Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
A/N: This was my contribution to the tsunami compilation – thanks to all of you who donated to the cause, and to the organizers who did so much work putting it all together. Thanks to my always-fabulous beta, tiffanyanne3, for her help.
"There is a star above us which unites souls of the first order, though worlds and ages separate them"
- Christina Sweden
I gasped in shock at the familiar figure I saw across the crowded train station. I couldn't see his face, but his broad shoulders and reddish-brown hair – rumpled and in need of a cut – made my heart skip a beat.
Could it be him?
I was being ridiculous, of course. I knew it, but I still couldn't keep from making my way toward him, weaving through the crowd while keeping his tall form in view.
I dared not look away or I feared he'd disappear.
It seemed like I saw him everywhere, and every time when I least expected it…so it always took me by surprise.
At the grocery store…the gas station…getting into a crowded elevator.
It was never really him, though…just a figment of my wishful imagination.
Because he wasn't real.
I first met him the night before I turned four years old. The memory of the dream was vivid and crisp, like they all were. A little boy, dressed in blue jeans with a rip in the knee and a red t-shirt, stood on the sidewalk in front of a brick house, staring at me across the wide expanse of front lawn. I remember the odd color of his eyes – a green so deep it reminded me of my mother's emerald bracelet. His bronze hair was lighter then - cropped close on the sides, but left long on top, and swirled up from a cowlick in the back.
He said nothing, and neither did I.
We just stared at each other.
When I awoke, even at my young age, I realized something strange and wonderful had happened.
Then it happened again on the night before my fifth birthday…and on the night before every birthday since.
The settings for our unusual meetings were never familiar but always comfortable. At six, we played tag on a grassy hill, the sun warm on our backs. At eight, we walked through a cool forest, turning over rocks in search of creepy crawlies.
"What do you think this place is?" he'd asked me as we sat on the damp ground, leaning back against a rough stump. "Is it real?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. It feels real while we're here…at least to me." I reached out and picked a pink flower from a cluster growing near my feet. I rolled the stem in my fingers, brushing the blossom against my lips.
He scratched his cheek, leaving a smudge of dirt. "Yeah. To me too. But in the morning, I'm not so sure."
I just nodded, still gazing at the flower.
"Okay, let's try again," he said, turning to face me with his legs crossed, leaning his elbows on his knees. "What's your name?"
I looked at him intently, concentrating fiercely. "Bella. Bella Swan. I live with my mom and dad, Charlie and Renee, in Forks, Washington."
"Bella Swan…Charlie and Renee Swan…Forks, Washington," he repeated, his brow creased in concentration as he struggled to sear the words into his memory.
We'd tried it many times before. We could talk about almost anything… our families, school, our friends. But with the morning and our inevitable waking, our vivid conversations would become dazed and unclear. Eventually, like most dreams, our experiences together drifted into the realm of déjà vu and words on the tip of your tongue. When we were together, it would all come rushing back in sparkling colors and rich scents and intense flavors. It was real.
When we were together. It was real.
But the other 364 days of the year – 365 on leap years – Edward was a flash of memory…a mysterious figure just around the next corner…a pair of green eyes that burned at me behind the lids of my own, but were unrecognizable. Even his name evaded my thoughts just a few moments after I awoke…melting away as consciousness finally claimed me. I eventually took to keeping a notebook by my bed and tried, in those first muddled minutes, to write down what I could remember from my dreams. My scribbled ramblings made little sense, but I treasured them anyway.
No matter how hard we tried, there was no way for us to find each other in the waking world – nothing that could prove it was all really happening.
"You try," I demanded, brushing my brown curls away from my eyes. "Where do you live?"
His eyes narrowed as he willed me to remember. "Chicago…it's in Illinois."
I rolled my eyes. "I know where Chicago is, Edward."
He shrugged and stood up, brushing off his jeans. "I don't know why we even bother. It never works."
A loud screech drew our attention upward to the patches of blue peeking through the trees.
"Here he comes," Edward murmured. "I guess it's time."
A pure white hawk flew down through the treetops, his wings spread wide. He arced gracefully to the right before coming to rest on a low branch above our heads. His head tilted, and he blinked at us with jet black eyes.
The hawk was the only constant in our dream visits…a signal that the waking world was returning. Wherever we were, at the appointed hour he would swoop in, descending upon us with a loud call, and we knew our time together was drawing to an end.
I turned away from the hawk to look at him. "Well, I guess I'll see you."
He nodded, his deep green eyes serious. "Yeah. I'll see ya'."
He blinked…and I awoke in my bed.
The rest of my life – my waking life – was pretty much like anyone else's, I guess. I had friends, went to school, played softball, and baked cookies. But for some reason I only felt truly alive on that one night a year. It was as if he and I were two pieces of a puzzle – and nothing else quite fit unless we were together.
Despite our limited encounters, Edward became my best friend and my closest confidant. I could tell him anything, and he understood me like no one else. When I was eleven, he helped me through my parents' divorce, and my subsequent move across the country with my mother. I held his hand when his dog died at twelve. We endured bullies, betrayal, insecurity, awkwardness…and we shared our burdens equally. Maybe it was because he was made of my dreams - a creation of my own subconscious. I didn't know. In fact, I didn't even care. The nights we spent together were truly the happiest times of my life.
When I was thirteen, something changed…a subtle shift that, at the time, I couldn't put my finger on.
"I mean, I don't know what the big deal is anyway," I told him as we sat on a dock, dangling our feet in a clear mountain lake. "It's just a kiss."
I was bemoaning the fact that my two best friends, Angela and Jessica, had been bragging about receiving their first kisses behind the gym at school.
Edward shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think I'd even want to kiss any of the girls at my school anyway."
I slid him a sideways glance. "So you've never…you haven't kissed a girl?"
"Nah," he replied, flinging a rock and skipping it across the surface of the lake.
"Six. Nice." I complimented his rock-skipping ability.
"Have you?" he asked.
"Have I what?"
He huffed in irritation. "Kissed a boy?"
"Oh." I felt my cheeks redden. "No."
"Huh," he said. He threw another rock. "Do you wanna?"
I bit my lip. "I don't know…I guess…maybe…just to see what it's like." I swung my feet in the water and watched the ripples flow outward, peeking at him out of the corner of my eye. "Do you?"
He shrugged again. "Maybe."
We sat in silence for a while, and it felt like the air grew thicker around us. Butterflies swirled in my stomach and my heart started to hammer in my chest. It pounded so loudly I wondered if he could hear it.
Suddenly, the white hawk shrieked above us, and I let out a heavy breath, feeling a surge of disappointment.
I turned to him to say goodbye…and was met by the feel of Edward's chapped lips pressing on mine. His eyes were wide open, staring at me almost in surprise. I gasped as he pulled back a bit, then leaned in again to kiss me again softly.
I felt tingles racing through my body as he sat back again, observing me unblinkingly.
"Bye," he breathed before I woke once again in my bed, touching my fingers to my lips in wonder.
At fifteen, he broke my heart.
We were lying on our backs in a spring meadow, looking up at the puffy clouds floating across the azure sky. He pointed at one he said looked like a race car, but I argued it was more like a vacuum cleaner. We laughed and I sat up, picking a handful of daisies and starting to weave them together. I looked over at him and smiled to myself. He was sprawled across the grass with his arms and legs flung wide, his eyes closed and a peaceful expression on his face. He'd grown in the past year and now towered over me – the top of my head barely came to his shoulder. He was still lanky but had started to fill out a bit, his chest growing broader, his arms a little thicker. As always, he was in need of a haircut, his thick locks curling around his ears and neck.
Edward was, in a word, beautiful. And I loved him. I never told him, but I loved him.
He was so quiet I thought he might have fallen asleep - although that would have been really weird, considering we already were asleep. Finally, his voice broke through the silence.
"I have a girlfriend."
My stomach clenched, but I focused on the daisy chain in my lap and willed my hands not to shake.
"Did you hear me?" He opened one eye to look at me, raising his hand to block the sun.
"Yeah. I heard you," I replied.
"Well, what?" I asked, irritation coloring my tone.
"I was kind of wondering how you felt about that."
I dropped the daisy chain into my lap and leaned back onto my hands, tilting my head once again to the sky. "What do you want me to say?"
He rolled over onto his side and propped his head on his hand. "Are you mad?" he asked. I could feel his intent gaze, but I didn't turn to look at him.
I sighed. "Why would I be mad? I mean, none of this is real anyway," I muttered, leaning forward to fling the daisies back into the grass.
Edward sat up abruptly and grabbed my hand. "Don't say that."
"Why not?" I asked angrily, ripping my hand from his and standing up. I stalked away a few steps before turning back to him. "We get one night a year…one night! And no way to find each other out…there…" I waved an arm toward the distant horizon. "I don't know if you even exist!" I choked on a sob and was horrified to feel my eyes fill up with tears.
He rose and hurried over to me, wrapping me in his arms. "Shhh…" he murmured, kissing my hair. I clung to him, feeling his warmth seeping through my skin.
"I'm okay," I said finally, pulling away and crossing my arms over my chest. I brushed my tears away. "Do you love her?" I asked, then added in a rush as my eyes fell to the ground, "No…wait…never mind. I don't want to know."
He reached out to wrap a tendril of my hair around his finger. "I don't love her," he said tenderly. "It's just that…out there…" his voice trailed off and his eyes lingered in the distance.
I nodded. I understood, actually. "I know," I said. "I know you have a life. I understand you have to find something…someone…there to make you happy. I get it. I really do."
He turned back to me and I was surprised to find his eyes glassy. "It's not the same, though," he said.
I shook my head, my own tears trickling down my cheeks. "No, it's not."
We both glanced over as the hawk swooped down, landing a few feet from us on a rock outcropping at the edge of the meadow. Turning back to face each other, he reached out a hand to stroke a thumb beneath my eye.
"Don't cry," he said quietly. "I'm sorry."
I sobbed, and his image grew blurry before me. "Me too," I said before I was back in my bed, my cheeks still damp and my heart aching in my chest.
He never mentioned her again. By tacit agreement neither one of us mentioned going on dates, or boyfriends or girlfriends. Instead, it was as if we decided to ignore the outside world while we were together – to just enjoy each other in the little time we had.
In short, we lived in denial.
We still spoke of our hopes for the future. He wanted to become an architect or an engineer and design beautiful, environmentally-friendly homes. I told him I wanted to be a writer, and even toyed with the idea of putting our story on paper.
"Really?" He smiled. "Well, it is a good story, even if nobody would ever believe it."
I laughed and turned back to the book in my hands. I was eighteen, and we were in a quiet library, sitting among the abandoned stacks. Dust motes danced in the sunlight streaming through the high windows. He sat leaning back against a shelf laden with books, and I was lying on the floor with my head in his lap. He toyed with my hair as I read Where the Wild Things Are to him aloud.
"I can't believe you've never read this book," I said, turning the page. "It's a classic…and particularly appropriate to our situation."
"A little boy who's a pain in the ass and gets sent to bed without supper?" I heard him chuckle lightly.
"Well, no." I flashed him a grin. "Not that part." I continued to read as we looked at the pictures of Max, the little boy, as his imagination swept him away to a mysterious land occupied by monsters. My voice was the only sound in the library as I told Max's story: How the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth…how Max finally tamed them and was named their king…and finally, how Max grew homesick and longed for his family.
"And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the wild things are. But the wild things cried, 'Oh please don't go –
We'll eat you up – we love you so!' and Max said, 'No!'" I read quietly, surprised when my throat tightened.
And as Max waved goodbye to the wild things and sailed back to his own bedroom to find his supper waiting for him – still hot – the tears welled up and overflowed my eyes.
Edward just stroked my hair silently as I sobbed in his lap, longing for what we could never have…knowing that eventually, like Max, we would have to leave behind this magical world and return to cold, gray, lonely reality.
When my crying slowed and my ragged breathing returned to normal, I rolled onto my back, gazing up at him sadly. "Sorry about that," I mumbled.
The side of his mouth lifted in a half-smile, and he shrugged off my apology. Instead, he slid one arm under my shoulders, lifting me toward him slowly. My breath caught as he swept my hair away from my face with his other hand, then cupped the back of my head, his eyes dark and intense. He bent toward me, kissing my tears away softly…first on one cheek, then the other…and finally descending to brush my lips with his.
It was the first time we'd kissed since that day on the dock when we were thirteen.
And it was completely different.
Instead of tentative, his lips were firm and confident, nipping gently at first, then pressing more insistently. My eyes fluttered closed as his warm breath caressed my face, and I whimpered quietly, my hand reaching up to twist in his hair. I felt his tongue brush against my bottom lip, and as I welcomed it I could taste the sweet mint of his toothpaste mingling with a unique flavor that I knew was solely his. Edward pulled me closer, wrapping his arms tightly around me as he deepened the kiss, and I gasped at the feel of his muscular chest pressed against me. I clutched at his hair, my other arm wrapped around to grip the back of his shirt, and I felt myself grow dizzy…my blood heated…my pounding heart about to explode within my chest.
Finally, his grasp relaxed and he pulled back slightly, resting his forehead against mine as we both tried to catch our breath. The hand in my hair drifted forward, his fingertips grazing my cheek, and I opened my eyes to find his piercing green ones studying me intently. He brushed a thumb across my bottom lip, his gaze flicking down briefly before returning to mine.
"I love you," he whispered.
I smiled at him, turning my face to kiss his palm softly.
"I love you, too," I whispered back as the hawk approached, tearing us apart once again.
After that night our relationship shifted, and we both decided to let it. Each year we came together with passionate kisses…loving caresses…and heartfelt declarations. Wrapped in each other's arms, we shared our college experiences and planned for the future.
We pretended we had a future.
We'd talk about getting married and having children. We'd argue about whether we should buy a house or a condo…or just rent a city apartment so we could enjoy the night life. We imagined growing old, holding our grandchildren, and loving each other forever.
It was beautiful…and it was terrible.
I didn't tell Edward that I'd weep for days after our nights together. That I couldn't eat or sleep…in fact, I could barely function. My muddled mind couldn't even pinpoint the reason for my malaise, but somehow my subconscious knew that I missed him terribly. He was an unexplainable longing…a missing piece…a dark emptiness that nothing could seem to fill.
The only person who knew of my torment was my best friend Angela, and that was only because she was my roommate and heard me sobbing in my room on the morning of my twenty-third birthday. Needing someone to confide in, I finally told her what little I could of the whole strange and wonderful tale. I was amazed when she accepted the story without the slightest indication that she thought I was insane.
"This happens every year?" she'd asked.
I nodded through my tears. "For as long as I can remember."
Squeezing my hand, she studied my swollen eyes. "And you think you're in love with him?"
"I know I am."
"But…you don't know anything about him. You don't really know… if he's even real," she pointed out.
I flopped back on the bed. "I know, Ang. You think I haven't thought about all of this?" I threw an arm over my eyes. "You think I don't know this is crazy?
"But I can't get over this feeling that…when I'm with him, it doesn't feel crazy. It feels right. Logic flies out the window, and I'm just… happy." I sighed heavily in frustration. "I can't even picture him in my mind. He's just flashes…feelings…I can't explain it.
"I just…I miss him. I need him."
Angela was silent for a long moment, and I moved my arm so I could try and gauge her reaction. She was staring in the distance, her brow furrowed.
"What are you thinking?" I asked finally.
She sighed, turning back to me. "Do you really want to know?"
"You're my closest friend, Bella…and you know I just want you to be happy, right?" she asked earnestly.
"I know you do."
"Well," she continued, looking away again, "you're talking about a relationship consisting of one night every year…an amazing night, I get that," she interjected, "but still, it's one night for every year of your life.
"You're talking about giving up the other 364 days…giving up a husband…a family…for someone you've never actually met…someone you barely remember. Are you ready to do that?"
I felt my eyes welling up with tears yet again. "I don't know."
"You can't go on like this, Bella," Ang said sympathetically. "It's tearing you apart. You have to decide if you want to live there…or here. I just don't think you can have both."
Maybe she was right. I couldn't give myself to him fully – we had both agreed that it just wasn't right given our situation – and I knew I could never commit myself to another until I broke it off with him. That wouldn't be fair to anyone involved.
My heart ached at the thought, but the fact was, we were bound in a world of dreams. And if either of us was going to have a chance at happiness in this world…the real world…we had to be willing to let that go.
So I tried. And the next time Angela offered to set me up with a nice guy from her office, I accepted. Eric was tall and slender, with dark blonde hair and green eyes that were pale enough not to remind me of him whenever I looked at them. He was sweet and funny and when he asked me out again, I said yes.
I decided to turn my morning-after journaling into a story, of sorts. It was strange, but once I started writing, the tale just flowed from my fingertips. I had no idea how much of it was actual memory and how much was imagination, but when it was done, I felt a sense of completion – like I'd done it right, somehow.
Eric was in medical school and hoped to become a pediatrician. He thought it was amazing that I wanted to be a writer and encouraged me to submit my short story to a literary magazine. I cried when it was accepted, and he thought it was because I was so happy. In reality, it was because somehow seeing it in print made my dream encounters seem even less real and more of a fantasy.
I mourned that.
Eric and I spent as much time as possible together, despite his busy schedule. I truly liked him and grew to appreciate his quiet strength and support. He was kind and insightful and seemed to see through me from the very beginning.
"Why are you so sad?" he asked after we'd been seeing each other for a few months. We were walking in the park and had stopped to feed the ducks.
"Me? I'm not sad," I replied, tossing bits of bread and smiling as if to prove him wrong.
I felt his eyes on me. "You are," he said, "but not as much as when I first met you." I glanced at him in surprise and he reached out to tuck my hair behind my ear. "I'd like to think I'm part of that."
My forced smile melded into a genuine one, and I leaned forward to kiss him lightly on the cheek.
"I think you are," I replied.
Three months later, as we sat on his back porch enjoying a glass of wine after dinner, he told me he loved me. I was gazing up at the stars, the warm breeze washing over my cheeks, and as I heard him say the words I realized that I was happy. Not the swirling ecstasy and unbridled joy of my dreams…but a quieter, peaceful contentment. Somehow, with his patient persistence Eric had found a way through the walls I had constructed around my heart and made a home for himself. I told him I loved him too.
We grew closer and began to talk about the future. Part of me was excited at the thought of building a life with Eric…but deep down, another part ached at the knowledge that it might never be truly complete.
The night before my twenty-fourth birthday he proposed…and I accepted. Joy filled his eyes, and he pressed a tender kiss to my lips as he slipped the ring on my finger.
"I'll make you happy," he promised. "I swear. I'll do everything I can to make you happy."
I nodded, tears of gratitude and regret falling down my cheeks. "I know you will."
I dreaded falling asleep that night and fought the drowsiness pulling down my eyelids. But when they finally fluttered closed and I opened them again, I was standing on a sandy beach beneath a brilliant blue sky, with waves lapping lightly at my bare feet. I looked up to see Edward walking toward me with a beautiful smile on his face.
My breath caught as I took him in, and for a moment my determination faltered. He seemed taller than I remembered, his eyes an even deeper green. Only a few buttons kept his thin white shirt buttoned over his muscular chest, the tails blowing in the breeze and offering me a glimpse of his firm stomach. He wore a loose pair of khaki pants with the cuffs rolled up as he walked through the surf, his feet bare as well. His step quickened and before I knew it, he had swept me up into his arms, whirling me around.
"I missed you," he said, burying his nose in my neck.
"I missed you, too." Edward set me down, and I reached up to brush the hair from his eyes. "You still need a haircut."
He shrugged. "I always need a haircut."
I entwined my fingers with his. "Can we walk?" He nodded and we turned to stroll down the beach. We didn't speak for a while, and eventually he released my hand, lifting his arm around my shoulders. I leaned into him, wrapping my arm around his waist and breathing in his scent.
"What is it?" he asked finally. He always knew me better than anyone.
I hesitated, not sure how to start. Edward tugged me close and planted a kiss on the top of my head. "Just tell me," he prodded gently.
I closed my eyes, sighing deeply. "I've met someone."
He was silent, and I looked up to find his eyes on the palm trees swaying in the distance. His gaze lifted to a seagull overhead and finally, he spoke. "I knew it had to happen eventually," he said, resignation in his voice.
We stopped walking and he pulled me into a gentle hug, his chin resting on my head. I could feel his heart beating against my cheek, the warmth of his body soaking into mine as it always did.
"He asked me to marry him," I told him.
"And you said yes," he stated quietly, not even needing my confirmation.
We spent the rest of our time together sitting on the beach, talking and laughing about our shared memories…touching, but not kissing…being together, but knowing we were growing apart.
All too soon, the hawk descended and chased away the seagulls hopping along the beach. We turned to each other, finally unable to stop the tears.
"Are you sure this is what you want?" he asked, running the back of his fingers along my cheek.
I nodded. "It's the only way."
He leaned forward then and planted a soft kiss on my lips…a kiss filled with yearning and regret…passion and pain…love and loss.
"I'll always love you," he murmured against my mouth, and I sobbed in agreement.
And with the hawk's final scream, the morning light filtered through my bedroom window, the sound echoing off the lonely walls.
One year later, on my twenty-fifth birthday, I stood in front of a full-length mirror and studied my reflection. My brown hair had grown darker and longer, the wild curls that tormented me as a child relaxed into loose waves. I brushed back a wayward strand and examined my eyes – slightly almond-shaped, and just a shade darker than my hair. A sprinkling of freckles dusted my nose – one that I thought a little too big, but that my mom insisted was perfect. My gaze dropped to examine my wedding gown - strapless and flowing with a beaded bodice topping an asymmetrically draped skirt that flared to a slight train. It was beautiful. Everyone said so.
But as I stood there, studying the gown I would be wearing in just three short weeks, I felt sick to my stomach.
Because no matter how wonderful Eric was…how kind and loving…how successful…and how perfect we were for each other…I didn't love him fully.
I mean, I loved him…just not in the way I loved…him.
It tore me apart.
I knew I had to settle for reality…for a life without sandy beaches and mountain lakes and snowy white hawks.
I knew that in my head.
But my heart was still lost in my dreams.
I sighed and Angela, my maid of honor, turned toward me in concern.
"Are you all right, Bella?"
Was I? I didn't know.
"I'm just tired," I replied with a small smile.
That was true. I hadn't slept at all the night before. Call it cowardice, but I couldn't face falling asleep. If I saw him again, I feared it would break my resolve. And if I didn't – if my dream was just a run-of-the-mill one about monsters or flying or showing up for an exam naked – I thought it might destroy me.
So instead, I stayed up all night drinking coffee and watching old movies.
And crying…I did a lot of crying.
Angela followed me back into the dressing room and helped me out of the gown. "Are you sure you're okay?" she pressed.
I shrugged. "Just nervous, I guess. The wedding's just a few weeks away."
She watched me doubtfully as I pulled on my jeans and t-shirt and tied my shoes. "That's not it, and you know it," she said quietly.
My eyes flashed. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Well, I think you need to," Ang said, sitting next to me on the padded bench and taking my hand. She inhaled deeply, then let the breath escape in a heavy rush. "Bella, I think I was wrong."
My brow furrowed as I looked at her. "Wrong about what?"
She sighed. "I see you moving forward…I should say trying to move forward with Eric…and it breaks my heart," she said quietly. "You can't do this, Bella. You can't marry him."
"I thought you liked Eric. You introduced us, for God's sake," I said, my voice growing louder with agitation. "You're the one who said I needed to make a choice…to move on. That I had to choose real life over fantasy."
"I know…I know," Angela agreed, "but I see you, Bella, and you're not really happy. This isn't making you happy. You don't love him…not really."
"I do love him," I argued stubbornly.
"In a way you do, I know that," she admitted. "But compared to what you had, Bella? Does this even come close?"
"It doesn't matter!" I shot to my feet, feeling the tears threatening again. "It wasn't real!"
Angela stared at me searchingly for a moment, and I collapsed back onto the bench.
"Wasn't it?" she asked softly, running a hand over my hair. "When you first told me about him, I thought it was crazy." At my wry glance she added, "Not that you were crazy, but that the situation was. I mean, how could something like that last? How could it really mean anything?
"But I think I was wrong, Bella. And I think you were, too. You loved him. You love him. It doesn't get any more real than that."
I opened my mouth to argue with her, but the words wouldn't come. She was right.
I left the bridal shop feeling resigned. I knew I had to break it off with Eric. I had always known, deep down, that we were not meant to be…that I couldn't give him what he needed or deserved. It wasn't fair to either of us, really. Ang hugged me tightly, offering to stay with me, but I knew she was on her lunch hour and had to get back to work, so I shooed her off. She promised to see me at the birthday party my mom was throwing later that evening and I forced a smile, although celebrating was pretty low on my list of priorities at that moment.
Eric had a break between classes and wanted to meet for lunch, so I made my way to a diner near his school where we often ate, anxious about the conversation we were about to have.
He knew. Before I even said the words, he knew. He took one look at my expression as I neared the table, and I saw his face fall. I told him I was sorry…that it wasn't him, it was me…all the platitudes and clichés that I swore I'd never use.
And he smiled. Ever patient and kind, Eric said he understood…that he knew I wasn't truly happy and had just hoped that it would come in time.
"I don't blame you," he said quietly as I handed him the ring. "I knew what I was getting into. I knew your heart was broken, and I just hoped I could be the one to fix it."
With tears in my eyes, I kissed his cheek. I told him I hoped one day he'd find a woman worthy of his love before I turned and left the diner.
I walked slowly down the city streets, glancing in a shop window now and then at nothing in particular, and headed toward the station to catch a train home. I bought my ticket and made my way toward the boarding platform, with every step feeling a weight lifting from my shoulders. I realized, as the train pulled out for the short ride uptown, that despite my regret and guilt about hurting Eric, I knew I'd done the right thing. Maybe someday I could have a normal life. Maybe someday I'd meet someone who could fill the hole left in my heart. But it wasn't Eric, and it wasn't today.
If I were to be completely honest, I didn't really think it could ever happen. Sure, I could have a life…a fulfilling career, good friends, a nice home. I could even adopt children one day if I wanted.
As for love?
The truth was, I gave my heart away long ago to a boy on a lakeside dock. I loved him, and he was the only one I wanted. Even if it meant I could only have him one night a year, I would take what I could get. The memories – dim and blurry as they were – would have to be enough to sustain me through the long, lonely months in between.
I would rather have a few stolen moments with him, than a lifetime with anyone else.
The train pulled into the uptown station, and I followed the crowd, lost in my thoughts. I drifted along into the historic main terminal filled with filtered light from the large stained-glass dome. Raised voices melded with the echoes of heels clicking on the tile floor and the scream of trains pulling in and out, creating a cacophony of sound that bounced off the walls and between the bustling bodies.
That's when I caught sight of him.
Maybe it was lack of sleep – or the emotional turmoil of the past twenty-four hours – but I fought back tears as I approached him. He was looking up at the schedule board, scratching his head, and I reached out with a shaking hand and touched his shoulder. I held my breath as he turned around… and released it when instead of emerald eyes, I was met by dark brown ones, crinkled with curiosity.
Once I was closer I realized I should have known it wasn't him. He wasn't quite tall enough…his hair slightly lighter…his jaw slightly softer. He was attractive, though, and smiled warmly at me.
"Hi. Can I help you with something?" he asked politely.
"Honey, who's this?" A tall, blonde woman approached and linked her arm with his, an unmistakably territorial look in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," I muttered, "I thought you were someone I knew."
"No problem," he said amiably. "Hope you find him." I felt my cheeks burn as they turned to walk away.
"So do I," I sighed. Wiping my hands over my face, I sat down on a nearby bench, letting my eyes fall to the floor and run along the pattern in the mosaic tile. I explored the swirling design unseeingly, ignoring the bodies periodically interrupting my gaze. I blinked as black met white, then back to black again…the tiny tiles beginning to merge into a familiar shape. Intrigued despite my despair, I stood so I could see it more clearly. The curves and angles suddenly snapped into focus and I gasped, my hand flying to my mouth when I recognized the image below my feet.
A white hawk, it's wings spread in flight.
A wave of dizziness swept over me, and I realized I wasn't breathing. Inhaling deeply, I tried to absorb what I was seeing. Was it mere coincidence? Or could it be some kind of sign? How had I never noticed it before?
As I contemplated this, at first I didn't notice a pair of worn black boots approaching slowly. When they came to a stop just a few feet in front of me, blocking my view of the hawk's face, I looked up in irritation.
For a moment, the world stopped. The bustling crowds faded away into the background, and I heard nothing but the raspy in and out of my sharp breaths. I couldn't even comprehend what I was seeing for a moment, or rather, whom I was seeing.
He stared at me, a small smile on his lips, his emerald eyes twinkling. His wild hair hung over his forehead, and he flicked it back impatiently, the motion triggering a flash of memory. He was unshaven, his shirt rumpled and un-tucked, the sleeves rolled up over his tanned forearms. He carried a black backpack over his shoulder and as I took him in, he dropped it to the floor.
I reached out without realizing it to touch my fingers to his scruffy cheek, half expecting him to disappear before I made contact.
I stroked his face, and his eyes closed briefly as a look of sheer pleasure overtook his features. He reached up to press my hand against his cheek and gazed at me lovingly.
"Hi," he said, the voice familiar…comforting, somehow.
"It's…you…isn't it?" I murmured. "Is this real? Did I fall asleep?"
He laughed. "No. I'm really here."
"But how?" I shook my head, dazed. "How did you get here? How did you find me?"
He released my hand and reached for his backpack, opening it and pulling something out. "I saw this," he said, holding it out to me. It was a copy of the magazine that published my story…our story.
"I had to read it three times before I really understood that it was you…that this was us," he explained. "It was so strange, but it was like things started coming back to me the more I read. I just kept…remembering more and more…" His voice drifted off as he seemed lost in thought for a moment, then he shook his head to clear it.
"The bio didn't tell me much, just that you lived in the city," he said. "I hopped on the first plane out and was on my way to the magazine's offices to see what I could learn. I had no idea if I could find you, but I knew I had to try.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw the hawk." His eyes dropped to the mosaic tile and mine followed, exploring the portrait of the mysterious bird that for so many years has separated us, but now had somehow brought us together.
"And then I saw you." He dropped the magazine on top of his backpack and stepped toward me, reaching out to touch my face.
"You look tired," he said softly.
"I haven't slept," I told him.
He chuckled. "I know. It was awfully lonely there without you."
My phone rang and I jumped, sparking a nervous laugh from both of us. "Sorry," I muttered, looking at the display. "It's my mom," I told him. "If I don't answer, she'll just keep calling."
He nodded, and I took the call.
"Bella? It's Mom."
I rolled my eyes and he laughed. "I know, Mom. What's up?"
"I just wanted to make sure you were going to be on time tonight," she said. "Our reservation's at seven…don't be late, okay?"
"Mom, I'm never late," I said grumpily. "I'll be there. I promise."
Mollified, she said goodbye and I hung up. "It's my birthday," I explained. "She wanted to make sure I'm on time for the party."
He blinked in surprise. "Today's your birthday?" he asked. "It's mine, too!"
We stared at each other in shock for a moment before we broke out in laughter. "Of course it is." I chuckled, a barrage of feelings shooting through me: disbelief and wonder…surprise and awe…relief and joy…and above and around it all, a deep and steadfast love.
I grinned at him, still amazed that he was really standing before me. "You could…uh…come tonight…if you want," I offered shyly.
He smiled widely. "I'd love to." His smile fell slightly as his face grew somber. "I thought I might be…I worried I'd be too late," he said.
My thoughts flew to Eric. "No. You're not too late," I assured him. "I'd already decided I couldn't go through with it."
"How could I marry him when I was in love with someone else?" I asked simply.
Before the last word left my mouth, I was in his arms, surrounded by his smell and enveloped by his presence. He kissed me deeply…passionately, and took my breath away. My skin burst into flames as I trailed my hands up his broad chest and around his neck, tangling my fingers in his hair, and I felt him moan against my mouth. Drawing him closer, I pressed against him, feeling every inch of his muscular frame fitting against me perfectly. He lifted me slightly until my toes barely brushed the floor, and I felt like I was floating… flying… drifting far above the waking world and reaching out to drag our dream world back with me.
And with that, it all came flooding back…every moment…every conversation…every kiss…every touch. In a flash of color and light, my dreams became reality.
My mind finally formed the name, and it echoed around me like a prayer.
We pulled apart slowly, our lips lingering for a moment before we both inhaled shakily. We looked into each other's eyes in awe and wonder.
"Wow," I said, and he laughed in response.
"It's even better," Edward replied, his voice soft…almost reverent. "I didn't think it was possible, but it's even better than before."
I smiled in agreement. "I can't believe it…"
"I thought I was crazy…" Suddenly, we couldn't stop talking, our fingers tracing each other's features as our nearly giddy words poured out.
"…all in my head…"
"…missed you so much…"
"…couldn't remember anything…"
"Bella," he breathed, "You're Bella."
My heart soared at the sound of my name on his lips. He leaned in to kiss me again softly, his eyes locked on mine.
"Why do you think it happened?" I asked finally. "It's so…crazy. I mean, I'm living it and I can't even believe it."
He paused, lost in thought, and reached up to tuck a piece of stray hair behind my ear before stroking my cheek gently. "The minute I heard my first love story I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was," he murmured as he looked into my eyes. "Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along."
"I can't take credit for it," he admitted, leaning toward me unconsciously. "It's Rumi…a thirteenth century Persian poet."
"Really?" I whispered, feeling his breath on my mouth. "I didn't know you were so cultured."
I licked my lips and his eyes flickered, registering the movement. "I might have felt led to do some research on love…and dreams…and fate…and soul mates."
"Is that what we are?" I asked breathlessly, my skin heating as his fingers trailed lightly up my arms. "Soul mates?"
Edward's hands stroked over my shoulders, the pressure barely noticeable, but the heat unmistakable. His fingers slid into my hair, cupping my face as his thumbs traced a light pattern on my cheekbones. His eyes followed the movement of his hands, and when they finally met mine again, I was stunned at the intensity I saw there.
"I don't know what you call it," he admitted. "I don't care, to be honest." He tilted my head back slightly to brush his lips once against mine. "I just know that, now that I've found you, I'm never letting you go again."
I gripped at his hands as he kissed me again, feeling for the first time his years of longing and frustration that matched my own. He pulled me toward him, lifting me up on my toes as he deepened the kiss, making me dizzy and lightheaded. My knees buckled, and he quickly wrapped his arms around my waist to keep me upright, smiling against my lips.
"You okay?" he asked without pulling away.
"Fine," I squeaked.
Tilting his head back with a loud laugh, Edward picked me up and spun me around like in some old romantic movie. I just squealed, clinging to his shoulders in desperation until he finally set me back down on my feet. I swayed a bit, so he held my hips gently until I regained my footing, then planted another firm kiss on my lips before bending to pick up his backpack.
"We should go," he said, his green eyes sparkling. "I really need a shower before your party."
I nodded as he took my hand in his. "You could use a shave too," I teased, leaning in toward him and brushing my nose against his chest. How did I ever think I could live without him? I inhaled the unique scent I remembered from my dreams and exhaled on a sigh. "I'm so glad you're here."
"Me too." He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed the back of it tenderly, love and promise shining from his eyes.
A loud screech filled the air and we froze, staring at each other in shock.
"No," I whispered.
We turned together as the sound repeated, resounding through the station with a grating echo. Our eyes searched the voluminous room for the familiar bird, darting from ceiling to floor…peering between the bodies and waiting for the hawk to descend unceremoniously and send us back to our separate worlds. Edward's hand tightened almost painfully on mine, his grip one of reassurance…of defiance…
A vow that no matter what happened, this was not the end.
A loud grunt rattled through the air, followed by another screech, and this time we were able to identify the source. A security guard wrestled with an iron gate on the other side of the station, the rusty metal protesting his efforts with a grinding shriek. I felt Edward relax slightly next to me and released a heavy breath.
"I hate that stupid bird," I muttered.
Edward laughed, leaning over to press his lips to my temple. "I'm not going anywhere," he promised.
And in that moment, I knew he was right. The feel of him next to me was solid and true. He was no dream…not a figment of my imagination or a distant fantasy.
He was proof.
Proof that this was real. That we were real…we were always real.
I smiled at him. "I'm going to hold you to that."
He adjusted his backpack with a grin. "Come on, let's go," he said, tugging on my hand. "Oh…and happy birthday, Bella." He winked at me, and my stomach flipped in response.
"Happy birthday, Edward," I replied, stretching up to kiss him softly before we turned to walk out into the bright sunshine.
I thought for a moment I heard the flutter of wings as a shadow passed over us…but when I looked up, I saw only Edward and the clear, blue sky.