Amuria kisses Neviril—Neviril, whom she has never seen before—like she has a right to: like she had seen Neviril's hair bouncing as she ran towards her when she was seven, like they had strolled through the gardens hand in hand after long, boring dinners their parents insisted on having, like she had been right beside Neviril when she saw a Simoun for the first time, like Paraietta never did, throughout all these years. The shock of it goes straight to Paraietta’s knees, suddenly odd and weak, but she doesn’t fall, only turns, walks away.
It doesn't matter; later that night she goes back and fixes all that.
The angled landing platform of the Grand Temple was blinding in the sun and Paraietta had to squint a little when she smiled at the crowd of younger girls. Together with Neviril, she walked towards the Simoun waiting for them a bit further away with easy, measured steps. Neviril's hand, when Paraietta grabbed it, was small and warm. Her face was even warmer when they reached the machine and their lips met. The kiss was wet, and it was soft because Paraietta could never kiss Neviril the way Amuria didn't, because their kiss should be like two hands clasped together on a warm afternoon, and when Paraietta drew back, Neviril was smiling, not shocked. Somebody shuffled their feet behind them. They didn’t look. And then they flew, probably, yes, certainly, they flew: together for the first of many times, a pair.
If many nights are spent on this kind of flying and they never really seem to get anywhere, that's fine for now. Paraietta keeps falling asleep with a smile on her face. The smile follows her into the day when she needs it and she sees it reflected back on Neviril’s face sometimes, so all is well. Paraietta practices her Maajus and Ri Maajons and finds that people look up to her for her strength, ability to make quick decisions and clarity of mind, which earns her the position of second-in-command. It’s perfect. She can support Neviril better when others listen to what she has to say.
If she has to see Neviril kiss and fly with another, it feels temporary. After all, even Neviril’s father has always thought they should be a pair. After all, they kiss and fly together every night, too, in increasingly more vivid scenarios, and Neviril's eyes shine so bright every time. After all, Paraietta has the right to Neviril because no one else has climbed over the fence of her family’s grounds with her in order to get some ice-cream in the town’s cafe. Blackberry and vanilla. Paraietta remembers it exactly. The time is on her side.
The war comes and Amuria’s death shakes everyone up. Paraietta goes to see the Simoun; it looks horrifying. She never knew manipulating space and time could rip you out of your seat in a screech of metal if done wrong.
Aaeru is impertinent, brash, inconsiderate; Aaeru has no respect for Sibilla Aurea, her grief or her boundaries.
It's a difficult time for Neviril and an important time for Paraietta, who needs to be strong for her more than ever. She takes on most of her friend’s responsibilities as a Regina. Whenever she has time, she guards her door, sitting on the corridor stairs and ensuring Neviril has all the space she needs to mourn the loss of her sagitta and move on. She even allows Neviril to go to the Spring with Eri even though something in Paraietta constricts painfully at the idea that Neviril may enter it without her by her side. She bites her knuckles, sitting alone in her room, hoping Neviril will come back, fly like only she does, smile at Paraietta again, and maybe—
Aaeru, though. She's a force of nature banging on Neviril’s door, violating the peace and quiet anyone would need to heal. There's a lot to dislike about Aaeru: priesthood means nothing to her, she doesn't know the first thing about their collective trauma, and when scolded she bounces back unperturbed. What Paraietta finds most distasteful, though, is how she seems to be bent on acting like a poor imitation of Amuria. It falls short, of course. They're no more similar than a Simile and a Simoun. Amuria has been, among other things, a valued teammate, while Aaeru is just an infuriating stranger too likely to hurt Neviril to be dismissed.
But the days pass. The enemy is unlikely to wait for the sibillae to regroup and their own government certainly won't. They should be getting back on their feet with all the new recruits and they don't seem to be able to do that without Neviril as a leader. Paraietta knows something will have to give, and pretty soon. What does Neviril need, what would she want her to do?
The responsibility for returning Choir Tempest to its previous glory feels heavy on her shoulders and waiting doesn't seem to be working. Maybe what Neviril needs is some kind of new stimulus, spending time with someone who doesn't know much about what happened. Paraietta can't give her that. Suddenly, unfortunately, Aaeru starts looking more like a key rather than a wrench in an already tense situation. Maybe she would be good for Neviril, just for a while, until she feels more like herself again.
“I never felt like you betrayed me,” Paraietta says under Neviril’s door, and it tastes foul in her mouth. She grinds her teeth. This is what Neviril needs at the moment.
She fences with Aaeru, who is—audacious, confident, driven, and she flicks Paraietta’s blade from her grip by surprise.
She feels good about this. She does.
Did she? When she thinks about it now, she isn’t sure. She doesn’t anymore. Aaeru draws a spear through Neviril’s delicate heart, then comes to her room to force herself on her, like she has a right to, and Paraietta sees red. She was wrong. It’s Amuria all over again, except so much worse.
Neviril asks Paraietta to leave her alone that night, but later, when Paraietta lies in her own bed listening to the breathes of the other sibillae in the common room, she doesn’t, didn’t.
“Would you stay with me for a bit?” Neviril asked after Paraietta had thrown Aaeru out, pulling her legs up to make more room on the mattress.
She looked so small. Paraietta shut the heavy metal door, walked back to Neviril’s bed and sat on its edge. Neviril’s head was turned away, but she thought she could see tears lingering on her eyelashes, shining in the faint light seeping through the small windows of the Messis.
“I’m sorry,” Paraietta said after a while. “Aaeru might not mean harm, but she only thinks of herself. I should have come sooner.”
Neviril closed her eyes. “It’s not your fault.”
For a moment, it seemed like maybe she didn't want Paraietta to look at her or be here, only—she had asked. They didn’t say anything for a long time. Neviril’s breathing slowly became more even.
“I would like to always be there for you when you need me, which is why it does feel like it's my fault,” Paraietta tried again. “More importantly, it's my fault because I thought she would be good for you, that maybe you would be happier if you and her became closer. I made a mistake, and I’m sorry.”
“No one is ever good for me, not in the end,” Neviril said quietly, bitter. “They don’t truly know me. Not like you do, Para.” She finally lowered her legs, uncoiling from her defensive position, and met Paraietta's eyes. Her gaze was somber. “I always think people will be good for me, too, but at the end of the day you’re the only one who’s there for me not because I fly well, or because I’m a charismatic leader, or because of my father, but just because you selflessly care about me and want to support me.”
Her voice wavered a bit at the end, and Paraietta felt honoured to be able to witness this vulnerable Neviril, Neviril who had grown up trying to always stay calm and collected, aware of what the others expected of her. It hadn’t always been like this, of course. When they were younger, Neviril wasn’t ashamed to cry, or shout, or laugh with Paraietta until their cheeks hurt and they tumbled down onto the grass, or the flower bed, or the sofa in the drawing room. The stoic demeanor had come with age and being the best of every class and choir. And then came the war, and it kept on coming.
Paraietta knew she couldn’t singlehandedly make everything better or return to the simpler times of childhood, but that was not what she wanted right then. She only longed to take some of the pressure off Neviril’s shoulders, wipe the wetness off Neviril’s face, because it was there again, or maybe it had never dried.
She let her hand stay on Neviril’s cheek after she reached out and for once Neviril didn't draw back, didn't say “let me go” or turned away.
“I care about you, but that's not enough,” Paraietta said, emboldened. “I need to be stronger for you, Neviril. I promise I will, and I'll protect you if you allow me to. Please let me protect you.”
Neviril’s eyes looked so big, and so sad. She leaned a little into the touch and extended a hand towards Paraietta, pulled her closer until they could wrap their arms around each other. Her breaths grew deep and steady, as if she intended to stay embraced like this for hours to come, which filled Paraietta with peace and gratitude. They should have done this a long time ago. Paraietta tightened her hold and Neviril sighed, burying her face in her neck.
“It’s me who should be sorry,” she whispered into Paraietta’s skin, now all goosebumps. “I think I’ve made a big mistake and never appreciated you the way I should have.”
It felt like there wasn’t a danger Paraietta could not defeat, pain she could not will away, a Neviril she could not shelter from all that was dreadful. They couldn't, in fact, stay like this forever, but oh, how could she ever be sure that Neviril was safe when they were not pressed together just so? She dug her fingers into Neviril’s thin frilly shirt and felt Neviril’s hand move over her back in an unhurried caress. Briefly, she thought of Aaeru. This was something she could never do for Neviril: provide comfort. Soon, though, the thought floated away and she forgot about anyone else, her nostrils full of Neviril’s rosy shampoo, her arms full of her body, her heart full of her: Neviril, Neviril, Neviril.
When the morning comes, there are fingernail marks all over Paraietta’s arms. Her hands hurt and isn’t sure if she got much sleep; much, or any.
Paraietta doesn’t lose touch with reality, not ever. She knows that what she thinks in the small hours of the night is one thing and what she does in the morning is quite another. The war needs to be the priority because it will punish all of them the moment anyone becomes unfocused and stumbles. Paraietta is still the backbone of Choir Tempest, even if the circles under her eyes grow more prominent by the day and she doesn’t remember the last time she fell asleep smiling. People rely on her.
“Everyone’s soul is of equal value,” Yun says, her face serious as always. “If you don’t understand that, how can you be an efficient leader?”
“Sibilla Aurea is Choir Tempest’s best sibilla. Thinking that she needs a nobody like you to protect her… That’s damned arrogant of you!” Aaeru shouts, and Paraietta wills her to shut up, she has no right, she’s still just a new recruit among them, and then slaps her.
“Is your judgement so unreliable that you’d rather listen to someone who’s been asleep?” Dominuura asks, more self-assured than anyone else in the room even in her bed clothes.
“I think I’ve made a big mistake. If I were with you…” Neviril says, and it's as if the control lever of a Simoun has slipped from Paraietta's sweaty palms.
Blood rushes in her ears. This is all wrong, and it's ludicrous. She couldn't have forced Neviril to say this, could she? Of course not. If she did, that would make her no better than someone like Aaeru, holding her own desires above anything and anyone else.
She splutters and stops Neviril from finishing the sentence, but when Neviril’s eyes fill with tears, well, she can’t possibly leave. After all, she has promised her something. Neviril’s windswept hair, when they hug, smells just like it did when they were small and just like it did that night.
When they’re on good terms again, Neviril and Aaeru, Paraietta no longer trusts this peace and doesn’t feel good about it in the slightest. It has the quality of a long, drawn-out crash, which is to say it's not peaceful at all.
It wears on her: the back and forth of the war, the back and forth of her own thoughts, and how it always seems to be back, and back, and back. Something suspiciously similar to regret pulls at her insides. Maybe she should have been not less but more like Aaeru and Amuria all along. They always seem to get what they want, in the end.
Paraietta knows how the evening is going to go before taking a single step outside of her room. She will brush and style her hair, wear her tight-fitting black dress, walk to Neviril’s room and knock on her door.
“Hello,” Neviril will say, almost like a question. She won't be dressed for the night yet.
“I hope I didn't wake you.”
“No. No, I’m having trouble sleeping, actually.” She would, because Paraietta knows Neviril, how she has always been a light sleeper and becomes even more so when she has an important test coming the following day, or a mission.
“Would you walk with me then?”
The ship will be empty at this hour and their steps will echo on the metal floors until the carpets of the ballroom will swallow the sound. Paraietta won’t reach out to take Neviril’s hand, not just yet. She'll lead them to one of the tables, or maybe lean against the bar and look at the sleek white crossbeams of Arcus Prima framing the dark sky outside.
“Your hair looks even more pink in this light, do you know?” she will say conversationally, or maybe something like “Your Maaju this afternoon was remarkable,” because people should appreciate Neviril's skill more instead of taking it for granted.
“Will you dance with me? Just one song?”
To Paraietta's delight, Neviril will smile a little bit, not surprised in the slightest. She has lost her genuinely happy, unreserved smiles somewhere in the war, but it will seem for a second that they’re not truly gone, and perhaps they could find them again, eventually.
“Yes, let's. I don't see why not.”
Paraietta will put some music on the gramophone—no, not just some music, a tango. She will have made sure that the record is there, ready to be played. When the first notes of the song fill the air, she’ll extend her hand in an invitation, and Neviril will grasp it. There’ll be something intense and full of anticipation in her eyes.
“Can it be more than just one song?”
Every leaf of the indoor plants will be still as if frozen in time. Paraietta won't answer, not yet, guiding Neviril into position and pulling both of them into the music instead.
“You took Aaeru under your wing,” she'll say lightly.
“Yes. Does it bother you?”
“Tell me why.”
“Aaeru is just like Amuria, in a way. I realized I can't run from the memory of one, so I made up with the other.” They'll be almost cheek to cheek and gradually moving closer, Neviril's hair a few minutes away from tickling Paraietta's nose. “On the other hand, it's not like it was with Amuria at all.”
Neviril’s gaze will cloud over briefly. “I think I made a mistake, somewhere. Maybe with how I treated Aaeru, maybe as far back as when I became involved with Amuria. Maybe it was more than one mistake, and I worry that it's too late to fix all of it.”
They won't dance with much finesse, nothing like what they were taught when they were younger. Paraietta will sway with Neviril in her arms, enjoying the warmth of their clasped hands, thinking.
“Is it too late, Paraietta? Have I hurt you too much?”
“It's never too late.”
“Then why didn't you let me finish what I wanted to say on the Messis?”
“Would you say it now?”
Neviril will frown as if it isn't even a question. “Of course. I still stand by it: I'd like to be your pair. But it seemed like you didn't want to hear this.”
“I thought I wasn't good enough. That maybe you didn't really mean it. Even now, I'm not sure...” Paraietta’s voice will feel odd and thin because she has been wrong about these things before, hasn't she?
But Neviril will tighten her grip on Paraietta, catching her attention, and her voice will be sure. “You know? I think maybe it's more difficult like this, when you've known someone most of your life. I think I was waiting for you, but you were never brave enough, and I wasn't brave enough either—I didn't even know what I wanted. You had to come to me tonight, but now I think I know what I want, and oh, Para, don't you think we should finally act?”
Right. Paraietta will dip Neviril, the ends of her hair sweeping the floor, and the record will stop. They’ll stay frozen for a moment, their breathing fast, uneven, until Paraietta slowly lowers Neviril to the ground.
“I want to be your pair,” Neviril will say. “And I don’t mean flying partners. Piloting a Simoun is a brief privilege, the war will end one day, and we’re already grown up. I want to go to the Spring with you and I want to be your pair after that as well.”
Neviril’s always been beautiful, but probably never as much as she will seem like right then, her delicate round face framed by locks of flowy hair lit by the rosy light of the night sun, her eyes trusting and sure. It will finally be Paraietta’s time. She'll kiss her, framing her body with her own arms and legs, and feel her open her mouth to respond before stopping to ask one final question.
“Is this something you want? Tell me.”
Somewhere not too far, but far enough, Aaeru will be breathing softly in her sleep. She won’t be here, and her pairing up with Neviril will have no weight because it'll be temporary, because at that moment Paraietta will be holding her future in her hands, and it will feel like the green orb of the Simoun coming to life and glowing inside her, here to stay for the rest of her life.
“Yes. Let’s,” Paraietta will say, feeling joyful, and loved, and so strong.
Later, Neviril’s body thrashes under her hold until it becomes terribly, horrifyingly still, as if her own will doesn't matter, has never mattered.
It’s not a moment of weakness when Paraietta runs, just like it wasn’t a moment of strength when she pushed Neviril to the ground.
Paraietta flexes her hands on the balcony railing and focuses on the sharp air of the early morning. She breathes in the smell of the flowers wet with dew. Holds it in. Breathes it all out.
The gardens she grew up in are smaller than she remembered and so is her childhood room. The walls have been repainted a different colour and she doesn't know any of the new staff who have been hired during the years of her training and service. Her parents wanted to see her, which is why she has come, but she's glad she wasn't planning on staying for long. She feels like a stranger.
She's been sleeping well, though; short, deep, dreamless nights that end with the first rays of sunlight when she comes to with a perfect clarity of mind as if eager for something, not yet sure what it is. She doesn't resent it. There will be time yet to figure it out, and oh, she has so much time now. The chill of the metal below her palms makes her shiver, and she marvels at the way her body feels to her, same as always, so different from what she thought it would be for most of her life.
Neviril has flown off to some new world, but the world she's left behind is new as well.
Paraietta does wonder about her—if she's happier now, if she's safe—but she doesn't imagine. It helps that whenever Neviril’s Simoun has taken her is unimaginable. It helps that Paraietta is physically unable to follow. She likes to think she wouldn't have either way, but that makes it easier.
The thing is: Paraietta knows, with inexplicable but bone-deep certainty, that even if Aaeru and Amuria had never come along, even if the war had never happened, she would one way or the other still be right here, without Neviril in her strange old-new home, looking at the sky, and it's—she wipes at the corner of her eye impatiently. What's the use of hating yourself when you've been forgiven, when you have talked and parted ways with a smile? When the past is sealed in an inaccessible box? Let me go, Neviril has asked and repeated and for once, Paraietta does. Piece by piece. Every day.
She knows she can do it. She has already let go of her choir of friends, her status as a sibilla, and her ability to pilot a machine both holy and monstrous that made her who she is. She takes a moment to breathe in—and breathe out again, then goes back inside. Her suitcase is still open. She throws in a few things which she might need in the city, in some new place she will find for herself there, and closes it again. This, she can do right now.