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The World in Solemn Stillness

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by salixlikescake
awesome cover art by [info]salixlikescake

 

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prologue // christmas 2008

Tachycardia. Bradycardia. There is a name for this, he knows, the fluttering and failing of his heart in his chest. His hands shake against Penny's shoulders as he holds on too long and too tightly—this must be too tightly, he thinks, but he does not let go. Only when he hears Penny muttering his name, her jaw smashed against his bicep, does he finally pull back, his grip still tight around her elbows.

She says his name again, that bewildered, amused tone sending another pang to his chest. He struggles to slow his breathing—in though the nose, out through the mouth—and finally, after several long moments, he finds his voice.

"Thank you," he says. The words, he knows, are inadequate, and his voice falters as he repeats himself. "Thank you, Penny."

Her smile wavers and starts to fall. Sheldon's eyes go even wider as he tries to catalog this expression, since she seems to be upset and he cannot deduce why. Her eyes narrow and the corners of her mouth turn down but then she tilts her head to the side and her eyes are bright and soft. There is something sweet-smelling and light on the air. He can't decide if it is the aroma of the gift baskets behind him or the scent of Penny that is clouding and fuzzing his brain, but her voice is barely a whisper when she speaks.

"You're welcome, Sheldon," she says. He notices, for the first time, just how green her eyes are.

i // christmas 2009

Leonard gives her perfume. It's expensive, she knows, and not really her style, but he presses it into her hands and says, "Merry Christmas," in that unassuming, cautious way he always talks to her and all she can think to do is kiss him quiet and smile when she pulls away.

She convinces the boys to make a holiday dinner, all of them piled into the kitchen chopping and dicing and baking like fiends. She wears the perfume Leonard bought her and when he notices his smile is wide and willing and kind. It makes her chest expand, a nice, warm feeling just behind her ribcage. She knows it is not the most passionate romance she's ever been in, but it is practical and safe, and she's reconciled herself to the fact that this is enough for now. She does not look at it like settling. She appreciates Leonard for what he is and the way he makes her feel, and she'll not apologize for it no matter how much half-time teasing her friends put her through. It's nice not to second-guess or doubt or be put-down, and the smile she gives Leonard when he catches her eye over the chopped cloves of garlic is genuine, even if it doesn't make her hands buzz or her breath catch.

"This is my grandmother's recipe," Penny tells them as she sprinkles raisins into her mixing bowl. "Every year, my brother and sisters and all the kids come over to Marmee's house and we bake our Christmas cookies, and then she makes us these. They're called Hausfreunde cookies, and they look like cow patties, but they taste amazing." She smiles broadly, thinking about Beth and Anne and Tommy and the kids, and the wide, white reach of a Nebraska winter sky. She laughs to herself, "It's like a gazillion calorie day, but what the hell. It's Christmas, right?"

"Are your sisters as hot as you are?" Howard asks.

Leonard butts in immediately. "Don't."

Sheldon clears his throat from the other side of the counter where he's slicing carrots into exactly equal chunks. "Hausfreunde means 'friends of the house,' so named because they are easy to prepare and serve to unexpected guests. They are traditional German Christmas cookies." Penny gives him a look, a why the hell do you have to know everything? look, and he continues, "I did spend several years in Germany. My research assistant brought me to her family's Christmas gathering. It was actually quite interesting. German men apparently have a different relationship to flatulence than we have in the States."

Leonard groans and Penny rolls her eyes. Raj takes another shot of the eggnog and asks, "When are you leaving for Nebraska, Penny?"

They chit-chat through the rest of the meal preparation, talking about Christmases and Hannukahs and Saturnalias past. Raj tells them about the year Howard's mother burnt the brisket and took them all to Popeye's instead, and Leonard tells them about his sister getting engaged just before Christmas Eve mass. There is wine and the soft glow of the Christmas lights Penny made Sheldon string up, and Penny's hands buzz warmly as she finally gets up from the couch to check the roast in the oven.

Sheldon follows her into the kitchen, heading for the meat thermometer with the speed of a starving man. As Penny's lowering the oven door, he scoots up next to her and says, "I like my beef cooked to exactly 155 degrees internally. Any lower and it bleeds like a headless chicken, any higher and I might as well be chewing on tires." Penny gives him another glare, but there is no fire behind it, just the soft pleasantness that's settled itself in her cheeks.

The heat from the oven is warm on her face, and she watches Sheldon's hands as he adjusts the meat thermometer and takes all the readings necessary to make sure the roast is edible. He finally pulls away and nods his head. "This will be fine. It'll cook more when you let it rest." He gives her another one of his superior looks. "You are going to let it rest, aren't you?"

So they stand in the kitchen while they let the meat cool. Raj and Howard and Leonard are all crowded around Leonard's computer, paying them no mind, and she settles her hips against the counter and sighs. "What was her name?" Penny asks. Sheldon looks at her surprised, a rare hint of confusion on his face. "Your assistant in Germany, who took you to Christmas. What was her name?"

"Oh." Sheldon pauses, tensing his jaw. Penny's hands buzz against the counter and she wants to reach up and smooth the hair from his forehead and settle her hand against his cheek. She wants to give him all the things his mind has cost him, but she knows there is no usefulness in wanting to change his life for him. His voice is low when he answers, and unusually warm. "Her name was Astrid."

"Mm," Penny answers. Maybe she's had more wine than she thought. Maybe she should let Sheldon slice the roast. "That's a pretty name."

They're quiet again for another long moment, until Sheldon sways toward her just slightly and breathes in deeply. She narrows her eyes and turns to him and asks, her voice hushed, "Are you smelling me?"

Sheldon looks down and away, and twists his hands around themselves and takes a few seconds to answer. "You smell different," he says, not meeting her eyes. "Normally you smell like strawberries and vanilla, but this is an overbearing floral scent with which I am unfamiliar and do not enjoy. It doesn't suit you." He sniffs again. "I'm just making an observation on my surroundings."

Penny looks at him, the bend of his neck as he stares at his shoes, the creases around his eyes. "Leonard bought me new perfume for Christmas." She holds her wrist out under his nose, too far into his personal space, and asks, "Do you like it?"

She expects him to pull away, to glare at her and run to the other guys, to leave her with a scathing retort. She does not expect him to raise his hand and settle it around her wrist, for him to turn to her as he lowers her arm and meet her eyes and whisper, "No."

ii // christmas 2010

It's not so much that he's drunk as it is that he was bamboozled, using deception and trickery, into imbibing more alcohol than a frame like his can reasonably be expected to tolerate.

So yes, he's drunk.

The crowd has thinned down and Penny's apartment shows the wreckage of a night spent among inebriated acquaintances and colleagues. There are beer cans strewn across her kitchen counter and empty wine bottles set atop the coffee table—on the bare wood finish, no less—and he fully intends to get up and start cleaning as soon as the room stops spinning.

Sheldon settles harder against the couch cushion, tilts his head back and breathes. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Raj curled into a ball on the floor, head heavy against his knees and a carton of eggnog clutched precariously in one hand. Penny's ushering the last of her friends out the door, and the click of the lock is heavy when she finally turns back to the room. She breathes out heavily, her hands rested on the small of her back, and then she walks slowly toward him, toeing empty plastic cups out of her path.

When she drops down beside him, he groans in annoyance, his head lolling to the side and his eyes finding hers.

"You feel okay, honey?" She pats him gently on the knee, her fingertips light against his pantleg, and his stomach jumps. He groans again and concentrates on breathing.

Penny leans forward out of his frame of vision and he hears shoes falling to the floor. When she leans back, she tucks herself just nearly against him, not so close as to touch, but still familiar, intimate in the almost press of her shoulder to his. He almost thinks to pull back, but—he doesn't.

The paradigm has shifted. Sometime between her break-up with Leonard—fallaciously mutual, if Leonard's sullen demeanor over the next few weeks were any indication—and now, something has changed between them. He is a scientist, trained to notice even minute changes in behavior, and somewhere during her headstrong attempt to prove they could all still be friends, Penny and Sheldon actually got closer.

He does not fool himself into thinking that his sudden apprehension when she enters the room is coincidence. He knows what the nervousness in the pit of his stomach means, and the reason his heartrate flies out of control. He understands the chemicals of the brain and can tell you the science behind falling in love. He almost approaches it like an experiment, the cataloging and interpreting of her actions, his reactions, and the not unpleasant pain in his chest. He does not tell Penny about dopamine and chemical receptors and pheremones; he just sits and observes and studies the lines and the shape of her, and the fall of her hair on her cheek.

It's a statistical certainty that in at least one of the worlds in a vast and complex multiverse, he is a husband, and a father, and he would be lying to say that the thought didn't always have a curious kind of appeal. He won't go so far as to say he's been blindsided by his developing romantic feelings for Penny—it's illogical to think life will never surprise you—but surprise is not the same as unpreparedness or fear, and there are few things he takes on at which he does not push himself to excel.

So when she settles her temple just so against his shoulder, he does not even think about pulling away. She hums to herself, low under her breath, the familiar chords of carols and Christmas songs. Her voice is not so unpleasant, he finds, not now when he can squint his eyes at the Christmas tree and let the lights play tricks on him. The colors swirl and blend and he smiles, a light, airy thing on his lips, and his lids start to droop and fall. He lets himself drift off slowly, Penny warm against him, the sound of "Greensleeves" on the air.

iii // christmas 2011

Texas is unnaturally warm for December, and Penny does not care for it. She decides immediately that there is something unwelcoming about a Christmas with no snow, and she tells Sheldon as much as they stand in the front yard stringing garlard off the mailbox.

"Mama wants it nice and pretty for baby Jesus!" Mary shouts from the front porch. She beats a hasty retreat back inside, and Penny slumps her head against Sheldon's shoulder and pouts.

"We could've gone to Nebraska," she says into his sleeve. He is resolutely ignoring her whining, much as he's done since they arrived in Houston, and doesn't pause at all as he lays strands of shining ribbon on the mailbox. "In Nebraska, there is snow, and football, and we make cookies and build fires and it's just. Christmas."

Sheldon's voice is clipped and tight when he answers her. "December 25 occurs in every time zone and every state and I assure you, Christmas will occur here as well. As negligently accurate a holiday as it may be." He turns to face her, narrowing his eyes. There is a tension in his shoulders that hasn't eased since they arrived, but Penny's inquiries have gotten her nowhere. "I don't see why you insist on wearing that."

Penny folds her arms across her chest and flips her hair over her shoulder, defiant. There's a scarf wrapped tightly around her neck and a stocking cap pulled low over her ears and as much as they are causing her to overheat, she won't give Sheldon the satisfaction of taking them off. She settles for blowing a raspberry at him and looking out at the horizon.

Christmas Eve creeps up slowly, but finally they are welcoming Missy and Roland and their respective families into the living room, presents and side dishes filling their hands. Sheldon has more family than one would think, all flooding into the house in a rush. Penny is passed around the room, shuffled from an aunt to a cousin to a niece, quicker than she can keep up, and her eyes scan the room desperately for Sheldon.

She loses track of how many surprised faces she gets. How many times she hears, "Sheldon's girlfriend? Really?" or, "I never thought he'd come home with anyone, let alone a pretty girl like yourself!" or, "I didn't know the boy had it in him!" She knows he overhears, knows he is not unaffected by their assumptions and their inadvertantly cruel words, but he doesn't say anything to her. He keeps himself just out of reach, almost out of earshot, and she misses his fingers at her elbow and the comforting weight of him beside her. By the time she catches him creeping quietly out the back door, her jaw is set in a hard line and her hand aches for the feel of his.

He doesn't turn to look at her as she pulls the sliding door closed behind her, just keeps his gaze focused on the sky above. The downtown haze throws a garish cloud over the skyline, and the stars are unfocused and faded. She can't count the nights she's dragged him up to the building's rooftop, settling against him with a warm, contented sigh, and drifted off to the sound of him recounting the tales of the brightest constellations. She lets the memories soften her gaze and untense her shoulders, and the brittle grass crunches beneath her feet as she approaches him.

"Hey there," Penny says, sliding her hands into her back pockets and craning her neck toward the sky. She thinks she can see Andromeda if she squints hard enough and she says as much to Sheldon, watching him just inside her periphery. He doesn't respond, so she toes the ground and tries again. "How's the air up there?"

A year ago he would've answered her with something ridiculous, like "There is no discernable difference between the ozone at my height and that at yours," but now he just cocks his head slightly and does not turn to face her.

She knows what this mood is for, even if he will not tell her. She watched him fuss and fret for days before they came to Texas, and she knows, from the snippets he has told her, that it is not a place that holds the fondest of memories. He doesn't say that it reminds him of childhood torment, of being an outsider, of the father he's lost. He doesn't say anything at all.

Penny takes a sidestep, stands behind him and circles his waist with her arms, hands clasped just above his belt buckle. He does not take her hands in his, but she feels him relax just slightly, soften just enough against her chest that she is not so hurt by it. She flattens a hand against his stomach and mutters against his shoulder, "So. Texas, huh?"

He doesn't answer, just tenses his jaw and keeps his eyes high.

Long minutes pass and they don't speak at all. Penny can still hear the sounds of Sheldon's family from inside, the low roll of conversation spilling out the windows toward them. She feels a familiar heaviness settle into her chest and the lines of her face. She has found no way to connect with him when he is like this, when he pulls too far inside his head, too far beyond the stars, and she is starting to think there will never be anything she can offer that will pull him back beside her. It is the most doubt she has ever let herself express about this relationship.

She starts at the sound of the glass door sliding open. "Penny!" Missy calls from behind her. "It's your commercial! It's on the TV! Come inside!"

Penny waits a long moment, waits for Sheldon to say something, to tell her to go, to ask her to stay, to circle his arms around her and press his mouth to hers, but he doesn't. When she starts to turn away, his hands flinch as if to pull her back, but they settle again against his sides and he doesn't say a thing as she goes.

iv // christmas 2012

He burns the milk for his cocoa the first two times he makes it. He attributes it to the conductivity of the new pots he purchased, but in actually, he knows he is distracted and not paying enough attention to his drink preparation.

Jenny was kind enough not to say anything when he dazed his way through dinner, pushing potatoes and carrots around his plate, and for once he was glad of Leonard's incessantly cheerful chatter. He listened to stories of sonograms and a recitation of the pricing of different infant monitoring systems, but even Leonard seemed surprised when he offered no opinion on the naming of female offspring.

It has been the longest month of his life. He knows this is a temporal impossibility, but he gives relativity enough credit to understand the statement's figurative meaning. Her touches are still all over the apartment—the colorful throw along the back of the couch, a vase full of plastic flowers on the island, her shampoo on her shelf in the bathroom. There are even presents in the hall closet waiting to be wrapped, next to the box of Christmas lights she begged him to hang for days before finally throwing her stuff in a suitcase and leaving. He has not changed anything since she left, but he has not acknowledged it either. He knows enough to know that the lights are the least of the reasons she's gone.

He takes his cocoa and settles into his spot on the couch, one hand around the warm mug, the other pressed flat to the empty seat cushion on his right. He watches a marathon of Doctor Who Christmas specials, regenerating hands and runaway brides, and luxury space cruisers and Cybermen. There are whole stretches where he doesn't look at the TV at all, but counts the red lights, the blue lights, the yellow lights in the strands hanging along the ceiling. He counts lights and listens to Time Lords and misses Penny.

It's been a month since she left. She hasn't been back, but he hung the lights for her anyway.

v // christmas 2013

Halfway through the night she resolves to give up her annual Christmas party. Half an hour after that, she decides to quit parties full stop. It's not the mess this time, or drunken men groping her—though she doesn't particularly miss that either—it's the fact that all her friends now bring their spouses, and pictures of their kids at home, of the full and exciting lives they lead. She doesn't begrudge them their happiness, but the envy she feels is a tight ball in her stomach, and the pounding in her head has nothing to do with the music.

Leonard catches her in a lonely corner, his eyes narrowed in concern. "You know you've been wiping down that coffee table for almost five minutes now? Since when do you clean in the middle of a party?"

She tilts her head and gives him a look, a for-God's-sake-I-lived-with-Sheldon-too look, and runs the towel over the table a final time. Leonard is close behind as she heads into the almost empty kitchen, and his voice is nearly lost beneath the music as he says quietly, "I did something."

Penny's back tenses, her neck draws up, and she regards him suspiciously. "What? What did you do, Leonard?" He shuffles nervously from foot to foot, head down and only looking at her over the top of his glasses. For just a moment, he's Leonard as he was when she met him, when he was nervous and quiet and embarrassed of himself. He's not like that anymore, and she is glad of it, but not enough to forgive his continued silence. "Leonard, don't make me hogtie you. Tell me now," she threatens, voice like honey, "or I'll get Jenny."

"Okay!" He takes a step closer and breathes in hard, gathering his resolve. Penny draws more fully into herself, hands shoved in her back pockets, chest tight. "I might have invited someone else to the party tonight, but please don't be mad at me. I didn't mean—"

He's interrupted just then by three distinct, tentative knocks on her front door. Her eyes go wide when she hears them, though how the sound finds her ears over the din is something she'll never quite understand. When Leonard asks her about it later, she tells him it was probably her Vulcan hearing. She doesn't say anything about longing and hope. She doesn't say it was because it was the one sound she'd been waiting to hear for thirteen months and eleven days.

She turns and flings herself toward the door, weaving in and out of the couples dancing in her living room, and she can hear him calling her name as she grabs the doorknob and pulls hard. His arm is raised in front of him and his mouth is open wide, the sound of her name just fading out.

They stand for what feels like a lifetime, just looking at each other. Out of the corner of her eye, she feels the people nearest her, fellow castmembers turned mostly friends, look at her curiously. She spends a long minute just staring at him, eyes searching for signs of change. She finds none, and doesn't know if it's a comfort or a blow.

She finally shakes out of her stupor and steps out onto the porch, pulling the door closed behind her. They still haven't spoken, and she knows he is waiting for her to make the first move. She turns away from him and grips the rail, the wood beneath her hands far sturdier than her voice when she finally speaks. "What are you doing here, Sheldon?"

He takes a step toward her, moves into her periphery, and begins, "Leonard invited me. I know it is against social protocol to 'gate-crash,' as it were, but I'm willing to endure any reprimands you may wish to give me." He steps closer, and when she turns her head she is surprised to find that his tightly clasped hands still shake just slightly. He clears his throat and tries again. "I wanted to see you. To speak with you. I would like to repair the damage done in our relationship."

"We don't have a relationship anymore." She grips her hands and grits her teeth. She hasn't forgotten the reasons she left in the first place, and the sight of him—however welcome, however wanted—doesn't change any of them. "You shouldn't have come, Sheldon."

She turns to go back inside—she cannot, will not, do this tonight, when she was finally moving past things—and her hand is almost on the doorknob when he says quietly, "Penny, please."

She keeps her back to him and shuts her eyes. She loves him, she knows, and has for longer than she ever admitted to either of them, but she won't let it make up for the ways he didn't give enough, the ways he couldn't get out of his head long enough to tell her that he loved her, or needed her, or wanted her to stay. It's enormous, the fact that he is here at all, and she's not blind to that, but there is more to make up for than can be fixed in one night.

"You take too much for granted," she says, still turned away. "You expect too much and don't give enough, and I let you get away with it for so long because I—" and her voice catches in her throat and she has to turn and meet his eyes—"I loved you." He ducks his head and tenses his jaw, and her palm itches to fit against his cheek, just like it used to. "But I couldn't pull all the weight myself."

She swallows hard and takes a small step forward, and settles a hand on his chest. Her mind is awash with memories—their first kiss, the first time she said she loved him, the first time they made love—and it's hard to turn away from him and leave all that behind. There is not enough fight in him, she knows, for him to pull her back, and it's this more than anything that makes her turn away.

He surprises her with a hand over hers against his chest, the skin of his palm dry and rough. "Penny, I ask that you stay for one more minute." He swallows hard, and it reminds her of so many things.

She is weakest, she knows, in the parts of her that miss him. She's weak in too many places. "Sheldon, I can't."

"I brought you a Christmas present." The words surprise her as much as his voice when he says them. His tone is rough, low. Desperate. She's never heard him sound like this before. She nods her head, just once, just slightly, and he pulls her to the chair on her porch.

Centered precisely on the seat is a box, wrapped painstakingly with blue paper, a card on the front baring her name in his tidy scrawl. She takes the box in her hands—it's heavier than she was expecting—and sits down, settling it on her knees. She doesn't meet her eyes as she unwraps it. She can see him almost flinch as she tears the paper, but he stays still in front of her.

It's a clear plastic case, as long as her hand from heel to fingertips, filled with a mess of colored balls suspended with wire. She's known him long enough to know it's an atom of some kind, and her heart falls just a little as she takes in the sight of it. The last thing she wanted from him was more science she didn't understand.

But then she feels his palms against her knees as he crouches down in front of her and meets her eyes. "It's tungsten carbide," he says, voice still unsure. "Tungsten is one of the strongest naturally occuring metals, but it's hard to work with in its rawest state." She runs her finger along the edge of the casing, but he reaches forward and grabs her hand, pulling her to him just slightly. He looks older than she's ever known him, and tired, and sad. "Tungsten's too brittle on its own," he says, voice thick. "It has no give. The carbon here, it makes it stronger. They're joined by covalent bonds, the strong type of atomic bonding. They share electrons. They're no good on their own."

She remembers when Leonard gave her a snowflake, when she was confused but the idea was nice, and the feeling was warm if not strong. This now is a burning, a chafing in her chest, heat spreading up her neck and to her cheeks, and her eyes are full of tears when they meet his. She opens her mouth to speak, but he cuts her off again, voice steadier. "This is the gift I was going to give to you last Christmas, but. Circumstances changed." He leans further toward her, one hand sliding further up her thigh, the other squeezing hers. "Penny, I would like nothing more than the opportunity to prove myself to you. To pull my weight, as you put it." His jaw tenses and his eyes are bright. "I'm asking for another chance. I can be better at this."

Penny feels the first tear roll down her cheek, and Sheldon's palm is quick against her skin, rubbing it away with his thumb. She leans forward and presses her forehead to his, steadying herself against him. "You have to try harder. You have tell me that you love me, and show me how much, and you can't shut me out for your science." The words feel like relief, and it's a weight lifted that she can say them without feeling like she's giving away too much. This Sheldon is not the Sheldon she first met, or the Sheldon she walked out on a year ago. She knows it won't be easy, but she'd be lying to say she didn't want to try again just as much as he does.

Sheldon pulls back and meets her eyes, palm still fitted against her cheek. He tilts her face to his and closes his mouth over her own, his kiss warmer, messier than she remembers. It brings a smile to her lips, and when she pulls away she's almost laughing. She throws herself forward and wraps her arm around him, and her forehead fits into the crook of his neck just like it used to.

"You like the gift?"

She smiles again, and holds on tighter. "I do."

He runs his hands up her shoulder blades, one pressing her to him, one tangling in the ends of her hair. "It was a metaphor," he whispers.

Penny laughs again, pressing a kiss to his jaw and pulling back. She smoothes the hair from his forehead and settles her hand against his cheek. "I know, " she says, leaning in to kiss him again.

epilogue // christmas 2014

Nebraska Christmas is nothing like Texas, and every time he tells her—every half hour or so—she merely rolls her eyes and smiles. He's come to recognize this look as exasperation, but he's studied her enough to know the affection it holds, too, and he squeezes her hand in his so it's always followed with a smile.

She drags him out onto the porch on Christmas Eve, the two of them bundled up as much as they can stand. She presses herself against him and they watch the snow fall, soft, swirling clouds just out of reach.

They fall quiet for long moments and Sheldon contemplates the weather patterns of the Midwest, the chemical compounds of the snowflakes, the exact composition of the clouds. He lets his mind go, expanding out and on forever, until he's pulling out past the Milky Way and further still. He starts suddenly at the feel of Penny's bare hand, small and ice cold, slipping up his jacket and against the bones of his hip. He grabs at her instinctively, pulling her wrist away at the same time he pulls her toward him, and he slides their hands into his pocket together. Her smile is fractured for only a moment and there's an apology unbidden on the tip of his tongue when finally she smiles, a low, lovely thing that fills his chest and curls his lips. She molds herself besides him, fitting against him just so, just like she did before, and he tells her stories about his time in the Arctic, about white winter as far as the eye can see and the feeling of being the only man on Earth. He tells her about three months of daylight and the land of the Midnight Sun. He doesn't tell her that the thirteen months and eleven days they spent apart were the loneliest of his life, because, when she leans her head against his shoulder, he's sure she already knows.

Beth leans her head out the door and calls for them to come in."Supper's ready!" she says, and Penny turns to walk inside. Sheldon stops her with a tight squeeze of her hand, and when she lifts her face to his, her eyes are bright. His heart flutters and fails in his chest in a welcome, familiar way, and he knows now that it's just love.

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