I think this is the happiest I've ever been.
Facing Papika on her hoverboard, my heart feels like it's going to flip flap right out of my chest. Our legs dangle in the cool water on either side as we drift about ten feet out from the shore, a pile of glistening seashells sitting in the space between our bodies. The bright midday sun casts glaring reflections off the sculpted-glass waves and forces me to squint my eyes. I look up at Papika's face instead. She is a study in concentration: tongue pinched between her lips, eyes sharp and intent as they follow something along the sandy bottom. My chest constricts with an almost painful ache to surprise her with a kiss and feel that tongue press back against me, urging my lips apart like the soft clams we've been eating.
Papika's hand darts out and enters the water, sending up a spray of crystalline droplets that tingle against my skin. I gasp and grab her bare shoulders to keep her from tipping the board and our whole bounty into the sea. Her skin, warm and sun-kissed, also makes me tingle.
"Papika! Be careful-"
With a triumphant shout, she hauls the object - a squat, spiral shell as big as her head - out of the water and clutches it against her chest. Her hips shift for a moment, feet working beneath the surface as she finds her balance again, then a huge grin breaks across her face.
"Cocona, Cocona! Do you think we can eat this?"
I can tell right off the bat that it isn't a clam. Its surface is pale white with pink speckles; tapping it with my fingernail produces a deadened clink. Concentric ridges run with the spiral. Ducking my head, I peer into the spacious opening in the bottom to check for any other clues. It almost looks like a...
"Pa- Papi-!" I start to panic as movement catches my eye deep within the spiral. Before I can begin to formulate any words of warning, a gnarled claw appears, followed by far too many legs. Two eye stalks tipped with beady black orbs stare back at me.
We let out a simultaneous shriek and Papika twitches her arms, sending the crab and its home spinning into the air. I duck and hear a great splash behind me. Seconds later, a geyser of water falls across my back and shoulders. My eyes meet Papika's for a moment, and as suddenly as we had screamed, we burst into laughter.
"Hey! Is everything okay out there?" Yayaka yells from the shore. She seems to be slightly out of breath and sand coats her legs up to her calves.
"Yeah, we're coming back now," I shout as Papika waves with her whole arm. We paddle back to shore and carry the board between us into camp. There, we meet up with Yayaka as she continues stoking the bonfire in preparation for our catch.
"Almost ready," I say as while stirring clam shells around in the coals with a stick. "Get the 'plates' ready, Papika?"
Papika doesn't answer, so I stand up to see over the bonfire.
The girl finally looks up, palming something as she, too, stands. "Oh, right."
Yayaka looks up from the can of boiling water and joins me in watching Papika go to gather up the flat stones we use during meals. She doesn't skip or run or bounce; rather, her feet drag through the sand as if entirely spent of energy. The sight utterly unnerves me. I move to intercept her and place my hand against her forehead.
"What's wrong, Papika? Are you tired?"
She fixes on my face, gathering the concern I know is showing there, and gives me a wan smile.
"Too much sun I guess. Don't worry." She pulls away to complete her task with a little more gusto than before, but I can still tell something is off with her. Before I can investigate further, an exclamation from Yayaka pulls my attention back to the bonfire. I rush to her side and help her scrape the cooked clams out and separate them from the charcoal. Before long, we're seated around the last glowing cinders with cool sand between our toes as stars begin to speckle the night sky.
"Where did you find mangoes?" I ask Yayaka.
"There are some trees farther on down the beach," she says. "Took a lot of climbing, but it was worth it." She holds out her arms to show off an array of scrapes and cuts. More dance down her inner legs.
"Wow, you're amazing, Yayaka!"
She shrugs and looks away slightly. It's hard to judge by the firelight, but I think her face is tinted pink. "I knew you liked them, so it was no big deal."
Even so, I lean in to kiss her cheek and she turns to capture me in a full kiss. My dinner nearly slides off my lap as I melt into her. After a few feverish seconds, she pulls away a hair's breadth, her voice now strained as she murmurs nearly against my lips. "We should finish eating."
I nod and scoot down the log toward Papika, sitting at the far end. It's only then that I notice how quiet she's been for the past few hours. She hasn't even raved about how delicious the food it (and it really is quite good). The same worry from earlier settles in the pit of my stomach and my first thought is that she might still be upset about me kissing Yayaka just now. The were both prone to jealousy when we first entered this strange and wonderful relationship, but they did come to terms with my split affection. Or so I thought. But when I look at Papika now, she isn't even paying attention to us. She's bowed at the shoulders, her body seeming to collapse in on itself. Something clutched between her palms catches the firelight and throws a reflection.
"Papika? What's that you're holding?"
I can visibly see the breath she draws as she turns to me. It fills her up like an empty sack before rushing back out again as quickly as it came, imploding her trembling frame. But her eyes are what truly break my heart. They cling to mine out of anguish, wide and bleak in a way I never knew those lovely, bright, cheerful eyes could take shape. I'm by her side before I realize I've even moved, my food forgotten in the sand.
"Hey, I'm here. Tell me what's wrong," I say, kneeling before her. I want to touch her but she's never looked so fragile. I'm afraid that any contact at all will crack open whatever dam she's erected to maintain composure.
But it doesn't seem to matter; those words alone bring her resolve crumbling down. A sob wracks her body as tears start to spill all at once, her hands separating to paw at me for support. The object she was clutching falls to the ground, but I'm too busy pulling her into my lap, crushing every spare molecule of air from between us. She burrows into my neck as her crying reaches a pitch and breaks off with a choking cough. My arms go around her instinctively but they're all numb, my hands, fingers, the back of my neck down to my tailbone losing their feeling. A terrible fear captures my nervous system in a strangle hold.
"Shh, it's okay. It'll be okay sweetie. Just tell me what's wrong."
Another hand is on Papika's back rubbing soothing circles. I realize that Yayaka is here too, of course. She must have followed me. Tunnel vision narrows my sight down to a small window where all I see is a mess of sun-dried orange hair shivering against my bosom. What do I do? What do I do? I don't know what's wrong. Mom, please...
A sudden melody comes to my mind. I don't know why or how, and it seems so absurd a thought in this moment, but I'm so desperate that I cling to it anyway. Maybe it's a lullaby from my mother, long ago. Whatever its origin, I start humming.
It starts off in a low register, traveling up and down in short intervals like the soothing motions of an ocean wave. Somehow I know to twist one of the notes higher as if asking a question. Then it climbs, steadily, building, until it reaches a peak. I sustain the note, and from there the melody settles into a joyous cadence, more powerful and insistent than before. The pitches are sure to be off - singing was never a particular talent of mine - but I can feel the love that the lullaby is meant to convey and let it channel through my body like sound vibrations.
At length, I'm vaguely aware that Yayaka is watching me intently, a strange expression on her face somewhere between awe and disbelief. Noticing this breaks my focus and the melody slips away like water through my fingers. I stop humming half-way through a note and fall silent, feeling slightly dazed. But Papika is limp within the circle of my arms, her breathing no longer labored, her hiccups gone. I lay the side of my head on top of hers and just hold her, rocking the way I imagine a mother would her child.
A reflection flickers by Papika's feet and I cast my eyes downward at the item she had been cradling so intently. It's an ordinary-looking seashell, one of those simple half-domed kinds. Except a large crack splits its surface, leaving the edge broken. I don't understand.
I want so badly to understand.
"I didn't mean to hurt them." Papika's voice is hoarse from exertion. "I just wanted to see Mimi again. I missed her so much."
A tear trickles past my collarbone.
"But none of them made it there."
"To Pure Illusion?" I ask. I feel her nod.
She must be talking about her other partners before me. After my mom.
"Did they... die?" She nods again and a shudder takes up within her again.
"Oh, Papika. It wasn't your fault," I whisper.
She sits up suddenly, eyes wide and angry. Not at me, I know; her anger is turned inward.
"It was! It was! I didn't care as long as it got me to Pure Illusion. I didn't care so long as we could Flip Flapping-"
I silence her by taking her face gently in my hands and pulling her back toward me until our foreheads touch. Her eyelids slip shut with a tremulous sigh.
"It doesn't matter," I say firmly, closing my eyes too. Tears are starting to streak my face as well. "It doesn't change anything. I still love love love you."
Papika whines as if she doesn't believe me.
"Would you hate me if I did the same thing?" I say gently. She ducks her head and shakes it avidly. "Then don't hate yourself for it. Because I don't."
"Everyone has to take responsibility for their decisions."
I look up at the sound of Yayaka's voice and see her standing over us, turned toward the sea.
"No, Cocona," she says. Then she turns to Papika, who hunches closer to me. "The decisions that got those girls killed - they weren't your decisions. Papika. Those girls knew what they were getting into and they chose to go with you to Pure Illusion despite the risk. That burden rests with them, and them alone."
Papika sniffles, slowly lets go of me to sit back in the sand, and finally meets Yayaka's intense gaze. Then the blond's eyes soften.
"None of you were being forced to do anything. You were free to make your own choices."
I can tell she's thinking about working for Asclepius; how she felt trapped once she got in too deep. It's too easy to forget that they were once enemies. I reach up and take Yayaka's hand, reminding her that I still love her too, no matter what choices she made in the past. Her shoulders sag like a weight has been lifted from her. Then she pulls me to my feet and reaches out to Papika with her other hand.
"I may not always agree with you, but you stand firm on your convictions, and I'll always respect you for that."
Papika, for the second time that day, seems lost for words. She wipes her eyes with her arm and stares up at us is disbelief.
"Meaning, she'll always love you for that," I add, bumping shoulders with Yayaka and reaching my own free hand out to Papika. Yayaka just closes her eyes and nods in defeat.
"Yeah, yeah. Just take our hands already, brat," the blond says, though her words hold nothing but affection. Papika sniffles and looks like she's about to cry again, but then she smiles.
And the whole world lights up again.
She grabs our hands and practically flings herself off the ground, wrapping us both in a tight bear hug. She is crying again, but also laughing, and still smiling brighter than the sun. Her enthusiasm bowls us over and the three of us fall together onto the sand, Papika on top.
"I love love love love love you!" she proclaims. Then I do the same. Then, surprisingly, Yayaka joins in. We go round and round until we're all out of breath and lightheaded and glowing with warmth. Then we just lay side-by-side, limbs tangled together across our bodies, watching the constellations overhead. After a while, Papika turns to me.
"Hey, Cocona. I've always liked that song."
I meet her excited expression with a dumbstruck one of my own.
"That song you hummed to me. I used to sing it to you when you were still inside Mimi. It always seemed to calm you down when you were restless."
Her words hit me like a bolt of lightning. So that lullaby didn't come from my mom after all; it was Papika's. If possible, her smile grows even warmer.
"I'm so glad you remembered it!"