Arriving home was somewhat anticlimactic.
I smiled half-heartedly at the stewardesses lined up by the exit as I ducked out of the aircraft. Once outside, the warm rays of the sun hit me in the face. A light breeze ruffled my hair, as if to say, welcome home.
According to the pilot's announcement when we had landed, it was a good warm twenty-two degrees Celsius. A nice, sunny summer day in Hamburg. I normally loved the sun. I ought to have been happy.
I suddenly missed the cool, windy, fifteen-degree summer in Edinburgh.
Inside the airport, I felt my heart leap briefly as I spotted the prerequisite 'Welcome Home' sign as I passed through customs, before the dull, heavy feeling returned to weigh on my chest. As I walked on, I spent more time than usual staring at all the signs overhead. Everything was so... German. So different from what I'd gotten used to seeing during the past six months. Suddenly, it felt like I was looking at my hometown from a tourist's point of view.
When I finally exited into the arrival hall, my gaze landed almost immediately on two familiar faces. I stilled in shock. I'd known they were aware of my return date, but I hadn't expected them to be here. Tessa and Gabi caught sight of me in the same moment and rushed over, wide smiles on their face.
"Welcome home!" Tessa said, as they both took turns to throw their arms around me.
"I'm so glad to see you guys." Ridiculously, I felt like crying. "I can't believe you came."
Tessa made a rude noise. "Pfft, of course we came!"
"Tessa wanted to buy you one of those really embarrassing 'welcome back' balloons," Gabi informed me. "I talked her out of it."
Tessa pouted. "Spoil sport," she muttered.
Seeing them still up to their familiar antics, I cracked a smile. I had missed them.
"What was Edinburgh like?" Gabi asked, as we made our way towards the exit. "Did you have so much fun that you forgot about us?"
"Sorry," I said shamefacedly. I hadn't gotten around to replying some of their messages. "I meant to reply, but..." I'd gotten caught up in another life. A fantasy life.
"That's fine," Gabi, always so understanding, smiled. "Now you can tell us everything in person."
"It's like you fell off the face of the Earth halfway through," Tessa grumbled. "So, what happened? Did you meet anyone interesting?"
I opened my mouth to reply – and choked on my words. I couldn't talk about Edinburgh, not without talking about Aksel. And I couldn't talk about Aksel. Not now – not yet, not while the loss was so fresh.
An image filtered into my mind - an image of his expression, at that last moment. His cheekbones standing out starkly in his pale face, blue eyes red. A second away from tears. Goodbye, he had whispered.
"I..." I left a piece of my heart behind.
Looking up, I saw the horrified looks on my friends' faces. Tessa rummaged in her bag and handed me a tissue. Lifting a shaking hand to my face, I realised my cheeks were wet.
Gabi leaned over and grasped my hand tightly. "You don't have to tell us anything. But if you need someone to talk to... We're here."
I squeezed back, mustering up a smile through my tears. "I know."
A week passed, and then two. I went through the motions of daily life. My friends, for their part, did their best to cajole me out of the slightly depressive state I had sunk into. They came over almost every day, badgered me into going places, and all in all forced me to move on with life.
The more weeks that passed, the more Edinburgh was starting to feel like a dream. A beautiful, out-of-reach dream that still broke my heart to think about.
I knew my friends wondered. But they didn't push. They were being so amazing that I felt a vague guilt in not only keeping this from them, but also for entertaining the thought of leaving them. Of choosing Aksel over them. Because that was what it all boiled down to in a transnational relationship, wasn't it? That one boy you couldn't forget – in exchange for your home, your friends, your family. In exchange for everything.
The day I finally cracked, Tessa and Gabi had come over as usual. Tessa was sprawled across my beanbag and Gabi was perched on the edge of my bed as they chatted lightly about the upcoming annual summer festivals in Hamburg.
Before Edinburgh, I would have joined in. But now I was quiet, absorbed in my own thoughts, just as I had been ever since my return. Not only was I no longer up to date on what was going on in Hamburg, my mind was also almost always drifting somewhere else. Tessa and Gabi knew this, and didn't try to force me into speaking.
It was their quiet understanding that eventually made me decide.
"I... I need to talk about it," I found myself saying abruptly.
Their conversation was dropped mid-sentence.
"Finally," Tessa muttered. That earned her a sharp glance from Gabi. Tessa spread her hands in a 'what?' gesture.
"You can tell us anything, Emi," Gabi said softly. "We're here for you."
I blinked back tears. I had the most amazing friends here. What would I do without them?
Speaking haltingly at first, I told them about how it had all started – being alone and friendless in Edinburgh, and then meeting Kjell, David, and of course Aksel, at that first party. I told them about how unfriendly Aksel had been at first, and how certain I had been that he had hated me. I told them about how I'd kept on finding myself in situations with him. How we'd slept together for the first time, and then the second, and then the third. How we'd gotten steadily closer as the days had gone by. By the time I reached the end, my thoughts were tripping out in a jumbled mess even as I was choking on every other word. Finally, I reeled to a stop, having recounted the last time I'd seen him – our last goodbye. The goodbye that still had the ability to tear my heart wide open. Then I sat clutching a handful of tissues, the only sounds coming from my throat muted sobs that I was trying to swallow back.
Tessa regarded me with serious eyes. "That's not a fling, Emi."
I laughed a little bit through my tears. "Now you sound like Tatiana." I felt a cloak of nostalgia wrap around me. "You would have liked her." We still kept in touch, but it wasn't the same. I missed the days when we would sit around in my room together, her trying out my variety of nail polish, me dithering away on my laptop.
"You could introduce us when we go to Finland to visit," Tessa said. "Or when she comes to visit."
I started. That thought had never occurred to me.
"Europe is connected, Emi," Tessa said drily. "It's not as if Finland is halfway across the world."
"The two different parts of your life don't have to stay separate," Gabi added. "Why should you have to give up on one just to have the other?"
"What two different parts?" I mumbled, frowning at my bedspread. There was a growing pile of tissues scattered all around me. "I don't have a life in Finland."
"You could," Gabi said simply.
"But..." But there were so many obstacles, so many unresolved issues. How could it be that simple?
Gabi smiled at me. "There's always a way, Emi."