simple really. I’ll just have to love myself.”

He did not see this coming, that much is obvious. His mouth pops open into a perfect O, along with his eyes. With more courage than I knew I had, I release one of his hands—he grasps a fistful of my thigh immediately—and trail my fingertips between my breasts all way down like he does, until I feel wetness there. Then I place one fingertip inside his open mouth. He sucks on it with a growl, biting hard. “Do you taste that?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever because it’s the last time you taste it until your mouth and I resolve our dispute.”

He doesn’t release my finger, his teeth and eyes imprisoning me here. “You can keep that one finger, Aiden, if you want it so much. I have nine other perfect ones, as you call them, and your abs, which have sworn allegiance to your favorite home.” I roll against them with another sigh. “So, I will be just fine.”

He drops my finger. “You will beg.”

“Oh, but as you assured me last night, you would never let me burn. So I’m hedging my bets that you will beg first.” His abs twitch under me while a growl whirls out of his mouth. His twentieth erection presses imperiously against the small of my back.

“As you wish, Elisa,” he enunciates darkly, as though his tongue is moving inside me, not in his mouth. “We’ll play your little game. What do I have to do?”

His eyes don’t release me and his free fingers are digging into my thigh, so my voice is as tremulous as I feel. “ Well . . . as you know, I’ve never done this self-love business before. And I would want you to guide me through this very first time, like you have done for all my other firsts. But you lost that right for yourself.”

“An immense oversight on my part that will be rectified as soon as I’m allowed, I assure you.”

“Well, here is your chance. I’ll fumble my way through, just me and myself. And if you want to join, first you have to say something nice about yourself and mean it. And then I’ll do what you tell me to do. Agree?”

He looks at me like I’m the bane of his existence and his reason for living at the same time. “Agree,” he says with something like venom and fire. His free fingers grip my thigh. I slap away his hand as he does with me.

“And no touching, please. This is between me and myself. You can touch when you behave.”

I notice with satisfaction that a low gasp escapes his lips.

“Now, where shall I begin?” I circle my hips over the ridges of his abs, losing my train of thought. They flex with me, and I don’t stifle my moan.

“Elisa!” My name fires through clenched teeth like a warning, his hips thrusting underneath. I tighten my thighs around his waist as hard as I can to lock him down—it’s difficult with a thousandth of his strength and my own body shaking.

“Tsk, tsk. I might have to chain these, Aiden. You’re interfering.”

“I don’t give a fuck.”

“You should. Because the more you interfere, the more I’ll change the rules. For example, right now I’m contemplating doing this alone in the bathtub with a locked door while you have only your ears and imagination to torment you.”

“It’s not a hard door to break.”

“That may well be. But it’s an awfully small, European-sized tub. Not at all designed for the likes of you. I’m certain only I can fit in.”

“Fuck you.”

“I really hope you do. And soon. But for now, I’ll just do what you would do.” I’m no longer able to handle the heat of his furious gaze so I close my eyes and, with a burst of courage, I throw my head back and wrap my hands around my breasts. “You would start here, I believe?”

A whimper—an actual whimper—comes from the god of sex. It’s the sound I needed for confidence. My hips unleash themselves on his abs, soldered as we are together from my thighs and my weight. And my hands start to mold around my breasts. I know the way he would touch them—his fingers have branded a permanent trail on my skin. I follow it now with my own fingers, thinking only of him. And everything inside starts to pulse.

Aiden shudders underneath me and the whimper becomes a growl that sounds like, “Oh dear God.”

“No, not that God,” I gasp through the inferno I just lit for myself. “Dear Aiden.” I brush my fingers over my nipples—this is harder, more intimate under his blistering gaze that burnishes my skin even with my eyes closed. I pinch as he does at the same time that I circle my hips.

“I’m loyal.”

I almost miss the snarl of his words over the blood hammering in my ears. But they hang in the air, raspy and clear.

“Yes, you are,” I smile. “One of your most noble traits. What would you like me to do in return?”

“Look at me.”

And I do. Those are the rules I made, even if they light me on fire. Under me, Aiden is falling apart. Every band of muscle has turned into a blade of steel. The V is carved so deep between his eyebrows, it might become permanent. His hands are in white-knuckled fists, clenching the quilt. And his fiery eyes are dark and hooded, boring into me with greed.

“Am I doing this right?” I ask, circling my nipples as he would.

He nods furiously, beyond all speech, his eyes unblinking on my fingers. His abs and I continue to dance to the music of my moan.

“I’m strong.” His words ring out again, a little louder.

“Very strong. Stronger than anyone I know. What do you want me to do next?”

“Lower,” he commands as another shudder runs through him. My fingers flutter over my belly like his did when he was playing the piano on me.

“I love you.” His words spill out again.

“No, that’s about me, not about you. Try again.”

“It is about me,” he protests through his teeth. “My love for you is my best trait.”

I deliberate but the throbbing inside makes me a biased judge. My fingers brush over my pubic bone. “How about you’re loving? Can we settle for that?”

“I’m loving.” Half-snarl, half-whimper.

“Yes, and I love that about you. It makes me feel like I’m the only woman in the world.”

“You are.”

“What next?”

“Lower.”

My finger tiptoe my public bone to the inside of my thighs, tracing little circles there like he did yesterday with me. “Like this?”

“Uh huh.”

“I like it so much better when you do it.”

“Let me.”

“No.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes . . . wouldn’t that be nice?”

But now I have a dilemma. Where do I go from here? If I move, I lose the friction of his abs and I need that—I need it like air. If I don’t, I run out of real estate on my thigh. And then there is only one spot left. The inferno that will burn us both alive. He must sense my battle because he doesn’t speak—he is breathing hard though. Like my next touch is air to him. And I give it. I wedge my hand between myself and his abs, pressing hard as he would. I barely hear him over my own moan.

“Christ.” His hips thrust again, almost buckling me off.

“No, just you in my head. And control your hips or I will stop.”

He becomes utterly still with a pained groan.

“Good. Now . . . the piano you said, Aiden?” And I play the first notes of Für Elise against myself. I know he can feel them on his abs. I know because he shudders, snarls, and swears at the same time.

“I’m—fucking—smart.”

“Yes! Even though it’s an understatement, I’ll accept it. What now?”

“Get—on—this—bed—now.”

Damn him. He’s taking away his faithful, miraculous abs that have done nothing but love and support me. But these are the rules I made up. “Goodbye for now, Aiden’s abs.” I roll one final time against them and slide off him onto the bed.

He takes full advantage. He springs onto his knees between my legs, looming above me, fire raging from everywhere. He spreads his thighs slightly, forcing mine to open more. He seems taller, broader somehow—as though the last few minutes have stretched his contours to breaking point. His chest is rising and falling with his hard breathing. His fingers are curled inward as if he is gripping me in his head. His now-permanent erection is pointing straight at my mouth.

And the throbbing inside gets worse—like a drum on fire pounded by a flamethrower. I will my fingers to continue to play Für Elise, but I can only summon random, off-beat notes even though I heard it all night. My breathing becomes jagged, matching his. He doesn’t speak so my body arches toward him, as though pleading for his words.  It marks a transformation. A flicker of calculation glints in his eyes, his hands relax, and his breathing steadies. His lips lift into a slow, deadly smile. Abruptly, I feel like I’m about to lose my own game.

“I’m an excellent fighter, Elisa.” His voice is now dripping with triumph. “I always win.”

“That’s true,” I sigh, addictive fear gathering like static over my skin. Not fear of him—fear of whether I can handle whatever he is about to unleash on me. “What would you like me to do?”

“I want you to play your song inside you since my fingers are banned.”

Oh bloody hell! Playing on the surface is one thing, venturing into the dragon’s den with him roaring on the threshold is quite another.

“Your rules, Elisa.” His voice is even and dark. I lost all his whimpers and growls the moment I laid back on this mattress. “I’ll even play the music on my phone to help you because I’m thoughtful like that. And that counts for two self-loving things, which means I’d also like you to spread your legs as far apart as they will go. Now.” Then eyes never leaving me, he calls to his phone. “Siri? Play Für Elise . . . for the only woman in the world,” he adds the last part under his breath.

And the piano starts. “Carry on, Elisa.” His voice is back to its taunting setting—he has already won, I just haven’t found out how yet.

Well, I might as well not go down without a fight. “Like so?” I breathe as I obey both his commands. But only one finger—that’s not bad.

“You will need two fingers for your notes, darling, unless it hurts. I earned this one fair and square.”

“Yes, you did,” I concede and do as he says. The first thing I notice is the soreness has eased, either from the heat or the throbbing I don’t know. The second thing I notice is a lot of wet, warm mess.

“Well, well, isn’t that interesting? How soreness just heals from self-love.”

“Only for me.” I try to sound strong but my breath leaves me entirely as I trace the paths he has blazed inside me as well. So familiar with him, so strange and new to me alone. But pleasant too—in a way I didn’t know I could give myself. Nowhere as bewildering as when he does it, more like a snack to his feast . . . but good nonetheless. My eyes flutter close.

“Oh, no. I earned the open eyes as well,” he reminds me.

I force mine open, begging him in my head as he predicted. Say more nice things, please. More nice things about yourself, and then make them into nice things for me.

“Now,” he begins in a tone that makes me shiver. “Self-love, you said?” And eyes on me, he grasps himself. I whimper as though he grasped me. “I don’t think your cruel rules prohibit this, do they?” And with a controlled sigh, he moves his hand up and down his length to the languid rhythm of my song. It’s my mouth that pops open now, my fingers that curl and stop. I’m the one shuddering. I can’t blink away from the sight.

“Your song, Elisa,” he prompts evenly. “Play it, like I earned it.”

I try. I really, really do. But I’m frozen. I barely survive Aiden pleasing me. How am I supposed to live through Aiden pleasing himself? His beauty in this moment is a force. Exactly that. He knows his body with such precision and control—a fluid symbiosis unlike the treacherous flailing my body is exacting against me. And then he stops. The sparkly bubble of liquid forms over him.

“Don’t stop!” My plea escapes without permission—body and mind completely breaking ranks.

“Oh, no. This is your game. You play, I play. Self-love and all that. Go on.”

As if I can resist him. The sight, the voice, the bubble. I play the keys, and he starts again, as though he can see through my skin. I watch every stroke of his hand, the way the shimmering liquid spreads over him, the way the two of them mold together perfectly without me. And lust becomes almost anger—at myself, at him.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” He smirks. “Feeling so left out when the person you love most in the world turns against you like this.”

“Please, Aiden!” My traitor mouth fires away, completely on his side now.

“Are you begging, Elisa?”

“Yes,” Judas continues.

“What would you like?”

“More nice things . . . about yourself.”

“Ah. I’ll have to think . . . hard,” he says as he pushes himself into his strong hand with a hiss. “It’s difficult to think about myself when all I have in my head is you. And what I’ll do to you once this pestilent soreness is all gone. You have chairs in your lab, don’t you, love? Because I don’t think you will be able to stand. But maybe all the oxytocin will help.” The crescendo of my song starts, and I manage to tap out one note out of three. Gasping, coming apart at the sight of him. The familiar tension wrings my body. At least it’ll be over soon. But the moment the trembles start, his words ring out.

“I’m loved.”

“Wha—? R-right now? I’m busy.”

“No better moment. You heard me. I’m loved. Admit it, that’s your favorite nice thing I should know about myself.”

It is. It is and he knows it, that’s why he saved it for now. But at last I’ll have my release. “You’re—very—loved—especially—by—me—what—next?”

An infuriatingly controlled chuckle. “Fingers out.”

“What? No, no, no.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Why?” The whimper sounds like another “no.”

“Because I earned it. And this one was a very hard one for me to admit. I have plans for this.”

I can’t argue with him, even if my brain cells had not been decimated by his strokes. I almost cry as I obey. The emptiness left behind is physically painful.

“I hate you,” I hiss at him, and he chuckles.

“And there’s the difference between our love. I love you even when you hate me. Now, those perfect fingers of yours . . .”

I tense. “Yes?”

“Since you’ve broken up with my mouth, I’d like you to put one of them in yours.”

“Ew! Really?”

Another slow stroke, another bubble sparkling on him. “Ah, now that hurts my feelings, Elisa. I admitted this very difficult, very vulnerable part of myself. It’s engrained in me not to accept love, but I want to accept yours. I want it so badly, I have gathered scientists, psychiatrists, Beethoven, medication, U.S. Marines, the U.S. Congress, the CIA, Siri, not to mention crossing an ocean and eight thousand miles—all the king’s horses and all the king’s men for the single purpose of deserving your love, but you—love of my life, star of my dreams, peace of my war, lullaby of my sleep—won’t even taste yourself from your finger when you have no problem doing so from my lips? Which is ironic when you are trying to teach self-love. And what’s worse, you refer to my favorite taste with ‘ew’. What is a man supposed to do with all that?”

I just stare. He has stunned even thought into silence, let alone speech. Eyes on him, I put my finger in my mouth without hesitation because he’s right—I’ve done this countless of times with his mouth. I think about the way his bubble tastes instead of me. His eyes widen a fraction—he must have expected more arguments—and a slow smile spreads over his face. I notice with some h-o-p-e that his hand is moving faster. Two bubbles now.

“Thank you,” he says, and his voice is huskier too. “Was that ew?”

I shake my head, still unable to speak.

“Will you say such awful things about yourself again?”

Another shake.

“Good. Did you like it?”

A shrug.

“Ah, that’s too bad. Personally, I could live on it. Would you like to taste something else?”

A nod.

“Well then,” he says, and gathers the gleaming bubbles on his fingertip and brings it to my lips like I did with him. “Taste.”

I shiver from the warm liquid steel that, at least to me, is better than melted Baci. The same moan escapes my lips as it did for him.

His breath catches as his eyes darken. “Better?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever, Elisa. Think about it because it’s only yours. And allowing myself to be yours is the most self-loving thing I can do.” His finger circles the tip of my tongue, sending a jolt through the rest of me, releasing my words.

“I’m only yours, too,” I whisper as he takes his finger away. I’m palpitating from the torture I brought on myself. What was I thinking going against him in this area? But it was worth every unreleased tremble, every ring of fire, every achy throb, just to hear him say, “I’m loved.” I try to press my thighs together to relieve some tension but he is still standing between them—no doubt part of his plan. I give up and close my eyes, reciting the periodic table in my head. My brain glitches over all the elements that are combustible.

Then his warm breath washes over my lips, and my eyes fling open. His face is so close, so heady, the bedroom spins. “Now, will you please forgive my mouth?” he asks, and his voice has become very tender. “It says it’s very sorry and it really wants to taste you.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Oh, I’m serious. I have learned my lesson. It was a very effective teaching strategy. I’ll never forget it.”

“You never forget anything.”

“That doesn’t make it less memorable. Please, Elisa?”

“Are you begging?”

“Begging and dying.”

“And you’ll try not to say bad things about yourself again?” I sound almost in tears. Even his body heat and the sheets feel rough against my over-sensitized skin.

“I will. Now please kiss me. I’m literally on my knees.” His lips inch closer, almost brushing against mine.

“You’re forgiven,” my mouth says to his mouth.

He moans. Where his own hand didn’t break his composure, my lips shatter it. He kisses me like his whole soul is pouring into me through his tongue. I do my best to match him—it’s not even close—and every time I kiss him, I’m also kissing the words he formed in his mouth, the syllables of his self-love.

“Aiden, please, let’s try,” I mumble in garbled English. “I’m not that sore.”

“No, love, heal,” he murmurs, and then his mouth—my new ruler and savior—starts traveling over me. Wherever it touches, my skin zaps at even the lightest pressure. By the time he makes it to the mess I made, he has to hold me because I’m shaking so hard. And then he takes my hand.

“Let me show you,” he says and guides my fingers. It’s entirely effortless with him.

“Not this anymore . . . you.”

“You should always know how to pleasure yourself, Elisa. Always.” I sense something in his voice but I don’t have enough brainpower to understand it. I just follow his patient, mind-blowing lesson, introductions to parts of myself I only know from books of science. And soon I’m flying. The little snaps are starting.

“And now together,” he says and his mouth closes on me. It takes exactly one kiss, and I explode into a million tiny pieces—pieces of mind, of heart, of my body that now I can say I thoroughly know.

I feel his gentle lips and strong hands, holding me together until my breathing eases and the shaking recedes. When I’m finally still, he says, “And that, my Elisa, is self-pleasure. It is yours and no one else’s. Keep it and don’t ever give it to anyone. Not even to me.”

I think about his words, his voice—so forceful but for a trace of wistfulness. I’m too afraid to ask about it without my protein. Because a small part wonders if he showed this to me so I know it in case I lose him. So my body doesn’t shut down again after he is gone, like it did after the accident. A shiver having nothing to do with my recent orgasm runs over me. Violent ends . . .No! I mentally stomp on the whisper. I won’t let it slither inside this purest, closest part of our love. Pleasure is our super-power. Is there a weapon more powerful than that?

Aiden is still on top of me, on his elbows, tense with his own unreleased pleasure. Every plane of his face is etched with need, from his dark hooded gaze to his parted lips.

“You know something I’m learning about pleasure?” I ask him.

“What’s that?”

I sit up, forcing him to rise back on his knees. He is right in front of my mouth, soaring. “It feels as good to give it as it does to receive it.” And I swirl my tongue over the glistening bubbles. A shudder and a hiss rip through him.

“The headboard, Mr. Plemmons,” I say with another swirl.

His chuckle breaks and he actually grips the headboard. I wrap my hands around him and take him in my mouth as far as he can go in one swoop. He shudders again with an unrestrained “fuck” and the headboard shakes behind me. I do it again and all his control shatters with a snarl.

At the sound, I become possessed, ruled by instinct—my entire vision narrowing on this one goal of pleasuring him. He has never let me loose on him before like this, only as foreplay under his careful control. Sure, I have the matter of physics—there is only so much of me, and too much of him. But if I ignore the mechanics and think only about his mouthfeel, his taste, then I understand. I understand exactly why Aiden loves doing this to me. Why he was indignant at my ‘ew’—because if he ever said that about himself, I would be furious.

His entire body, from his vocal chords to his thighs, is thrumming. My name is slicing through his teeth, punctuated with groans and profanities that to me sound better than Beethoven. Every time I feel him at the back of my throat, I taste more of him. And the deeper I try to go, the more vicious his battle. I learn his body as he has done with me. The way his head falls back when I do this. The way his knees almost give out when I do that. I use every move he has used on me: from a peck to a suck and everything in between. He falls apart at the sucks—the harder, the better—and goes completely mental over the swirls, thrusting inside my mouth. Knowing him now, I pick up depth and speed. And Aiden—force of nature, epitome of physical strength, and paragon of sexual control—starts trembling, and the entire bed shakes with him.

“Elisa!” he grabs my hair, trying to pull out, but I grip his hips as he does with me. It seems silly to let go now after everything. I take him in the depths of my throat one last time.

He comes like war. There is no other way to describe it. A guttural growl, one hand nearly ripping off the headboard, the other in my hair, convulsion after convulsion, and then Aiden falls backward on the bed, shuddering and twitching.

Bloody. Hell.

I just did that. And survived.

I tilt my neck to test if my head is still attached to my shoulders. It is. To my utter amazement, I feel relaxed despite the tornado that just happened in and around me. Except for a trickle of warmth inside, I feel only wellness and a small sense of pride.

I look over at the foot of the bed where Aiden’s head is barely visible under the arm over his face. He has not resurfaced, ribcage rising and lowering rapidly, spasms over his muscles like waves, his sprinting breath filling the bedroom. I crawl over him, rest my head on my favorite spot on his chest, and kiss his heart. A gentler ripple courses through him with a low moan. I wait for him to recover, thinking about this new weapon in our hands. I add pleasure,self-love, and sleep to the list of defenses we are collecting for this fight. Is that enough for h-o-p-e to turn from foe to ally for me?

“Hi.” Aiden re-enters our realm with a hushed, husky sound.

“Welcome back.” I use his words with a grin.

“Hmm, have I been out long?” He plays along, even though we both know he wasn’t asleep.

“Just your first post-orgasm coma that I have witnessed.”

“Just the first post-orgasm coma, period.”

“That can’t be true.” It’s an unspoken pact that we don’t discuss his prior liaisons.  I know he remembers them with perfect clarity and neither of us wants to revisit those memories. Oddly, I’m not jealous. On the contrary, I’m glad he allowed himself this healthy, ordinary part of life and made it extraordinary like he does with everything else. But I’m still curious about all the careful restrictions he imposed on himself and his partners before me.

“It is. I never would have allowed myself to relax like this, as I do with you.”

My cheeks flush with pride. More firsts—that too has to help.

“Well, Elisa, I’m amazed.”

“I know, the orgasm comas are good, aren’t they? Even if you didn’t pass out like I do.”

He lifts his arm off his face with some difficulty and peers at me with a loopy grin. Lazily, he turns to face me, curling around me and resembling very much a placated, well-fed, happy dragon on a sunny rock. “Yes, they are, but that’s not what I mean. That was quite your first time, too.” His nose skims my throat and he places a soft kiss on it. The flush spreads from my cheeks to my chest because I know what he means. The finale was a first for me. “Did you like it or did you do it just for me?”

My blush must burn even his skin. “I liked it.”

He kisses my throat again. “Don’t be embarrassed by our love. It’s the best chance we’ve got.”

And just like that, the first four-letter word joins our ranks. L-O-V-E.

It takes us a while to leave this bed—neither of us is willing to burst this bubble like no other we have had. But eventually the real world intrudes. Growling stomachs, parched mouths, still-packed suitcases, texts from Aiden’s phone about work, texts from Reagan and Javier that they’re awake and will be here in an hour. And Aiden starts making his own big place in the cottage. Hanging up his shirts with my dresses (“aren’t you glad I didn’t pack a lot of feathered hats, Elisa?”), tucking his boxers with my underwear (“will these dried rose packets irritate you with your soreness?”), the books he is reading on his nightstand (“I’ll finish these tonight and start on your father’s library.”), his toothbrush necking with mine in the restroom (“you were not kidding about this bathtub. How are we going to fuck in the shower, Elisa?”) his cologne nudging my face cream (“I have a surprise for you, but it won’t get here until tomorrow.”) All these little intimacies and normalcies—so routine for others, so ephemeral for us.

Eventually we make breakfast and eat it out in the garden, sprawled on a picnic blanket, waiting for Reagan and Javier. Aiden drinks his coffee, his phone tossed aside on the blanket. He checks it less, looks around more. The tectonic plates do not shift as much in his eyes as he builds new memories here.

“So what would you have done with yourself today if we weren’t here?” he asks, popping the last of the strawberries in his cupid mouth—he inhaled four scones and four eggs, the mush, the ham, and the fruit. Even his appetite seems better here.

I shrug, not wanting to imagine such a dark day. “I probably would have gone to the lab to work on the protein. I can’t wait to test it tomorrow. See if I got the code right.”

The same powerful emotion that fell over him when I told him about my protein yesterday morning molds his vernal face now.  But unlike yesterday, I can’t hold back my question, or at least a version of it. “Why do you get that look when I talk about my protein?”

“What look?”

“I don’t know. Like you don’t want me to make it for you or something. Or are you worried I can’t finish on time?”

His gives me a tight smile. “Elisa, I think you can do anything you set your mind on. And that’s not just a cliché boyfriends are supposed to say. I really believe that.”

“Then what is it?”

He tilts his head side to side, deliberating. I sip my tea to give him time, watching every flicker of emotion on his face. But it’s carefully composed. “I suppose I don’t want your second invention to be tied to me. You already tied your first protein to me for your green card—which you threw away.” He glares at me, but I don’t take the bait. “Staking a claim on this second one too . . . it feels unconscionable.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know how to answer that without breaking Corbin’s rule.”

A shiver whips through me, and I see him notice the new crop of goose bumps on my arms. A familiar bolt of fury strikes in his eyes as the jaw flexes—a fury I now know is not at me. It’s at himself.

“It’s in case we don’t win, isn’t it?” I whisper. “That’s why you look like that?”

“I don’t want your second invention tied to me,” he repeats. I take it as a yes.

“But it could help you even if . . . even if . . . that happens.” My voice breaks. I need the protein for myself, I need it for Dad, but I need it for Aiden more than anyone else. Because I can’t shake off the terror I feel for him if we lose. He has cashed in all his hopes and dreams on this final chance. What will happen to the man with the dimply smile, shy eyes, self-loving words, and peaceful sleep if we don’t win? It would kill him, James said. He’d rather die, Javier agreed. A snapshot of my nightmare—the worst one, Aiden’s cold lips—flashes in my vision, making my gasp. Is this what killed him in my dream? Because we didn’t win? Because I made just one vial of protein and he refused to take it from me?

Aiden brushes my arm, no doubt attributing my gasp to his words. “I’m sorry. Don’t mind the crackpot fool—negative thoughts are a hard habit to break. You keep working on your protein. And when you finish it, I’ll try it. But please do it for yourself and your father. Don’t stress yourself for me. Okay?” I hate that he is blaming himself for my terror. And I hate that I’m letting him do it. But I’d rather board the flight I took back to England a million times over than tell him about my nightmare.

“I’ll make it Skittle-flavored,” I offer to move away from these thoughts.

His lips lift in a true smile. “But I’m so attached to the cinnamon flavor of your first supplement. That’s why I changed my toothpaste.”

“It is?”

“Yes, it was all spearmint before you.”

I lean in and peck his lips. “Cinnamon then. But only because your mouth and I are back together.” I lie down and rest my head on his lap.

He chuckles and takes a picture of me, eyes shifting between the iPhone screen and my face. “What does a picture look like to you?” I ask him to distract myself from the odd sense of unease that creeps over me when he takes pictures. “Compared to your memory, I mean.”

He smirks. “The best analogy I have is the difference between a faded Xerox copy and a high-resolution photograph. Pictures are just copies; they lack the depth, the detail my mind absorbs from the moment.”

“And what does the original memory look like in your mind exactly?”

“Well, imagine pulling up that high-resolution image in Photoshop, and the app gives you options of filters to choose from. My memory works sort of like filters. I see you right now sharp and clear, but if you turn your head like this—like you were in Javier’s painting—a translucent filter falls over you, silver-white because he had made your skin look silver. So right this second, your skin looks like porcelain, shimmering with a silvery light. You take my breath away.”

He brushes his index finger over my jawline where he must see the silver veil while I marvel at the woman he paints, trying to grasp his mind. Tomorrow, for the first time, I get to see his brain. Truly see it in ultrasound. “So, if I’m understanding this right, if you were to see me when I’m all wrinkly and old, you would still see the young silver pretty me?”

He smiles. “You’re never just pretty. But other than that detail, yes, even at eighty-five, you will have the youthful filter for me. I’d see the wrinkles, but Javier’s filter would light you up, fade them if you will.”

“Wow.”

A loud whistle shrieks through the air then, startling a lark out of my beech tree.

“ISA! AIDEN!” Javier calls from what sounds as far as the willows. “REG TELLS ME WE HAVE TO ANNOUNCE OURSELVES, WHICH IS DISGUSTING.”

Aiden chuckles, looking in the direction of the howl with something like indulgence.

“Speaking of the genius. He thinks he owes me, but I’m the one who owes him for the most beautiful thing in my life.”

Jumping Aiden now is out of the question with Reagan and Javier emerging on the garden path. Reagan is wearing the most spectacular emerald hat with an enormous peacock feather so tall that it flutters above Javier’s head, tickling his hair so that every few steps he swats at it like a fly. I meet her eyes for an update but she shakes her head slightly with a sad smirk. Bollocks. Maybe we need more aggressive measures.

“How was the Inn?” I ask them as they plop on the blanket with us, thoughtfully giving Aiden his space. I push toward them the few scones, jam, and clotted cream that survived Aiden’s appetite.

Dios, it’s like a different world. I’ve already sketched it. Speaking of, Aiden, how much do we owe you to stay there for the next two weeks?” Javier asks, while sniffing the clotted cream with a suspicious look.

“You don’t owe me anything. It’s already paid for.”

“Told you,” Reagan chimes while loading a morsel of scone with a dollop of cream.

“I know it’s paid for but we want to reimburse you,” Javier presses.

“You’re not reimbursing me.”

“What the fuck? Yes, we are.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, we are. You’ve done way too much for us, I can’t accept this.”

“I haven’t done nearly enough and yes, you can accept it.”

Javier looks at me completely bewildered. “Isa, help me with your man. Speak his language. He seems to be taking this whole do-the-opposite thing literally.”

Reagan giggles, and I with her. Aiden just looks calmly at Javier who stares at all of us like we belong at the Burford Dementia Centre.

“Javier, sweetheart, you don’t argue with Aiden about money,” I explain. “Or really about anything. It’s a terrible, terrible idea that never ends well for anyone. You would do better if you ask him ‘why’ questions.”

“Thanks for giving out trade secrets, love,” Aiden says next to me, but he is smiling.

“And you,” I turn to him and the smile drops. “You will do better if you explain your reasons to Javier so he understands where you’re coming from.”

They both blink at each other, while Reagan almost chokes from laughing.

“Fine,” Javier starts. “Aiden?”

“Javier.” Aiden inclines his head.

Why do you not want us to pay you for the Inn?”

“At least five reasons. First, you are Elisa’s family, and I never let family pay for anything. Second, you have become my friends independently of Elisa and, as Cal will tell you, my friends also never pay for anything. Third, I’d like you to save your money now that you have your green card so that you can invest in your future and begin your new life. Fourth, the price of the Inn is nothing to me for the value of having you near while Elisa and I have our privacy. And fifth, as I was recently telling her, I’m the one who owes you for bringing us together in the first place.” He looks at me with an expression like, ‘how did I do?’ I squeeze his fingers to tell him he did very well indeed.

Javier blinks a few more times, speechless—a common side effect when one first experiences Aiden in full form—and eventually finds some words. “Well . . . that . . . okay then.”

Reagan claps, still laughing. “Well done, boys. Personally, I don’t see why it’s so hard but I also speak Aidenish well by now. I’m not as fluent as Isa, but I can definitely converse.”

It’s Aiden who chuckles first—a soft chuckle, nothing like the belly laughs James gives him, but it’s a happy sound. They laugh together as Reagan provides a dictionary of Aidenisms that she has developed in her head. “Yes, ‘hm’ usually means ‘I heard you, have already thought about it, but no.’ ‘Mm’ means ‘interesting idea, and worth considering, but still no.’ ‘Huh’ means ‘stupid idea, definitely no’ and ‘huh-uh’ means ‘get out of my face or you’ll burn alive.’ And the worst part is, he’s usually right. How did I do, Aiden?”

“Huh.”

“Shit, I went too far.”

“Mm.”

“Oh, okay, then. See, Javi? It’s easy.”

I watch them banter this way—learning each other, finding their own frequency, easing into each other’s orbit—and their constellation becomes so radiant that for a moment I have to close my eyes. Behind my eyelids, as though imprinted on the retinas, they are still laughing in this garden, but Mum and Dad are also here, on the wrought iron bench where they used to sit, smiling at us. The image is so stunning that I can’t breathe or open my eyes. How can I lose all this again? Make us brave, keep us together.

“Isa, did you fall asleep over there?” Javier asks while Aiden takes my hand. I swear he is feeling my pulse.

“Are you all right?” His voice is immediately anxious.

“I’m better than all right. But I’d like to take you three somewhere. Are you up for it? It’s a bit of a walk, like everything around here.”

“Will this hat work?” Reagan asks in complete seriousness. “Or should I change?”

Javier shakes his head with a chortle. “No way, Reg. The peacock feather screams countryside.”

“Shut up, Javi,” she retorts but I know her eyes. She is in so deep that even the most innocent tease from Javier hurts.

“The hat is perfect.” I smile at her. “You never know, you may run into your David Gandy while you’re here.”

“Oh, my goodness!” She gasps, as though she had forgotten the entire existence of her favorite male model.

“David who?” Javier pipes up.

I wink at her and scurry to the garden shed, trying to marshal the vortex of emotion. I don’t recognize my insides. Everything is a contradiction. Deliriously happy and utterly terrified.  At peace while fighting my biggest war. In love and loathing everything that conspires against us. I rummage through the tool rack, tossing items into my camping rucksack and needing to get through the periodic table a couple of times to fight off tears. I can just imagine Aiden’s panic if he finds me here falling apart. And I’m not falling apart because I’m upset. I’m falling apart because apparently there is such a thing as too much love.

By the time I drag my rucksack back to them, Reagan has regained her smile while Aiden and Javier are debating how many years Feign will get in prison.

“If my sources are right, it will be at least ten,” Aiden says. “He’ll never bother you again . . . Fuck, let me carry that.” He stands when he sees me and grabs my rucksack, which rattles with a metallic clang. “What the hell is in it?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out. Let’s go.” I pick up one of the American Beauty seedlings I bought from the Plemmonses, saving the other one. He takes that, too, lest I strain my back from carrying a single rosebud in a plastic pot.

We set off across the fields, the four of us. The village of Burford has never seen a stranger group, of that I’m certain. Reagan leads the way with her peacock feather; Javier next to her with a pencil above each ear and a cross-body satchel full of sketchbooks; Aiden in a white T-shirt, Raybans, and jeans, too beautiful to belong on this planet, let alone in my village, carrying a rose and a rucksack that clamors and bangs loudly with his long strides; and me tripping every few steps because I can’t tear my eyes away from the three of them.

“Will we be walking through town or anywhere we might need Benson?” Aiden asks under his breath.

I hook my arm in his—it’s turned into granite again. “No, just open fields and air. And the occasional deer.”

The tension of his arm softens. “I hope some day we never have to worry about this again.”

H-o-p-e. “I don’t feel deprived of anything. Besides, town is overrated. What are men to rocks and mountains?” I quote Elizabeth Bennett like we once did in his library.

He chuckles and kisses my hair, shortening his stride to match mine. “It’s beautiful here,” he says after a while, eyes roaming the open fields brimming with wildflowers, the river gliding next to us, the rolling shamrock hills like the curves of some earth mother goddess protecting all life within its valleys.

I lean my head against his arm, imagining that his simple observation means more, fantasizing that he wants my little village to be a beautiful home for a beautiful man. He has not mentioned me returning to the U.S. and neither have I. What can we possibly say? We both know where I live is irrelevant if we lose this fight. It’s not a question we can ask until we know our fate. But I wonder if his unerring eyes see the way my heart twists at the idea of abandoning the cottage or Oxford again. Has his quick mind already sensed another deadly war ahead even if we survive this one? A war that could spread my organs across two continents like I’d be blown up by mortar fire: bits of heart here, sponges of lungs there, never whole, never at rest.

“So does Gandy visit where we’re going, Isa?” Reagan calls over her shoulder as we cut across another field, this one carpeted with daisies and forget-me-nots.

“Will somebody tell me who the hell we’re talking about?” Javier demands.

“He is an exemplar of male beauty, Javi. That’s all you need to know.”

Aiden slows down until we fall back a few steps. “So, how would you feel about these two together?”

I yank his arm to a full stop. “You know?” I whisper.

He shrugs. “Of course.”

“How did you find out? Reg barely admitted it to me!”

“I have eyes, Elisa. It’s not that hard to figure out.”

“Not for you, maybe. Javier hasn’t got a clue.”

He starts walking again, eyes on Javier’s back. “I don’t know about that. I just don’t think he’s willing to see.”

“Same difference. Meanwhile, Reg is in hell.”

“Yes, I recognize the symptoms. Give them time. They’ll figure it out.”

“I’m not sure they will. I don’t think Javier envisions a love life for himself at all.”

Aiden laughs. “Elisa, he’s a man. I guarantee you he envisions a love life. Whether he goes after it is a different question.”

“I’m starting to think he won’t though. He’s convinced himself he has nothing to offer. He’s almost as self-loathing as you.”

“You know what to do with these self-loathing men, Elisa?”

“What?”

“Add self-love.” He winks, his eyes instantly catching fire at the memory of our game.

I grip his arm. “Don’t joke about that right now. Please help me make Javier see.”

“What could I possibly do about it? The man has to want it, Elisa. And I can see his point to a degree. Wanting to build some security, to be able to provide for his family before he gets involved.”

“Reg doesn’t care about any of that.”

“But he does, my love. It’s important to him.”

“Are we still talking about Javier?”

He smiles with the dimple. “Yes, we are, but I understand him on this point. You and I have serious problems, but at least I’m able to protect you from everything except myself. That’s important to me and I’m certain it’s important to a traditional man like Javier.”

I watch Javier duck away from Reagan’s feather as she skips past him playing with a daisy.

“Trust me on this one,” Javier’s new comrade-in-arms insists. “Javier has to be ready on his own. And if you need more proof, I draw your attention to exhibit one.” He points at the center of his chest, in the exact counter-spot where the raw wound used to hurt me two days ago.

“But in the meantime Reg is hurting,” I argue. “And Javier would hurt too if he knew he is hurting her.”

Aiden sighs. “And you would hurt with them. All right, at least give him these two weeks. Maybe being in this romantic place will trigger something. And if not, I’ll help you. I have no fucking clue how, but I’ll try. Is that better?”

I grin at him, watching his lips lift into a mirroring smile. As unfathomable as Aiden’s mind is, there is a simple axiom at the very kernel of its existence: to protect me, he would do anything.

“You think this place is romantic?” I kiss the spot above his elbow where my lips reach—his golden skin is warm from the sun.

He laughs. “Don’t read too much into that. I also used to think a sand ditch in Iraq was romantic when I was writing your letters. So I’m not to be trusted with the concept.”

A fiery field of poppies ripples around us now. The flowers brush against Aiden’s jeans like Marilyn lips. I watch the soldier who believes he doesn’t understand romance step carefully not to crush the blooms. Then I watch the man who doesn’t need photographs snap a selfie of the two of us parting the poppy sea. And despite the ice trickling down my neck at the camera’s click, I smile. Because this is the kernel of my existence: for him to see himself clearly, I would do anything.

We leave the poppy field behind and I lead them up the hill. For a while speaking becomes difficult from the climb and, in my case, from what the hill means.

“I’m very curious to see where you’re taking us,” Aiden says in perfectly even tone, despite carrying a rucksack full of metal, while the rest of us are huffing and puffing.

“We’re almost there.”

As I say the words, however, a current of panic courses through me. Was this a good idea for Aiden? Will it trigger anything? I stumble at the thought but he catches me gently at the elbow. “Careful, love.”

“How are you feeling?” I ask him.

He frowns at my sudden question. “As I always do with you. Calm. Why?”

“Just checking.”

I hesitate where I am—wanting this deeply, but also wanting only happy memories for him. Javier and Reagan stop with us, clutching their sides. I contemplate turning around, but then, right above us, a beam of sun breaks over the summit. A single, brilliant ray like a halo over the crest. It blinds me to everything else, even the three people next to me, and I start climbing in a trance, as though the beam is a gravitational string made of the most dazzling starlight, pulling me to the peak. I can’t hear Aiden, Javier, or Reagan behind me—I can’t hear anything. Just Mum’s voice crooning like in our home movies, “keep going, Elisa.”  My feet gather speed like last time and I break into a run. The wind flings my hair, the sun blinds my eyes, but I’m air. Just air trying to float to the heavens above. Then with one leap, I’m on the tiny crest meadow.

Under the cypress tree, the white marble tombstone glimmers and sparkles like always. And, as always, I can’t breathe.

Aiden reaches me in a blink. I know because even though my eyes are fixed on the shimmery grave, I sense his presence like a shield right next to me. It blasts away the chills, releases my lungs, and fortifies my knees. He doesn’t speak, but he wraps his strong arm around my shoulders, holding me up, standing so close that I only have to tilt my head and it leans on him. And all the grief, all this implacable loss, all this anguish are also now resting on him, on his iron shoulders carrying this sorrow with me. The agony splits by half so my knees don’t give out like they did when I last came here. My body doesn’t break into dry sobs. And my voice doesn’t disappear. I can stand, I can breathe, I can form thought, even if I can’t speak.

Javier and Reagan appear to my right. I feel Reagan’s hand on my hair and Javier’s fingers around mine. And the climbing roses on the marble flutter with the breeze. Hello.

“Hello,” I whisper back.

The rose buds have now opened into white miniature rosettes, each like a smile, flittering with a “come here” gesture. It releases my feet and I walk to the tomb on my own power. The roses sway when I reach them. I notice our four shadows fall over the sparkling stone, the tallest right next to me. Below the roses, on the marble is the vial of dried rose and Aiden’s dog tags that I last left here. I can’t blink away from my parents’ names to look at him. I test the words in my mouth before I speak. They’re there, I just have to breathe.

“Mum, Dad,” I tell them even though I know they cannot hear. “This is Aiden . . . and Reagan and Javier.”

The rosettes wave.

The first sound registers in my ears. Reagan’s sniffle. I watch her shadow remove the hat, Javier’s shadow pat her shoulder, and Aiden’s shadow pull mine close, his arms folding around me until our two shadows become one that looks like a distorted heart.

Other sounds enter then. Aiden’s strong heartbeat, thudding fast like mine. The warble of the lark that lives in the cypress tree. The whoosh of the hilltop wind. And more words come.

“This place is where they had their first date,” I say, noticing my voice is not a whisper anymore, just a quiet key.

“It’s beautiful,” all three of them answer in unison.

“The four of us are the only ones alive who know that.”

None of them says anything but strangely it’s as though their silence finally allows me to talk in this place. Actually talk. “Everyone in town thought I had gone mental insisting they rest here, away from everything. Of course, I was mental so they gave in to me. I think it turned out well. I think they like this.”

“Of course they do,” says Reagan.

“I brought them something this time. This American Beauty rose from all of us. Will you help me plant it here?”

And they do. I hear Aiden unzip the rucksack, no doubt realizing the racket inside was a hand spade and shovel, a large stainless steel water bottle, and a bag of enriched dirt.  We start then—all four of us together. Javier’s callused hands, Reagan’s delicate alabaster ones, Aiden’s strong fingers, and mine that look exactly like Mum’s. We dig the small hole in the grass at the foot of the marble, and I lower the seedling into it, covering its delicate roots with dirt and watering it. We use the rest of the water to wash our hands. In the end, the little seedling sways in the breeze.

“Want to sit here for a while?” I invite them, eyes still on the stone. “I know it’s strange but . . . it’s the only time I’ve actually been able to truly visit.”

As one, they sink on the grass around the seedling with me. After a while, we start chatting, not an involved conversation—just bits of thought and feeling. Javier draws a rough sketch of the cottage and tucks it with the rose vines. Reagan digs her favorite British toffee out of her purse and places it on the marble. And Aiden opens his wallet and takes out a familiar strip of waxy paper—“Love me for love’s sake only”—the very first quote Baci chocolates gave him on our embargo day. To my utter shock, a smile finds me here. He has kept it all this time and now secures it under the vial of his dog tags and dried rose.

I look up at his face, recalling my fear of whether this would trigger bad memories for him. But he is entirely here with me, from his tender eyes to his hands like strongholds around my waist. And this moment will live on in him, with every pixel of ache and beauty.

“This isn’t a happy memory for you,” I say.

“It’s better than that. It’s precious.”

“I’m sorry about the dog tags. I was trying to leave you behind. You should have them back.” I try to get out of his hold but his arms tighten around me like a fortress.

“Don’t think about that now. Let them stay here, in this special place with your parents. Hopefully that part of me will be at rest, too.”

H-o-p-e again. I look at the seedling, feeling something germinate in my lungs and wind up my throat like the rose’s tendril. It’s a singular, curious sensation—like a tickle, wrapped in warmth, swarming with butterflies. Light like a breeze, yet mighty too, as though it could parachute me straight up. I try to understand what it is. Sunrays shatter into millions of crystals around the epitaph: “Amor Vincit Omnia.” Love conquers all. And I find a name for the tendril. Odd that I should find it here in this place with so much pain, loss, and time long gone. A place of so many four-letter words.

“I hope it does,” I answer Aiden a little late. Here, by my most tragic loss, H-O-P-E joins my side. Or perhaps I join it.

The way back down the hill is easier. Not just physically, but emotionally too. So different than the two other times I’ve stumbled down this trail. By the time we’ve reached the open fields again, I feel light—like the tendril of hope is parachuting me above ground.

“Feeling a little better?” Aiden asks as we stroll across the poppy field back to the cottage.

“Yes. I actually feel happy in an odd way. Everyone I love now has met each other.”

I smile at Reagan picking poppies ahead of us, while Javier opines that she should balance out the red only with dark grass. To which she replies, “you should balance out your dark grass with red.”

“Good one, Reg,” I cheer for her under my breath as she fluffs her flame of red curls. But her euphemism flies right over Javier’s raven-black waves.

“Elisa?” Aiden pulls me by the elbow. I look up at him, tripping to a stop not because of his gentle hold, but because of his face. It’s always stunning but there are some moments, like right now, when it looks surreal.

“Yes?” I breathe.

“How would you feel about meeting my parents?”

Can one trip while standing perfectly frozen? Seems like I can. “What?”

He smiles patiently, giving me time to process.

“Are you serious?”

“Very.”

“B-but . . . they’re in Portland.” Of all the thoughts scrambling in my brain, this is the one my mouth picks.

He chuckles. “Elisa, to meet you, they’d swim over, let alone take a flight.”

“They know about me?” Maybe I should sit down, if I could move.

“They do. I told them after you left when I asked them to shelter the Solises.”

He gives me another moment to process, which is good because I need it. Aiden has isolated his parents since he attacked his mother when he returned from Iraq twelve years ago. Our conversation about this during the drive to his Alone Place might as well be blaring through foghorns over the poppy field. He doesn’t see them—only speaks to them occasionally by phone or other safe methods of communication that do not expose them to his startle reflex and him to the excruciating memory of hurting his own mum.

“I . . . I didn’t realize you’re reconnecting with them,” I manage. “That’s wonderful, Aiden.”

He shrugs with a small smile. “You told me I can’t shut them out. You said someday they will be gone and nothing will be able to take my grief away.” He quotes my words verbatim, of course.  “I thought a lot about that after you left. And then seeing you just now, how close you still are to your parents even though they have passed, made me think you’re right about this too, like you have been about a lot of things.”

I stare at him, unable to voice all the emotion inside. When I still can’t speak, he continues. “I know it makes no practical sense for you to meet each other now if in eighty-nine days you and I . . .” His eyes fall on the immediate goose bumps that sprout on my arms and he rubs them gently. “But somehow that makes it even more important that you meet. That we try this normal life thing to the fullest.”

Finally my brain is able to string together the biggest question—the one that is ruling them all. “Do you want me to meet them? Or is this for me . . . or Corbin?”

“All three. I find that I want you to know them, and them you. I want them to meet the woman I love, no matter what happens in the end. I really haven’t given them many moments of joy in life as a son should. And I might never be able to, except this time with you.”

Except now—this present moment we may never get again.

“And I suppose I thought you would want this, too,” he adds. “To meet everyone we love. Do you?”

His question—as though he still cannot believe I would want every speck of him, let alone such a core part—releases my words. “Of course I do, Aiden. I’d love to meet your parents. I just want to make sure you’re doing the right thing for you, not because you feel you have to do it for me.”

The dimple winks in his cheek, lifting his beautiful mouth into a moon of a smile. “This is the right thing for me. You’re teaching me that—you take these memories in life, no matter how ugly and you make them beautiful. I guess I want to do the same.”

“Well then,” I take his hand in both of mine as I did yesterday. “Let’s welcome your parents.”

He laughs with that pure waterfall sound. “Really?”

“Yes, really.”

He runs his hand through his hair, looking around like he wishes someone was close to hear this. But Reagan and Javier are in the distance, plopped under the shade of an enormous oak, waiting for us. Aiden laughs again. “Fuck, I better give a heads-up to my mother’s cardiologist. She might need him.”

He tucks my arm in his and we start walking again. His step is quicker, lighter somehow.

“So when would they come?” I ask, nerves already starting to creak. How will it be meeting the genetic forces that created Aiden? What do they think of our experiment? Of their only son being in this far-flung village, thousands of miles away in another fight for his future, maybe even life?

“Well, if it were up to my mother, they’d get here tomorrow. But I was thinking it might be better after Reagan and Javier leave, so you can have something to look forward to. That way, we’ll also have family and friends around for about half of the summer.”

The easier half. He knows neither of us will be in any shape for company during the second half as the ninety days run out. “Very thoughtful.”

“What’s that in your voice? Are you nervous?”

“A little bit.”

He laughs. “Don’t worry—I’ll keep my mother in check.”

“No, don’t. She must miss you so much. Let this be special for her too,” I tell him, unable to ask my hardest question. But his inconveniently observant eyes have already seen it.

“So if that’s not worrying you, what is?” He tips up my face so I can look into his eyes and, on cue, the question blurts out.

“What do your parents think about us being together? With everything we have to overcome, I mean.” With how much there is at stake if we don’t, I add in my head. He must hear the unspoken part too because the tectonic plates shift in his eyes as he retrieves his answer.

“I won’t lie, they’re worried. Worried about both you and me if I were to . . . again. But they’re also ecstatic that I’ve found someone who has given me a reason to fight and take care of my health. So I’d describe it as joyful terror. A bit like us.”

Oddly his words make me smile despite the f-e-a-r. Because it’s similar to the reaction I see in Javier’s and Reagan’s eyes. And it’s the same reaction Mum and Dad would have had, of that I’m certain. Desolately terrified and deliriously happy—unable to help us with anything but their love. Could our families’ unconditional and undying love be a weapon? Could it help Aiden and me in the same mystical way that Für Elise does—ways science can’t explain because they’re written in the stars?

“And if you’re also nervous about whether my parents will like you—although I cannot imagine your brain forming such a ridiculous thought—of course they will. How could they not?” adds the man who literally has Javier’s magic filter over my face.

“Hmm,” is the only answer I give him.

“Is that an Aidenism?”

“Definitely.”

He laughs, clueless that my brain is more than capable of such questions. Will they like me? What do they think of their son falling for someone with her own trauma? Someone who lives so far away? Someone who—if they knew the full truth—believed their son to be such a monster that she left him and wasted his one million dollars?  But none of my insecurities matter in this bigger constellation we are charting. They’re trivial compared to the brightest thing: Aiden is letting more love in his life.

“All right, tell me more about your parents. Robert and Stella. Tell me everything.”

“Well, this is their last year before retirement . . .” he starts as we make our way to Reagan and Javier. I listen to every word, picking some wilted poppies. No reason to end the young, pretty ones. But wilted poppies have their own beauty too. They’re not bubbly and cheerful, but their swan necks have their own grace—they have survived the wind.

With each withered bloom, I tick off our new list of allies and weapons: our love, Aiden’s strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love if we can grow it, our families, the team of scientists, these mystical gifts from our stars—my calming effect from Javier’s genius, the protein from Dad, and Für Elise from Mum—and now H-O-P-E. Will they be enough for the unfathomable enemy before us, lurking, waiting to strike? Because strike it will.

“Why are you picking only the dead ones?” Aiden asks looking at the eleven wilted poppies I’ve collected.

“They’re not dead. They’re wise.”

He laughs again, and I listen to the sound floating free over the poppy field with the gentle breeze. I add a twelfth withered poppy—laughter has to be a weapon too.

“You two look like you belong in a Shakespeare sonnet or a Jane Austen novel,” Reagan grins when we reach the two of them under the oak tree.

“Shakespeare was an idiot,” I respond.

All three of them lecture me about my issues with the overrated fool all the way home. But they did not hear the chilling whisper that deafened my ears despite my bouquet of allies and the tendril of hope: these violent delights and have violent ends.

©2021 Ani Keating