Somewhere Else

©2019-2021 Kassie N (dear-llama). All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 28: The Beginning

Aksel and I stay in the park until the sun begins to set – which isn't saying much, considering the steadily decreasing daylight hours as the year crawls past the three-quarter mark. We don't move, but our fingers do – sliding and dancing in a familiar rhythm only they are privy to.

Above us, the sky turns the colours of the leaves beneath our shoes. The shadows around us lengthen and begin creeping up every available surface, butting heads with each other until they give up and merge into one flat pool. Eventually, they clamber onto our laps, over our clasped hands, devouring everything until the brightest parts of Aksel's face are the bridge of his nose and the whites of his eyes.

It is only then that we reluctantly get on our way.

"Dinner?" Aksel asks me as we step onto the path leading back to the railway station.

"Sure," I say. "What do you want to eat?"

He shrugs. "What do you want?" Then he shakes his head. "Wait, I know–"

"Anything with potatoes." We both say it at the same time.

I laugh. He knows me too well.

"You haven't changed," he says, looking at me with a smile. I glance at him, trying to read the emotions behind the curve of his lips.

"I've changed a bit," I counter.

The edges of his gaze soften. "Well, okay," he says. "Maybe a bit."

I mock-glare at him, about to retort, when a prickling on my neck makes me look up. Standing mere feet away, her eyes wide with surprise, Lumi stares back at us for a long moment. Then she lifts a hand in greeting. Her gaze travels down our arms to the meeting point of our entwined fingers. I rein in the automatic impulse to snatch my hand out of Aksel's, as if we've been doing something we shouldn't have been. But when she looks back up, she is smiling.

"Hey," Aksel says, habit taking over and tingeing his accent so that the word that comes out is indistinguishable from its Finnish counterpart. This is one English word he always says with a lilt that betrays his roots. "Lumi! Small world."

Lumi laughs. "Yeah, I know. Helsinki is too small." She looks towards me. "Hey, Emi."

"Hi," I say.

"On the way out?" Aksel asks, but Lumi shakes her head.

"Going home," she says. "I have a project deadline coming up next week." She pulls a face.

"It's Saturday." Aksel sounds scandalised.

Lumi shrugs. "Life of the freelancer," she says.

It's odd listening to them converse in English. I would almost rather they speak Finnish with each other – it makes me feel as if the whole conversation is for my benefit and that I am letting them down by keeping silent.

"Good luck," I say. "I hope you can finish quickly and get some rest."

Lumi's eyes flicker back to meet mine. "Thanks," she says. The pitch of her voice sounds surprised, almost questioning. She's not used to me being nice. "I sure hope so, too."

"We'd better get going," Aksel says. "We're going for dinner."

"Cool," Lumi hikes her backpack up the shoulder it's hanging off on. "You guys have fun."

Aksel smiles back. "See you next Friday?"

Friday is the standing appointment their friend group usually has for their meet-ups, I remember. A flash of that hot, stuffy bar comes to mind, sending a shiver down my spine. That – and Aliisa's beady, judgemental eyes. Never again, I think to myself.

Lumi purses up her lips. "Maybe. I'll let you guys know again."

I look at Aksel and see that the tone of his gaze has altered slightly. "Everything okay?" he asks softly.

Lumi gives him a pinched smile and exhales loudly out of her nose. "It will be."

Something unspoken passes between them. I look away into the distance. If Aksel hadn't still been holding onto my hand so tightly, I would have walked away to give them some privacy. Lumi obviously has something going on in her life that is none of my business.

"We'll talk soon," I hear Aksel say in Finnish.

"Mm," says Lumi.

"You know we're all here for you."

"I know." There is a smile in her voice now.

I feel the mood shift, and turn back to see Lumi looking at me.

"I really meant to text you, Emi," she says. The apology etched into her furrowed brows looks genuine enough. "I've just had to deal with… some issues that came up. But we should really have coffee someday."

"I'd like that," I say, and this time it's true. "And don't worry about it – I could have texted too, and I didn't." I wrinkle my nose in a grimace. "Sorry."

Lumi blinks. "It's no problem," she says. Her tone is light with surprise.

"I'll text you for coffee," I say. "Maybe sometime next week? If you're free, that is. After your deadline is over."

Lumi smiles. "You know what? I'll probably need a break tomorrow – if it's not too soon for you. Otherwise I won't be able to get away for the next two weeks. Things will get a little busy from next week on."

It takes me a moment to recover from the last-minute invitation, but I manage to pull down my eyebrows and say, "Oh, tomorrow is fine! As long as you have the time."

"All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl," she quips. "A short coffee break would be good. Gives me a chance to recharge before the last stretch of work."

"Cool. It's a date, then. I'll write it down in my phone," I say, taking out my phone to do just that. "So that I won't forget. I have the worst memory sometimes."

"I totally understand that," Lumi says. "I have to write everything down in my planner or I might end up standing someone up."

We share a smile.

It isn't until Lumi looks off to the side that I remember Aksel is still there, still holding my hand, and observing our interaction with a slight smile.

"You guys go on," Lumi says, looking from me to Aksel. "Enjoy the rest of your day."

"You too," Aksel says, and I nod.

"See you."

"Yeah, see you."

With another smile and a wave, Lumi leaves us. Aksel starts walking again, and I drag my feet along behind him. He looks back at me, slowing down so that our linked hands aren't stretched out between our bodies. I can feel the glances from some of the passers-by, but I ignore them. I've gotten used to the glances.

Let them look, Priscilla said once. We had been walking down the street together and even she had to admit that we were drawing more looks than she's normally used to. It feels like you're a celebrity. Special, you know. Not like everyone else.

I smile to myself at the thought.

Aksel is waiting for me, his eyebrows raised.

I laugh at his unasked question. "It's nothing," I say. "Just remembered something Priscilla said about people staring."

Aksel casts a look around. "Yeah, that," he says. "I never noticed it before, but I started seeing it after you talked about it. People do stare more at you."

I roll my eyes, stalking ahead so that he has no choice but to move along as well. "Finally, you feel it too. I wasn't being overly sensitive."

"I never said that," he objects from behind.

"You implied it," I say, but with no true heat behind my words.

He grunts.

I turn around and grin up at him. "No excuses, then?"

He shoots me a low-lidded look.

I chuckle.

"You know," he says, catching my eye as I fall back to walk by his side, "I've never seen you like this before."

"Like what?"

"Like… this. Like you're not worried anymore. Like you've found your way again."

I laugh at his fancy wording. "So... that's a good thing, right?"

He takes his time answering, letting his gaze flit across my face before landing on my lips. Then he looks back up into my eyes, sees the mute expectation in them, and smiles.

"It's a good thing," he says. The pad of his thumb tickles the inside of my palm. His voice drops. "Definitely a good thing."

I look up at him, my breath catching in my throat.

Breathe, I think to myself. With the way he is looking at me, it's as if the people around us have fallen away. Belatedly, I realise we have stopped walking.

Outwardly, I say, "We are standing in the middle of the street."

His expression doesn't change. "So?"

I press my lips to the pad of his fingertip, then laugh and pull away. "We're going for dinner, remember?" I tug at his hand, and – when he doesn't move – break away and keep walking on.

I'm straining my ears for his footsteps behind me when I feel an arm snake around my shoulders. I stumble sideways, almost falling onto a solid warm body. "Hey!"

Aksel keeps walking on, anchoring me to his side so that I have no choice but I hurry along as well. When I look up, I see the hints of a smirk bracketing his lips.

"Excuse me," I protest, though not half as huffily as I hope to.

"What? You wanted to go to dinner."

I roll my eyes at his jaunty tone, but snake an arm around his waist and lean into him. Then, lumbering along as one, we meander – slightly off-balance – the rest of the way.

I'm surprised when Lumi, instead of choosing what Aksel has told me is her usual go-to spot, picks a little place all the way in Kallio. We meet at Sörnäinen, the metro station I remember from my one night out with my friends, and head in the direction of Lumi's choice of café.

"I don't usually come here," I tell Lumi, turning around to look at her standing on the escalator one step below. "To Kallio, I mean."

"We ran into each other here once, right?" she asks, her eyes shifting up and to the left in memory. "In a bar. We were out for a drink – with Aksel and Aliisa and the rest, I mean – and you came in with your friends."

"The Black Cat bar," I agree, nodding. "I remember that."

Then I also remember how the night had ended, and feel my cheeks grow warm.

Lumi studies me for a long moment, and I wonder if she knows. Aksel is a private person, but if anyone in his friend group were to know about his private life, it would be Lumi.

But she just smiles and says mildly, "I thought it would be a nice change to come here. We seem to run into each other in Töölö a lot."

I laugh, stepping off the escalator as we reach the top. "I know. I feel like I'm only ever in that area."

"Do you live there now?" Lumi's steps are small and elegant as she strides alongside me. We emerge into the weak autumn sunlight, me enjoying the delicate crunching of leaves beneath my boots.

"Yeah," I say. "I'm renting an apartment along Töölönkatu."

Her eyebrows go up. "That's a nice place to live."

"It is," I agree. "I got lucky – I found an apartment for a good place."

"So," she says, looking at me with a smile, "that means you're staying? Here in Helsinki, I mean."

"I guess I am." I look back up at her with a sheepish smile. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet, though."

"You'll figure something out." Lumi's tone is firm, portraying a confidence that I don't personally feel.

I blow out the hiss of a breath. "I guess. I'm going to have to, anyway."

"Aksel must be ecstatic," Lumi says.

I duck my head, shrugging.

Her voice grows softer. "I'm glad things worked out between you two. Aksel has been a pain in the ass since you broke up."

A strangled laugh escapes my throat. "A pain in the ass?"

"Oh, yes. He was moping about half the time when we met up in those months. It was impossible to talk to him."

"Oh." I don't know what to say to that. "I didn't know that."

Lumi hitches her shoulder briefly upward in a shrug. Even the gesture looks lady-like on her. "When he suddenly snapped out of his funk, I knew it meant things were better between the two of you." She grins at me.

I study her as we walk, but the smile on her face radiates warmth.

"I didn't know Aksel was so predictable," is what I say out loud.

Lumi laughs, a tinkling sound that permeates the air. "He is quite predictable when it comes to you."

"Is he?" I duck my head again, feeling my cheeks warm up. I've never heard about our relationship from his friends' perspective; it is suddenly flummoxing to realise that other people have witnessed the drama happening between us.

Lumi must have seen something in my face, because she rushes to clarify, "Aksel never said anything, though. It was mostly us guessing."

"Oh, it's okay," I say with a weak laugh. "It was just… shocking, I guess. I thought we were being all secretive."

Lumi laughs. "I think we know Aksel a little too well for him to get away with that," she says, voice pitched low, sounding almost apologetic.

"Is everyone okay with it? With us being back together, I mean?" I don't know what propels me to ask this, but my question is disrupted by our arrival at the café.

"Cardamom," I say, looking up at the sign in one of the display windows.

Café Cardemumma has a nondescript entrance that I would've walked straight past had I been on my own. There is no sign that I can see – only a chalkboard menu on the street outside and a brown awning covering the doorstep leading into the store. Out on the façade of the building are two large display windows. The view inside looks more inviting than one would assume from its outer appearance.

"It's a nice place, I promise," Lumi says as an aside to me as she pushes the door open. "One of the best in the area, I would say."

"It looks cozy," I say noncommittally, though the smell of freshly baked pastries is almost already enough to convince me of her statement.

I follow as Lumi finds us a table near the back window I had been looking through mere moments ago. Someone looking in from outside would see us framed beneath the sign of the café, as if in a transient photograph. How poetic, I think.

"I'll order for us," Lumi says, placing her bag in the chair. "Is there anything you want in particular?"

"Maybe a cup of tea?" I ask. "Chamomile."

Lumi nods. "Any pastries?"

"Maybe a pulla? If they have it." I've been hearing about the Finnish pastry, but never gotten around to trying it.

Lumi grins. "Of course they have pulla. I'll get you one – and some others for us to share, if that's okay with you."

"More than okay," I smile up at her. "Thanks."

"No problem."

I watch as she glides down the aisle towards the counter. There, she speaks to the cashier with habitual ease, gesturing at the items as she orders. From this distance, I can't hear each individual word, but if I strain my ears, I can pick out the rise and fall in the cadence of her voice as she speaks.

She returns with a tray full of pastries, a mug of steaming hot coffee, and my chamomile tea. I spring up to help her with the plates.

"I might have ordered too many," Lumi says five minutes later, as we stare at the cluttered table.

I can't help it – I giggle at her dismayed tone. "It's all right," I say. "They smell really good."

She brightens. "Dig in, then."

"How much are they? I'll send you the money through MobilePay."

She waves me off. "It's fine. It wasn't much, anyway."

I purse up my lips. It feels odd, somehow – not paying my share of the food.

Lumi notices. "You can get the bill next time," she suggests.

I smile. There's going to be a next time. "Sure. I'd like that."

"I love their cinnamon buns," Lumi says, daintily picking out one of the two cinnamon buns for herself. "Try it."

"Sure," I say, reaching over with my fork. I pierce the skin of soft pastry and lift it gingerly, testing the weight. Lumi is already halfway through hers.

The flavour of cinnamon hits my taste buds the moment I place a corner of the bun on my tongue, and I hum approvingly.

"Told you," says Lumi with a smug smile.

I swallow, then laugh. "I can see now why you and Aksel are such good friends. You both have awesome taste in bread."

Lumi laughs as well, even as she cocks her head. "What?"

"He took me to queue for croissants the day we ran into you," I explain. "The Helsinki Homemade Bakery. The croissants were amazing, but at first I was like, really? Queueing for bread?"

Lumi grins. "Oh, that. Yes, they sell really good croissants."

"As I found out," I say. "Aksel was all ga-ga over them. He even said they sell the best croissants in the whole of Europe."

Lumi snorts. "Hello? What about actual French bakeries?"

My mouth falls open. "That's what I said!"

We share a smile.

"I'm glad we finally met up," Lumi says. "It's nice to just sit and talk a little." Her gaze turns wry. "Not so easy to do in a group, especially when you don't know everyone so well."

I blink. She's just taken the thoughts out of my head. "Yeah," I say, with a cross between a laugh and a grimace. "That was kind of a problem for me. I'm not so good in groups – until I get to know everyone, that is."

"I understand." Lumi shrugs. "I could tell you were feeling awkward every time we hung out in a group. Especially since Aliisa wasn't so friendly towards you."

For the second time in ten minutes, my jaw drops. "I was right!" I exclaim. "She doesn't like me, does she? I told Aksel that, but he said it's just the way she is, that she doesn't mean anything by it."

Lumi rolls her eyes. "Men. They miss everything." Then she turns pensive. "I mean, she is like this normally, but she was being particularly mean to you. I could tell."

I let out an indignant huff. "I was right," I repeat. "Aksel didn't believe me, but I wasn't just being over-sensitive."

"You weren't," says Lumi. "But that's the way Aliisa is. She takes longer to warm up to new people."

I shrug. I'm not planning on giving her a chance to warm up to me – it would be too soon if I ever saw her again.

Lumi smiles in understanding. "Yeah," she says, in response to whatever she can see on my face. "I get it. She's not easy to get along with. But once you get to know her, she's a really loyal friend."

"If you say so," is the nicest thing I can say.

Lumi doesn't push. "Oh, well," she says, plucking another piece of bread off the sharing plate. "You don't need to hang out with anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable."

"That's true," I say. I finish off the cinnamon bun and start on the pulla. It's a fluffy sweet bread that tastes vaguely of spices – there's definitely some cardamom in there, I decide. How fitting that I'm trying it for the first time in a café named after the spice.

"We're all happy for you and Aksel," Lumi says. "You know – in answer to your question before."

I cough, the piece of bread having gone down the wrong pipe all of a sudden. Lumi leans forward, alarmed, but I wave away her concern with a choked, "I'm fine, I'm fine." I take a long drink of my tea, feeling my eyes water.

"Sorry," I say, when I've finally cleared out my windpipe again. "I swallowed too quickly. And, well, I wasn't expecting you to answer, really. I thought you hadn't heard me."

"I did," Lumi says. "But I'm sorry – I didn't mean to surprise you."

"Oh, no," I say. We are both being too polite. "I'm happy to hear that. I mean, that Aksel's friends are okay with me."

"You don't have to worry," Lumi says with a laugh. "We all like you."

"Even Aliisa?" I ask, tongue-in-cheek.

She takes it as the joke it is, even if I had been half-serious. "Don't worry about Aliisa," she says. "She wants Aksel to be happy, and we can all see that he's happiest with you."

I duck my head to hide the heat in my face. To distract myself, I almost cram the entire pulla into my mouth.

If Lumi notices my obvious embarrassment, she doesn't comment. "How's the pulla?" she asks instead.

I take a moment to chew and swallow, taking special care not to choke again. "Good," I say. "I like it."

"It's as Finnish as bread gets," Lumi laughs. "My mum has baked it for as long as I can remember."

"That's cool," I say, feeling my shoulders relax an inch from the change in topic. "Do you bake?"

She pulls a face. "I have the recipe, but… I've never gotten around to baking. It's not really my thing."

"Mine neither," I say. "The last time I tried to bake something, I made a Finnish potato casserole. The one eaten at Christmas, you know? Except I didn't know then that it was more of a Christmas dish."

Lumi's eyebrows fly up. "Imelletty perunalaatikko? You made that on your own?"

"When I just arrived," I say. "I found the recipe online."

"That's really cool," she says. Her eyes are still wide and I can see her honest appreciation. "I mean, I'm Finnish and even I haven't made it once in my life."

I laugh. "I wanted to make something Finnish for Aksel," I say. "Which I realise now is a little stupid, because – well, he's Finnish and has probably tasted much better. But hey." I shrug.

"It wasn't stupid," Lumi says. "It was thoughtful of you. I'd love it if someone did that for me."

I study her suddenly down-turned mouth. "Well," I say, "I can make one for you, if you'd like."

That elicits the laugh that I'm hoping for.

"No, it's all right," Lumi says, with a light flick of her wrist. "I'm just being silly."

"No," I say, warming to the thought now that it has been articulated. "You could come over sometime and I could cook for you. Or something. Aksel could help, too."

Lumi is silent, but only for a moment. Then she smiles. "That would be nice," she says. "I'll help with the cooking, of course. We could even make pulla. I have my mother's recipe."

I sit up straighter in my chair. "Oh, yes! I'd love to learn to make that."

"And you could teach me how to make some German dishes," Lumi says. Her voice has risen a little; her eyes have lit up. "We can have a mix of Finnish and German food."

"Sounds amazing," I say, already running through some German recipes in my mind. The classic potato salad, of course. And maybe a fish-based dish from my hometown. "We did something like that in my Finnish class recently," I say. "Everyone brought a dish representative of their country. We had people from many different countries and cultures, and there was so much food I'd never even heard of."

"That sounds so fun," says Lumi, a little wistfully. "I've never experienced anything like that." Then she brightens. "I'm looking forward to our cooking."

"Me too," I say. "It's a date, then."

"Absolutely," Lumi agrees. She grins at me, leaning forward in her seat. "Let's do it."

"How was coffee with Lumi?" Aksel asks the moment he steps through the door the same evening. I take my time answering, focusing first on the paper bags in his arms. I pick one out and peer into it as he pads toward the dining table and drop the rest of the bags onto the surface.

"Good," I say at last, after I have taken a deep breath of the roast chicken.

"That's the vaguest answer I've ever heard," he tells me.

I laugh. "It was really good," I say. "We had a nice chat."

"About what?"

"About you," I tease.

Aksel's head whips around.

"Don't look so scared," I laugh again at the look he shoots me. "It wasn't all bad."

"Well, that makes me feel so much better," he mutters.

"And I got tea," I tell him. "Not coffee."

"Of course." He laughs. "Let me guess – black tea?"

I put on a sulky look. "You think you know me so well. No, I got chamomile."

Aksel slaps a palm to his heart, a theatrical wince on his face. "You mean I got it wrong?"

We grin at each other.

"She's nice," I tell him finally. "I like her. We talked about her work, my work… that sort of thing. It was fun."

Aksel's eyebrows raise, just the slightest bit. "That's good," he says. Then he grins. "Finally, one of my friends that you like."

"Hey," I protest. "I liked her back then, too. She was the nicest out of all of them."

"Nicer than Aliisa, huh?"

I roll my eyes. "I'm never going to hang out with Aliisa again, so you don't need to make excuses for her anymore."

Aksel shrugs. "You don't like her – fair enough. But I wasn't trying to force you to hang out with my friends, you know. I just wanted you to get to know more people here."

"So I wouldn't be lonely," I say. Then I smile. "I get it. It's just – friendship can't be forced, I guess. I didn't click with them. It wasn't anyone's fault."

"You seem to be clicking with Lumi now," Aksel observes.

"Yeah." Scrunching up my mouth, I look up and to the side. "I'm not sure how, either. But it's easier to talk to her one-on-one."

"That's good."

"By the way," I say, "I've signed you up for a cooking session with me and Lumi."

He frowns. "What?"

"I invited her over to cook together," I say. "And eat afterwards, obviously. I might have said you'll also be helping."

"Helping to cook or helping to eat?" There is a gleam in his eye.

I sigh, rolling my eyes as far back as I can get them.

"Okay, okay," I hear Aksel say in between laughs. "I'll help with both, okay? Stop doing that, your eyes might get stuck that way."

"You sound like my mum," I grumble, blinking to get my eyes to refocus.

"Speaking of your mum," Aksel says, "have you decided on the Singaporean film you'll be showing your friends?"

I open my mouth to answer, but nothing comes out. Sheepishly, I snap my jaw shut.

"You forgot," Aksel guesses – accurately.

"Shit," I say. "I haven't been able to look at any of the films yet." I groan.

"Well," says Aksel. "You could try Ilo Ilo. I found the language there the easiest to understand, out of the few films I watched. Plus, it's really good."

I eye him for a moment, eventually conceding with a shrug. "All right. I trust your taste, I guess."

"You guess?"

I grin at the palpable indignation in his voice. "Yeah, maybe. I guess."

He comes at me with a growl. I fend him off feebly, my hands pushing against his chest as he wraps his arms around me and bares his teeth like a bear. I'm laughing by now, my own arms sliding past his torso and wrapping themselves around his waist. He leans in and kisses me full on the mouth, and I forget all about escape.

"I have good taste," he murmurs, moving to nuzzle my neck. "I picked you, didn't I?"

"Hm," I play coy for a moment, before the wide grin breaks out and reveals my true feelings. "Fine. You have good taste."

This time, I'm the one who kisses him first. My hand finds the familiar old spot of the nape of his neck, where it softly rubs against his skin. I feel him shiver.

"I want us to talk more this time 'round," I say, moving back so I can look him in the eyes. "Not – you know – lock each other out anymore."

I want things to work out this time.

"Yeah," he says softly. "Me too."

"And if I start hating it here again," I say, "I'll tell you in a nicer way."

Aksel lets out a short bark of laughter. "Shit," he says. "But yeah. I'd rather hear about it than have you bottle it all up."

"Deal," I say, holding out my hand for a shake.

He envelops my hand in his, shaking it briefly, then tightens his grip and pulls me to him. I fall back into him. He props me up, taking my full body weight as I lean against him.

I reach up and trace my fingers over the outline of his jaw. I can feel the puckered flesh in some areas where he didn't shave too close to the skin this morning.

Aksel captures my hand in his and starts kissing my fingers, one by one. I sit there and watch him do it, tears springing to my eyes, feeling every gentle brush of his lips right down to the very core of me. When he's done, he looks back at me and says softly, "We'll make it work this time, I promise."

I smile. Sweet as the sentiment is... "You can't promise something like that."

"Well," he says. "I can promise I'll try my best to make it work."

I stroke the pad of my thumb over his bottom lip. His tongue darts out to distract me. "I can promise I'll try my best, too."

Something warm comes into his eyes and settles there. He lets go of my hand to cup my cheek. I curl my hands around his shoulders, enjoying the heat radiating from him.

Aksel once said, in the darkest time in our relationship, that maybe love wasn't enough. Things have changed since then, but I don't presume to imagine that we have solved all of the problems that have previously plagued us.

Problems are inevitable. Despite our best intentions, there will be times where we run into roadblocks on our journey. Some days, it may even feel as if the love tying us together is a thread stretched to its limit, ready to snap at the slightest tug. Will we be strong enough to withstand everything coming our way? I don't know. But I know it will always be worth it to try.

Because thisis the feeling worth leaving your home for, worth moving to an unfamiliar land for, worth starting again from scratch for. And if I have to spend the rest of my life negotiating cultural landmines and language barriers – it will still be worth it. Because Aksel is worth it.

Impulsively, I lean up and start pressing kisses along his jawline. "Rakastan sinua," I whisper. I want him to know – he has all of my heart. He has always had it. "Minä rakastan sinua."

His breath hitches. I lift my head to look at him properly and see the swirl of emotions in his eyes that he doesn't verbalise. There is always that one language in which 'I love you' means the most, and for him, this is it. In Finnish, it is the phrase that most closely touches his heart.

He bends his head and kisses me fiercely. Then he pulls away and whispers back, "Ich liebe dich."

And in this moment, I understand how he must have felt just seconds ago. The words envelope my whole being, echoing over every inch of skin until it reaches my heart, where it lodges and starts to expand, growing and growing until my heart is brimming full with this feeling – unending love for this beautiful boy.

Words are woefully inadequate to describe how I feel, so I kiss him again, putting all my heart into it. Hoping that he feels every particle, every atom of my love for him. Hoping that it fills his entire soul like it does mine.

And judging from the way he kisses me back, like I am the lost half of him that he needs to make him whole again – he understands.

Despite my original promise to Priscilla, she ends up being the third person to hear about my decision to stay.

"I know I said I would tell you when I decided," I'm saying, as she gapes at me, "but it was more of a spur-of-the-moment thing. And then we ran into Lumi… and I wasn't completely sure, really, but after thinking it over––"

Priscilla's shriek is so loud that I stop talking and clap my hands over my ears in an instinctive act of self-preservation. Until moments later, when I lower my arms to catch her as she lunges forward.

My best friend this side of the Baltic Sea falls into me, hugging me so tightly that I can feel the vibrations of her squeals rattling against my jaw. I return her hug, laughing through my grimace.

"Okay, okay," I say. "Please – I'm going deaf."

With one final tight squeeze, Priscilla finally pulls away. "Sorry, I'm just so happy!" The pitch of her voice hasn't yet returned to its natural key. "You have no idea how much I've been hoping you'd stay."

"Whatever happened to your psychic powers?" I quip. "I thought you could see into the future?"

Priscilla waves a dismissive hand. "I can see what's meant to happen, but sometimes humans make bad decisions for themselves."

"Oh," I say, raising my eyebrows, "so if I had gone back to Hamburg, that would've been a bad decision, would it?"

Priscilla smiles smugly. "You said it, not me."

I huff – and then laugh. "You really wanted me to stay, huh? But you didn't say anything or try to convince me."

"I didn't want to pressure you," she says. "The decision has to be your own. Nobody can make it for you or force you to do something you aren't completely happy with."

The warmth that engulfs me inspires me to reach over and squeeze her arm. "I appreciate that," I say. Then I smile. "Aksel was the same way."

Priscilla is grinning. "Was he, now?"

"He left the entire decision up to me. Although…"

"Although what?"

"He was going to apply for a transfer to Berlin," I say with a laugh. "A spot opened up in his company."

Priscilla's eyebrows go up. "That's dedication," she murmurs, her eyes downcast for a fleeting moment. That's when I remember the story she's told me about her ex – and I open my mouth to say soothe her prickling scars. But she recovers and grins at me. "Imagine if he had applied and moved to Germany – and you were still here…"

I laugh. "You watch too many TV shows, I swear."

"That would've been interesting, wouldn't it?"

"That would've been a problem," I correct her.

She shrugs. "Hey, who knows? He might have come to appreciate your struggles here a lot more if he had to go through them himself."

I concede. "Probably. But I don't think we're supposed to wish bad experiences on the people we love."

If a person could have hearts for eyes, that would've been an apt description of the look on Priscilla's face right now. "Love, huh?"

I roll my eyes.

"You're blushing!" she crows.

"Oh, shut up."

Priscilla laughs, entirely too delighted at my embarrassment. "See?" she says, "I told you, didn't I? That everything will work out in the end. You just needed to have faith."

"In fate?" I grimace.

"No," she says, in a scandalised tone that reflects the indignant look she throws me. "Faith in me."

I'm not expecting this reply, so the laughter that escapes me feels like an unstoppable burst of air.

"So," I muse, "is this the end? Since everything works out in the end."

Priscilla laughs, leaning over to bump her shoulder against mine. "No, silly. It's not the end yet. This," and she throws her arms open in a wide arc, "is the beginning of a whole new story."


A/N: Oh, hey! Look at me, finishing my first multi-chaptered novel EVER. Woohoo! ;D

I was wondering if I wanted to include a scene with Aliisa and Aksel's friends just to round it all off, but eh. I didn't want to prolong it anymore. I think this is the best ending I could've come up with for now. Part of that second-last scene (with Aksel) was from the first version of the story - the ending I almost completely scraped. I kind of want to post the first version somewhere, just for the sake of it. I've had it written since 2016. In that version, Aksel and Emi didn't meet up again until she'd gotten her shit together... but I like this newer version better, because they both grow together.

Now, a quick reply to Fangalitious: Yaaaay, I'm so glad you liked their reunion! :D I really tried to make it such that the relationship was more balanced this time round - that they've both learnt some lessons overtime and that things will go differently now. The problem with exes getting back together is often that the old problems crop up again, but I wanted to show that they've both changed and this will not be the same relationship that fell apart back then.

Well, please leave your final thoughts on the story! And thank you so much for sticking with me throughout the writing process. :) I will be letting this story sit for a while, while I edit Something Better. Hopefully when I come back to edit this one, I'd have forgotten what exactly I wrote, so the editing will work well. I'm so excited to start editing Something Better - and the whole process of slowly trying to self-publish it. That's another adventure ahead. Whoo.

(Also: still looking for beta readers! Please let me know if you're interested!)

Anyway, a belated Happy New Year - I know crazy things are already happening this year, but here's hoping that everything gets better. I've been quite motivated since the year started, so hopefully you'll be seeing another update from me on FP soon. I've started working on Auld Lang Syne again. :) It's a story about a group of estranged friends... well, the summary is in my profile. Check it out!

All the best to everyone - and if you'd like to find out what other projects I have in mind (writing or other things I'm working on), check out my website - dearllama dot wordpress dot com! - or follow me on my writing Twitter/Instagram accounts (in profile). I'll be posting some round-up entries on my blog and Instagram soon to weep over the feat of finishing this story. XD Once again, thank you so much for reading, reviewing, and in general all the motivation you've given me. Bye for now! :')