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more beautiful than all the stars in the sky

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The forest was dark, trees casting shadows on the ground, looming over the clearing; the grass was soft, blowing in the wind, and little flowers dotted the ground in blues and pinks and purples.

A boy wandered into the clearing, seemingly materializing at the edge of the trees. He breathed in the fresh air, fingers ghosting over a tree trunk as he stepped further away from the forest's edge. Above, the moon shone brightly, illuminating everything in a dim blue light. Stars spun overhead, littering the sky in a cacophony of lights, leaving him breathless.

The air was cold, but not uncomfortably so; he could see his breath, but it was comforting, made everything around him seem more real. He fingered the charm on his wrist. 

The boy stood in the middle of the clearing and waited, silently hoping someone would appear.

It felt like hours before something happened. She stepped out from the shadows of the forest, staring wide eyed at the landscape, gasping as she looked up. 

The boy smiled. She turned her head to look at him, eyes softening. She took a step towards him, and another, and then he had started walking towards her, too-

He stood close enough to her to smell the new shampoo in her hair, but she didn't move forward. His fingers twitched at his side, and he longed to gather her up in his arms and bury his face into her shoulder.

"Hey," he said instead.

"Hey yourself," Rose replied, smiling warmly. Her hair fell behind her back in golden waves, glowing in the faint light of the moon. A strand fell into her face, and Jake had to stop himself from reaching up and tucking it behind her ear. 

"I..." He gulped, looking down at his feet. He could feel her breath, calm and controlled, unlike his frantically beating heart. "How long's it been?"

"About a year and a half," Rose replied softly. She looked up at the sky. "I'll be seventeen in a week."

"That's right." Jake let out a breathy laugh. "I'm still a year behind." 

They met each other's eyes - dark, rusty brown next to clear, glittering blue - and Jake caught his breath before finally managing, "Wanna dance?"

"There's no music."

"This is my dream, sweetheart," he said, grinning a bit. As if on cue, a waltz sounded from somewhere up ahead, piano creating a soft but upbeat tune. He held his hand out to her.

Rose looked doubtful, hesitating for a moment before taking his hand. He pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her waist; they began to sway to the music, leaning into each other as they relaxed and enjoyed the waltz.

"Jake," Rose said in a hoarse voice. "Jake, I don't-"

"It's just one night," Jake murmured. He breathed her scent in (oh, God, he'd forgotten how nice that shampoo was), then curled his fingers around her hand. "I haven't seen you in over a year, and I haven't been able to celebrate your birthday, we need to catch up-"

She sighed. "I... I have a life now, Jake, and... I like it. I don't want to know about the magical world anymore."

"It's my fault for making you remember, I know-"

"You had no choice, the Dark Dragon would've destroyed you all-"

"I didn't want to lose you-"

"I'm happy, Jake-"

"I just..." He stopped for a moment. They stood in the clearing, nothing but the sounds of the forest and their own breathing breaking the silence. 

Rose closed her eyes. Her hair was still in her face. He raised his hand, stopped, let it drop.

Her skin was pale, flawless, eyelashes dark but somehow not needing much mascara; a light dusting of freckles dotted her upturned nose, and her lips were soft and pink, parted as she exhaled through her mouth. 

He began to rub circles into her hand. She hummed a little tune - the same waltz they'd danced to, which had faded into the background - and leaned into him, bumping her forehead against his. They're bodies pressed together, and in her embrace, Jake felt safer than he had in a long time.

"You're beautiful," Jake murmured.

Rose smiled sadly. "Thank you, Jake."

"No, like... you're beautiful. God, there's no one more beautiful than you." 

She leaned back from him and looked down to hide a smile. "Oh?"

"Yeah," Jake said, removing his arm from her waist to hold her other hand. "More beautiful than anyone I've ever seen. If you look at the stars, Rose, they're still not as pretty as you."

"I don't know, Jake. The stars are really pretty."

"No, no, no." He pouted, then lifted her arms up and spun her around. She squeaked in surprise, but didn't resist. "Look up," he urged. She had her back against him, and he'd hugged his arms in front of her.

"They're like little diamonds," she observed, tilting her head up. Her hair tickled Jake's nose.

"They're bright," he said, "but not as bright as you. They could light up the whole world, and it still wouldn't be as bright as your smile." He turned her around. "Your laugh." Another spin. "Your eyes," he whispered, bringing her close.

"I'm not a good choice for you, Jake," she said softly.

"It's just one night."

"One night will be so hard to move past."

He hugged her, hard, burying his face in her neck. She wrapped her arms around him, breathing deeply so he could feel her rib cage expanding.

"So let's dance," he said into her hair.

They spun and they spun and they spun; they moved their feet in time with the music, laughing when they tripped and had to catch each other. The grass was nice to fall on, they discovered as they tumbled down on top of one another, and barely hurt at all. The flowers seemed to stretch towards them, urging them to continue to dance and tumble and laugh.

It must've been about an hour before sunrise when they found themselves lying on the ground, face to face, studying each other's features. Jake's baby fat had disappeared, and his eyes had more smile lines; and if you looked hard enough, you could see the dragon fire residing in his iris, pupils oval like a cat's.

"I missed you," he said.

"I missed you, too," she said.

If this were a story, perhaps they would have kissed; maybe they would have set aside their boundaries and given in to their hearts, consequences be damned; but this was not a story, for they would have to return to their lives the next day on separate sides of the world; she with her new normal life, and him with his dangerous magical one.

Maybe they'd fall in love with other people, get married, start a family; maybe one of them would choose to let go of the dream charm and they'd never see each other again; maybe Jake would forget about the sad girl who was prettier than all the stars in the sky, who dreamed of living a normal life; maybe Rose would forget about the cocky kid in her class who tried his hardest to show that he was so much more than just a dragon.

Maybe they'd cross paths once again, reminisce, and if there was no one else in their lives, fall in love all over again; find a forest like this one and dance and lie on the ground to enjoy the warmth their bodies provided.

If this were a story, there'd be no end to the night. But the sunrise soon came and Rose faded away into the air, where she'd soon wake in her bed and go on living her normal life. And Jake would stare at the spot where'd she'd been a moment longer before waking up himself, forcing himself to spend the rest of the day as he was expected to. And he'd long for another night with the dream charm, but wouldn't dare try again because he knew she was happy and he couldn't make her leave her family again.

So they remembered the dance in the forest. And whenever they looked up at the stars at night, they were reminded of each other and the life they could've lived.