As she braided her hair, she looked to the sea.
A fragrant, heavy heat had settled over the long coast. Bugs hummed in the tall trees lining the path, and above, seabirds called and cried high in the whiteblue sky.
She finished the long plait and tied it off with a piece of black cord, letting the heavy braid settle between her shoulders as she looked up at Nadir. He offered her a hand, and she rose from her knees to standing beside him.
They walked, not hand-in-hand but close, conversation flowing easily even after years of separation. He spoke of his time as a hunter, of his adventures hunting wild creatures in the deep, dark jungles, and she of her life as a priestess, caring for the altars of their gods, burning fragrant incense and lifting her spirit and veiled eyes in prayer. Even now it felt strange to be seen by the eyes of so many. To be with Nadir was to be by herself, for she considered them of the same soul, but how foreign the sensation of meeting another's eyes with her own! As they passed through farms and seaside villages, she first averted her eyes shyly before relishing in her newfound power. Oh, to feel the sun on her brown cheeks again! Oh, to have the saltbreeze in her hair, kissing her lips and ears and eyes!
She felt him watching her fondly as she spun in the sun, her skirts flaring and shimmering, before she took his hand, nearly dancing down the winding trail, giddy and breathless and laughing, laughing so hard her sides hurt, laughing at their amazing fortune and the strange wills of the gods and at their freedom, their blissful, precious freedom.
Later, she told Nadir of the pearl, and of her first meeting with Zurga all those years ago.
He listened, and after she finished, he remained quiet.
'What is it?' she asked.
After a moment, he shook his head. 'It's nothing of your doing, Leila, in fact quite the opposite. But until this moment I believed that Zurga had freed us out of his own kindness, because it was right, because he loved you, because he loved me. Now to hear that it was only to right an old wrong, to keep a promise made long ago, draws a chill into my heart.'
She looked up at him with earnest. 'Does it not satisfy you that he kept that promise? That he is, at least, an honorable man?'
Nadir shrugged; he had no answer. They continued up the dusty brown path in silence, with only the sounds of the sea and the jungle to fill the aching void where no easy resolution could be found.
They camped that evening by the coast, eating grilled fish and rice while the sky grew purple and gold, the sun shimmering over the vast horizon. He leaned his head on her shoulder, mirroring so many nights when she'd rested on his, and they watched the sun sink into twilight's oblivion.
'I can't stop thinking about it,' he said. 'Zurga, and the mess we made for ourselves. I hurt him, Leila, and yet I cannot bring myself to regret anything that I've done. Are years of friendship and trust thrown away so easily? Is my heart so quick to forget him, even as it remembers how much I love you?'
She felt the desperation in his unspoken question: will I one day leave you, just as I have left him?
Or perhaps that was not his fear, but her own.
When she, lost in thought, did not respond further to his question, he tucked her into his arms and placed a kiss on top of her head. She felt his breaths against her back, the steady gentle motion like a heartbeat, like the waves on the coast.
Bats whispered overhead, a fluttering of soft wings in between the crashes and lulls of the ocean at their feet, and she remembered the hidden loneliness that had colored so many of her nights. When she had still been the veiled, devout priestess the world wanted her to be, there had been a certain holiness about it then. She'd told herself that the pain in her heart was her sacrifice to the gods; her heart had whispered back that she loved Nadir.
'We all make sacrifices for the ones we love,' she said simply. 'If Zurga did not care deeply for either of us, his heart would not have been so easily touched. And you... you chose me, over him... I cannot clear your conscience for you; I can only pray that you feel you chose right.'
Nightsounds filled her ears once more. 'I chose you,' he answered quietly. 'I always will.'
I love you, I love you, the sea whispered back.
Forgiveness would take time; healing, patience. As the dark curtains of night fell, she thought, and she prayed. She thought of Zurga, and the pain of betrayal of the two he'd held dearest to himself: his best friend, the woman he'd loved. She thought of Nadir, and the choices and sacrifices he'd made, just so he could lay here with her under the blanket of silver stars. She thought of herself, and how lucky she'd been, her life saved by a good deed and a single pearl. She'd chosen Nadir, she loved none but Nadir, but ultimately her fate had been in Zurga's hands all along.
Her prayers that night were much more simple. They had time, now. No longer bound to the night, pursued by the rising sun, she could dare to love Nadir freely. Yes, they had all the time in the world.
Patience would come more slowly. And so she prayed to Brahma for patience, for compassion, for acceptance.
She prayed for Zurga, for the man to whom she had been an unknowing spark, and he, a ready fuel.
She prayed for Nadir, and she prayed for herself. Slowly they would heal, and move forward, together. Still the sea rushed forth, time and tide continuing as they always had. She settled into his arms and awaited the new day.