Soft lips brush Alex’s eyelashes before landing on her forehead. She's been up for a while, but her eyes have been squeezed shut for the past hour or so in an effort to convince herself that if she doesn't open them and see sunlight, the day hasn't actually arrived.
Instead, she keeps them closed and buries her face in Kelley’s chest, arms tight around her girlfriend’s waist. Kelley’s been humoring her, but the soft kiss alerts Alex that it might be time.
“No,” Alex whines, squeezing Kelley tighter.
“Yes,” Kelley whispers, doing her best to wriggle out of Alex’s grip. It's not what she wants either, but it's what she has to do.
Alex finally opens her eyes before Kelley can completely pull away. She wants a picture like this that she can hold inches away from her face every morning when she wakes up without those green eyes and freckles staring back at her. Mostly she wants to remember this feeling and bring it back up whenever she needs it.
“Good morning, beautiful,” Kelley says, completely aware and completely not concerned about how cheesy it sounds. It's just true.
“Happy birthday,” Alex says softly, kissing her lips. It's a lie. It won't be a happy birthday by any stretch of the imagination, but she has to say it anyway.
“Thank you,” Kelley says, melting into another kiss.
“I think my birthday present to you is going to be staying right here,” Alex says. “I'll cancel my flight and stay with you.”
She had said her goodbyes to her parents two days ago when she and Kelley left California. It was hard enough saying goodbye to them, and it will be hard enough saying goodbye to Kelley without having to stuff all the emotion into one tearful goodbye.
Instead, she got her tears taken care of on the five-hour flight to Atlanta, during which time Kelley held her hand and kissed her cheek when appropriate and told her jokes and distracted her with card games the rest of the time.
By the time they arrived in Georgia, Alex was more concerned with seizing the few hours she had remaining with Kelley, but she's sure it'll hit her all over again when she gets on the plane. Luckily, it'll be a much longer flight this time.
The drive to the airport is quiet because small talk and mindless chatter doesn't feel worthy of their last few minutes together. Alex protests when Kelley insists on parking, but she's grateful to have the ability to say goodbye inside instead of at the curb where cops would probably be tapping at the window telling Kelley to move.
Kelley walks Alex to the security line, squeezing her hand through check-in and checking baggage till they finally get to the point where Kelley can't go any farther.
“This is it,” Kelley says, turning to face Alex and set down the bag she's carrying for her.
Alex's eyes well up immediately when she looks at Kelley, and Kelley follows suit.
“Don't,” Kelley whines, sniffling. “This is awful.”
“I'm sorry,” Alex says, but trying to keep herself from crying makes it even worse.
“Hey,” Kelley says, lifting Alex’s chin. “No apologies, remember? I love you so much. And you're going to do so much good for so many people. I get you forever, so the least I can do is share you for a little while, right?”
Alex nods, thoroughly unconvinced and unable to speak without breaking down in sobs.
Kelley wraps her arms around Alex, kissing the side of her head and breathing in her scent. “I love you,” she whispers. “More than anything, baby.” She holds her for a few minutes, neither one of them saying anything, as Alex clings to Kelley for dear life. “Alright, sweetheart. Three more kisses, and no more crying. When I let go of you, the crying is over, okay? We only have a few more minutes, and I want them to be happy.”
Alex nods, taking a shaky breath in. She pulls away, allowing Kelley to wipe her eyes and kiss both of her eyelids. “That doesn't count toward the three,” she protests, and Kelley laughs.
“No, but this one does.” She kisses Alex softly on the lips, her tongue darting out to lick away the salt from her tears. “And this one.”
Alex turns her head. “No, make it last,” she says.
“I’m trying,” Kelley sighs, her eyes filling with tears. “Please kiss me.”
Alex bites her lip, hesitating before leaning in for another kiss. Her flight leaves at the same time no matter what, but part of her brain wants to believe so badly that as long as these kisses can last, the longer she’ll be with Kelley. And she’s joked about it before, but she’s pretty sure she could kiss Kelley for an eternity.
The second kiss is longer and deeper, Kelley’s lips still reaching for Alex’s even after Alex’s teeth let go of Kelley’s bottom lip.
“You’re going to do so amazing,” Kelley says. “I’m going to write to you at least once a week, and I’ll be available for FaceTime any hour of any day.” In reality, Kelley had written and mailed Alex’s first letter three days prior so it would be there when she arrives.
“I’m going to miss you so much,” Alex says, not bothering to wipe the tears falling from her eyes. “As soon as I let go of you it’s going to hurt.”
“It already hurts, baby,” Kelley says, taking Alex’s hands and bringing them to her heart.
“I’m so sorry,” Alex says. “I’m so sorry this is happening on your birthday.”
“Hey,” Kelley says softly. “Any day I get to wake up to that beautiful face is a good day, even if I have to kiss it goodbye on the same day. One more kiss, okay?”
“Last time we said that, we were breaking up,” Alex laughs wryly.
“Yeah, but this time we know there will be more to come,” Kelley says. “Soon.”
“Soon,” Alex agrees, taking a deep breath.
“Can I see that smile one more time?” Kelley asks. “As a birthday present.”
Alex forces a smile, but Kelley’s grin spreads across her face, and Alex’s becomes genuine.
“Good,” Kelley says, placing a hand on the back of Alex’s head and pulling her in for their final kiss, a short and sweet bookend to their time together. “You make me proud.”
“I love you,” Alex says, squeezing Kelley’s hands.
“I love you too,” Kelley says. “I’ll wait as long as I have to, but you better not make me wait any longer.”
“No way,” Alex laughs. “Counting down the days.”
“Counting down the seconds,” Kelley replies. She wraps her arms around Alex’s shoulders, holding her tight in a final embrace. When she releases her, they both blink away tears and force smiles, Alex shrugging her bag onto her shoulder. “Have a safe flight. I love you.”
“I love you,” Alex murmurs again, taking the hardest step she’s ever had to make: the one away from Kelley and toward her next adventure.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” Kelley asks when she hears Alex sobbing on the phone. “Are you okay? What’s going on?”
Alex is crying so hard Kelley can’t make out the words she can tell she’s trying to say. “I—I lost—”
“Breathe,” Kelley says. “What did you lose? Everything is fixable, I promise.”
“Bracelet,” Alex finally manages before dissolving into tears again.
“You lost your bracelet?” Kelley asks. Her chest tightens, but she knows she has to set Alex at ease.
“Uh-huh,” Alex confirms through her tears. “I had it when I was with you and then I went through security and they made me take it off, and I didn’t realize I didn’t have it till I got on the plane. I’m so sorry.”
“Relax,” Kelley says. “Where are you?”
“Airport,” Alex wails. “Empty gate.”
“Are you sitting? I want you to sit,” Kelley says, imagining Alex pacing back and forth and working herself up. “Sit down.”
Alex obeys, and Kelley can hear her crying lighten up.
“Listen to me,” she says. “It’s just a bracelet. I understand why you’re upset, but I’m not, okay? I’m still with you. That has nothing to do with any material item. It’s just a bracelet. Can you say it?”
“It’s just a bracelet,” Kelley says.
“It’s just a bracelet,” Alex says between heaving breaths.
“Good,” Kelley says.
“This is going to be so hard,” Alex says.
“I know,” Kelley says. “But we have to get through the first day. After that, it’s just one day at a time. How long do you have till your flight boards?”
“An hour,” Alex says.
“Get yourself some coffee and a bagel. Check your bag, I slipped an American Express gift card in the side pocket.”
“Kel, no!” Alex exclaims. “It’s your birthday, I’m supposed to do nice things for you.”
“That’s why I didn’t tell you till it was too late to give it back,” Kelley teases.
“Thank God for kind TSA agents,” Kelley had written. “I hope this brings you some comfort as you get adjusted, but my love is way bigger than your teeny tiny wrists. I love you!”
Alex opens the box and cries again when she sees her bracelet, nestled in tissue paper, still bearing the engraved words that meant so much when she first read them. She didn’t think it was possible, but they mean even more now.
“Whoa,” Kelley says. “Back up, did I do something?”
“No,” Alex sighs. “I’m just tired. Can we take a rain check?”
“Al, you know I’m going to be slammed at work,” Kelley says. “That’s why we’re doing Sunday evenings for you and afternoons for me.”
“Maybe you could make a sacrifice now and then.”
“Are you joking?” Kelley laughs bitterly. “What do you call this entire year?”
“Being in a relationship?” Alex says.
“Which is full of sacrifices, like being away from my girlfriend for an entire year,” Kelley says. “What the hell has gotten into you?”
“Nothing,” Alex says. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
“Fine,” Kelley says. “You sounds like you could use it.”
Alex rolls her eyes, hanging up before Kelley can tell her she loves her.
“I was a bitch,” Alex texts. “I’m sorry. I’m sad about missing Thanksgiving at home, and hearing you talk about your plans was tough. I shouldn’t have acted like that though. I love you a lot. Can we try again tonight?”
“Of course,” Kelley replies. “I’m sorry and I love you too. And you owe me two pretend goodnight kisses this time.”
Their (incredibly cheesy) new tradition is closing their eyes and puckering their lips, kissing the air simultaneously for a “goodnight kiss.” It’s cringeworthy and gross, but they’re the only ones who know about it, so they keep it up.
That's where Kelley comes in, always giving Alex a chance to focus on herself for a change. They hit the six-month mark not long before Valentine’s Day, so they celebrate the two occasions at the same time as romantically as they can manage.
Kelley lives in a decently sized apartment, so she has dim lights and roses and champagne, but Alex has what is essentially a dorm room and fluorescent lighting and the best wine she was able to scrounge up at the supermarket.
Either way, they're blissfully happy to speak to each other, both holding gifts from the other in their laps.
“You first,” Alex says, grinning.
Kelley unwraps her present, glancing up to see Alex’s excited smile. “How in the world?” she asks, lifting up the handmade scrapbook made with such care. The front is decorated with die-cut letters spelling out “The Story of Us” and their photo from Alex’s formal on the front in a frame.
“I started it at the beginning of the summer, but I brought it with me so I could add to it,” Alex says as Kelley thumbs through the pages.
There are photos from practically everything they've ever done together, a whole page dedicated to the different times they've taken care of each other when sick or injured, receipts from dates and screenshots of texts. As she flips through, there are fewer pictures and more letters (and some FaceTime screenshots) before ending with several blank pages.
“To be continued,” Alex says, beaming.
“This is amazing,” Kelley breathes, wishing more than anything she could kiss Alex right now. “You're so sneaky. I even helped you pack!”
“I'm too good,” Alex teases. “I'm glad you like it.”
“I'm excited to add to it,” Kelley says. “Soon.”
“Soon,” Alex confirms. “Okay, my turn!”
Kelley turns red. “You should have gone first, mine is nothing close to this.”
“Oh hush,” Alex says, tearing away the paper. “I have a lot more free time.” Her eyes go wide when she sees the outside of the box. “Oh my God, Kel, you didn't.”
“I told you!” Kelley exclaims. “I'm sorry, I thought because a year ago today we first… you know, and we were going to be having a sexy FaceTime.”
Alex laughs, pulling the way-too-expensive vibrator out of its packaging. “It's perfect,” she says. “But only if you can help me put it to good use right now.”
Kelley kinks an eyebrow, getting over her embarrassment quickly. “Challenge accepted.”
She's gotten better with time and experience, but she still doesn't like long flights, especially alone. So as she sits in the terminal ready to board what's going to be the longest flight she's been on yet, she reminds herself of what her sister has told her a million times in the past year: “Where there is love, nothing is ever too much trouble and there is always time.”
It was supposed to be a surprise for Alex, but Kelley couldn't bring herself to make Alex sad even for a few days, so that went out the window. It's more fun this way, too, being able to look forward to something with the person you're excited to share it with.
Alex Whatsapps her every morning with a picture of the updated countdown on her whiteboard and a sweet good morning text. Kelley replies when she wakes up hours later, and when she saw the “1” on the board this morning, her heart practically leapt out of her chest. By the time the board reaches the much-anticipated “0,” Kelley will be 30,000 feet in the air and getting ready to land.
That is, if she doesn't die from panicking on the plane.
She sits up to look out the window. Part of her expects to see vast plains and deserts like something out of the Lion King, but she knows that's not how it is based on all her conversations with Alex over the past year. Her heart pounds out of her chest, and she knows it isn't because she's scared of the plane. This time it's all for Alex.
When she sees her, after sprinting through the airport to the baggage claim, Kelley almost falls over. She's as beautiful as she was when she left, and probably more. She seems taller, though maybe that's just the way she's standing with confidence. She's lost weight, not that there was any to lose to begin with. Kelley can see it in her face, but when Alex grins wide, her famous double chin appears, and Kelley feels like it's last summer all over again.
Alex runs toward her, and Kelley drops her bag to catch her when she hurls herself into Kelley’s chest, burying her face in Kelley’s neck.
“You're here,” Alex whispers, her breath tickling Kelley’s ear and sending shivers down her spine.
Kelley pulls back to kiss Alex, because that's what her instincts say to do, but Alex turns her head, leaning in for another hug.
“No kissing,” she says softly. “It's not safe here. But I'm going to kiss you so much when we get back.”
Kelley’s heart sinks, but she knows Alex is right. Her group had been warned that Nigeria is one of the most homophobic countries in the world. Alex even had to choose carefully which pictures to display of herself and Kelley in her room.
“Can I tell you how much I love you though?” Kelley whispers back.
“Yes,” Alex agrees. “To Nigeria and back.”
“Now that we’re both here, how about just to Nigeria?” Kelley says, smirking.
“I missed your bad jokes,” Alex says, picking up Kelley’s bag and walking toward the conveyor belt where her checked luggage will come through. “Actually, that's a lie, you’ve kept them coming.”
“I couldn't let you miss me too much,” Kelley explains.
They spend the cab ride back to Alex’s catching up on (almost) everything they missed. They FaceTime at least twice a week, but little things slip through the cracks, like Erin’s broken foot and Alex’s new phone case. Little things you know about the person you spend every day with, but not the person who lives five hours ahead on another continent. Little things that make them realize how hard distance really is.
When they get back to Alex’s, as tired as Kelley is, they catch up on everything else they missed, like Kelley panting against Alex’s neck while her fingers work between Kelley’s thighs and Alex’s high-pitched whine when Kelley sucks her more sensitive nipple (the left one) between her lips. And holding each other while they collect themselves, kissing softly and whispering “I love you.”
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Alex says, stroking Kelley’s face like she’s trying to memorize it all over again, down to every last freckle. “Really I can’t believe it’s almost been a year since I last touched you.”
“I know,” Kelley murmurs, kissing Alex’s forehead. “I can’t believe I haven’t kissed you since then.”
“You’re going to have a much happier birthday this year,” Alex promises.
“Even though it's pretty much a full travel day?” Kelley laughs. She's ecstatic to be taking Alex back with her, but they're flying to California to reunite Alex with her family, which means with stops and layovers (and jet lag), it'll probably be miserable.
“We can celebrate when we’re in D.C.,” Alex murmurs against her lips.
“Is that my surprise? You're going to come visit?” Kelley's eyes widen with excitement. She's taking a week off from work for this and California, but she wasn't sure when she’d get to see Alex again after that.
“Visit?” Alex asks. “I thought you said there's plenty of room for me in your apartment.”
“There is,” Kelley says slowly. “What are you…”
“They approved my transfer request,” Alex says, a smile spreading across her face. “They want to keep me in D.C. to continue working.”
“Shut up!” Kelley exclaims, sitting up. “Shut up. You're kidding.”
“I'm not kidding,” Alex says. “I know moving in together is a big deal and we were just missing each other and far away and there's a lot to consider, but—”
“No way,” Kelley says. “It's been almost two years, one of which we spent apart. You're moving in with me. Holy shit. You're moving in with me.”
“I start September 1,” Alex says. “So I get a few weeks to be at home and then I'll be with you.”
Kelley's eyes well up, and Alex smiles.
“Oh, baby,” Alex says, laughing as she too feels herself start to cry. “Don't cry.”
“It's been such a long year,” Kelley sobs, burying her face in Alex’s chest while Alex rubs her back. “I never thought it would end, but we made it, and now—”
“We made it, sweetheart,” Alex whispers, kissing the top of Kelley’s head. “We made it.”