Hayden awoke with a start. Someone was crying! He couldn't figure out who or why for several moments—then he remembered the events of the day before.

He opened the door and found Madi sitting cross-legged on the hide-a-bed, flipping through Chris' texts on her phone and crying softly. "So loving," she whispered. Hayden sighed and turned back to his room.

He needed to call Mr. Danstor and he needed to look at train tickets. He couldn't stay in Syracuse any longer. He turned back to Madison.

"Madi?" he asked softly.

She looked at him.

"You loved Chris, didn't you?"

She nodded, "Chris is the first person for whom I have ever felt this kind of affection. I really, deeply loved him."

Hayden exhaled hard and rubbed the back of his neck. He didn't particularly want to ask the next question, but it was the deciding factor in where he would go next and thus inevitable.

"Madi . . . is there any . . . I mean—could you . . .um, would it be possible for you to . . . love-me?"

Madi's expression was so crestfallen Hayden almost thought he'd blown any chance of even the most distant of relationships with her. "Hayden," she said hollowly, "please know that I will always consider you a wonderful friend, but . . . how can you ask about love in a time when I feel mine has just died?"

Hayden's heart sank. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. He retreated immediately, trying to quench the sudden wave of despondency mysteriously materializing within him by focusing on packing. The last thing into his suitcase was the photo of him and his friends. Several minutes passed before Hayden realized he was staring at Madi and Chris in the picture. It struck him that he'd focused more on Madi than on anything else. He sighed and pulled the duffel's zipper over the picture. He grabbed his suitcase and left the room.

Madi had been busy, too. The hide-a-bed was folded away, her suitcase all packed, and the floors very neat. Hayden noted that she had not touched Chris' bag, but left it on the sofa. He sighed.

"Well, I need to go check out of the hotel."

Madi cast a furtive glance at the duffel. "What about . . ." her voice fell away.

"I guess I could take it," Hayden said with a shrug. He slung the bag over his shoulder, "C'mon." He put an arm around Madi and they walked together to the elevator.

Once the two were in the lobby, Hayden turned in his key and paid the bill. After that he called Mr. Danstor and told him he was taking the train back to Albany. Madi overheard this conversation, and when Hayden got off the phone, she was still staring at him.

"You're going back to Ballard so soon?" she asked.

"Madi," Hayden explained, "We have to go back. If you want, we can go to the train station together and you can come back with me."

Madi hesitated; why did a part of her feel she was about to lose something? Or perhaps it was something she'd lost more recently than Chris? Or maybe she was lost? Madi almost accepted, but she found herself replying, "No, I—I think I'll stay here a while longer."

Seeing Hayden reminded her too much of Chris. Perhaps the confusion would disappear once Hayden left. Hayden nodded, accepting her choice.

They walked to the door together then Madi chose a seat at the front of the lobby and Hayden placed a hand on the door and pushed. It opened and a gust of chilly, autumn-in-New-York breeze hissed through the doorway.

Hayden paused for a long while. Madi, however, promptly began flipping through the texts on both Chris' and her cell phones. Hayden watched her.

"I love you too, Madison," he said softly—then walked out the door for the last time.

He figured Madi hadn't heard him, but she had—at least, partially. She was preoccupied with flipping through all of Chris' texts, from the first to the . . .

She froze at the second-to-last text. Before that one, she had completely ignored the texts to and from Hayden, but this one—this one had her name in it!

Quickly, she went back through the texts, this time looking at Hayden's texts. Finally, his last words registered: "I love you too, Madison." Where had she heard that? Was it someone else? Oh yeah! It was Chr—but it wasn't! The voices were the same!

Madi was on her feet just before the last thought sounded in her head. She pushed out the door, cell phone in each hand, her purse over her arm, and her backpack—Her backpack was back in the lobby. Oh well, sometimes friendship was more important than backpacks. She ran out onto the sidewalk.

"Hayden!" she called, looking around for him. Was she too late?

"Hayden!" She wasn't! There he was, almost around the corner!

"Hayden!" Madi began running to catch up with him.

"HAYDEN!" She rounded the corner.

There was the bus stop, halfway down the block, but before that was Hayden! He'd stopped and waited for her!

Madi hardly paused to catch her breath, choosing instead to speak between gasps. "Hayden! (puff, puff) . . . so sorry . . . didn't realize! I . . . all wrong."

Hayden looked at her in surprise. "What?"

Madi held up Chris' cell phone and Hayden recognized the text. "Oh, that? I was just . . ."

By now, Madi's breath had returned. "You were the one I fell in love with."

"I thought that was Chris."

"Maybe at first, but that love, now that I look back on it, was so shallow. It wasn't until I began receiving the notes that I really began to fall in love with words I thought came from Chris."

Hayden was getting nervous at the turn this whole operation seemed to be taking. "Madi, Chris loved you!"

"Perhaps he loved me at first, but—no offense to him—it is highly unlikely he had any idea where to go beyond our initial relationship. Hayden, why were you so vicarious?"

Hayden shrugged and looked down at the sidewalk. "I . . ." his voice fell. "You were so taken with Chris I assumed that meant you could never think of me in a relationship beyond the friendship we already had. Besides, he seemed more like the type of guy you wanted than I was."

Madi felt a lump growing in her throat as she realized the truth of Hayden's words. "Hayden," she whispered, "I'm so sorry."

Hayden shrugged. "I don't mind—"

"No," she said in a stronger tone. "I was wrong; I forgot the value of inner qualities over outer appearances and selfishly sought after a good-looking guy, and you saw me being stupid and spoony, but you never let on one iota!" She looked at him, an expression of awe on her face. "Cyrano watched his beloved Roxane fall for Christian's fair face, yet he never reprimanded but complied when she bid. Chris may have loved me and my affections, but you," she gazed earnestly into Hayden's eyes, "you were the one who really cared. Oh Hayden, how inconsiderate of me! Will you forgive me for being so rude and false as a friend?"

Hayden felt his knees buckle. His eyes glistened as she spoke. He laughed as two tears fell from his eyes. He dug his wallet out of his back pocket and began fishing around in it. "Madi… you've grown so much," he said hoarsely. When he put his wallet back, he held something in the fingers of his other hand, but Madi couldn't see it.

"Madison Kaylie Robbins, I just have one question." He grabbed her hand and held it up between them. "Would you consent to be my princess?" he quoted "Stephorrich's" line from Once Upon Love, "Madi, will you marry me?"

Madi looked at her hand, too shocked for anything to register immediately. She had no idea how it happened, but there was a beautiful, delicate ring on her finger! She looked at Hayden. True, he wasn't as perfect-looking as Chris, but the way he gazed at her now was exactly the way she'd always wanted the man she loved to look at her.

"Yes!" the words came out in a breathless gasp. "Oh, Hayden, with all my heart, yes I will!"

They embraced for the first time.


Several Months Later…

Graduation day at Ballard College of the Arts was as beautiful a spring day as one could wish.

Matt Pucker was on his way to the ceremony (fashionably late, as usual), when Dean Patrick Michaels met him in the hall.

"Ah, Mr. Pucker, I was just looking for you. Please step into my office."

Matt obeyed. He was more than a little surprised to see the office occupied, and especially by the occupants. "Mom! Dad!" he cried, "What are you doing here?"

"I called them, Matthew," the Dean said seriously. He turned to Matt's parents solemnly. "Mr. and Mrs. Pucker, there has come to my attention an account of some of the, er, underhanded dealings of your son in the past year."

"Underhanded?" Mrs. Pucker repeated incredulously.

"Yes; I will leave the details to him, but this meeting is to inform you that, as such behavior is forbidden in this institution, we are hereby dismissing him from Ballard College."

"Dismissing him?" Mr. Pucker cried, "You can't do that! He's our son!"

"And until now, you paid for him to be our student. Forthwith he is no longer welcome here. I'm sorry."

The Puckers stood. "Thank you, Mr. Michaels," Mr. Pucker said, shaking the man's hand. Mrs. Pucker said nothing, but scowled darkly at her son. The minute the door closed behind them, though, Dean Michaels could hear them all shouting at each other.

He sighed.

Meanwhile, in Ballard Theater, the commencement was underway. Hayden Berger gave a speech that would have made his father proud, and received his two diplomas, a Master's in Fine Arts, and a Bachelor's in Liberal Arts.

He did not have the chance to sit down and enjoy the rest of the ceremony, for a group of students began beckoning to him from the back of the theater. The Bergeriacs! Hayden looked over at the opposite side of the theater just in time to see Madi disappear out the door amidst her sorority.

Discreetly, he stood to his feet and ducked out the graduation ceremony. This was it! This was the special day! Hayden grabbed the collar of his bilious gown and pulled, separating the Velcro. Underneath he wore a sleek black tuxedo. His heart persisted on taking up residence in his throat.

Hayden drove to a large white church. It seemed in a daze that he entered the lobby, waved to the Regan family—all bustling about, preparing for the reception—entered the sanctuary and shook hands with Reverend Jerry Ford.

A hand on his shoulder prompted him to turn. "Congratulations, my friend," Lee Briton said.

Hayden looked across the aisle at Julia, the maid of honor. She smiled and gave him a thumbs-up.

The organ began to play, and the doors at the back of the sanctuary opened.

Hayden caught his breath. Who was this angel entering the sanctuary? She positively glowed from head to hem! Hayden Berger looked Madison Robbins in the eye. It seemed all of his years of work, of play, and of waiting—everything suddenly came into focus in those blue-grey eyes. She neared him now; she held out her hand, and he took it. She handed her bouquet to Julia and gave him her other hand. Hayden still gazed into her eyes as a poem took shape in his mind.

Once… the air filled with our laughter,

Once… we played happily ever after;

Once… a fairy's chime,

Once upon a time, it happened,

Once Upon Love.

THE END