Slowly I nodded my head, unable to stop the flow of tears that raced down my cheeks. This wasn't how I'd wanted to reunite with him. I'd pictured this moment so many times in my head and it had never once been anything like this. From the moment I'd walked outside I'd tried to hide myself from him, hoping he wouldn't piece together who I was before I had the chance to tell him. For a while the shadows of the night played on my side, giving me a chance to figure out how to break it to him. In the end I had given myself away, unable to bear the thought of him being in pain. Pain that I had caused. Pain that existed because of my past. My love for him was what had given me away. I simply wasn't able to pretend I was someone else until I could gather my thoughts. Whenever I was around him he always drew the truth from me without even trying. I had wanted so badly for this moment to be happy in a way, full of joyful tears. But it wasn't. Instead I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me to save me from his reaction. The look in his eyes was too much to bear.
"No… You're dead. I went to your funeral." I wanted to speak to him and all I could do was shake my head in misery. "I won't go through this, not again. You're dead and I'm dreaming. Any moment I'm going to wake up and realize that you can't come back to me."
Slowly he stood grabbing his crutches. The look in his eyes hurt me more than any surgery and even the pain at believing he was truly dead. I felt my world beginning to shatter as he turned from me, tears spilling onto his cheeks. Desperately I tried to speak to him, to reassure him that this wasn't a dream, that I was real. I knew what he was feeling. How many times had I dreamt of being with him only to awake to an empty apartment? To the depthless sorrow of knowing he would never hold me again? It wasn't until he was halfway back to the church that I managed to form words with the feeble sounds that tumbled from my lips.
"Nate, please don't walk away!" He paused no more than two or three yards in front of me, squaring his shoulders in determination. "Don't leave me again, please."
With that he faced me once more, his eyes narrowed as he glared at me. I didn't mind the look at that point. As long as he wasn't walking away, disappearing from my life once more. I wanted to convince him that I was truly there, that it wasn't a dream. I knew all too well how he felt. Standing up I walked to him as quickly as I could, my back paining me as I went. If anything that did nothing more to assure him I wasn't real. He had no knowledge of what had happened to me and what I had gone through medically. His tears glittered in the moonlight as I neared him, signs that he was doing everything in his power not to break down.
"You died two years ago when the base collapsed. I helped lower your casket into the ground, even aided in placing the dirt upon it." His lip quivered as he reached out to touch my face. "I must be dreaming… This can't be real…"
"I'm not a dream Nate." Taking his hand in mine I kissed his palm, pressing it against my cheek as he cupped my face.
I watched with an aching heart as his face crumbled, his barrier finally breaking. I'd never seen him so vulnerable before and I wasn't quite sure what to do. The next thing I knew his crutches were lying on the ground as he pulled me into his arms. He sighed deeply before a silent sob wracked his body. Wrapping my arms around his neck I allowed him to embrace me, reveling in the warmth that radiated from him. I'd missed him more than words could ever express. To have lived for two years without him had killed me on the inside; I hadn't even realized it.
All my years of training, of emotionless battles and murders, he had been the one to finally tear them down. In just a few simple days he'd forced his way past every barrier I had erected in my short lifetime and shown me the error of my ways. In just a few simple days he'd rescued me from myself and shown me the path to righteousness and everlasting love. Most of all he'd shown me what it was to have someone love me for who I was, and had given me his love. During those two years I'd tried countless times to convince myself that he'd done nothing, had shown me nothing I didn't already know. In the end I realized how wrong I was.
"I can't believe you're alive… All this time…" He pulled away, cupping my face in his hands as he stared at my face. Tears ran the length of his tan skin, etching their way in the moonlight. Leaning forwards I cautiously kissed them away, rubbing my thumbs along his cheeks. I'd missed him so much.
"Every day I prayed that God would bring us together again. I never would have guessed it would be today, like this."
His tears had gradually stopped and I saw his expression soften as he also ran his thumbs along my cheeks. For a moment he stood and just stared at me, as if memorizing something. Looking at him I couldn't help but do the same. His smooth, tan skin, his pronounced cheek bones, the way his hair fell carelessly over his forehead, everything. I already knew from countless sleepless nights how he looked. But to be able to confirm the memories with physical proof was more satisfactory than any other way imaginable.
"I've never stopped loving you Jessica." At that moment I felt my heart clench in fear, yet I had no idea why. Those were the words I'd longed to hear for so long, had anguished over. They were what I'd longed to be true. So why did they frighten me? Why couldn't I say them back?
"I'm not the same person I was then Nate." I could feel my voice shaking as I spoke. The moment he smiled I felt the wall I'd rebuilt around my heart after our separation crumble. That wall that had steadily been gaining control of me again, only letting God in. I wanted to let Nate in once more.
The moment Jess hesitated I had thought it was all over. I thought I'd wake up to find myself alone once more, loneliness and guilt eating away at my heart. I had been so afraid that she would tell me she was married, that she had moved on and that I was living in the past. It would have been my worst nightmare come true. Her image had been burned upon my heart for too long; I wouldn't let her get away again. Wrapping my arms around her I pulsed her close, sighing as I placed my chin on her head. I could feel her tentatively place her hands on my chest, resting her head on my shoulder. It didn't matter how much she had changed. All I knew was that I loved her with all my heart and always would.
"It doesn't matter Jess. To me you're still the same person." I felt her shake her head ever so slightly.
"Yes, it does matter Nate. I'm scarred and I'm damaged." I felt more than heard the double meaning to those words. I knew that she was undoubtedly scarred from the incident at the base and also by her past. She was damaged physically and emotionally; things that could be fixed, things that we could work through.
"Then let me help you heal."
I felt her gently take my left hand in hers, squeezing it gently before guiding it to her back. She placed my index and middle finger at the base of her neck before releasing me. Without a word I traced the skin beneath my fingers, feeling the scar tissue widening under my fingertips. I knew from experience that it was still fresh, the soft tissue not yet having gained that slick feeling that most scars do. She shivered under my touch, pressing her face into my chest. Gently I placed my arm around her waist, holding her against me.
"The doctors say that with time they don't think I'll be able to walk." I felt her muscles tighten as she struggled not to cry. "I'm afraid that I'll be confined to a wheel chair the rest of my life. Then I'll be useless to everyone." Tilting her chin up I smiled softly, taking in her radiant beauty as she looked up at me.
"You'll never be useless to me."
It was then that I cautiously leaned in for a kiss. For two years I'd wondered what would have happened if I'd spoken my love for her sooner; if I'd taken the time to sit her down and talk to her. That opportunity had nearly been taken from me, and had haunted me in my sleep into the morning hours and on. I'd gone to God countless times in prayer, asking Him to forgive me for not seizing the moment. I'd known she'd gone to Heaven, that she'd believed in Him with all her heart. God had given me a second chance, something that I had wanted for so long. I could make amends; show her the truth of love. My mind was racing with the possibilities. And just as quickly it all stopped, brining me back to reality. To the young woman in my arms that I loved, no matter how she had changed. For all I cared she could have been mutilated beyond recognition, deaf, and mute and I would still love her. It wasn't her physical appearance I was after but her heart. That tender, beautiful, strong heart. She was intelligent, witty, and funny without even trying as well as innocent and passionate.
Breaking the kiss I placed my forehead against hers, smiling as I stared into her beautiful eyes. For the time being I was content simply to hold her, to feel her heart beat. It was proof that she was alive and living. I felt her shift her weight off her foot and lean slightly on me. With a silent prayer that my leg wouldn't decide to give out on me I lifted her into my arms and walked to the picnic table. Her soft laughter rang in my ears and I felt my heart flutter. It was a sound I could listen to for hours. Sitting down on the tabletop I helped her sit in front of me as I wrapped my arms around her. She placed her head against my shoulder as we both just stared at the starry sky. Kissing the top of her head I smiled softly, thanking God for giving her back to me.
"Don't you want to go back to your party? I'm sure they're beginning to wonder where you are." I smiled as she tilted her head back to look at me. Planting a soft kiss on her nose I beamed, marveling at the beauty of her smile.
"Let them wonder. I'm more than happy right where I am." Her smile broadened as she moved closer to me, holding my hands as they rested at her waist. That's how Frank and the others found us over an hour later, together.