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Chapter 1: sprint across the wire
In the corner of her eye, she sees the drapes stir.
A broken dam, hope rises in her throat, but she doesn’t turn to look; she doesn’t lift her eyes from the book in her lap. If she looks, he’ll disappear. If she glances, he’ll vanish. She’s been losing him little by little and doesn’t know how much more she can take. Like wet sand in the retreating tide, he’s pulling away from her, in a slow rush.
Her fingers curl round the edge of the book as she closes her eyes, listening. If she doesn’t breathe, doesn’t move, doesn’t think, maybe she can hear him. But there is no creak of the floorboards or a gentle scuff of his socks along the hardwood as he approaches. She can’t hear him breathing or feel his breath on her forehead as he presses a kiss there. His lips don’t caress her brow and he doesn’t whisper her name against her flesh.
A shuddering gasp leaves her and she writhes on the sofa, body twisting in protest of the distinct absence of him. Her feet push against the arm and she struggles to hold back a sob. The corner of the book digs into her hip, a welcome pain. Her eyes screw up and she turns, pressing her mouth into a pillow.
The cushion cradles her like a concerned mother, gently and warmly, and eventually she drifts off to sleep, the slow and easy stretch of his smile a flickering candle in her memory.
“Dance with me,” he said suddenly, pushing away from the table where they both sat, hunched over their books.
“There’s no music, Benjy,” she replied, with a roll of her eyes. “Besides, we have to study for our qualifying exam tomorrow.”
“Blah blah blah, I’m sick of hearing about that bloody exam!” He braced his hands on either side of the table, leaning toward her. Their eyes struck like flint, igniting sparks in her stomach. She leaned away, raising a brow. “Come on, Em, ditch the books and dance with me.”
“Oh, come on! Live a little, will you? If it helps, I’m an excellent dancer.” He wiggled his hips then, smiling wryly.
Sighing, she marked her place in her book and closed it. “Fine,” she grumbled as she got to her feet. “Just one dance.”
“Just one,” he agreed, grinning hugely.
Her irritation subsided as he took her by the waist, splaying his fingers as though he was mapping out every inch of her. Even through her jumper, she felt his warmth. Something stirred in her stomach as she joined her hand with his, curling her fingers round his palm.
Their feet were but a muffled whisper on the carpet as they danced, moving closer to one another with each shuffling step until, finally, her chin was resting on his shoulder, her head tilted so that her nose barely grazed the side of his throat. Each time she breathed, she breathed in him – firewood and dust and cinnamon.
She tightened her grip on his hand and, encouraged, he linked their fingers, bringing their hands to his chest. His heart beat a steady tattoo against her knuckles. Her stomach dropped and she pressed her nose into his neck, grinning against his skin.
Eventually they stopped moving all together and just stood, wrapped around one another, immersed in each other’s warmth, long after the music stopped playing.
Halfway through her mouthful of Lo Mein, Emmeline drops her fork on the kitchen floor and sobs.
“You’ve got something on your chin.”
Leaning across the table, he took her chin between his fingers. Instead of wiping her mouth with a napkin, he stole a kiss, the tip of his tongue sweeping along the splotch of spaghetti sauce staining her lips.
She laughed, touching her thumb to the side of her mouth. Her finger came away clean. “Better?”
“Not quite,” he replied, eyes sparkling mischievously. He braced his weight on his hands and leaned forward, grinning hugely. “I think I missed a spot.”
When the bell rings, Emmeline can’t bring herself to get up off the floor and answer the door. So Marlene lets herself in with a set of keys she had made ages ago, dropping them onto the side table. The jaunty jangle unnerves Emmeline, setting her teeth on edge and reminding her of the late nights and heated arguments.
She closes her eyes, her mouth falling open slightly as she draws in a shaky breath. As much as she wants to imagine that it’s him coming home to her after a long day, she knows it’s not and that’s what stings the most.
“Em? You home – oh, there you are,” Marlene says, spotting her friend.
Emmeline’s leaning against the back of the sofa, legs splayed out before her, arms limp at her sides, fingers curled round the edges of a photograph. Marlene thinks she resembles a marionette with all of the strings cut; there was no life in her, just an eerie blankness as she stares at the wall across from her.
When Marlene comes round the sofa she sees the photographs littering the floor and immediately understands.
“How long have you been sitting there?”
Emmeline shrugs, tilting her head to peer up at her best friend through her greasy fringe. “I don’t know,” she tries to say, but the words fall brokenly from her cracked lips. Tears begin to well in her eyes.
“I’ll make some tea then.”
“I don’t want any.”
“Are you sure?” Marlene frowns, concerned. “You look like you could use some.”
“I don’t want any,” Emmeline repeats hollowly, dragging her tongue over her bottom lip and turning away from her friend. She hides her tears, sniffling.
“Okay,” is all Marlene says as she retreats into the kitchen.
Emmeline doesn’t drink tea anymore - can’t drink tea anymore.
It’s too warm, too comforting, and she doesn’t want either of those things because he can’t have them. And she doesn’t want what he can’t have, which is everything.
The line of his body was firm against hers as he drew up alongside her, dropping his head to nuzzle her neck. He mumbled her name into her skin in between feather light kisses.
“You are the worst kind of distraction,” she sighed, loosening her grip on her quill.
He chuckled, the resulting vibrations pleasant. “I think you meant welcomed,” he murmured against her throat, tilting his head. The scrap of his scruff against her skin was jarring, the bridge of his nose soft as it slipped along the column of her throat.
Abandoning all pretenses, Emmeline abandoned her work, casting aside the file and turning into his embrace. Her fingers slipped into the thick of his hair, which tickled her chin as he shifted, bringing his face level with hers.
Ice blue though his eyes might have been, they melted her as he looked at her like she was the only thing that mattered to him. She didn’t need to hear the words to know they were true but when he spoke them, she found herself short of breath.
“I love you,” he said, lifting a hand and following the subtle arch of her eyebrow with his fingertip. A small smile touched the corner of his mouth as he watched her face, gently twisting a lock of her blonde hair round his finger before pushing it out of the way.
The words burned through her skin and right into her heart. Her toes curled, her heart quickened, and her lips found his forehead through his fringe.
“I love you, too.”
Autumn passes in the sharp crunch of the leaves beneath her feet and a bitter chill on the wind. She tightens the scarf about her neck as the heels of her boots click on the pavement. The streetlights blot out the stars and cast long shadows on the sidewalk. She follows the length of her own, round the uneven edges, fearing its darkness.
As she rounds the corner, there’s a blur of white and a shout. Her eyes scrunch up and she braces for an impact that doesn’t come. When she exhales, a misty cloud follows, swirling in front of her before the wind carries it away.
The stranger apologizes, the apples of his cheeks flushed from the cold.
“It’s okay,” she murmurs, ducking her head against the wind.
They stand facing each other, two bodies equidistance apart. For a moment she thinks he might engage her further and tell her that she wasn’t the only lonely soul in the big wide cruel world, but then he gives her a fleeting look and vanishes from whence she came.
She doesn’t understand why she feels so disappointed.
“Ouch!” he hissed, jerking away from her rather violently. His eyes blazed with annoyance. “That hurts!”
Redoubling her grip on his chin, Emmeline paused in her dabbing of the cut just above his left eyebrow to glare at him. “Well, maybe it wouldn’t hurt if you stopped moving so damn much. Honestly, I’ve gotten dittany all over my shirt because of you.”
Benjy scoffed. “Or maybe you’re just as shoddy at healing as you are at cooking,” he muttered darkly, a cold fire burning in his eyes.
Gasping, Emmeline abandoned all pretenses of gentleness and pressed down upon the wound, ignoring his protests as the dittany sizzled against his skin. It burned her fingers too but she disregarded it.
“It’s nothing more than you deserve, you prat,” she spat, tossing aside the strip of gauze in favor of her wand. Her nails dug into his chin as she held his face still, the tip of her wand pointing at the cut. “Now stop moving so I can fix this. Unless, of course, you want another scar.”
“Of course I don’t.”
Slowly, with an extraordinary amount of caution, she ran her wand over the edge of the wound. “I thought you said they were cool?” she questioned, raising a brow.
He mumbled something under his breath that had Emmeline straining her ears to hear.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
Expelling a deep breath, Benjy met her gaze and, with a stony look on his face, he admitted, “I only said that because you said the ones I have made me look rugged.”
A brilliant flush broke out on his cheeks and spread like wildfire across his body.
Emmeline bit down on her lip, barely able to retain her grin. She wanted to be irritated with him, but it was extraordinarily hard when he said (adorably) stupid things like that. He stared at her, eyes swimming with embarrassment, waiting for her response.
Finally, she dropped the act and cupped his face with her hands, leaning close enough to brush the tip of her nose against his. He sighed, his breath impossibly warm against her lips.
“Does this mean I’m forgiven?”
“I suppose so,” she replied, still grinning. “Prat.”
For the third time this week, she’s fallen asleep on the sofa, still in her work robes. Stiffly, she gets to her feet, mouth stretching wide as she yawns. Her socks scratch against the floor as she blows out the candles that haven’t already gone out. Darkness settles upon the living room and for a moment, she contemplates returning to her spot on the sofa, which has become something of a haven for her on the nights when the bed seems too big for just one.
Her rational side tells her that she needs to get over it, that she needs to move on, but like all things it’s easier said than done. Still, she shuffles down the hall, fingertips trailing along the wall, and enters the bedroom.
Moonlight streams in through the window, throwing shadows across the unmade bed. For a moment she tricks herself into thinking that he’s there beneath the covers, all curled up in a ball, waiting for her to wrap herself around him, her fingers splayed across his stomach as she nuzzled his neck with the tip of her nose.
But when Emmeline settles into the bed, it’s so cold she shivers, despite the heap of blankets piled on top of her. Beneath the sheets, she reaches for him, fingers flexed and waiting, but she doesn’t feel him tonight.
She hasn’t felt him in a long time.
“So,” he said uncertainly in the midst of her silence. The small velvet box shook in his hand as he stared up at her reproachfully through his fringe. “Will you?”
Lost for words, Emmeline licked her lips and blinked. When he had insisted they go out for dinner rather than staying in like they normally did, she suspected something. However, she hadn’t expected this.
“Benjy…” she began, cutting herself off as the knot of guilt lodged itself in her throat.
“You don’t have to answer me now, Em,” Benjy replied as he shifted from one knee to both, scooting closer to her. He grasped the hands that sat in her lap, caressing her knuckles with the pad of his thumb. “I know this is sudden and all, but –"
“It’s not that,” insisted Emmeline, focused on the pattern his fingers traced into her skin. “I just – I can’t, Benjy.”
She shrugged, but he shook his head, frowning. “No, Em, don’t do that. You can tell me the truth; I think you owe me that.”
He was right and they both knew it. Emmeline hung her head, letting her eyes fall shut as she said, her voice cracking, “We’d be tempting fate.”
“What do you mean by that? You think –“ he paused, chuckling hoarsely. He rubbed his jaw disbelievingly. “You think that by accepting my proposal, the threat of death will suddenly increase tenfold for us?”
It was Emmeline’s turn to frown. She didn’t like the dismissive way he spoke of death; she had never liked it. He wasn’t invincible and yet no matter how many times she told him such, he refused to believe her. It kept her up at night, her worry gnawing away at the back of her mind as she stared up at the crack in their ceiling, wondering if it would always be like this. He was reckless and loving and sweet, and the thought of him dying –
She pressed her lips into a thin line to hold back the bile searing the back of her tongue.
“I don’t want to take the risk,” Emmeline admitted, lifting her head and meeting his gaze.
He didn’t sneer at her or pull his hands away from hers or even frown at her proclamation, but she would have preferred any or all of those reactions to the intense hurt that flashed in his crystalline depths.
“You never do.”
“What do you want to do with this?”
It’s a simple enough question and one she’s heard many times that day. After all, she’s moving out of her flat and back home with her parents; the rent is way too high, it’s too big for just one person and her meager earnings as a secretary can’t cover it.
She turns, expecting to see some stupid piece of junk that she’d forgotten about after years of living in the same place, but her mouth goes dry and she can feel the blood leaving her face as it rushes towards her toes at the sight of it.
To anyone else, it’s just a shoe, the black leather cracked and unpolished for disuse.
To Emmeline, it’s the shoe she hurled at his head after one of their particularly vicious fights over everything and nothing all at once. It’s the shoe they spent hours upon hours combing through the cupboard to try and find before giving up completely and collapsing onto their bed, legs entangled and noses just barely touching. It’s the shoe that she bought him to wear over to her parents’ house their first Christmas together because she insisted he couldn’t go wearing those wretched trainers of his.
It’s a memory of a memory of a memory and though it burns, when she says the words, it doesn’t hurt.
Propping her head up with her elbow, Emmeline watched as he slept, her eyes studying his face hungrily. It was rare that he looked so relax, so vulnerable.
Awake, he was all hard angles and steely eyes, but when he slept he resembled the boy she’d fallen in love with at school, the one who pulled her outside and across the grounds just so they could watch the stars by the lakeside, hands clasped as he pointed out all of the constellations she already knew. He was the boy with the sweet smile and obnoxiously long fringe that he always shook out of his eyes; he was the boy who could break her with a single word and heal her with a kiss.
Asleep, he was a dreamer of far flung hope and improbable dreams, his whispers feverish as they caressed her ear and warmed her heart. He wasn’t the reckless man who threw himself so eagerly into every battle, she was almost certain he had a death wish; he wasn’t out to prove that he, too, belonged in this world, just as much as those of pure blood did. He was just Benjy - her Benjy, the boy with a quick laugh, an easy smile, and way of making her forget every reservation she’d ever had and just be.
He was the love of her life, the life of her love, and she couldn’t imagine her life without him.
“Hey,” he whispered sleepily, stretching beneath the blankets.
“Hi,” she whispered back, smiling softly as she pushed his fringe away from his forehead.
As she tip-toed her fingers across his brow, Benjy hummed, content. She traced the length of his eyebrow, admired the slope of his nose with her fingertips, touched the swell of his lips and pondered the gentle cleft in his chin. The scruff along his jaw tickled the palm of her hand as she cupped his cheek.
“Why me?” she asked suddenly, staring down at him curiously.
“Why me?” she repeated, searching his face.
Her hand slipped away from his face as Benjy sat up. His brow furrowed as he regarded her, equally curious. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, out of all the people in the world,” Emmeline said, biting her lip. “Why did you pick me?”
A gentle laugh fell from his full lips before he could stop it. “Because I love you. Why else?”
Emmeline’s expression hardened as she stared at him. “I’m being serious!”
“So was I,” Benjy replied, scooting closer to her. Their knees touched beneath the blankets, the tips of his very cold toes grazing her shin. “I love you, Emmeline, because you are the strongest, bravest, gentlest, and most pure-hearted woman I have ever met. You have an infectious laugh and an unyielding temper that only makes me love you more, even when I want to throttle you.” He brushed her hair away from her face, the palm of his hand curving round her cheek. “I love your knobby knees and your frizzy hair. I even love that odd freckle on your bum.”
“It’s not odd,” she protested weakly, poking him in the side.
“No, it’s not,” he responded softly as he trailed his thumb along the edge of her cheekbone. Emmeline leaned into his touch, relishing the heat of his fingers. “Sometimes, I think,” he continued, “you are so busy being you that you have no idea how unprecedented you are.”
The ground is cold beneath her feet, the chill radiating through the soles of her boots; the sky is a miserable grey, and her heart is leaden as she stares at the words engraved upon the stone. She tries not to dwell on the empty grave beneath her feet.
A brave soul come home.
For years the words have mocked her, laying claim to the one thing she had ever been able to offer him. She had been his home just as he had been hers. She’d been his comfort, his familiarity, the place where he could always return, a place he was loved. She’d been the steel in his backbone, the fire in his heart, and the searing kiss upon his lips. She’d been his entire world and he had been hers.
When he left, he took his with him, and hers shattered, and when she tried to collect the pieces, the jagged shards cut deeply, drawing blood.
The words blur as tears burn her eyes, but she pushes them back, feeling numb, but no longer broken.
A/N: First off, giving credit where credit is due! The title comes from the magnificently beautiful cover by Greg Laswell. Secondly, the quote used in the summary as well as in the body of the story is property of the absolutely brilliant John Green and comes from the novel 'The Fault in Our Stars'. Lastly, thank you for reading and reviewing this. I appreciate it very much!