Ahhhh!!!!! I can't believe it! I honestly didn't know if I'd ever finish this story, and oh my God, it's been SUCH a ride. Wow. I really, really hope you all have enjoyed reading this. I hope that you became just as connected to the characters as I have. I hope you're all happy with the ending, and I thank you all SO much for the awesome reviews, and the amazing, amazing compliments and support I've had for this story. All of you are the reason I keep writing. I think I might cry now; this story is so close to my heart that it's probably not even healthy. Anyway, please enjoy.
The days began to pass in a blur, one after the other, and they soon found themselves at the end of spring. The streets were covered by the fallen petals of cherry blossoms, and it left Baltimore in the aftermath of a hurricane of foliage. The flowers were the lightest pink anyone could imagine; the very color of the room Corny had painted for her so many months ago. She would let her fingers pick the delicate leaflets from the ground, brushing her fingers over their soft interiors. They reminded her of his face; his smooth, soft cheek, the one she had spent so many countless nights staring at as he rested beside her in his bed.
It was surreal now; all of this, and the life she'd decided to leave behind. The black gown as it brushed her ankles, the slightly tilted cap that Corny had helped her straighten over her golden hair; none of it seemed real. It seemed anti-climactic, maybe even somewhat unsatisfactory that, despite everything she'd been through, she was just now reaching this stage in her life. Despite the fact that she'd become an adult much sooner than she would have preferred, she had just now graduated high school. Only moments ago, she had been officially separated from anything that was holding her back; anything that had been keeping her here in Baltimore. At least that was how Corny saw it, and she knew it.
She couldn't help but glance around at the students who sat surrounding her during the graduation ceremony. She couldn't help but wonder if any of them had the tragic kind of fairy tale that she had; if any of them had been hiding such unbelievable pain. If any of them had just been stronger than she had. The way they smiled and laughed, the way they joked and rolled their eyes through the ceremony told her that they weren't quite as grateful as she was to be here right now. Not necessarily here, in this gym that served as a make-shift auditorium, but alive whatsoever. She sat with a quiet reservation throughout the ceremony, and when each of them had been handed their diplomas and declared high school graduates, she found her feet and shuffled back to Corny. Each student had been allowed four reserved seats for family members to attend. Amber had only asked one person to share the moment with her, and had ended up giving the other three seats to Tammy, who had a large family visiting from out west. No one had bothered to ask where her family was; they already knew. They knew that Velma had left Baltimore months ago. She'd claimed self-defense that night, and had somehow gotten away with the defense. And though she'd saved Amber's life, there was nothing else to be said between them. They knew of the man that she had shot; a burly, black-haired man named Chip who ended up being sent to prison for a plethora of things, including embezzling money from a company he hadn't even worked for, but claimed to. They knew that he might have had something to do with the bruises that had once been displayed on Velma and Amber's faces, but they didn't know the half of it. Unlike Amber, they didn't know that he was serving twenty-five years to life for rape, and not just her, but girls before her. Girls that had belonged to stupid, vain mothers like her own. Girls that lived away from Baltimore, and had been too afraid, too unsure of themselves to have the courage to fight him. Girls that Amber could certainly empathize with, and that she hoped would feel better knowing he would spend at least the better part of the rest of his life rotting in a jail cell.
He grinned as he saw her, though there was a certain sadness in his eyes that she couldn't exactly recognize. He brushed his fingers down the shoulder that rested beneath the silky black robe, and then shifted the cap on her head again. She rolled her eyes playfully at him, tugging the hat from her hair and tossing it onto his unoccupied chair.
"You did it." His words had a different connotation to them, she knew. Anyone else would assume that he was simply congratulating her for the accomplishment of graduating high school, but they both knew better than that.
"I wouldn't have without you." Her words were true, and he smiled softly at her, reaching for her arm. She bent to grab her abandoned hat, and led him up the aisle, walking slowly alongside him.
"This is the last time you'll ever be here," he reminded her gently, "aren't you going to say goodbye?" He studied her face as they walked, and she shook her head softly.
"No. I gave up on this life a long time ago, Corny. I'll see Link, and Tracy. I don't need school to be friends with them."
They walked silently out of the building, and she turned to him as they reached the sidewalk, her arm still linked with his. She shot a soft smile at him, and tilted her head slightly, her tongue dancing along her bottom lip.
"Thank you." She swallowed hard, but forced herself to keep her gaze locked on him, "For everything."
He nodded, dipping his head, their feet still moving slowly over the sidewalk. She took a deep breath of the warm air, and unconsciously held his arm tighter.
"You're welcome, Amber. You know that."
"I know." She felt tears burning her eyes as she looked away from him. The sun was beginning to set, and pink and purple splashes of light had left the sky streaked a rainbow of colors. She blinked suddenly, pushing away the tears before speaking again. "You're the best friend I've ever had, Corny."
There was a silence between them, and he cleared his throat, looking away from her. She tried to think of something, anything else to fill this sudden void between them. He stopped walking finally, and turned to her, brushing her hair behind her ear.
"You're mine too, Amber."
She felt herself blushing slightly, and let herself grin at him.
"I bet you never thought you'd say that to me," she teased him lightly, and he arched an eyebrow at her, smiling softly.
"Well, you've grown up a lot over the past year." She laughed softly; though not out of humor, merely out of irony. She studied his face for a moment, her eyebrows furrowing slightly.
"What's wrong?" Her voice was soft, and she let the corners of her mouth turn into a soft frown, her fingers tracing over the sleeves of his suit jacket. "You look sad."
He shot her a sideways glance, then shook his head.
"No. No, I'm fine. I'm happy for you."
She watched him swallow hard, and then pulled him forward, their feet moving on the sidewalk again. She didn't know what to do, or to say. She knew what he was thinking, though, and the thought of it made her want to cry. How could she say goodbye to the one person who had sacrificed so much for her; the one who had put her life in front of his own too many times to count?
"You know, because of you, I've saved enough money for at least a year's worth of rent." She looked expectantly toward him.
He smirked slightly.
"That's your money, Amber. I didn't have anything to do with it."
"No, you did," she corrected him gently, "I would have never had the strength to do…any of this without your support. You know that, don't you?" She let her eyes move to his, and felt the familiar sting of tears. "Corny, you're the only person that has helped make me who I am right now, and who I will be on my own."
He let a hand run down her back soothingly, his eyes scraping the ground suddenly. She cleared her throat, and looked at him, her eyes large and blue.
"My entire life, I've been waiting for the day I could escape from this place. Since Chip got here, I've been making plans, telling myself that as soon as I graduated high school, I was going to run, and never look back." She kept her gaze steady on his.
"That's a good plan." He nodded the words, his voice low and unconvincing, "You should escape, then."
She shook her head slightly, moving to stand in front of him, causing them to pause on the sidewalk again.
"I'm finished running." Her voice was low, but firm. "I've faced my worst nightmare. He's in prison now. There's nothing else to be afraid of."
He watched her unsurely.
"There's so many bad reasons for you to stay here; all those memories, the ignorant people." His eyes were full of fear; seeking the confirmation that she so desperately wanted to give him.
"Maybe," she nodded gently, "but there's one reason I could never leave." She chewed on her lip, pushing the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. "You."
He watched her silently, and she let her fingers move up his cheek, tilting his head down just enough for her to brush her lips over his. It was the first time she'd done it since that original kiss, and she suddenly kissed him passionately, with the vigor that she had been sure she'd never have again. Her mouth was so hungry, so desperately in need of his that it actually caused her physical pain to be away from him. She felt his hand move around to her back, his fingers pressing lightly against her spine, and suddenly, he was returning the kiss. His lips pressing against hers; tasting her, wanting her, needing her. It was exactly what she'd wanted that first time, but now, she was glad he had waited. She was glad he had controlled himself until this exact moment, because now she could remember this perfectly as their first actual kiss. The first time he allowed himself to open up to her; the first time she realized that she was ready, and unafraid, to be with him.
He was the first one to break the kiss, and hugged her to his chest tightly, burying his face in her sweet-smelling hair, kissing the crown of her head and hugging her to him like she was a life-saving raft in the middle of a stormy ocean. Unbeknownst to him, that's exactly what he was to her.
"Stay with me, please." His voice was low and quiet, and the words fell upon her ears. She nodded in his embrace, her fingers curling around his biceps. "God, Amber, I don't know who I'd be without you here."
She shook her head, gentle tears beginning to escape her eyes.
"Just because you've given me the strength to leave, doesn't mean I'm going to. I can't…I can't leave you."
He held her that way for another moment, and then pulled her back, his thumbs wiping away the tears on her cheeks. He leaned in, kissing her lips gently, the tip of her nose, her eyes, her cheeks. She closed her eyes and snuggled into his chest, his chin resting upon the top of her head.
"I love you, Amber," he whispered the words into the soft blonde hair, his lips brushing her scalp.
It was the first time she'd ever heard those words.
"I love you, too," her breath nearly caught in her throat as she murmured the response.
It was the first time she'd ever meant those words.
And after everything she'd been through, it became suddenly evident to her. The day she had met Chip, the day he had begun his sadistic games with her, had actually been the end of a life; the end of the life of the girl she'd let herself become.
That Amber Von Tussle had died in spirit, not in body. But this Amber Von Tussle, this new one that had risen from the ashes, her life had just begun.