In the pale light of dawn, streaks of ochre and orange cut through the black veil of night, clearing the mist away from the snow-blanketed valley below. From my spot on the balcony, I stared at the snow-covered hills, studying its sparkle and the eerie way the iron-wood trees seemed to be reaching for the sky; the moss-covered bows gnarled with time. Nestled in the heart of the valley, the palace was surrounded by a boiling lake. The steam curling off its surface did little to warm the air, but at least the thermal currents below supplied heat to the ancient castle in the dead of winter. Pulling the thick woollen blanket tighter around me, I shivered as another icy breeze ripped my hair out of its braid. The scene looked like something out of a fairy tale, but I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything less, the wedding was today.
“Are you just going to sit there and freeze to death?” Boris said; breaking the dense silence of dawn, I nearly fell off the bannister.
Shooting him a murderous look, I skittered to my feet. His burst of laughter did little to improve my mood. There was just something about the promise of forever that made me uneasy. Walking past him, I shoved my shoulder against his, "I was contemplating it, but then that would mean no breakfast, so maybe another time," I said, smiling back at him.
“Good because it’s too late for me to find another best man―”
“Best woman,” I corrected, seating myself in front of the roaring fire, but the flames did little to soothe my numb fingers. I could still see my boyfriend, Li sleeping peacefully in my bed, buried beneath the blankets through the ajar door.
"You know what I mean," he said, shutting the heavy wooden doors to the balcony and moving to sit in the armchair next to me. With the drapes still closed, shadows flickered and danced on the ornately painted walls of the guest suite—the sitting room connected to two bedrooms, mine and Boris’s. Still dressed in his nightclothes, I didn’t miss the crinkle of worry pressed into his brow or the permanent smile that was etched on his face. “You still have the rings, right?”
Pulling the delicate chain from beneath my nightshirt, I held it up for him to see, "You think I'd let these out of my sight?" I laughed. Looped on my necklace were two wedding rings, one made of simple gold, inlaid with emeralds. The other an intricate gold band that held one sizeable rough-hewn garnet with flecks of gold embedded in it, along with six other smaller chunks of garnet.
“No, but I had this dream where a douen took it and sold it to the highest bidder and―”
I shook the necklace again, “They’re right here, okay. No malevolent spirit is coming close to you or Sasha," I reached out for him and held onto his forearm, forcing him to look at me. "I chose the guards myself and oversaw the protection wards. Nothing is going to ruin today,” I said slowly, tucking my necklace back into my shirt, patting the spot above my heart. “Okay?”
“Okay.” He stood and pulled me to my feet. “Come on, let's go eat. Breakfast is on me today,” he said, looping my arm around his.
"You own the castle," I scoffed, "it's always on you." As we walked to the kitchen, I quickly turned back, catching a glimpse of a black coach dawning the horizon.
Shouts of laughter and songs of celebration filled the great hall. The wedding had gone off without a hitch, just as I had planned, and now that the onerous ceremony was over, it was time for the reception. The enormous ballroom was decorated with bushels of evergreens and small winter flowers. Apparently, it was a tradition for the winter court to dress in bright colours for weddings, hence the sea of pastels. Miniature orbs of light floated overhead, illuminating the room in a hazy glow. My champagne-coloured dress sparkled like a living flame.
Twirling in Li's arms, I couldn’t stop giggling, we had been dancing for hours, and I didn't know if it was the champagne or him, but tonight I felt inexplicably happy. Through the large wrought iron windows, I could see that night had fallen. Laughing against my Li’s chest, I could have lived in this moment forever, bottle it and save it. After a few more songs, something in me felt breathless, so I quietly excused myself from the dancefloor. Whispering to Li that I’d be right back, I draped his sage-coloured suit jacket around me before I melted into the crowd.
Shoving open one of the heavy terrace doors, I felt the cold night against my flush skin. Looking around, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was empty and that someone had cleared the snow. Sitting on a marble bench, I kicked off my heels and folded my legs underneath me. I had always hated crowds of people, but this wedding wasn’t so bad. So why did it still feel like my head was spinning? Closing my eyes, I focused on the rise and fall of my chest in an attempt to steady my breathing.
The heavy click of metal against stone sounded behind me.
Hesitantly I turned to face the sound, but instead of a drunk couple, I was met with the sight of an old, lost but not forgotten.
“Hey.” I swivelled the rest of my body to face William.
Dressed in a fitted navy suit, he shoved his hands into his pockets as he rocked back on his heal, “Hey.”
“I umm… I don't know that― I didn't know that you'd be here." Fiddling with the rings on my hands, I watched small flurries of snowfall onto his raven hair.
He gave a halfhearted shrug, taking in my mismatched outfit. “Last minute decision. I wasn’t sure if―”
I tried to shake the phantom touch of his lips against my skin, but the memory only sent shivers down my spine; the thought of him made my chest feel both heavy and hollow in the same breath. Keeping my voice steady, I fumbled, “If I’d be here?” As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I shouldn’t have asked.
He shook his head in response. “I wasn’t sure if you would even want me here… you know, after everything.” I could feel my face burn and silently thanked the universe for the dim lighting. Hopefully, he couldn’t see it.
His eyes met mine then, and for the first time in months, I looked at him―really looked at him. Fiddling with my necklace, the memory replayed in my head.
A flash of skin against skin, hushed whispers in a library, lips hungry to devour, worshipping each other in the dark. There, pressed against a bookshelf, I saw it. Felt it. The same savage longing that pulsed in my blood pulsed in him. We were lightning in a bottle. That’s what we were, the same stardust ran through our veins, but I hadn’t realized how close we were until he told me he loved me. Until he told me he loved me and wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. Until terror grabbed my hand and told me to run, not because I didn’t love him―because I did love him―but because he handed me a promise of forever and I didn’t know what to do.
I bit my lip at the memory. I hadn’t told anyone about that night, “But you came anyway?”
The corners of his mouth fell as we plunged back into a stiff silence. After a few empty minutes, he cleared his throat, "Are you well?” His voice was so filled with longing; it cracked something inside of me.
I slipped my heels back on. My heart ached just sitting here. I should go. “You don’t―we don’t― we don’t have to do this.”
“This?” he asked, gesturing to the large space in between us.
I stood up, pulling Li’s suit jacket tighter around me, “You know, the thing. The thing where we make polite conversation, pretend that we're interested in each other’s lives.” My heart pounded against my ribs as I fought the urge to run. He must hate me. I could feel my voice about to break, but I had to say it, “We can just go our separate ways. Pretend we never even saw each other―”
“Roslyn…” he said, and the way he said my name was enough to make me kiss him again, but I had burned the bridge months ago.
I felt the stammer leave my lips in a rush, my legs moving of their own accord towards the door. “Really, it’s alright. I’ll just go―”
“Roslyn…wait.” He called my name again, this time like a prayer, catching my wrist gently in his hand, pulling me closer, he gazed into my eyes. “Wait. Stay. Talk. Dance with me.”
I could still hear the intoxicating sweet melodies of the ballroom, the joyful lilt of the violins, but it didn’t make sense. “What?”
“Dance with me?”
“But I thought…" I stammered. I thought you didn’t want to see me. I thought you didn’t want to talk to me. I thought you hated me? Why don’t you hate me? All of these things wanted to tumble out of my mouth, but instead, a shaky "are you sure?” fell out.
“Absolutely." The colour returned to his face along with the same smirk I had grown to love. Taking his hand, we fell into a slow waltz. His hands were warm against me. I savoured the feeling, hoping that I didn’t say the wrong thing as we effortlessly twirled around the terrace. I could feel the lighting in my veins as he whispered, “Look, just because we're not talking doesn't mean I don't miss you. Okay. It’s been months of nothing, and I still miss you like crazy, so can we just―can we just for one night talk?”
My head snapped up, “You miss me?”
“Of course I miss you. I would have missed you even if―if I didn’t love you,” oh gods, there it was again, love. That unspoken idea of forever in his eyes never failed to make my chest tighten and my stomach flip. I kept my face placid, trying not to freak out again. “―and I loved the hell out of you.”
I bit the inside of my cheek, dropping his gaze, his hand still warm in mine, “Yeah.” I racked my brain for the rights words, but nothing came, so I went for the bullet, “Do you ever wish we hadn’t―”
“Gone to Atlantica?” That we hadn’t fallen for each other was what I wanted to say, but I could feel the heartbreak in his voice when he said my name; it was the same crack in my chest that kept breaking whenever I looked at him.
“Yeah.” I felt tears prick my eyes. How many nights had I cried myself to sleep knowing that I hurt a good man because he was a good man, and I―I had hurt him. He handed me his heart, and I dropped it. “Like if you could go back in time and swallow your feelings whole, to just keep them to yourself, would you?”
We stopped then, but William didn’t drop my hand. Instead, he pulled me impossibly closer. “No. No, because loving you wasn't a mistake.”
The heat radiating off my face was enough to incinerate me. What am I doing here? I should go back inside. “That’s not what I meant,” I backpaddled.
“But it is… if you could take it back, you would.” A muscle in his jaw feathered when I noticed he was staring at my necklace, the one he had given me so long ago I had almost forgotten where it had come from. “I know you would. I know you." He tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear, and it took everything in me to not lean into him again. “Before tonight, you couldn't even look me in the eye or be in the same room as me,” he tilted my chin a little higher, and he was right. I had avoided him. “So don't tell me you wouldn't take it back because you would if you could.”
I swallowed my tears, taking a step back. "Only because I miss my friend." The sentence came out more like a sob, but I regretted nothing, “I want my friend back. I haven't been able to stand in the same room as you because every time I so much as look at you, I feel guilty.”
Ripping my hands from his, I put more distance between us. "Yes, because you told me you loved me, and I―I couldn’t look at you anymore.” The words burned my throat, but I had never been good at holding my tongue. “I gave you nothing but silence for months and then―”
William closed the space between us; we now stood toe to toe, but his body held not one once of rage, only longing for what I did not know, “and you show up out of the blue with a boyfriend.” With Li, his sworn brother. I bit my lip, hugging my sides. I cursed myself as a tear escaped me. William’s voice was velvet soft as he took out a square of fabric, handing it to me, “Hey, just because you didn't return the feeling―”
I dabbed the tear from my cheek, swallowing hard, “but I did.” I just never told you, but you deserved to know. William's eyes grew wide in the hazy light, "I loved you too."
The world stopped and stood still as the words died on my lips like unpicked fruit, shrivelled and soft, falling to my feet.
It was the first time I had said it out loud to anyone. “I loved you.”
Even if it was a half-truth because I still love you is what I couldn’t bring myself to say, couldn’t because I was with Li, I was in love Li, and Li made me brave; but William made me feel invincible.
I suppose William and I will always be just that, lighting in a bottle. A once in a lifetime spark. There'd never be anything like it―like him, again. The timing just wasn’t right, and if I was honest, in another world of what-ifs, it would be William and me; and nothing else would matter because he would be my whole heart, my home. “I was just too afraid to jump,” I confessed, twisting the handkerchief in my hands, “it’s just when you said those words, I was so― so… afraid.”
“Of what―me?” he gestured to himself, and the sadness in his eyes was too much to hold.
“No. Me,” I quickly corrected, “I was afraid that if I let you in and you saw all of me, that you’d―”
“Run screaming?" he tried not to laugh, but I could see a joke forming on his tongue; he could make a joke about anything. It was what made me love him.
“Break yourself trying to fix me.” I wiped away another stray tear, "I was so afraid to love―”
“Yes, love.” I choked on a sob. “I was afraid of falling in love! Okay?” I still am, is what I don’t say. I walked to the carved stone bannister and leaned against it. The biting cold of the marble seeped through me, but I didn’t flinch. I took William’s hand in mine, not looking at him. “Being with you was such a high―you made me feel like I was on top of the world…”
“And what’s so wrong with that?”
I almost laughed because he was right. What was wrong with that? Nothing, absolutely nothing. “That's a very long way to fall, and I― I just didn't want to hurt you, but I did anyway.”
William moved to stand in front of me, “Woah. Woah. Woah. Look at me.” He didn’t turn my head this time, only bent to meet me at eye level, “Look at me. I am fine, okay.” He smiled at me, a real, genuine smile this time, “The ego was a bit bruised, I am not gonna lie, but nothing I didn't recover from.” Had he really gotten over me so quickly? “I‘m fine.”
A giggle broke free from my lips, “Promise?”
“Promise.” He held out his pinky finger and locked it with mine, the way I had taught him when we were children.
“I know I shouldn't have pushed or even brought it up, but I just wanna say if your happy, I am happy." He said, looping an arm around me. I leaned on his shoulder. “It’s all water under the bridge." I couldn’t stop grinning; he wasn’t mad.
So we sat there for I don’t know how long, but eventually, the music began to slow down. I should probably get back to Li, but William whispered something incoherent just as I was about to move.
“Humm?” I asked, waiting for him to repeat himself.
“Friends? Are we still friends?” I saw him stiffen, unsure of what my answer would be.
Leaping up, I hugged him and beamed, “Yes… I would like that very much.” Hugging me back, I handed him the stained handkerchief, "Hey, why don't you come back in with me? I am sure everyone would love to see you. Not to mention Sasha has been dying to meet you."
Pulling him towards the door, I didn’t give him a chance to answer, dragging him behind me back to the party, back to our friends. The same way fate had dragged him back to me, my found family, my dearest friend, my lightning in a bottle.