Something Better

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Chapter 13

Time flits past, too quickly, when you're having the time of your life. Before I could wrap my mind around how much things had changed since I had first set foot in Edinburgh, all too soon, July rolled around. And it was almost time to leave. The semester had long ended, but some students had stayed on longer, unwilling to leave. I was one of them. But even I knew I couldn't stay forever.

Tatiana had already returned home to Finland. Kjell and David had left Edinburgh to tour the rest of Scotland. They had invited me and Aksel to join them, but I'd already postponed my return flight to Hamburg too many times. Aksel hadn't bought his ticket home yet, so I had thought he would go, but he'd, for some reason, opted to stay in Edinburgh. For that, I was secretly grateful. I would have a little bit more time with him.

More and more, I found myself having to remind myself that it was just a fling. And flings always had to end.

"It'd be great to live here, wouldn't it?" I mused, somewhat longingly. As my departure date neared, we often found ourselves lying in bed together in companionable silence, bodies entwined, neither of us speaking much. Tonight was one of those nights.

Aksel was quiet for a while. "Yeah," he finally said. His head was turned away from me. "I'd love to move here for good, but…"

I didn't say anything. I understood that lingering 'but' all too well.

"There are a lot of things I complain about," he went on, "but Finland... is my home."

I felt like he was talking about something other than a simple sense of belonging.

"Germany is my home," I said, just as quietly. No matter that I sometimes felt I didn't belong – it was still home. As much as I loved Edinburgh, I didn't know if I could leave Germany – leave all that I had known forever. I thought about not seeing my friends and family as frequently anymore, not walking down the same streets I had grown up on, not taking it for granted that I knew which train, which bus, to take to a certain place off the top of my head – or that the road signs were in a language I already instinctively understood... and it caused a spasm in the region of my chest.

When it came to leaving your home, there was always that soft whisper pulling you back: 'but'.

After a pause, he said, "I have plans, for after graduation. Move to Helsinki, get a job in investment banking..."

"So do I," I murmured. I had an internship lined up for next summer, one at a well-known engineering firm in Hamburg. If I did well, there was a chance of landing a job with them right out of uni.

"So you know what I mean," he said, avoiding looking at me.

"Yeah," I whispered, even though my heart was throbbing with a sickly pain.

"Cross-cultural – cross-national – relationships take a lot of work," he murmured then. I knew, then, that this was what he had been building up to all along. To be honest, this had been what I'd been thinking about during all those pensive silences, too.

"I know," I said, thinking of my own parents. My mother had left her home and faced the daunting difficulty of assimilating into a foreign country to be with my father. And I suddenly realised how grossly unfair that had been. What had my father given up to be with her?

I inhaled deeply. "Everything has to end, doesn't it?" My voice was small.

He looked me in the eye and I saw that he wasn't half as unaffected as he seemed. I saw that he, too, was wavering. But he didn't voice the whirl of thoughts being reflected in his face.

"It hasn't ended yet," he said instead.

He leaned down to kiss me, his eyes glittering with the words he had left unspoken. Or maybe that, too, was just an illusion I wanted to see.

The next few days passed in such a blur; I had no time to dwell on the heartbreak leaving would inadvertently deal me. There was plenty to do before my flight back home – phone contracts to cancel, bank accounts to close... I had never known erasing all traces of one's residency in a country could be so hard yet so simple. By the time I walked out of the bank with three hundred pounds – all the money I had withdrawn to close the account – on Wednesday, the day before my flight, I had officially cut all the ties between myself and Edinburgh. After I left the next day, it would be like I had never even been here.

When I got back to the dorms, my feet automatically brought me to the third storey, to Aksel's door. It seemed, recently, I was there even more often that I went back to my own room.

He sat up when I entered the room. "You're back," he said, holding out a hand. I headed across the floor to climb into his arms. He had been waiting for me.

I settled into his lap, leaning back against his chest. He felt comfortable, like a chair you had gotten used to and couldn't quite bear to leave behind. I felt the rise and fall of his chest against my back as he breathed. He leaned his head forward and I felt his hot breath ghost my ear. He stayed there, silent, for a minute, before his chest rumbled as he spoke.

"What time is your flight tomorrow?"

"Ten-thirty," I whispered. It was the loudest I could speak right then, without betraying the threat of tears. "In the morning."

"Ten-thirty," he repeated. His chin had dropped to rest on my shoulder, and he sounded almost as depressed as I felt right then.

I sucked both of my lips into my mouth and bit down hard, to stop myself from breaking down into floods of tears.

Without a word, Aksel gently turned me around, so that we were face-to-face. He paused, looking down at me with pensive eyes, before he wrapped his arms around me once more. I hugged him back hard, leaning my head against his chest and listening to the steady thump-thump-thump of his heart.

I felt him press a shaky kiss to the top of my head, and that was when the tears finally leaked out.

I stayed in his arms for a long time that night.

The next morning, Aksel came down to my room with me. I had already packed in advance the day before, so my suitcases were already sitting near the door, ready to go.

I didn't feel half as ready.

But it was time to go.

Steeling myself, I went to lug my luggage out of the room.

At the door, Aksel took one of my suitcases from me. I let him lead the way to the office, not wanting him to see the tears that were already dotting my eyelids.

Returning the keys barely took five minutes. Once out on the street, I turned to look at Aksel. My heart felt like it was being dipped in acid.

"I guess this is it," I croaked.

"Not yet," he said quietly. "I'm going to the airport with you."

I blinked. Besides, the airport was a half-hour journey from Edinburgh itself. He would have to take the bus there, and then back again. "But... You'll have to pay for a return bus ticket..." The airport was a half-hour journey from Edinburgh itself. Besides, since he wasn't leaving, he would have to take the bus there, and then back again.


I didn't argue further. There was a part of me that, I could admit, wanted Aksel with me for as long a time as I had left in Edinburgh.

The walk down to Waverly Bridge was heavy with tension. We didn't speak, not even when we had boarded the bus that would take us to the airport. I sat stiffly in my seat, fists in my lap, staring unseeingly out the window.

When the bus was filled, the engine roared to life and we started moving.

After a while, I felt Aksel's arm snake around my shoulders and pull me towards him. I shifted just enough to lay my head on his shoulder. My right hand moved on its own accord to wrap around his waist.

Still, neither of us said a word. The words of farewell could come later. For now, this last moment of reprieve was almost... enjoyable.

At the airport, I went to check in while Aksel hovered near the counter, watching. When that was done, he took my hand wordlessly, and we walked, hand-in-hand, through the departure hall. As the glass doors leading into the security check area came into view, he slowed then stopped, his footsteps trailing off on the smooth floor. I came to a halt next to him. We stood there for a moment, hands still joined, staring into the room beyond. Then Aksel dropped my hand.

It was time.

I turned to face him. I opened my mouth, but my mind was a complete blank. Now that it was time to say goodbye, I found myself tongue-tied. Where to even begin?

"I guess this is it," he said quietly. He cast his eyes down briefly, before his gaze flickered back up to meet mine. "Time to go."

"Yeah," I whispered. My eyes felt so full that I wondered if he could see my heart reflected in them.

There was another beat of silence, in which we both struggled to find the words. I looked at his wan, drawn expression and knew I had an answering one on mine.

"Take care," he said finally.

"You too." My heart throbbed. Was this it? Was this what the past six months had boiled down too? A stilted goodbye at the end of it all?

No. No.

Without warning, or much prior thought, I threw myself into his arms. He caught me, stumbling a little from the momentum of being hit in the chest by something human-sized. His arms locked around me, pulling me up against his chest as he balanced the both of us. We stayed locked in a fierce embrace for a long moment.

Then he leaned back, so that he could look into my face.

"Maybe..." From his expression, I knew what he was going to say before he said it.

I shook my head, taking a step back – pulling away before he could make me rip up my plane ticket to ride off into the sunset with him. This wasn't Disney. This was real life, where people had to go home.

"Don't say it." My voice was pitched high and reed-thin. "Not now." At the moment of farewell, people could say all sorts of things they didn't mean.

He seemed to read my mind. "I'm not just saying it because I'm caught up in the moment," he said quietly, but I shook my head.

"Don't," I whispered. He was being caught up in the moment. Hadn't we already had that conversation? He'd said Finland was his home. He'd said he had plans after graduation, plans that had been made long before the knowledge of my existence. And, like him, I had my home. I had my plans. Plans that didn't include him...

Flings didn't have any place in reality... Did they?

"This isn't real," I said, looking into his light, light eyes. Eyes I had been drawn to from the start, even though I didn't know why. There were beer goggles – had anyone said anything about exchange goggles?

A spark of anger had crept into his eyes. "Does this feel real?" he asked, and then he bent down and pressed his lips, hard, onto mine.

I couldn't help it; I kissed him back.

"Doesn't this feel real enough?" he asked, when we separated. His hands remained around my waist, his thumb rubbing circles over my hip.

"People have holiday flings," I said, still trying to catch my breath, "as an escape from real life. It feels real now, but..."

It was just a fling; just about sex – wasn't it? Maybe saying goodbye to a fling always felt this way. But a memory nagged at the corner of my mind – it hadn't been this way with Kjell and Tatiana. She'd been the first of our group to leave, and, when we'd seen her off, she had simply given Kjell a light kiss, patted him on the chest, and gone on her way. She had cried more about parting from me.

I shook my head to clear that thought. Finland was geographically closer to Sweden. Maybe that was why she hadn't seemed to broken up about leaving Kjell.

"I read an article yesterday," I whispered.

He didn't say anything, just waited for me to go on.

"'How To Say Goodbye To Your Summer Fling'. It said you shouldn't say goodbye before you have to, but when you do, you have to be firm. No wavering. When it's time to go, it ends."

A faint smile stretched his lips, but he was looking at me like he didn't know whether to laugh or to throttle me. "You read the most ridiculous things."

"But it makes sense, doesn't it?" I murmured. "Be firm. Why drag out something that can never be?"

He was silent. I took that to mean agreement.

I reached up and cupped the sides of his face. He had just shaved this morning, but not very effectively. I could still feel the beginnings of a hint of stubble pressing into my palms. I stroked his face lightly. "Bye," I whispered, my heart in my throat, my throat thick with tears. "Goodbye." Mach's gut.

He bent down and leaned his forehead against mine, whispering something in Finnish. Saying goodbye in his own language.

I pulled back to give him a watery smile. "Moi moi," I whispered, the phrase bringing me back to that night in his bed, when we had laughed and talked and kissed. Judging from the look of startled remembrance, followed by muted nostalgia, that flitted over his face, he remembered it too.

"Moi moi," he whispered back, leaning in to kiss me, the way he had that night. Our tongues tangled briefly before I yielded, feeling something fill up in the region of my chest as his tongue gently stroked mine. A lover's goodbye.

I pressed myself harder against him, feeling a shudder go through him as an answering fire burned in me. His lips on mine moved like he was branding me, marking me as his, forever.

Would this ever go away? I wondered in despair. And what would I do if it didn't?

I tore myself away from him, feeling the cool air rush between us almost instantly. "I've got to go," I said. And never in my life had I ever wanted to do anything less.

"Postpone your flight," he said, sounding, for the first time since I'd met him, desperate. His fingers were gripping mine bruisingly, as if he wanted nothing more than to hold me back from leaving. "To tomorrow... Or, next week... Next month. Stay till October."

"I can't." I tried to tug my hand away, but he was holding on too tightly. "Aksel," I choked out, barely able to see for the tears swimming in my vision. I tried my hardest to blink them back. I wanted to see – needed to see – his face. I needed to see, so that I could remember every contour of it. "Aksel... I need to go."

His fingers tightened, then fell away from my hands, one by one. His ice-blue eyes hardened, like he was steeling himself for a blow. He took a deep breath. "Go," he murmured, and stepped away.

I slowly bent to pick up my hand luggage, feeling like I had aged several decades within the hour.

"Bye," I whispered. Then I forced myself to turn and walk away.

I got as far as the glass door. This wretched, drawn-out farewell was almost done. All I had to do was move forward and step through the doors that would take me through to customs.

My mistake was in turning back to look at him one last time. Or, no – perhaps my biggest mistake had been getting involved with him to begin with, even knowing there was a deadline. Even knowing things had to stay casual. He had once said I was dangerous. He had been wrong. He was the dangerous one. He had drawn me in, like a moth to a lamp.

But moths burnt to death when they touched the flame.

He was still standing where I'd left him, alone in the crowd, eyes closed, head lowered. His hands were fisted by his sides, as if he was physically restraining himself from an emotional outburst.

My heart cracked open.

Dropping the suitcase, I turned on my heel and ran back towards him. The sudden rush of footsteps must have alerted him that something was coming his way, because he looked up, fixing reddened blue eyes on me. Behind me, I heard my suitcase fell with a clatter onto the hard, polished floor. I paid it no mind. In the next moment, I was wrapped up in Aksel's arms, my own arms wound around his neck like a clinging vine, kissing him with everything inside me.

"Aksel..." I looked up at him and saw that he was regarding me with those knowing, bright blue eyes. I opened my mouth, ready to throw all previously thought-out logic into the wind. Why did it have to end? Some flings turned into happily-ever-afters, didn't they?

He touched a finger to my lips. "Be firm."

I laughed through my tears.

I stood in his embrace for one last time, trying to draw strength from his warmth. Then I slowly let go and stepped back, my heart throbbing with every movement.

This was it.

The look of finality in his eyes told me he knew it, too.

"Goodbye," he said, so low it was almost inaudible.

"Goodbye," I whispered back. With one last, lingering look, I turned and walked stiffly back over to the suitcase I had abandoned in such a hurry just a few minutes before.

At the glass doors, I hesitated again. But this time, I forced myself to step forward, to put one foot in front of the other until I was past the boundary line where no one without a ticket could get in.

This time, I didn't look back.

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