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if you ever want to be in love

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When Juliette is ten, bored but unwilling to do anything the way only the stifling Alabama summer heat can make her be, words, the words, appear on her body overnight, scrawled just above her right hipbone in messy black ink. She sees them when she changes out of her sweat-drenched ratty nightgown, desperately longing that the river was closer so she could run to it and submerge herself into the cool water. As usual, she’ll have to make do with the lukewarm, murky water from the shower, and as Juliette waits for it to come through the old pipes, the sight of black ink on her otherwise unmarred skin piques her interest.

Oh my god. I’m so sorry.

It’s the last three words that particularly stand out to her, the ‘I’m so sorry’ part of the two phrases which shall supposedly be uttered by her soulmate, because it’s been over six years since her daddy died and her mama started to drink, and she doesn’t think anyone who has ever told her that they’re sorry has ever meant it, not really. The water has finally come through the pipes but she turns it off instead of stepping under it, winding a towel around her body. Maybe her mama did once, when Jolene came home early one morning after a night of drinking and dancing to find Juliette curled up on the couch weeping, stomach empty and not a scrap of food to be found in their shabby trailer. Her mama may have meant it in that moment, with the alcohol wearing off only for guilt to settle in its place, but that didn’t stop Jolene from doing the same thing the next night, a packet of chips Juliette's dinner.

So if her soulmate is supposed to be someone who apologises to her immediately upon meeting her, well then, Juliette doesn’t think she has any chance of ever meeting them, not in this life, not in this town. Sometimes it's okay, especially when her mama doesn’t drink for a few days and they dance around to Rayna Jaymes, but most of the time it’s terrible. Juliette’s only ten, and even she knows that things aren’t meant to be like this. She also knows that barring a miracle, there’s no way she’ll ever escape.

Trailer trash today, trailer trash forever.

But miracles do sometimes occur, even for girls who don’t think they ever will. And sometimes they come in the form of Glenn Goodman, who at sixteen Juliette thinks just might be the only guy who has looked at her and not immediately made her skin crawl. Glenn compliments her on her voice after her performance at the fair, hands her a shiny card with all his details on it, and three weeks later in the middle of the night, she finds herself blindly calling that number, crying down the phone, having escaped the trailer after waking up to the feeling of her mama’s latest fling trailing his fingers down her legs. Another three weeks after that and she’s recorded a demo, her hair professionally curled, food in her belly and Glenn ensuring she has access to a swimming pool whenever she likes. With every passing second her life is changing, and Juliette knows it can only be for the better.

The words on her skin never change though. They are her one constant through everything, through leaving the trailer park, through leaving her mama and her never ending bottles and pills and packets behind. Sometimes, when she’s feeling rather cynical (which is sad, because she’s only sixteen and she shouldn’t be cynical, but she is) she traces her finger over the words and scoffs – because, really? I’m sorry?

She’s freaking Juliette Barnes. Glenn and her voice have made it so she is already a supernova, and she’s determined to only get bigger.

Her soulmate shouldn’t be someone who says ‘sorry’ when they first meet. 

But apparently fate has determined that it will be, and she’ll never admit it, not even to herself…but she’s glad. Apologies have been few and far between in her life, and she likes the idea of spending her life with a man, with someone, who knows when to say sorry, because no one else that she’s encountered seemingly does.

---

When Avery is thirteen he falls asleep one night, hair still wet from the shower he was forced to take because he reeked of the copious amounts of chlorine used by the community pool, and wakes up to writing on his chest. Bleary eyed in the morning light, he peers down at the words. They’re written delicately, a cluster of small, well-formed letters spelling out the phrase, and it reminds him of the times in elementary school when the entire class was singularly focused on practising their cursive writing. Whoever his soulmate is, he knows in that instance that they are someone with incredibly good handwriting…or someone that has spent a lot of time practising to get it just right.

He never quite imagined that such extensive practice would be put to use time and time again for the purpose of signing autographs.

It’s all right. You should try that again sometime, only slower.

He puzzles over the words for a few days, thankful that they can be hidden from the world by a shirt, because he has no clue what they mean. ‘Only slower’? Why would his soulmate want him to do something he’s presumably apologised for, again and slower? In the end, he goes to his father late one night, shirt off and phrase bare for the entire world to see, but his dad only laughs, so loud he wakes his mother up. Avery returns to bed without an answer, and he doesn’t dare to ever mention it again, keeps the phrase covered up by wearing a shirt at all time, thankful that the weather shall soon change and the pool will close. 

He starts dating Scarlett in college regardless of the fact that the words on his chest don’t match the words Scarlett first said to him, a simple question about the homework due the next day for their shared history class. Scarlett is sweet, and her long blonde hair reminds him of how much his sister loved Rapunzel when they were younger, and whenever she bakes she always brings the extra food to share amongst their friends at lunch. All in all, she’s a perfect girlfriend and Avery comes to love her, despite the fact that she isn’t his soulmate. He knows that he isn't hers either, for her words, hidden on the side of her foot are a phrase he's never said to her. Still, if the words weren't a constant presence on his chest, Avery thinks that he could have made a life, a family, with her.

But somewhere deep inside of him, he isn’t entirely content with not being with his soulmate, although he moves to Nashville with Scarlett nonetheless, rents a house with her and tries to make all her dreams come true. And it is the right move to make, because Scarlett’s family connections, something Avery has never been that thankful for as her Uncle Deacon somewhat terrifies him, ensure that he quite literally bumps into his soulmate, the woman whose handwriting has marked his chest since he was thirteen.

---

Juliette will admit, she is a tad enraged as she walks down the crowded hallway backstage at the Opry, heels clicking in perfect time to her heartbeat. Her albums have all debuted at number one, her latest singles have easily gone platinum, and yet she still somehow cannot have everything her heart desires? Deacon Claybourne, perhaps the very best guitarist she has ever heard, would rather remain with Rayna Jaymes rather than seize the opportunity she’s giving him on a freaking silver platter and join her on her sold-out, nation-wide tour. It’s all rather infuriating, and combined with the unwanted call from her mother and the fact that in mere moments Glenn expects her to praise Rayna freaking Jaymes like she’s the messiah herself, makes Juliette certain that she’ll need a sip of something to calm herself before she steps on stage.

She’s just about to accept Glenn’s challenge to get Deacon to join her, when something, someone, quite literally bumps into her, almost knocking her down. All she sees is dark hair and a black leather jacket, until hands steady her and her gaze focuses. In front of her is a couple, a woman with long blonde hair and blue eyes, a Disney princess if she's ever seen one...and a man. And what a man, Juliette thinks, as her eyes take him in. He definitely does not blend in with the men usually present here at the Opry, his leather jacket form-fitting and his hair not cut in the shorter style like she usually prefers, but he is undeniably attractive nonetheless. Attractive, but taken, so it would seem.

And then he murmurs the words and for a moment her heart stops beating and she almost forgets about all her worries. She almost forgets that her mother has somehow, yet again, gotten hold of her number, almost forgets that she practically made a fool of herself in front of Deacon Claybourne, praised him like a love-sick school girl, almost forgets that although she’s a superstar herself her manager somehow expects her to bow to Rayna Jaymes, who is by all accounts a washed up relic. 

Her lips curl up into a smile, and she replies to his apology without a second thought, confident that the words spilling out of her mouth are etched somewhere on this man’s skin, just as his have been etched above her left hipbone since she was ten. Glenn is standing somewhat impatiently by her side, and she knows that they’re on a tight schedule, but this, this is more important than anything else. This is destiny, and she shall not fight it.

“That’s all right,” she croons, oblivious to anything else around her but this man and her. “You should try that again sometime…only slower.” She grins once more at him, walking a few paces backwards in her heels, until she turns around fully, sauntering away. Juliette is entirely sure that the man’s eyes are still following her, irregardless of the fact his girlfriend is standing right beside him, the way men’s eyes have always been following her.

But there’s something different about this man, soulmate or not. He’s special, and her entire body is alive with the thought of what could be.

What will be, if she has her way…and she’s Juliette freaking Barnes, she always has her way.   

---

Avery’s chest still smarts somewhat from where Scarlett smacked it backstage at the Opry, probably because she purposefully hit where his mark is etched. Scarlett’s seen it a million times before, she knows the words as well as he does, but she is sound asleep in their bed where he is not, his eyes wide open and his pulse racing.

He slips out of bed, grabbing his phone and pours himself a glass of water. He has resisted the urge for long enough, he thinks, so he quickly opens Google and types in a name he’s heard for years but never thought would hold any meaning for him. Juliette Barnes. He almost laughs at the thought, because seriously? His soulmate is a superstar, an artist with a net worth of millions of dollars, and he’s just Avery Barkley, a failing singer and song-writer whose main source of income is the shifts he works at the Bluebird and the guitar lessons he gives to high-school kids. They are worlds apart, but the words on his chest prove that no matter their differences they are meant to be together, and he cannot help but revel in such a notion.

And if he saves a photo of Juliette to his photo, what’s the harm in that? He’s not a stalker, he’s her soulmate…and she’s incredibly gorgeous.

That photo gets him through the next months, the universe seemingly happy to keep him and Juliette apart. Although, he thinks, what can he really do about it? He can’t just march up to her house and demand that she see him purely because he’s her soulmate. No, he’d find himself kicked to the kerb if he ever pulled a stunt like that, and Avery likes his face how it is. He’ll just have to be patient. The words on his chest remind him that they are meant to be together, and he has to take comfort in that. He has to let everything play out the way it is supposed to. Thankfully he’s had quite a few years of practice, so he knows the drill. He’ll wait, and hopefully, he’ll be rewarded.

---

It takes a little while longer than he’d thought, but eventually, Juliette wakes up in his bed, blonde hair everywhere. She traces her fingers over the words on his chest, the morning sunlight warming the room as they laze about in Avery’s bed. “I practised so hard on my cursive,” she confesses, smiling up at him. “Every afternoon, I’d come home and repeat what we’d done in class that day, just to make sure I had gotten it right. It wasn’t there like there was anything else to do,” she scoffs, shaking her head.

“I didn’t practise because I knew someday I’d be famous,” she tells him, Avery content to just listen to her speak, his arm secure around her waist. “Okay…maybe the possibility always lingered in my mind, but still. It wasn’t the only reason. I lived in a shitty trailer, I wore the same five outfits to school every week, and more often than not I had to search for my own food. There was nothing beautiful about my life, but I thought that maybe if I practised enough I could have beautiful handwriting.”

“Well, when I saw this on my chest I promise you, my first thought was how you would've had to practise for hours to get such beautiful handwriting,” Avery assures her, his fingers tracing gentle circles on her hip.

“That’s probably the first time anyone’s thought to compliment me on my handwriting,” she laughs. “To tell you the truth, my first thought when I saw my words was that I couldn’t believe my soulmate’s first words to be were going to be an apology.” She shifts to prop herself up on her elbows, looking directly at Avery. “But I’m glad they were,” she murmurs, a hand cupping his cheek and her thumb smoothing over his jaw. “I’m glad it's you.”

Juliette Barnes and Avery Barkley, soulmates. On paper, such a thing seems incredulous, but with the woman herself in his bed, her lips soft under his, Avery is more than happy to accept such a gift.