It’s one of Karolina’s earliest memories. She’s chasing her father down a beach, the sun bright and energizing on her skin, the wind whipping her hair and tickling her ears, her body so light that she barely notices the hot sand against the soles of her feet. She's holding her arms out, pretending to fly, when a wave wraps around her ankles. It shocks her with its fierce, cutting cold, and all of a sudden she finds herself on her hands and knees in the sand.
She is giggling.
Dad lifts her up and tosses her over his head. Mom laughs as he sets her down, and Karolina hugs his knees, watching the ocean lap at the shore. She wants to see how far into the water she can run before dad will catch her. He’ll lift her up, she knows, and they’ll play that game where they pretend she’s running on top of the waves. She's fiddling with the bracelet on her right wrist, her tiny fingers fumbling with the clasp.
The change in the air is palpable, sudden, more chilling than the bite of the ocean water on her skin. This is the most vivid part of her memory. Her parents scream in unison, reaching for her. She is scared. Dad is lifting her up and she’s burying her face in his shoulder, not sure if she should cry.
“It’s alright, sweetheart,” dad is murmuring into her ear. “Your mom and I are just worried about you. We love you so much and don’t want anything to happen to you. Promise me you’ll keep that on for us, okay?”
Karolina nods, feeling the warmth of his shoulder on her cheek.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Karolina opens her eyes, and the light from the blue giant swarms her vision. Since their arrival on this ship, she has avoided the viewing room. In here she feels exposed and vulnerable; space, she has come to realize, is nauseatingly big. Even the tiny slices of it that she could see through the windows of Xavin’s shuttle were enough to make her feel lightheaded at first. The light from this star, however, is comfortable and warm. It fills the window from ceiling to floor and Karolina can see individual flares on its surface. This is familiar. This is right. This is-
She’s fiddling with her wrist again, the thumb and forefinger of her left hand absently encircling her right. She’s been trying to break the habit for months now, but it’s gotten worse in the days since she left Earth.
“It’s incredible,” she says without turning around. “I’ve never absorbed energy from a star that isn’t- from anything other than my - Earth’s - sun. It feels different. Like a new…flavor, sort of? I love it. I could stand here all day. Or, I mean-” Karolina bites her lip. She forgets how they measure time out here. It’s different by planet, she recalls, and space has its own measurement. But that’s just how the Skrulls do it; Xavin doesn’t know about the Majesdanians. Karolina has slowly been discovering just how much she has to learn.
“Humans can’t look directly at a star this close,” says Xavin. “Not without heavy shielding.” She’s standing at Karolina’s side, less than a hand’s width away but deliberately not touching, both of them staring ahead as if somehow talking is easier without eye-contact. In her peripheral vision, Karolina can see that Xavin has adopted her human form, her dark hair cascading down her back in gentle waves, the blue glow of the sun spilling over her flawless brown skin, her lavender suit hugging her body in a way that makes Karolina’s cheeks glow pink.
Karolina finds it strange that she blushes the same way as a human and as an alien. A Majesdanian. Everyone is an alien out here, she realizes. The thought is terrifying and validating at the same time.
“We don’t have to do this now, if you aren’t ready,” says Xavin. “You are new to space, and I can tell them you’re still tired from the journey.”
“No,” says Karolina. “I’m alright.”
“Are you sure?” Xavin is looking at her now. Karolina doesn’t move.
“Yes.” She pauses briefly before continuing with a flare of something like adrenaline. “I don’t think I’ll ever be more ready than I am right now, and the longer I wait, the harder it will be.”
“I understand.” Xavin nods. “I too have felt this way. The first time was before my great trial. The second time was before…before I traveled to Earth.”
Karolina finally looks at her. Xavin’s eyes are soft and brown. Something behind them is gentle and careful but vulnerable, even scared. Her expression is lightyears away – so to speak – from the brash, arrogant prince who nearly attacked Karolina and her friends on Earth. Bravado, Karolina has come to realize. A front. They rarely talk about it now.
“Stay with me?” Karolina says, hearing her voice tremble but for some reason not minding.
Xavin smiles. “The whole time.”
The first meeting takes place in a large, majestic room on a station in relatively neutral space. Karolina and Xavin are briefed beforehand; there will be an equal number of delegates from Majesdane and the Skrull Empire, and the entire exchange will be conducted in Earth English. The designated language was particularly controversial, but it was deemed neutral and anyway, it’s the only language Karolina knows. She can’t help but feel guilty about that, like she's the weak link in a web of diplomatic intricacies that she could never hope to understand.
It feels surreal, walking down the corridor with an entourage, greeting diplomats and magistrates and being treated like an equal. Karolina can’t shake the feeling that she’s somehow deceiving everyone, that any moment they’ll discover she’s a fraud and she’ll be exiled. Again.
Xavin has assumed his male skrull form, which, although understandable, puts Karolina even more on edge. She tries not to look at her- at him. At…
The room is grand and elliptic, paneled with something that looks like pastel bronze. A long glass window lines one wall, allowing them a perfect view of the moon that the station is orbiting. At the center of the room are three semi-circular couches. Three delates from Majesdane sit on one of the larger ones, three Skrulls on the other. Karolina and Xavin are directed to the smallest couch.
Karolina immediately notices that everyone in the Skrull delegation is male, while two of the Majesdanian delegates are female. Several representatives - soldiers? security agents? - from each race stands in a line behind their delegates. Karolina is pretty sure she sees women in each group, though in the Skrulls there are noticeably fewer. Karolina tries not to look at them too closely, knowing that they are scrutinizing her. She wonders what they have been told about her. About her parents. She imagines her mother and father on trial on Majesdane, perhaps facing a tribunal not unlike this one. Something inside her clenches, and she forces the thought away.
The man who is mediating the talk is at least two heads taller than anyone else. He has broad shoulders and an extraordinarily muscular chest, the sort of body that Karolina’s old friends used to fawn over, while she shrugged and rolled her eyes and eventually caught herself thinking in a similar fashion about Nico. This alien, however, has a very low brow and a line of dark blue hair that resembles a cleanly-cut mohawk. He is not the sort of person… creature, being… that she would expect to find moderating peace talks.
As soon as Karolina and Xavin have seated themselves on the smallest couch, the woman in the center of the three Majesdanian delegates raises her hands in the air. Her name, Karolina remembers from the briefing, is DeTamm. She’s the Majesdanian version of a planetary Secretary of State. With everyone watching, DeTamm faces her palms inward, shoulder width apart as if holding a beach ball against her chest. A beam of yellow light passes from one palm to the other. Immediately, the two other delegates copy her movement, then the line of Majesdanians behind them do the same. Karolina feels a small flare of apprehension, but the Skrulls don’t react so neither does she.
The Majesdanians fix her with expectant looks. Karolina jumps slightly at the realization, then looks to the moderator, trying and failing to hide her confusion.
“A traditional greeting among the Majesdanian peoples,” he says with a nod.
“Forgive us,” says DeTamm, her voice velvety and resonant. “It was not made clear to us how much you had learned – or not learned, as it seems – about our customs. We extend this greeting to one another as a symbol of integrity, honesty, and mutual trust. There are those, as you know, who can imitate the appearance of others, but not their abilities. This gesture demonstrates that we are not hiding who we are, that we are truly Majesdanian.”
Karolina swallows. Next to her, Xavin is perfectly still. Still uncertain, Karolina looks at the moderator, who nods again. She raises her hands, trying to keep her face calm and her fingers still. Although she’s accomplished feats far more powerful and complicated than this one, she's not sure she's doing it correctly until she sees and feels the beam of light pass between her palms. As she returns her hands to her lap, Karolina wonders if she should have checked which direction the light was supposed to flow, but the Majesdanians appear satisfied and the negotiations begin without a hitch.
Karolina is asked to describe her life on Earth, including everything she knows about her parents. She has rehearsed this part multiple times, mostly alone in her room and once in front of Xavin. Karolina stumbles over her words more than once, especially at first, but most of her speech goes smoothly. She's apologetic without sounding too conciliatory. She does not make excuses, but she does explain that her parents’ actions were completely unknown to her for most of her life, that she does not condone what they did and neither would the people of Earth. She finishes her statement with a small, sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. As the moderator opens the room to questions, Karolina looks at Xavin, who gives her a small smile and an almost imperceptible nod.
“All things considered, I believe it went as well as could be expected.”
Xavin is pacing in Karolina’s bedroom, one hand behind her – his? – back and the other stroking his – her? – chin. She’s still in her male Skrull form. A knot is forming in Karolina’s stomach; the longer Xavin maintains this form, the tighter it grows. She tries to look anywhere else.
“Yeah?” she says, hoping Xavin will change back without being asked.
“I’ve seen attempts at negotiations go horribly wrong,” Xavin continues, while Karolina fixes her gaze on the floor. “Most of them end violently. Today we saw some diplomatic aggression, but that’s to be expected in a room full of Majesdanian politicians. At least there was no physical aggression. After all, my people are not always good at ignoring provocation.”
Karolina doesn’t know how to respond.
“I expect they’ll schedule more talks soon,” says Xavin, “given how smoothly this one went. I wonder if the Pheragots will continue to moderate. It’s not unheard of I suppose.” Silence. Karolina is probably supposed to say something now. She’s staring at the floor so intently that she hears rather than sees Xavin stop pacing.
“Are you alright?” Genuine concern. The knot in Karolina’s chest grows tighter.
“Are you sure?”
Karolina draws in a slow breath. “Can you be… you know…” she waves a hand.
“Can I be…” Xavin repeats. Then: “Oh!” Xavin blurs in Karolina’s peripheral vision, shifting into the form that has been Karolina’s only source of stability and comfort these past few days. “Forgive me,” Xavin says. “I was so preoccupied that I forgot. Is this satisfactory?”
Karolina knows she should say something grateful, but the knot in her stomach has not released. There is a long silence while Xavin sits next to her on the bed and it takes a measure of self-control not to turn away.
“I think,” Karolina says after a long silence. “I just need to lie down.”
“Of course.” Xavin’s voice is gentle and comforting. Karolina can’t look at her. At him. At… Wordless, she curls on her side, listening to Xavin’s footsteps circle the bed, pause beside it, then leave the room. As soon as the door shuts, Karolina surrenders to the first wave of tears.
In the first few days after discovering that everything she had ever known was a lie, Karolina spent most of her alone time daydreaming of a way out. Sometimes she pictured herself drifting toward the sun, melting into its heat and energy and spending eternity flickering, dancing, drifting. In another fantasy, she buried herself alive and simply waited until her powers flickered out like a broken light bulb. Once, she imagined the stars to be full of souls just like hers. All she would have to do was drift into their light and another entity would sail down to take her place. Someone else would assume her shape and her life, and Karolina would be free to float into the nothingness of space.
She and Xavin attend more talks, some large and publicly broadcasted, others small and classified. Karolina, despite her increasingly steady demeanor, cannot shake the feeling that she’s an actor who’s been miscast. She doesn’t belong here, a teenage girl surrounded by ambassadors and army generals, people who have been fighting each other almost as long as she’s been alive. During a particularly heated argument that Karolina may or may not have accidentally provoked, it occurs to her that Gert would be amazing at this. Luckily, there’s enough of a commotion that no one notices her frantically blinking away tears.
Xavin stays by Karolina’s side through everything. Skrull Xavin; male Xavin. Karolina’s stomach clenches every time someone refers to Xavin as “Prince.” In their alone time, Xavin changes form without being asked. Karolina is grateful for this, but it seems false somehow, deceitful. She does her best to push the feeling away.
One evening, after a particularly lovely exchange of childhood anecdotes, Karolina works up the courage to take Xavin’s hand. The mood fades somewhat when she has to explain the gesture, but it’s nice anyway. Xavin’s skin is cool and soft. They kiss for the first time later that night; both of them hesitant, frightened, both blushing when they break.
“That…” says Xavin. “Feels nice.”
Karolina laughs. She goes to bed feeling lighter than she’s felt in weeks. Her good mood carries through the next morning, when she delivers her first public address to a group of Skrull civilians on a nearby moon. She’s proud to say that her voice only wobbles slightly during the first few words.
It’s not that she dislikes public speaking, just that in this case billions of lives are depending on her ability to do this correctly. She has never considered herself a leader before. It feels strange, like a sweater with a strange material rubbing against her human skin.
Her fake skin.
She pauses in all the right places, just as she had rehearsed with Xavin – female Xavin, human Xavin, fake Xavin, no stop it not now – and the speech is surprisingly well-received. Not in applause, which is not a Skrull custom, but at the reception, where Karolina receives a steady stream of compliments throughout the evening.
One couple, a tall woman with a large array of brightly colored jewelry and a man wearing what looks like a shiny, chocolate brown bodysuit, greets her by clapping loudly in a strange rhythmic unison. They are an enthusiastic pair, eager to demonstrate their knowledge of Earth.
“We are very interested in that culture,” they tell her repeatedly. “We would even like to visit Earth some day – in proper disguise of course so we don’t terrify the natives!” They laugh loudly and Karolina smiles.
She finds herself standing straighter with every conversation, her voice steady, her demeanor poised. This is not as difficult as she had expected, or maybe she’s better at it than she thought. Her parents had taken her to all kinds of parties in Hollywood, full of ostentatiously-dressed people chattering and laughing and drinking champagne, but Karolina had usually stayed silent, the small child half-hidden behind her dad’s legs, speaking only when spoken to. This is different. This is…easy.
She doesn’t realize that Xavin has left her side until she spots her standing at the back of the reception hall. Xavin leans against a pillar, smiling at Karolina in a way that no one has ever smiled at her before. It’s the look actors give each other in romance movies; the kind of look her parents gave each other when they thought Karolina couldn’t see. That look from this version of Xavin makes Karolina feel naked and uncomfortable. She can’t look at his – at her – square jaw or broad shoulders for very long before her stomach twists and she is forced to turn away.
Karolina escapes to re-energize under a heat lamp in a secluded hallway, a trick one of the Majesdanians had taught her after a particularly long morning of negotiations. Xavin, still this Xavin, finds her there.
“You,” says Xavin, “are positively radiant.”
Karolina forces a smile. It would be unreasonable to expect Xavin to change form here. The thought brings a familiar dark knot to the pit of Karolina’s stomach, and she feels her previous good mood slip away like water down a drain as they board the shuttle back to their ship. She keeps her smile as steady as possible until she can finally slip into the comforting solitude of her bed.
Karolina was twelve the first time she caught herself staring at one of her parents’ costars, thirteen when she first wondered why she didn’t react to men the way her friends did, and fifteen when she realized her feelings for Nico ran deeper than friendship. The following weekend, Karolina took the bus to West Hollywood and spent the afternoon roaming the streets. Watching groups of women with crew cuts and plaid shirts, Karolina thought this isn’t me and meant it. She spent the next three weeks staring at the boys in her classes, willing herself to feel attracted to one of them. She even researched “bisexuality” as if to find tips.
It didn’t work.
She had mostly given up by the time she and the others discovered the Pride. The Pride, she thought to herself later, of all names. Kissing Topher had been a last-ditch attempt, her way of clinging to the one shred of hope that something in her life might be normal.
That, of course, didn’t work either.
They visit Majesdane for the first time a few days later. Karolina spends the majority of the trip pacing her bedroom, Xavin's bedroom, and the viewing room. She desperately wants to fly but fears wasting energy. All the while, Xavin watches her with a calm, steadying expression. They're alone most of the time, so Xavin can be female. Karolina, grateful beyond description for her presence, lets herself feel comforted.
Karolina has a million questions but finds herself incapable of verbalizing them. When the Captain finally calls to announce their arrival, she feels simultaneously relieved and terrified. Xavin follows her into the corridor, and Karolina winces at the sound she's learned to recognize as a Skrull shifting their form. Karolina avoids looking at her for as long as she can.
Majesdane is breathtakingly beautiful. They’re so close to the white dwarf that the ship has raised its strongest shields and even the Skrulls can’t look at it directly. Only Xavin and two fully-trained Super Skrulls will accompany Karolina to the planet, and even they need to sleep in special, highly-shielded lodgings specifically designed for visitors.
Karolina can’t help gawking at the surface of the planet, its blue and lavender spirals shifting and twirling like the surface of a bubble. She feels herself growing brighter just watching it. A city, turrets and bridges of white and yellow crystal and roads that look like molten glass, slips into view and she nearly cries. She hadn’t expected it to hit her this hard, the feeling that she is coming home after a long absence.
“Magnificent,” Xavin breathes. Already she has caked herself in fire. Karolina realizes that it’s easier to look at Xavin in this form than her natural one, and immediately she pushes the thought away. Instead, they watch the Majesdanian civilians float between buildings, small flashes of yellow and pink in a sparkling, blue-white haze.
Several Magesdanian delegates greet them on the landing pad. DeTamm stands at the front of the group, greeting Karolina with a warm smile. They exchange the customary flashes of light, and DeTamm directs a single nod toward Xavin and the Super Skrulls.
“My associates would be happy to direct you to our visitors’ housing complex,” she tells them. “This is a delightful opportunity; it has been many years since we’ve been able to host out-of-corona guests.” To Karolina she says, “I will personally escort you to your room in the palace. The Prime Minister is most excited to meet you in person.”
Xavin steps forward, clearing her throat. “Excuse me, but this was not our arrangement.”
“Oh?” says DeTamm, her expression casual.
“My understanding was that Karolina would stay with us.” Xavin’s voice is gruff, nearing anger. Karolina purses her lips, unable to look at either of them.
“Forgive me,” DeTamm replies with a tone that carries not a whiff of apology, “Please allow me to clarify. The shielding in our visitor’s complex, designed to allow out-of-coronals to reside comfortably, is insufficient to meet the needs of a Majesdanian, even one as unique as Karolina. Her sleeping there would be the equivalent of depriving you of food or water for an entire day.”
“This was not mentioned during negotiations,” Xavin repeats, her voice harder. Karolina exhales slowly.
“Forgive us,” says DeTamm again. “We assumed you knew that. It is so difficult sometimes to know what is considered common sense to out-of-corona cultures.”
It’s not the harshest thing Karolina has heard her say, but even without looking she can feel Xavin react.
“You kept this from us deliberately.” Karolina finally turns to find Xavin livid, her eyes narrow through the flames that encircle them, her hands clenched into fists by her sides. Are the flames bigger than they had been on the ship? Are Super Skrulls’ powers affected by emotion? Suddenly, this seems like a good question to have asked several weeks ago.
“Careful, Prince,” says DeTamm, her voice noticeably colder. “It is not our custom to be accused of deceit, especially not by a shapeshifter.”
“It’s alright,” says Karolina before Xavin can reply. Everyone looks at her. She forces herself to smile as if nothing is wrong. “I would be happy to meet with the Prime Minister and stay in the palace.”
“It’s too dangerous,” says Xavin. “We don’t know what they’re planning. They accuse Skrulls of inherent dishonesty, but I’ve never met a single Majesdanian I could trust.”
“Yes you have,” says Karolina with a strange, serene calm. Xavin looks at her. “Me.”
There is a pause. Xavin’s expression softens ever-so-slightly.
“Trust me,” Karolina repeats. “I’ll be fine.” She gives Xavin a small, conspiratorial smile. “I’m a Runaway.” She does not wait for a reply, but turns to follow DeTamm and the other delates through the shining glass doors into the palace.
The Prime Minister is a wide, jovial woman whose presence seems to fill the meeting room. She is not at all who Karolina had expected to see as a ruler during wartime. Her smile is glittering and gold, her hands open, her hair radiant. Karolina catches herself openly gaping. She tries to hide her expression, but the Prime Minister laughs, a cheery, musical sound.
“DeBao,” she says, demonstrating the light-palm trick, then, to Karolina’s surprise, extending her arm for a handshake. Karolina does the same, feeling the warmth from DeBao’s palm and fingers. They float together in the light from the largest window, the equivalent, Karolina realizes later, of humans sharing a pot of tea.
“I fell in love with a Skrull once,” DeBao admits to Karolina, later in their conversation. “A Prince, like yours. I was a Captain at the time. We faced each other in several battles, enough that we grew to respect each other’s skill and bravery. One day we agreed to meet in person to attempt negotiations. We ended up falling in love.” DeBao gazes out the window with a soft, faraway expression. “We too wanted to use our relationship to start a series of peace talks between our people. Only our attempt…didn’t last. And neither did we.”
“I’m sorry,” says Karolina.
“It’s alright,” says DeBao, smiling and shaking her head. “It was a long time ago. But it’s the reason I'm optimistic about what you and Prince Xavin are doing.” Karolina masks the flash of guilt and unease that twists her insides. “I would love to see you accomplish what we could not.”
“This Prince,” says Karolina, “is he involved in these negotiations at all?”
DeBao smiles. “No. The last I heard, she was assigned to a unit attempting to annex a system on the other side of the galaxy. I’m not sure she even knows this is happening.”
Karolina’s stomach drops. “I’m so sorry,” she stammers, suddenly breathless. “I didn’t mean to assume…”
“It’s alright,” DeBao assures her.
“No,” says Karolina, irrationally ashamed. “It’s not. It’s just… you said Prince, so I thought…you were referring to a man.”
DeBao furrows her brow. "I see. So, am I correct in assuming that 'Prince' is a gendered term on Earth?”
“I…” says Karolina, her heart fluttering, her thoughts scattered. “Um. Yes?”
“My apologies,” says DeBao. “In the Skrull Empire, ‘Prince’ is a term for a Skrull, male or female, set to inherit a position of power through the family line.”
There is a short silence while Karolina searches for an appropriate reply.
“Their way is very different from ours,” DeBao continues. “And I don't just mean their system of power through inheritance. Their ability to shift between genders makes a lot of things…fluid…for them in a way that is difficult for us to understand. To Skrulls, gendered titles and terms are impractical when a single person could shift from male to female, to both, to neither, and back several times in one day.”
“But," Karolina stammers, "they aren't really shifting though, are they? They still have their real- their original gender underneath it."
"Are you sure? Have they told you this?"
"I..." Karolina's thoughts are tripping over themselves. "No? Not...exactly."
"Some do, some don't," DeBao is giving Karolina a searching look that makes her want to shrivel and hide under a rock. She'd had no idea what to expect from this meeting, but she's pretty sure this isn't what was supposed to happen. "Prince Jhyme maintained her female form constantly, even when her parents advised her to adopt a 'more intimidating' male form. Many of her soliders, on the other hand, chose to be male during battle and female during their briefings. It used to drive Jhyme crazy..." Karolina, her head spinning, doesn't notice DeBao's small, distant smile.
“Wait," says Karolina. "But...when Skrulls shift, they don’t take on the traits of the thing they’re shifting into. That's...we know that. So they can’t become another gender just by shifting. They just look like...like that.” Her voice is hoarse. She’s dangerously close to tears. “Underneath they're still, whatever their original form is. Right?”
"For some," says DeBao again. "But those are the ones who don't shift as often. For many...the concept of an original or 'true' form is almost meaningless." She sighs. "It's difficult to explain, which is why so many of us on Majesdane have such mistrust for the Skrulls, why we so frequently accuse them of deceit."
“I…” says Karolina. She clenches her teeth and swallows hard, but tears blur her vision and she turns away, mortified. Her shame worsens when she feels DeBao wrap a comforting arm around her shoulders.
“Talk to each other,” she says, her tone so soothing that Karolina nearly breaks down. “You are young, so trust me on this. Just talk.”
Karolina nods as hot tears finally spill down her cheeks.
After an afternoon in the brilliant Majesdane sunlight, the visitor’s complex feels cool and dark. Karolina is glad she's not sleeping here.
She finds Xavin pacing in a common room, leaving small trails of flame whenever she turns. Karolina watches her for almost a full minute before Xavin looks up and catches her eye. They embrace and it feels like the truest thing that’s happened since they left Earth.
"People of Majesdane, I want to start by thanking you for your kindness and hospitality. It is an honor to be here. I extend my deepest gratitude to Secretary DeTamm, Prime Minister DeBao, and everyone else who has worked so hard to make me feel welcome on your beautiful world."
The turnout is incredible, larger than any gathering that Karolina has ever seen, larger even than any protest or party she attended on Earth. She delivers her speech from the top of a crystal obelisk at the head of an enormous plaza of swirling blue. There’s no place to stand at the top – she doesn’t need to, of course, but it’s still strange – and she has no idea how the structure works to amplify the sound of her voice. Yet it does, and she can hear her words echoing off the glassy buildings that surround the plaza. From up here, the Majesdanian crowds flicker and glitter like the surface of the ocean in sunlight.
"When I first learned the truth about who I was, I felt stunned, confused, and terrified. My entire life seemed to turn inside out in one night, and I admit that at first, I resisted. But since leaving my adopted planet and learning more and more about your world, I’ve grown proud of my heritage."
Xavin is in the crowd of course, a small flare of bright orange among swirling pastels. Karolina can’t see her face, but the sight is invigorating.
"Harder still was learning the truth about my parents, what they did and the effect their decisions had on the millions of people of Majesdane and the Skrull empire. It was difficult for me to imagine my parents, who had loved and cherished me all my life, committing such atrocities.
Mom laughing on a beach. Dad lifting her into the air. The three of them enjoying almond milk ice cream after a long day in the sun. All genuine, she has come to realize, not a ruse, but a different facet, like opposite sides of a prism.
"I am here today to encourage you to rise above all that. We are more than the basest actions of a pair of criminals. We are more than vengeance. We are capable of far more. Together, we can rise above our anger and our fear, and we can bring Majesdane and the Skrull Empire into an era of peace."
Karolina pauses again to let her interpreter speak. Karolina has started taking lessons in the main Majesdane language, but she hasn’t learned quite enough to do more than recognize an occasional word. Someday, she thinks, as the crowd starts to cheer and she feels her spirits rise around her like an aura. Someday soon.
Karolina glances around the viewing room once before taking Xavin’s hand and pulling her through the door. As it swishes shut behind them, she leads her girlfriend to the window.
“What is it?” Xavin is asking. “Are you alright?”
Karolina looks over her shoulder. Xavin's eyes are furrowed with concern in a way that is remarkably human. Karolina smiles before gently kissing her.
“I’m fine,” she says. “Just nervous.”
“Nervous?” Xavin says as Karolina turns back to the window. “About what? Do you need to rehearse your keynote address again? I was under the impression you felt confident about it.”
Karolina smiles, pressing her fingers against the window. “Look,” she whispers, her breath fogging the cool glass. “There’s a nebula.”
Xavin turns to look, her shoulder brushing Karolina’s and resting there comfortably. “I see it,” she says. “It looks smaller than average. I suppose that’s why the Captain didn’t inform us.”
“A few months ago,” Karolina admits. “I had never even heard the word ‘nebula.’ Now, whenever I see one, I rate it based on how much it resembles members of my family.”
“Oh?” Xavin sounds amused. “And how does this one rate?”
“Meh,” says Karolina. “Six or seven. Not enough yellow.” They laugh together, and Karolina's heart pounds. It's now or never. “I brought you here because I want to ask- because I want to show you a human ritual. An important one for two people who- who love each other as much as- as I love you.”
Her face is glowing a bright pink; she can tell from her reflection in the window. The heat of it is causing the mist on the glass to fade.
“Go on,” says Xavin, her voice low and quiet.
Karolina takes a deep breath and turns to look Xavin in the eye. She can see the glow from her body reflected in Xavin’s soft curls and it is perfect. Karolina gets down on one knee.
“This is harder than it looks without a physical form,” she admits. They laugh together. “Xavin,” she says, her voice steady but her eyes stinging. “These past few months have been…life changing. Literally. Everything I thought I was, everything I thought I could be - is nothing next to the person you've helped me become. I was so scared when I first met you because I didn’t understand how- how someone like me- could be happy with- someone like you. But now I know, without question, that I could never be happier than this with anyone else.” She is crying in earnest now. She clears her throat.
“Prince Xavin of Tarnax VII, Super-Skrull in training. Will you marry me?”
Xavin’s eyes are swimming with tears. She takes Karolina’s hands in her own.
“I would be honored.”