metanoia. [part 1: riptide.]
Cel Perdanez had always needed to fight for her sight. She would go into the Games: for her victory, for her surgery, so she'll win her life back. Only after she's recovered her eyes would she rise. Her possible demise won't matter: she's better off dead than blind. (Until Daria asks her, in a whisper, what's wrong. That is all it takes for Cel to break.)
Or, a story of self-loathing, recovery, and life out of death.
[cw: mentions of eating disorder. implied domestic/sexual abuse. internalised ableism.]
part 1: riptide. [cel.]
you look in my eyes, i'm stripped of my pride.
my soul surrenders, and you bring my heart to its knees.
She is met with Daria, who opens the door to their apartment. The keys Cel was fumbling against the keyhole drops to the floor.
"I heard you. You could never fit a key into a lock," Daria says, a note of affection in her tone. Yet her countenance changes, after she's met with Cel's face.
"I need to tell you something," Cel whispers, and her breath is raspy against her own throat. It is not entirely due to the roughness of training.
She steps in through, and gestures Daria to sit at their table. There is a tentative smile that stays on Daria's lips: no doubt she's thinking of something nice.
What's this? A date night? and a smirk (though, really, more of a smile) would adorn Daria's lips. I never knew you were such a romantic.
Cel would roll her eyes, and cup Daria's face. Hardly. Only for you, Dar. And she'd press a kiss on her lover's lips, as Daria giggled, and… that was then.
Only then. Seldom does Cel express her feelings openly. Seldom does Cel see the need; feelings are feelings, transient and flitting, never important enough. Need is for people that live in their emotions; Daria one of them. Seldom does Cel need to tell anyone anything.
Unlike Daria. Daria was... different to her, in more ways than one. What Cel kept under lock and chain; Daria wore on her sleeve. Balance, was how she'd always thought of it.
A slight smile stays upon Daria's lips: quivering but expectant, nervous but eager. It's almost like their other nights together. When the worries of the world become too much to bear.
(It's always when she finds Daria hunched over, arms curled around her legs, eyes glassy and away. Cel would sit next to her. Daria's head would tilt up at the thunk of Cel's back. Cel would entwine her fingers with Daria's. Don't think. Not tonight. And Daria would lift her head, a small smile always in her lips, though the resemblance of a tear would curve by her mouth.)
Something unimportant, something careless would morph the rest of their night: drinks at the shantytown bars, solitude amid abandoned playgrounds, dipping their bare feet into wet sand and ash. Daria wanders with her stardust soul; Cel lets her heart of sea-glass fracture. They let themselves wash away: to the shrill in the air, to the currents of the tide, to everything and nothing all at once. All to ebb the ache of memories away.
But it isn't the same. It's not Daria that's the one vulnerable this time.
(It won't be the same. Not after… this.)
Cel takes the seat beside the table. She meets Daria's gaze, and almost wishes that she has not. Static crests down Daria's form, curls by her hair and her eyes and her lips, and even as Cel blinks the scene stays the same. Because bodies don't work like that, and her eyes certainly don't.
Daria's gaze, expectant, unsure, yet still with half a smile by her lips, makes her feel... worse.
(She remembers that night. When Daria woke with her lungs barely there. Breathing and gasping. Her eyes elsewhere: glossy and glazed, panic incarnate. A stream of stutters and incoherencies falling from her mouth, like shattered stars, spilling down—)
(Please, Cel, don't leave me, I-I know I fucked up I'm sorry I'm so sorry I know you're leaving for a reason I know it's my fault but please don't do this to me—)
When Daria woke from her nightmare. And Cel could do nothing but stare.
And she can do nothing but stare now, her heart pounding in her throat, as Daria lets in a smile, lets in a shyness in her lips, a shakiness in her breath.
"Cel… you can tell me anything. I'm listening."
Daria clasps her hand in hers. Looks at her with so much a plea, a please. Guilt is awash in Cel's veins.
(She has a plan. She has a plan that she's kept close to her chest. She would leave without a word. She would go to win her surgery. And if she failed. Daria would have everything. Their apartment. Their keepsakes. Her job prospects. She would have Cel's future. That was the one certainty that remained.)
But Daria's looking at her and Cel finds that she can't look away. Daria's looking at her with a plea in her eyes and a tremor on her lips. Daria's looking at her and static flicks and pries her features apart and Cel—
For a moment, Cel swallows her pride.
She tells her. About her eyes. About the static that is ever-present in her sight. About the flurries that make there, sometimes, that leaves her vision abuzz and does not release its grip until it has made a mockery of her senses. About how the minutes it's lasted in her childhood had elongated to hours, and to the days: once, on her seventeenth birthday, when the static had swallowed her in its entirety and she became convinced that this was it. Gone forever, and Cel, helpless to its chaotic tides, without a way to save herself.
I want to volunteer, she says, and it is a linger in her breath. It is almost not present. That's why I need to leave.
(She can't look at Daria. She's… no, she can't. Not to see the shock, the horror, the betrayal. You're going blind. Why didn't you tell me. What is wrong with you?)
But Daria says none of that.
"Cel…" Daria whispers. She curls a strand of Cel's hair by her ear, and yet not even then does she let go. Her fingers linger by Cel's ear, and curves down to touch under her chin, to cup her cheek.
Daria touches her, and that is more than what Cel can take.
She chokes the sobs that rile in the back of her throat. Daria lets Cel nestle against her chest. She swallows back breaths. Control yourself, don't... don't…
Daria presses tentative kisses atop her head. Cel closes her eyes and swallows her breaths and she pretends that the buzzing is not there and she thinks about nothing but the warmth of Daria's arms.
(Such thoughts cannot last forever.)
Why are you telling me now?
(I didn't want to leave, without a word. To let you think you've done something wrong.)
You'd risk a mausoleum for freedom?
(I'll be impuissant if not.)
How are you so sure that they'll have a cure for you? It's a rare disorder, right?
(I… don't. But trying and failing gives me certainty. I don't want the wave of unknowns to prod in my mind.)
I don't want to see you in a cortege.
Our vows, Cel. Body and soul, flesh and flesh - did that mean anything?
(... it means the world to me. It's why I'm doing this.)
Why are you so insouciant about your death?
(I'll die if I stay here. My opportunities would wither, my life would be stripped away from me, piece by piece, until I'm nothing. If I go, at least, I have a chance. And if I die… then it'll be knowing that I tried. I'm not insouciant, I'm pragmatic.)
Is it better to die, better to die and for me to lose you than…
(Yes! I'm useless if I can't—if I can't win. What use am I to you as a blind girl? No job to tend to, no value in marriage, no life to live. I'll be a burden. No, I won't foist that on you, Daria, I love you. If I die, it won't be in vain.)
How is it not in vain?
I don't want to see you dead.
I don't want to see you a-a denizen of the fallen.
Let me help you. Please.
(You're asking too much from me.)
For your life?
(For my chance.)
I don't think that's too much to ask.
… or is it because you want to die, Cel? Die honourable, die valorised, die strong, die yourself, die?
(That alternative is better than what is to come.)
Better? Cel, I want you alive! I don't want you dead. I want you here, breathing, next to me. You're willing to give up the world for the chance at a cure? Can't you see that you're throwing everything away?
(Better to throw than to let it be ripped out from under me.)
… Do you really believe that? That you'd lose your world, your life, if you lost your sight?
Your parents will still be here.
I'll still be here.
Please, Cel. Let us help.
Let me help.
Cel does not volunteer.
Nero does. Too eager to steal the open volunteer spot.
Such a shame, Anahita says, and Cel's crossed arms tighten. So much so that it's less like she's trying to appear reserved than she's cowering, like she's cold, in the Head Trainer's office.
We see your types every year. Worked their life to get to this moment. Can't work up the courage to volunteer. Scared they won't be able to win the crown. Scared they'll break.
She's wrong. Cel isn't afraid of death. Of course: dying is on her mind, unable to return to Daria, unable to return to her parents, unable to claim her surgery, her opportunities, her life back.
But death is not something she fears. Not when she's practically a living cadaver as it is. She won't grieve for the death of her already fucked-up body.
… and if she can repair it, then, all the better.
(It won't be so hard, to look Anahita in the eyes, to change her mind. It isn't too late to go into the Games. She still has her position as volunteer.)
Cel thinks about fighting: soft steel in her fingers and blood acrid in her mouth. She thinks about victory: a golden crown on her head to eradicate the silver static in her eyes. She thinks about surgery, thinks about a future hers that doesn't involve snow in her eyes.
She thinks about Daria.
(You're willing to die?)
(Cel, please. You're choosing death over life.)
(You'd rather die than stay and—and try?)
(Cel… I love you. Don't do this to yourself. Please. Don't do this to me.)
(I'm so sorry.)
(Please— please don't leave me.)
She thinks about Daria, and she forces the scoff by her lips away, the glare in her eyes away, the burn in her cheeks away, the tightness in her stance away.
Yes, Cel says, raises her eyes to Anahita. I'm weak. Happy now?
And now she's here. Cel watches as Nero's hand is thrust up into the skies. Watches as she and the boy - always with a sneer and a seethe in his eyes - are led towards the train.
She should be there, on the stage. She should be departing towards the Capitol. She should be in the Games.
(In another universe, she is. In another universe, she meets Sevilin Verrillo; in that universe, she scorns him as she scorns her; in that universe, she splits away from the Career pack, distances herself, breaks down. In that universe, she rises into the Games, fights amid black sand and ashes, scoffs and mocks and scorns and kills how she can till she is slain herself.)
(This is not that universe.)
Clinks of spoon against glass. Daria passes her the coffee. Black, as she likes it. Daria places her own sugar-filled cup on the small oak table, and slides in next to Cel on the couch.
She leans her head on Cel's shoulder. They watch the screen. Its pixels flick against their faces, like black-and-white silhouettes. They watch, as the tributes depart. As they are whisked into the Capitol. As they are brought into the Games: twenty-three to be felled, one lone Victor to be swathed amid the dark seas and dead bodies.
Daria wraps her arms around Cel. She stiffens, but she doesn't protest.
"I'm here," Cel says, quietly. As if instinctively, Daria holds her tighter.
"Yes," Daria says, her voice a touch wet, as if it were filled with tears before. "You're here."
(That is the moment where they grieve. Cel puts to grave the future that cannot be. Cel dredges up her hopes, her chances, her surgery, her maybes—)
(—and she lets go.)
If only it were that easy.
"I should've gone," Cel snarls. She twists her head away from her parents, crosses her arms, forces the feeling living in her cheeks to tamper down, to stop burning, to stop herself from feeling so livid. "I should've volunteered!"
"You should've told us!"
"This is why I didn't tell you," Cel replies, and it's with as much sneer as she can infuse in her voice. "Either of you."
"We could've done something to help you, Cecilia. If you'd told us earlier, we could've found you a doctor— Proteus knows one. They specialise in ocular disorders. If you'd said something, then we could have helped..."
She bites back the bitter scoff at the back of her throat. "You couldn't have."
(That is what she clutches on. Cel's always known, subconsciously, that there could have been a chance for a cure in Four. But to seek that would be to admit that there's something wrong with her sight to the world. Keeping her illness to herself meant it would only exist in her mind. Better than to tell, to admit, to break-down, tears flowing from her eyes, humiliation so pervasive on her face, her vulnerabilities exposed to all those that saw her so strong, so competent, so secure in herself.)
(Better that than to see arms around her before she fell, medication pills a constant reminder, notes for biweekly checkups so prevalent, an eye chart on the wall, gauging how much more she lost day-by-day. Better than to see her world shift around her, than to see attitudes shift: the pity in her father's, the hurt in her mother's, the pain in Daria's. Better she let herself shut her mind and pretend that all was fine. Better to keep the static confined, than to see it rampage on her world, and she, so helpless to it all.)
(... better she think that than think that she could've saved herself, had she swallowed her pride earlier, had she swallowed her fantasies earlier, had she gathered the strength to speak, to reach out, to admit...)
Better she not think that she's here of her own fault.
"I don't know why I came," Cel says, scoffs, as if that'll cover for the choke in her breath. "... I'm going. I have somewhere to be."
She takes one step and then a flurry of fucking static plagues her eyes, and it's so surprising it's overwhelming. No, she can manage it, she has to manage it, but it's vertiginous and she can't see her feet ahead of her and Cel doubles over, fucking hell, prime time to visit…
She's on her knee. And there are hands on her shoulders and she shuts her eyes. She shuts her eyes and she lets herself pretend she's anywhere but here.
(She goes to the Academy every day. She fights dummies and trainers alike, the weight of the blades against the sticky sweat of her palms, thudding against thigh and torso and neck - whether wood or flesh. She ascends climbing walls, her hands calloused against rock, but she grasps each tip and rises, pain and pleasure pulsing together. She submerges into the depths of the swimming pool and lets her hands propel herself, lets the currents run through her fingertips, lets the feeling of bubbles and waves streak past her face, lets the shrill in her veins make her mind fade away, away and away until only oblivion inhabits her brain.)
(She's ranked first in the Academy. It's not even a contest. They stare at her: shock in their eyes, annoyance in their countenances, disdain on their lips.)
(Really, Cel? I know you wanted to one-up everyone, but you didn't have to train blind.)
She leaves her parents outside. When she refused their offer to stay at their place - their seaside bungalow that's seen too well the wear of time - they had insisted that they bring her back to her apartment. As if she were a child, so unable to take care of herself.
Cel's fist tightens around the keys. But she doesn't need to bother: the apartment door already yearns wide.
"Cel," Daria says, a smile creasing her lips. "You're on time."
"Of course," she replies. "Did you think that I would miss today?"
"No," and a certain wistfulness twinges Daria's tone. "You wouldn't have missed it for the world."
She wouldn't. She remembers how their tradition began: it was just supposed to be like any other day, except that the day was results day for the Academy. Cel was ranked first, at age sixteen, and she wasn't sure exactly what delirium she was in (euphoria, bitterness, fuck, they see—what if they know). She'd sought Daria to keep her mind as vacant as it could be, bought a small bouquet of lilies from the wet market for her. But Cel didn't expect to find her outside her own house, a sniffle in her breath, her eyes red-rimmed in tears.
(Daria, she'd murmured, set the lilies aside on the step, held out a hand. Come. Follow me. I know a place.)
It's not that far from Daria's home: the seaside is never far from anywhere in Four. They trekked onto the beaches under the starlit night. Cel held Daria's hand tighter, fireflies rousing her stomach and fluttering in her throat and pulsing in their palms. They'd swam out into the seas, under the fluorescent hues of the moon stowing upon the waves. It was cold at first, and Daria had shrieked and laughed, but Cel pushed forwards, and soon the waters had abraded Daria's protests away, left only a smile on her lips and a gleam in her eyes, and the tears that beaded by when she sat on the steps were washed into the sea's waves.
(Why'd you bring me here, Cel?)
(The seas are… comforting, for me. I hope it is for you too.)
It was under those stars and seas that they'd kissed, for the first time. They were together, then: not even a riptide could tug them away.
The same was what they'd done the next year. What twinkled abovehead and swished around them felt the same. But they'd both changed. Maturity had rooted and proliferated; their world-weariness had deepened. For Daria's family still refused to acknowledge their daughter's existence, steadfast in their denouncements, for Cel's eyesight had only diminished and her thoughts were abuzz of volunteering, yet their love still felt so new all the same.
And this year.
You wouldn't miss it for the world, Daria had said. Cel stuffs the guilt down her chest. Because she would've, had she volunteered.
(She was planning to leave.)
They aren't going anywhere, this year. Not anymore, at least: Daria's said to her, a few days back, that she'd wanted to have the time to themselves in their apartment together. Cel nodded, even as a dryness coagulated in the back of her throat and a serpent tightened round her neck.
Daria just wants something less elaborate. It has nothing to do with what you'd said. What you'd revealed.
Cel looks up. "What?"
Daria just shrugs, and gestures at their apartment. Cel's mouth goes dry. "Daria…"
A sheepish smile forms by her lover's lips, as she takes in the apartment with Cel. "It's... not much. But it's nice, I hope."
"Beyond nice," Cel murmurs, as she gazes on the dim blue low-lights, the beautiful decor, the candle scents wafting through, the roses that infuse the room. "... it's beautiful."
Daria beams. Cel feels something swirl by her lips.
"Can I kiss you?"
Cel takes Daria's cheeks in her hands and kisses her, there and then, and Daria kisses back, sweetness and softness and heat, and her warmth is almost enough for Cel to forget the burn in her face, of the embarrassment that stays.
It's only just after their night when a pinprick of pain presses against Cel's skull. And that's normal, it is, until the feeling pools and widens and it pounds against the base of her ears and the back of her eyes.
(Cel isn't unfamiliar with migraines. They're only customary, with the vertigo that seizes her, occasionally. But now is when it is least welcome.)
Daria's doing the dishes. It's a quiet slosh of water and plates. Cel wills Daria to continue, as she finds a hand-hold, somewhere to steady herself. She'll be fine. She is fine.
But it's swamping her, a torrent and a tornado in her eyes, one that won't release. Cel stifles a scowl, and her fingers make way, flittering across the chairs. She stumbles towards a wall, where there should be a wall, and she presses a hand against thin air.
Her fall does not hurt, really, in any capacity that matters. Cel belongs to the Academy. She is used to the constant kicks to the ground; used to attacks that send her down.
But what matters is the clangs of dishes that drop, what matters is the breath that seems to be sucked out of the room; what matters is the pitter-patter of footsteps that intensify the closer they get to her.
(Cel is used to falling; she is never used to the humiliation that burns her face when she gets back up.)
"Don't touch me." Cel snaps. She forces her eyes shut, because scorn and shame runs within her stomach. She can't bring herself to look. Not at Daria.
(To look back at her pitying eyes: like she's so weak, so helpless, so pathetic. Cel doesn't need the reminder. That burn on her face is strong enough as it is.)
"I'm fine. It's just a fall, Daria. I'm not an invalid, damn it."
Daria flinches. Her fingers recoil from Cel's wrist. Her voice is tight as it is tearful.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
It wouldn't have been like this before. It wasn't the first time Cel had an accident when Daria was present. Fumbling with buttons and keys and locks; squinting at faces when they arrived; tripping over herself when nighttime came.
(Before, that had only meant things that endeared herself to Daria. You're so clumsy, Cel, maybe I should be the key-keeper of this household. Surely you remember his face? You're so forgetful, I love you. What? You're real graceful in the dark… maybe we should dance, someday at night. See who falls first. That's a competition I have a chance at winning.)
(Now it only means one thing. Here is Cel Perdanez: so prideful - yet she can't even take care of herself.)
"Cel… I'm sorry. I didn't mean you were. I just… I just wanted to help."
And Cel doesn't want to look. Cel doesn't need to see Daria looking at her, fussing over her….
(… like you're incapable, incompetent, just like you are, like you'll be? Face it, Cel: you should've gone in the Games.)
Cel opens her eyes. Her vision fragments and crests with static. Yet through that she sees Daria, biting her lip, agonised, not even meeting Cel's own eyes. Her lover, shrinking away, hurt bleeding from every part of her. And for what?
(For your fears. For your insecurities.)
She shuts her eyes again. Something bitter stays in Cel's throat, something sardonic, and she's not quite sure if it's directed to Daria or herself.
"I'm sorry," Cel says, and those words are hoarse in her breath. "Daria, I—"
"It's okay," Daria says, quickly. "You don't have to apologise. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that, Cel, please, I'm so stupid, I'm so sorry—"
A choke coalesces in Cel's throat. She feels the soft shift of sounds. Daria tucks herself against the wall next to her, still mumbling incoherencies, apologies. Slumps against the wall, her knuckles hitting the floor, her fingers upturned.
Cel grasps Daria's hand.
Daria flinches at her touch: like she's made of hot metal. Cel wills the curse down from her lips, fuck, of course, and draws her fingers away—
But Daria's fingers entwine with hers. Daria squeezes back.
It's hard for Cel to keep the half-hitch from rousing her breath. She tugs in Daria close, and pulls her into her arms. Her fingers entwine around the fabric of Daria's back and she lets quiet breaths shake out of her lungs, even as her lover tenses at their touch.
Daria doesn't seem to care that there are tears running down her eyes, nor that they're on the floor together that's the farthest thing from clean. Daria doesn't speak. Daria holds Cel as she sobs and she doesn't speak.
They go to bed, together, afterwards.
Daria's fingers had not left her, still, as they'd entered their room. Cel had curled in bed, pulled the blanket over her shoulder and willed the cracked dryness of tears by her eyes to dispel. Had turned aside from her lover and had stared into the darkness beyond their window, into the gleam of the sea outside, amid the froth of static in her sight. Daria had settled in next to her. Had wrapped her arms around Cel's body. She'd stiffened. But she'd let her. And Daria's quiet breathing was all that twined their room.
And she remains asleep when Cel wakes.
It's what Cel prefers - talk's the last thing she needs. She doesn't want to think about what transpired.
Except a fuzz greets her when she wakes.
Her lungs shake out a breath, and another again. Cel sits up and looks ahead. Static curls the ceiling and blurs the lines that run across their room: that's given, that's what she sees day-by-day, she'd long gone past that stage four years ago. Everything froths across the periphery of her sight and the world's a scattered mess: that's given, that's what she sees day-by-day, she'd long gone past that stage three years ago.
But it's so much.
Thickness in her eyes. Hounds her: a surf of static abound, rebounding, mounting. So heavy, the pounding: it weighs, it crushes, it's breaking. She closes her eyes and grits her teeth, she's not here, not here, she's at sea—
Cel can't see.
She stumbles out of bed. She stumbles towards the counter. There's a book she's always kept there - The Seafarer's Vol 3. It's her grandfather's: he'd left it to her, in his will. Cel had inherited it after he'd been lost to the waves.
Her fingers stumble through the pages.
Please, fuck, please…
A tornado of static peers back at her. Cel's expected it - she's stopped being able to read the text months ago, but her sight isn't - it isn't that bad, she can still see when she's not having an episode, not read, but certainly see—
She squints. But that doesn't change anything - not the fact that she can't make out anything.
Cel slams the book shut. Its cover peers back at her: a mock, a jeer.
Forget the chapters. She can't even make out the fucking title.
What was she expecting? It'll only get worse from here.
Cel Perdanez is going blind.
Her eyes flutter shut.
She inhales a breath.
(That's what she does in the Academy. She fights opponents and closes her eyes as if if she does that the static would not be there. That's what she does as she meanders through life. She steps down streets and inhales Four's sea-dirt scent and closes her eyes as if her sight would not affect her then. She takes a pen to her journal and she has a blank page to scrape her pain away and she doesn't care if the words are fucked up just as long she has her eyes closed as long as she's not here not here not here—)
Cel feels a sob cake the back of her throat. She wants to cry, she wants to laugh, she wants to punch, she wants to throw and wants to hit and she wants to take a knife to flesh, she doesn't care if it's hers or someone else's, just something—
She grabs the book and she flings it against the wall. Its slam is so audible, its rip so audible, that Cel can momentarily forget the heave of her chest. Cel holds the back of her head and lets her shuddery breaths out.
God, she's so pathetic.
A choke lauds her throat. Fuck, it's so cold: Cel just wants to go, fuck, I didn't ask for this, I didn't ask for this body, I didn't ask for my godforsaken eyes, I didn't ask for any of this, why is my body like this, why am I like this—
Because she decided to damn herself.
(She'd decided on this life. She'd decided to let herself deteriorate. Anahita's right - Cel's so cowardly. She's so afraid of death. That's why she's not in the Games. Instead of stabbing knives into flesh, Cel's killing herself: bit by bit till her sight's stripped, till her life slips from her fingers and she's ripped into oblivion for what she'd been afflicted with. Instead of a corpse she's a walking cadaver, too blind to what surrounds her, too impotent to navigate, too impuissant to live, gods, Cel won't be able to fucking take care of herself, how humiliating is that? Such a far cry from the Career at the peak of her physicality, able to do anything, it's degrading, she can't—)
Just imagining Daria makes her feel worse. To need Daria's help if she wanted to go anywhere. A burden when she's supposed to be a bastion. Havenside. She can't get Daria's meds when she's blind. Cel can't even be a good fiancee. What use will she be?
(Cel's tried to be independent. She's tried to prepare herself. She's closed her eyes in training. She'd closed her eyes while living her own life. But it wasn't enough - it was never enough, because Cel would always need to open her eyes, by the end of it, to ensure she was doing right. She couldn't navigate without those breaks - even with her shitty sight.)
And now she has to. Can she even try?
I should've volunteered. Volunteering would be better than this.
I'd let myself deteriorate.
Why didn't I try?
It's then when she hears the shuffle of feet behind her.
Cel lets in a breath. She can't let Daria see her like this.
Breathe. It's okay. Breathe. You're fine.
Cel composes herself. She opens her eyes, and wills the wetness that beads by her eyes away.
She turns to her lover.
"Hi," Daria says, and her grin's infused in her voice— Cel doesn't need to see to know that. "Sleepyhead."
Half a scoff arises by Cel's lips, yet it can't quite counter the wry smile that twinges her, too.
"Like I'm not the early riser."
That tease in Daria's voice— there's no denying the smile that curves with Cel's sigh. Better that, though: better think about Daria than herself.
So Cel shakes her head. "I don't know why I try."
"Because you love me."
Something else creeps to her cheeks. She cocks her head at Daria, and Daria mimics the action - cocks her head, with a touch of a smile on her lips, right back. A warmth bubbles up against her chest.
It's almost enough to ward her worries away.
Daria strolls up to her. Her hand barely touches Cel's cheek— but that little half-simmer of heat is enough to let a hitch from her breath. And Daria - Daria's fingers curve down her cheeks and her fingers wrap around Cel's wrist and she tugs her in and she kisses her, soft.
Cel's mind goes white.
"There you go," Daria says, a smile entwining her grin. "Morning kiss."
It's ridiculous that Cel can't speak.
Daria's grip loosens on Cel's wrist. "I'll be back," Daria murmurs, and then she's gone for their letters.
(It's less of a precaution now than it is routine: They'd fallen into it, after they were sixteen; when Daria had just started recovery and Cel wanted a distraction for her mind. Cel's never been an adept cook: her breakfasts typically consisted of hastily put-together meals, a fruit or a sandwich and she'd call it a day. But after Daria, she'd pored over recipes and learnt how to make fuller meals: oatmeal with a side of blueberries, eggs on toast, granola mixed in with yogurt, tortillas with vegetables and scrambled eggs. They're nothing elaborate, but she does what she can. And they've never changed, since then. For as long as their sameness can last.)
Something thunks against a wall. Cel twists her head up. "Was there anything?"
Cel moves: her fingers run across their counter and then to their wall, and her steps take her to their door. She traces down the wood and she feels the inside of the box - it's empty.
Where'd Daria go?
There's a distant breath - inhaled, shaky - not far from Cel.
She's by the door. Leaning against the wall: a silhouette of static's all Cel makes out, but that's enough. Daria's legs are tucked into her chest. Her arms tighten around her legs, but her hands are loose - shaky. Her letter dangles from her fingers.
"Are you okay?" Cel asks.
Daria nods. It isn't convincing— not with the shudder that cuts under her words. Not with how her fist tightens on the letter. "Yeah, yeah, I'm… fine."
Cel blinks - that static that flows over her eyes don't dispel. There's no way for Cel to tell what's written in the letter, and Daria knows that too.
(Shut up. Stop focusing on your inadequacies.)
"Who's it from?"
Daria swallows. "My father. I don't know how he's gotten it here. He doesn't know I'm here. He can't know that I'm here. Probably—probably passed it through Atlanta, or—"
"Daria. Don't panic. What does it say?"
A few more moments pass. Daria stills: calms. "He wants me to come back."
Cel knows little about Daria's father. Daria hasn't been forthcoming, and Cel hasn't pried. But she knows enough about her family. She knows that Daria doesn't bear their name. She knows that they gaze upon Daria like she's trash to be thrown away. She knows that they're to blame.
Cel keeps her words measured. "Will you?"
"Fuck, no." Her voice is breathlessly wet. With a slight wretchedness. "Cel, do you think he knows I'm here?"
"Daria. I won't let him find you. I won't let him do anything to you. I'll protect you, I promise."
Something—something amused, something wretched—pushes by Cel's lips. "Daria," she says, a little breathless. "When have I not?"
She drops to Daria's side. They stay there, for a moment - sitting next to each other, quiet, unspeaking. She doesn't realise what she's doing - not quite - but then her arm slings over Daria's shoulder, and Daria leans into her. Until Cel's holding her - and Daria wraps tighter into Cel's embrace, her breaths shuddering.
And Cel lets her mind go. She lets her world go. All she focuses upon is Daria - and for a moment she is back to before - when they were sixteen and when Daria could rely on her, when all Cel had to do was heal her, when she didn't need to share or need to be weak, when Daria needed her and Cel could help her. Before her eyes had ruined everything.
For a moment, it is as if everything is normal again.
It's only after too long that Cel extricates herself, slightly, from Daria's grasp. "I'll make breakfast," Cel says. "Does that sound good to you?"
Daria's breaths shudder against Cel's chest. "I don't know if I can, um. Right now."
"That's fine," Cel says. "We'll eat together later."
Daria nods. She holds Cel tighter. And Cel holds on. Cel holds on and she doesn't let go.
She finds Daria hunched over the toilet in an open stall.
"Are you okay?" Cel asks, at Daria's back. Cel stills: even though they have to go, because training's in two minutes and they need to be ready. Cel's reputation - her favour, as the Academy's favourite - is on the line if she doesn't.
"Cel," Daria says, and her voice is thick and throaty. Like she'd just been crying. And all thoughts about the reputation and favour and volunteering fade away, for a moment.
"I'm sorry," Daria continues."I know you've been waiting. I shouldn't be holding you up for training. I'm sorry if I've bothered you, that wasn't my intention—"
"That doesn't matter," Cel says. She advances a step closer. "You're sick. That takes priority."
Maybe they're ironic, coming from Cel - but she means it.
Daria blinks. Her mouth opens and snaps shut.
"I…" she stops. Then, Daria shakes her head. "... no, it's fine, I'm fine. I'm good now, c'mon, let's go before I make you late."
Daria stands. Cel isn't sure what she expects when Daria turns to face her. But that face that peers back - washed-out, tired, so miserable, yet there's still a smile that makes its way on her lips…
Cel doesn't expect the stir of emotion within her.
Her eyes trace Daria's body. Daria's fingers shift, curling inwards and outwards from a fist. It doesn't take away the sight of her knuckles - red and callused.
Something sinks in Cel's stomach: cold steel.
"You didn't get those from training, did you?"
Daria's fingers fly to her back: like they've been touched by fire. "Um, Cel, you're going to be really late if we don't get going..."
"Are they teeth marks?"
"—Cel, please, we're late enough already, I don't want to get you into trouble, let's just go—"
"Daria. Is this what I think it is?"
Daria stops. She closes her eyes - bites her lip. "What does it matter to you, anyway?"
"You're my training partner. Your health matters."
"Especially if you're starving yourself."
Daria winces. "It's not like that," she protests.
"What is it, then?"
"I ate too much," she says, and it's breathless, nearly, it's a hitch in Daria's lungs. "Okay? That's what—that's what—"
She stops. She stops, and Cel realises there are tears that form by Daria's eyes. Daria stops, before her words spiral beyond her control. Before a sob inflates her voice.
When she speaks again, Daria's voice is different.
"Cel, for what it's worth, I'm sorry. I tricked you, 'cause I'm not... I'm not good enough, not to train with you. It's not okay, I should've been better. It's okay, though, you don't have to worry about me - I'll, um, I'll deal with things myself. I'm sorry for burdening you. Let's just pretend this never happened," and there's a smile that twinges by her lips.
"Daria. I won't."
"Because then I'd be enabling you."
"Why are you doing this?"
Cel exhales. She levels her eyes at Daria. And she sees a girl - a girl so beaten down by the world, a girl that had only experienced rejection, a girl that needs help.
And Cel can. Help her.
(And for a moment, as she steps forward, any thoughts about her sight falls away from her mind. For a moment, as she reaches out - she forgets.)
"You're many things, Daria. But you're not a letdown. You're good. There's a reason I chose to spar with you. You're many things. But you're not a burden. You're not defective. You're not any of that." And, quieter, so quiet that it's barely there -
"And I care for you."
Daria's response is even quieter. "... Oh."
It's while they eat that Cel's thoughts coalesce back into her head.
Maybe you should find a job.
They're words that her parents have said to her before - a few days ago, during their dinner together. Before the eruption of their argument. Her mother had brought it up, as an offhand mention, but it hasn't ceased ringing in Cel's mind.
If there's one truth that Cel knows - it's that she refuses to be a burden. She's too aware of how she'll… deteriorate. Too aware of how she'll be reduced to a husk, a girl without sight, a girl to be taken care of by her lover.
And Daria deserves the least of her problems. Not after what she'd dealt with before. Especially when it's supposed to be Cel taking care of her, shouldering both their burdens— not the other way around.
(You're not a burden, Cel. No more than I'm a burden to you. Let me help you. Please.)
Cel doesn't want to be a burden, period. But to not be a burden is to take up a job, and to do that is a thought she doesn't want to entertain: she isn't ready for others to gaze on her with pity, to assign her some redundant duty so she'll feel useful, for them to treat her like a charity case. Her pride stiffens her lips, and she does not know if she wants, or where she should begin.
Job avenues for Four are few and sparse in-between. Career trainees that didn't quite make the mark would be relegated to nothing more than shells of wasted potential. The luckiest are trained as Peacekeepers. The best are kept as Academy trainers. The rebellious make it as underground brawlers or arms-for-hire. The worst are left homeless.
Cel is not any.
(If she still had her sight, then she'd like to think that she'd be an Academy trainer. There would be no love to the job - cut the saccharine. Watching children grow, seeing them flourish on their own… Cel could care less for the fact. But what she would have is control, obedience, authority.)
That is no longer an option.
Cel screws her eyes shut. That night floods back into her head… her parents' concerned eyes, their parted lips, their tapping fingers upon the dining room table. Their eyes, riveted upon hers, just how obscured their features were by the blitz of static that reared in her sight...
Their voices make it back into her mind.
Vayalla knows a person, Cecilia. They work in a shipyard - for the coast guard. They're looking for hires - hardworking, able to stay up late, with Academy training… I thought that you might've wanted to know. Should you… consider anything.
Cel lets out a breath. Coast guard hasn't ever really been one of her options before. Sure, she's admired them - she and Daria had spent many an afternoon on the beaches of Four. Daria, her head on her shoulder, would lift a finger towards the dots of white upon the mottled-dusk horizon, before going slack by her side again. They would watch the sun sink into the sea, languid and quiet and warm, and that was the only time coast guard would even pass by her mind.
… it's a respectable occupation, that she knows at least. It's not embarrassing, by any means. Cel may not know the intricacies of work there, but she has experience. She knows the texture of ropes - rough-soft against calloused hands. She knows the riggings and knots and the sails of a boat and she knows how to navigate. She knows the waters - it belongs to her, the sea, it's her escape, her comfort, her freedom. Not even its torrents can drown her: not a rip nor an undercurrent nor a tide. Cel Perdanez lives for the waves.
Being a coast guard is not unappealing.
(... it is nostalgic, too. Cel's spent so many nights with her grandfather upon the open seas; coasting through the battered shrieks of the undertow beneath, spittle and wet whipping against her face, her breathless chuckles merely notes in the mad medley of the sea. Her grandfather's strong hand grasps hers, as if he'll never let go: never let her fall, never let her be washed away, away and helpless into the ocean depths.)
She lets the memories fade away from her mind, swimming away like minnows into dark water.
Cel opens her eyes.
Daria looks back at her from across the table. Concern moves down her expression, rippling like tides, against the dim dusk light that filters through the windowpanes. Yet it isn't an insulting sort of concern, one that speaks to her abilities. It's a sort of muted concern: unsure, yet not judging, either, emotions coursing through her expressions like a swishing sea amid shatterglass light.
"It's down at Havenside port," Daria says, quietly.
Havenside. Cel knows the place well. She's been there, one too many times, because there's a clinic that sells fluoxetine and she goes whenever there is less than two week's supply of tablets left. Daria had used to take them fortnightly, but now less so, and Cel hasn't visited the place in about a month and more.
"It is." Cel replies.
"It's a little far."
"I know it is."
There's a pause.
Cel waits. Because she knows that Daria hasn't spoken her mind - not yet.
"Can I go with you?"
"You don't have to." Cel says. Something thuds in her chest - one bitter, apprehensive beat.
You're treating me like I'm blind already.
Daria's eyes flick up to her, a little subdued, a little weary, a little with a sad smile. If she didn't know Daria as well, then she'd have missed the hurt in her eyes: the hurt that Daria wouldn't allow to stay for a second more before dissipating.
Cel exhales. She closes her eyes.
Stop. Shut up. It's not that. Daria won't treat you like that.
(I can't have her treat me like that.)
Cel opens them again. She looks back at Daria, and slowly, shakes her head. And then, softer. "I know you don't like Havenside. Especially not with..."
Something twitches by Daria's mouth. She puts down her spoon.
"It's okay. I'll just pile on the hoodies. They won't recognise me," Daria says, softly. "And you'll be with me."
It's then when a small smile resurfaces. It blossoms over Daria's features: crinkles her eyes and tugs at her lips and it's like the sunlight itself exudes from her. It warms Cel through, shoots through her chest and she loses a heartbeat.
"C'mon, Cel, I can't not be there for my fiancee's first day at work."
Her job brings her out in the seas: far away from Four, from the victory tours and the ceremonies, for Sevilin Verrillo's won back the District's glory, away from the world that she's lost. It's enjoyable: that rush-tangled thrill in her veins, the sea's pulse in her heart, the saline-coated breath in her throat.
(And if she lets herself think, then it's like she's swimming, once again. Cel hasn't touched the seas since she'd told Daria about her eyes. But it's just like she's in the waters, her fingers rippling through the currents, the rhythmic toss and turns of her head, the beat of her breath through breath. Her eyes shut, and it's just her, Cel Perdanez, cutting through the waves. It sets her free.)
It is not exactly difficult, either. Sure, it's straining - but it isn't anything she's not already used to. Endurance was but a pittance's worth in the Academy: more than required. Same was strength, and dexterity, and obedience. The job itself is the easy part.
(What Cel's never quite ready for is talk. Especially when she knows a few of her crewmates. Cadets from the Academy, would-be Careers, if their scores were high enough. She'd fought some one-to-one: defeated them upon the mats, left them heaving and sweat-coated and broken, before she moved up the next set.)
She's not ready to face them now. A few of them spare her a glance, questioning, already, and she knows what race in their head: Cel, why are you here, weren't you supposed to volunteer?
They make small talk: that is unavoidable. She tells them about her family. She mentions Daria when she is asked about partners. It's amicable conversation - superficial. She keeps everything strictly impersonal.
Till one day she's at Havenside's dim-lit bar, musky with the scent of spit and wood mingling in her nose. Sat up on a stool with a drink in her hands. Calling the bartender for another fucking bottle.
(Her eyesight's shit. It's so shit she can't even concentrate for the day. It fills and swirls her vision like a taunt and she'd scoff and pretend everything's fine per usual but it's a problem when she can't even decipher the words on the noticeboard or see her fingers even and every fucking step leaves her vertiginous like she's in a perpetual migraine...)
She drinks. Her arm slumps against the counter and her fingers twitch against the bottle. She should be back home, back to their apartment, she should be back with Daria, Daria would loathe to see her like this, Cel shouldn't be like this…
"Next one's on me."
Cel lifts her head. Blearily, she makes out a figure next to her - but the person she doesn't know, because static's all that hugs her vision.
"I have a fiancee."
The figure laughs. "I don't want your ass, babe, though it's fine as hell. Got so wasted you can't even recognise me anymore?"
That causticity she recognises.
"Alithyia." Cel mutters, turning back to her drink, which she can feel. "Didn't know you stopped by here."
(The last time Cel's heard of Alithyia in the Academy was in rumours. She was found fucking three guys at once in the break room. One of them a trainer. Got her kicked out.)
"Course I do. The whole ass crew fuckin' stops by The Hove every round we make it to the seas. You're the only one goes home early."
"Mmm…" Cel slips the rim of the glass into her mouth and lets the liquid flood to her lips. "Maybe."
"Mmm, not a maybe. Bit more like always. Your girl high maintenance or somethin'?"
Despite herself, Cel feels a half-smile tug her lips. She knocks the glass in her hands against the counter. "No. She's sweet."
Beyond the burr of low music, a thump sounds against the wall next to her. Alithyia, then, seizing her up - without a shadow of doubt.
"So you're gonna drop that on me and not elaborate? Perdanez, you with a darling?"
Something tugs by Cel's lips. "She's always at the door when I get back. Makes a bath ready. Scents it with flowers." She takes up the drink again, at risk of smiling into her cup. "Last night was lilacs."
"Right, right." Alithyia says, a considerable amount of scoff in her voice. "Jeez, don't brag, I didn't ask for a sappy speech."
"Can't… mmm… help it."
"So why aren't you back now?"
Cel sets down her drink. She raises her eyes blearily at Alithyia. "I'm not in a state to."
She's fairly certain Alithyia sighs.
It's then when the clang of bottles hit the counter, accompanied by the squeeze of a cork and the effervescent fizz of foam. Cel's drink makes its way into her hands after some searching.
Cel almost doesn't hear Alithyia's words when they come through. "Who're we drinkin' to?"
Her tongue's loose from the alcohol. And the words slip from her lips before she realises they do.
"By Panem, you're a pathetic drunk, Perdanez." Alithyia says - but there's only affection in her tone. "But we'll drink to that. For the kids too good for the Academy."
Too good for.
What the hell.
She takes a swig. Beside her, Alithyia's laugh erupts through the tavern bar.
"Yeah, that's more like it."
Cel exhales. She sets the bottle back down. For the kids too good for the Academy... hell. She can live with that.
Alithyia snickers. "Yknow, I always thought you were goin' to volunteer, Perdanez. You were so damn dead-set."
Cel's fingers push against the counter. She grips them, shuts her eyes. Her stool's… wobbly. She's vertiginous. But that doesn't mean she can't leave—she just has to get off, leave out, pace her steps, twelve of them on each side and she'll get to the door—
"Hey, hey, Perdanez! Fuck, what are you, a deer? I'm not gonna ask you 'bout volunteerin' or not… that's all bullshit in the past."
Cel stills. Alithyia heaves a breath: between a scoff and a sigh.
"For what it's worth… I'm glad you're here with us. And not a name emblazoned on a plaque in Four's grand ole hall."
Dimly, Cel realises that it wasn't just the sex that got Alithyia kicked out. The hall was the most valorous facility of Four: denoting tributes' names stretching to the 1st Games. Cel's name would be present: future volunteers would walk down the aisles and pass her name.
It was a memorial for the dead. And she would be dead: cold bones six feet under, loved by none and forgotten by all, only to be roused by Daria's sobs.
… the thought is sobering.
"Cel? You still there?"
"I'm here," she says, a little disaffected.
"Mmm, good. Thought we lost you there. Didn't know you were such a lightweight. You coming with us?"
Cel blinks (not that it clears her sight, because of course it doesn't, but anyhow). Her astonishment must've been evident on her face, because Alithyia's grin only widens.
"You might've handed us our asses, Cel, and broke Tal's back along the way, but we've got each other's backs now. C'mon."
"I—" Cel's voice is stuck in her throat. "I can't move."
"Aw, you need a helpin' hand?"
Alithyia's cackle is unmistakable. Cel's fingers roam the counter, because really, this was a shit idea, getting drunk while you can't see shit, why not add a little more vertigo to your fucked-up brain…
It's then when a finger hooks her pinkie. It's surprising and yet Cel doesn't react on instinct: the touch is familiar. There's a sigh she hears: one with softness tangled in her tone.
"C'mon, Cel. Let's get you outta here."
(Daria still has a bath ready when Cel gets home.)
It's while they're both in bed that Daria speaks again.
It's somewhat startling, hearing Daria's voice. They've been quiet since they had bathed together.
(She can still feel Daria's touch: electric down her back. Mingled with water - teardrops down her body, and then the touch of the rough-soft sponge, scraping away the excess of her skin. Of Daria's lips meeting her lips. Her scent. Of strawberries and sweetness. Another kiss again, and another, and another still...)
It's the second time they've bathed together: ever since the first, where Cel murmured, are you sure?, and Daria nodded, I think I'm ready, no more than three months ago. Daria had switched off the lights before she undressed; Cel was already in the tub when darkness overtook the room. Then was the soft plop of feet, one after another, into water. Close your eyes, please, Daria whispered, and Cel did, as if she were not already beyond blind in the night. They'd settled on either side. It was a while until Daria had moved to kiss her. And when Daria did approach. Fingers trailed up her neck, first. The kiss was searing as it was soft: sugar dogged down by saltwater.
Then Daria's hand trailed down her bare arm, second, and her muscles quivered there. Cel did not move; she did not speak. Then kisses trailed down her skin third, and the scented waters stirred. Then fourth was a grip of her leg, and fifth sloshed the waters, and six had… successively left her in bliss.
(Cel did not touch Daria, once: Daria would not have wanted her to. It's the same again: bathing in the dark. Cel's never found the darkness comforting: she's at its mercy. All it is is a present reminder of what she'll lose. But it leaves Daria comfortable, and ultimately, that is what truly matters.)
But she's less certain of that now.
"What is it, Daria?" Cel says. Her chest constricts. Did Daria regret it? Did Cel do something wrong? Did she make her uncomfortable? That wasn't what she'd wanted. That was what Cel wanted to avoid, at all costs. But what if…?
Cel waits and her heart pounds and an apology knots in her throat. Her words are a fraction away from leaving her mouth.
Daria tilts her head. "I liked that."
"I'm…" Cel morphs the words in her throat, half relief and half a furrow breaking over her, "... glad."
A tinge of softness lasts in Daria's voice. "I wouldn't be ready if I didn't say I was."
"I know," Cel says, quietly. "I just… I worry."
"I know you do," Daria says. Then, again, but softer: "I'm better now, Cel."
Cel nods. Her lips tighten. She knows she shouldn't worry. But it's difficult not to fear. Touch is a subject that Daria's sensitive to. One that has the capacity to bring back memories. And of course, Daria was ready, so she shouldn't, really, but still…
Daria tucks her head on Cel's shoulder. Her warmth is… calming.
Cel relaxes, for a moment. "Can I...?"
The nod is almost instantaneous.
Cel pulls Daria closer. Puts an arm over her shoulders and tugs her closer. Daria inclines her head on Cel's chest. The rise and fall of Daria's breathing is rhythmic. Cel leans back against the headboard, and her fingers idly play with Daria's hair. They could stay here, together, for the night. They could let themselves go: and Cel could not think, not speak, and they could just remain here - basking in each other's presence.
But Daria's breathing goes shallow. Cel jolts up and pushes herself against the backboard. Pulls her fingers out from Daria's hair.
"Daria," she says. "Are you okay?"
Slowly, Daria sits up. Her eyes flick away from Cel. "I'm fine. I'm just… thinking."
She lifts her head to meet Cel's eyes. "How about you? Have you been feeling... okay recently?"
Now's not the time, is what she wants to say. Instead, Cel closes her eyes, and exhales. "I'm fine."
There's a moment of quiet.
"How's your um… vision?"
Cel stiffens. "It's fine."
(It isn't. It hasn't changed - not since Havenside. That hasn't stopped - not since yesterday, not since the day before - and it's only intensifying and multiplying and it's not stopping.)
"Can you see my face, Cel?"
Please don't do this.
"I'm feeling fine, Daria," Cel says. "You shouldn't worry about me."
She doesn't look at Daria - not at what should be Daria, anyway. Because the static'll swallow her up, swirling and twirling with too much vigour in her eyes.
Daria doesn't speak. Her shoulders sag, slightly: and it's such a minuscule action that Cel barely registers it. If Cel could see Daria's face, then Daria would be biting her lip.
Guilt's what propels Cel to speak.
"... No," Cel says. "Not your face."
Not anything, is what curls in the back of her throat, but that's the last thing Cel needs to say.
It's quiet - for a few excruciating moments.
"Oh," Daria says, quietly. She turns back to her. "Oh, Cel."
Cel swallows a slight breath. The admission is tight in her voice. She grits her teeth and bites down her snarl and just lets out the words she can let go without her throat cracking—
"I don't want to forget, Daria."
Quickly, Daria shakes her head. "You won't."
Cel lets out a throaty laugh. "I will."
"No, you won't. And so what if you do? I'm still here. That won't change."
She almost turns to Daria in disbelief. That tinge of a laugh's still in her breath. "What if I do? I'll be forgetting about you. My memories will fade. All I see will. Daria, I can't—"
"We'll still be here. I'll still be here. What you can or can't see doesn't matter," and Daria's voice softens, then. "It doesn't matter, okay?"
Cel scoffs. She pushes down the burn that churns in her gut - that softness is patronising. "That's easy for you to say. I love you, Daria, but you're not the one going blind."
There's a moment of pause. Daria doesn't speak. And Cel wonders how her face must look. Pained? Inexplicable? Pitiful?
Until finally a soft sigh brings Cel back out from her thoughts. "No. It's not easy. That's what you said to me."
Cel blinks. "What?"
"Remember?" and Daria's voice is wistful, yet tinged so bitter. "You came home early. I was at my worst. I was sobbing at the mirror. Nobody was supposed to see me. But you'd draped your coat over me and you'd carried me to bed. You huddled me in bedsheets. You took my hands into yours. You looked at me in the eyes."
"What you can see doesn't matter, Daria. But of course it matters, 'cause I could see myself. I could see the wrongness, the… perversion, I could feel their hands over me. And I wanted so badly to shed my skin like a jacket and step out of my flesh but I was stuck and all I could do was—"
Daria stops. Her breaths shudder, for a moment. And Cel wants to approach her, wants to hold her, comfort her - but that's the last thing Daria needs now.
"I remember," is what Cel says, instead.
(Those images are seared behind her eyelids. After she'd gotten back to her apartment and putridness wafted from the toilet. She'd found her lover hunched over the bowl. Her fingers saturated with vomit. Her knuckles red with teeth-marks. Cel doesn't want to remember.)
The next words Daria says are even quieter. "Do you remember what I said?"
(I'm fine, Cel.)
(I don't usually do this.)
(I know… I'm sick, but I'm not that kind of sick. I'm not that sick. Don't worry about me, c'mon.)
It's hard to extricate the words from her throat. "I remember."
"Do you remember what you said?"
(You're not fine, Daria. You're still ill.)
(Listen to me.)
(Please let me help you.)
"... I remember."
Daria exhales. It's quieter in the room then: a little more solitary, a little cooler, yet there's a tightness that remains taut in the atmosphere.
"I'm, um. You know I'm better. Not fully. But I'm trying to be. I guess what I'm trying to say is..."
"... I let you help me, Cel. Please let me return the favour."
Cel feels something gather in her throat. She doesn't speak. She's not sure if she can.
But she nods. Just a tilt of her head. But it's enough. That is all the response Daria needs.
It's not much different, the day after.
But there's a shift in the air. There's a sort of vulnerability, that quivers like glass. It creeps over Cel's skin - wraps and cocoons her in its coolness.
It... isn't a sensation she hates.
Not as much as she'd thought it would, at least.
Daria's still asleep when Cel wakes. Perhaps before, she would've taken this as a moment of reprieve - a breather, for she has time to prepare - but Cel lays her stirring thoughts to rest.
Instead, she turns to Daria. She sleeps so soundly, so softly - that Cel's left transfixed. And Cel watches her, how she can, through the dark-static froth in her vision.
(Her lover always looks relaxed when she's awake. Yet with her relaxation comes a vigour - and a smile and a brightness - inherent in her too. It's what Cel loves most about her fiancee. Yet seeing Daria sleep is another sight in itself: she's free of worries, free of woes, free of torment. Her fiancee's herself. It's a sight Cel appreciates.)
And in this moment itself: Cel lets herself possess a moment of tranquility. It's not something she would've done before - so much of herself would've been thrown into work, into keeping thoughts about her eyes at bay.
Yet: Cel doesn't think. Her sight remains as poor as ever: yet she sits. She sits and watches the chaos that whirls in her eyes. That sullenness that inhabits her heart remains. That melancholy that was always present remains. But it's quieter.
It isn't quite emptiness that makes her heart. Nor is it hollowness. Cel doesn't really know what to make of the feeling: truth to be told, she doesn't know how she feels.
(Her before would've thrown herself into work - to anything to rid herself of her thoughts, of emotions, of anything to keep herself sane.)
Cel sits there. Cel sits - with her eyes open, staring into the blitz that obfuscates her sight. Cel looks and she doesn't know what the thickness is that shrouds in on her lungs, the feeling of nothingness in her chest, the feeling of not feeling in her heart.
She doesn't understand the feeling that grows in her lungs, either - not the nothingness that grasps her chest.
As Cel looks out from her sight-not-present, as the feelings that pool and propagate in her chest. She thinks: perhaps.
Perhaps it doesn't matter.
(Not as much as she previously thought.)
Something abashed twinges by Daria's lips. As she tilts her head against the pillow to look up at Cel. "Hi there."
Cel cocks her head down at her lover. Her fingers idly twirl the ends of Daria's brown curls. "You're awake. Did you sleep well?"
Daria's smile grows a little more. "I did. I had a nice dream."
"What was it?"
Daria tilts her head, thoughtfully. Her eyes are faraway - not here, as if she's living in a moment, a memory.
"We were by the seaside, on the sand. Basking in the sunlight. There were dogs's barks. Children's yells. But that was muted. All that was there's the water's burbles and your soft breathing. You were with me, Cel. We were together. I was lying on your stomach. Your arms were around me. You were holding me, so tight, and..."
"... and you didn't leave."
It's a different feeling. Seeing nothing.
(Cel doesn't know how to describe it. She can, however, say what it is not. It's not total blackness. Flecks of obsidian and white wrangle her sight, still. And if she concentrates hard enough, perhaps she could pierce through its veil - no, who does she kid? She cannot see.)
Cel cannot see. She cannot see - not the world, not her apartment, not her family nor her fiancee. Cel isn't secure as she would've been— isn't the Career that she was before.
Is it fine?
(She's always thought that she'd feel one thing: so confined. Had she accepted her blindness. Had she accepted her disability. Cel would rue the day she did: because she would live the rest of her life a shell of herself, wishing she were dead. By volunteering, by dying, at least she could say she'd tried.)
(But that isn't what Cel feels - not now, at least. What does last, instead, is a certain clarity.)
The Games have plagued her mind, for the last months. Cel had found it a solution - for the brevity of her sight. For the death of her reality. For her physicality at liberty. She'd become so fixated upon it, as a means to an end, a means to succeed.
And when she'd failed to volunteer. She'd scorned her own complicity. Her own passivity. In accepting her own body's shutdown: its failures, its death.
Is her body dead?
(Others would say she is: she's impaired, she's useless. What's she worth, in a world that cared not for her? In a world that didn't value her— and why should they, she's deficient, physically defective, second-rate trash, pathetic invalid, dead and damned—)
Cel lets her thoughts unroll. She lets them flow in her head: worthless, wretched, deformed, broken, dead-weight, hopeless—
And she lets them go.
You're enough, Cel whispers. She kisses her: leaves a trail down Daria's back, feels the quiver of her lover's skin against her lips.
Daria shudders. But it's a good kind of shudder - it runs a thrill up their veins. And Cel kisses her, still: doesn't stop. Waters stir underneath them, as soft as silk, massages down their skin and it's cool, it's exhilarating - it's so cold, god, but they're so warm together.
And together - together - that's what they need.
I need you, Daria whimpers - nearly gasps. She's shivering: she's panting; she's delirious as she's blissful. Cel, stay with me, please—
I won't leave you, is what Cel murmurs. Daria exhales, once more, and they're together, then: perfectly together, and content, and—
Daria, I love you.
And that is all they need, there, then, for now. Together: in their bath, in their waters, in the darkness, in their warmth, in their arms. That is all they care for, for now.
Cel's stirring coffee when Daria tucks her head on her shoulder.
Surprise flicks in her heart. Arms drape around her stomach, and a face buries in her shoulder. And soon that surprise melts away - melts away and morphs into the tides of candlelight. That's what alights in her stomach: an odd feeling that swirls.
"It's been two months, since, um." Daria's voice is muffled in her clothes - yet Cel can practically feel the blush on Daria's face.
That day. That day wasn't really any special day. Not at all, really: they were together by the seaside. It was just like any other day: except that Cel and Daria had stayed by the coast. Had let the waves lap their toes; had dug their nails into sand and they'd flicked the soggy sand around. They'd sat there, their fingers entwined with one another's. Daria's head was on Cel's shoulder, and they were staring out into the seas: into what was beyond, far and away and so far-fetched from their presence here. It was then when Daria had turned her head up at Cel. I want to do this forever, and she'd said it with a lightness to her tone, yet with a certain tenseness too. And Cel had tilted her head to rest on Daria's shoulder, and she'd replied, I want to, too, and the weight of her words weren't lost on her any.
Cel's breath shorts, momentarily. "Daria…" she says, and there's an inexplicability that resides in her voice, the thud-thud-thud of her heart as if she's facing off another opponent in Academy, as if she's in overdrive, except this time it's euphoric.
Daria's smile is so light. "Cel. Can we marry? By the seaside? Just the two of us. We can do it by your parents's home."
That surprise is a light's flick in her heart. And then it gives way: to a warmth that spools in her chest, like stars.
"Please," Cel says, hoarse in her breath. "Yes, please."
She can't help the smile that rises by her lips - she can't help it, but she lets it, still. Cel lets it quiver on her lips, and it's unfamiliar, but it's welcome.
Daria kisses her. Daria kisses her and Cel's heart leaps in her chest. They kiss and they kiss and it's—it's so different, it's so much better, them together, in their home, in where their future will be, and.
Nothing can separate them then.
Cel goes to work as the sun wanes down on the horizon.
Navigating to Havenside isn't so easy a task: but Cel's prepared herself for when the situation demanded it. A thousand and twenty-five steps and that'll signify the end of the streets. Smell that trademark trout-stink of Havenside: inhale, and she'll know she's there. Same is the saline that fills Cel's mouth once she breathes in: it tunnels down her throat and it clings at her mouth. Not a pleasant kind either: it's a deep-sea cod brininess that would make anyone want to hurl. Three hundred and thirty and she'll be past the marketplace's bustle. That plaque would be there too - Havenside Port - battered, torn and scraped by sea wear - hanging upon wood. A left by the railings that establish the market's end, sixty steps beyond, and Cel would arrive to the clinic - though that isn't her destination today. A hundred and ten on the winding path to the right and she'll be down on the docks.
One step, two step - moss-eaten wood thuds against her feet instead of gravel. There's a stupid smile that rests on Cel's lips. She isn't a smiler, not really - she prides herself on her intimidation- but god, if she couldn't. Not after her morning with Daria.
She strolls up to the Havenside port, and paces her steps to the fourth dock by the left - Dover Guard's. Four doesn't have a centralised coast guard. Cel would expect that they should - but they merely have a collection of companies, brought together under uniform rules. Cel has no love for their system: she prefers order, prefers tidiness, prefers a certainty to her routine. Four's coast guard's disorganisation doesn't appeal.
But Alithyia likes their system - ain't it better like this, you'll show up at work and it's a coin's toss whether we're out beatin' the rip-roarin' seas or gettin' our asses wasted down at Havenside - and Tal likes their system, too, and Cel's gotten used to it over time. Less strict it was, sure, but it wasn't ineffective.
Fifteen steps down their dock and Cel would find their manager there - an old man with a pearly-white beard, wrinkles like valleys down his forehead, the embodiment of a sailor who's seen his time and had a cheer to par with his mouth. Rendevoz would be lounging on a rickety yard chair under the dock's overhead shade. He'd had taken an affinity to Cel when she'd joined. They would exchange half-caustic banter, and it was enjoyable— it isn't as if repartee isn't a favourite up in her arsenal.
Fifteen down the dock. Cel tilts her head at where Rendevoz should be.
"Rendevoz," Cel murmurs, turning her head towards the seas, towards where their boat should be. "How's the lawn chair working out for you today?"
Her name comes out so gruffly - not with the fondness, not with the sarcasm that would typically follow upon such an utterance. It isn't Rendevoz: he'd never call her by her full name.
It's with a jolt that Cel realises.
"Cordeio," she says, and her stomach constricts.
She doesn't know that man well - just that he's strict, worldly, gets the job done. Cel appreciates those types. Yet he'd never make an appearance except under two circumstances. On - if there was an infraction. Two - if someone needed to be disciplined.
"Hello," Cel says. She meets his eyes: where his eyes should be. "Pardon me. I thought you were—"
"Unfocused today, Perdanez?"
Her eyes fly wide. She suppresses the flinch that runs across her skin. A knot ties her stomach together: curls together, like a writhing mass of intestines.
"I'm fine," Cel says, her tone perfectly modulated. She cocks her head at him: it's only short of a challenge, a dare.
His silence isn't comforting anyhow. It's disconcerting. It's intimidating. Why is he even—?
What's he doing?
Something twists Cordeio's voice. "Going blind's a synonym for fine?"
Every muscle in Cel's body goes rigid, goes cold - rigor mortis sets into her bones. Ice flows into her veins: crawls through her blood, cracks and splits and breaks. Sharpness digs into her lungs - wedges into her chest and she can barely breathe.
How— how does he know—?
Cel forces herself to look up at Cordeio, even though every muscle in her body's screaming and a stone's dropped down and down into her stomach. She tries to find the words in her throat - and they crawl up the cusp of it.
Except what'll she say?
You're right - I'm going blind. I'm going blind, and I didn't tell any of you, and I know what that means, it means that I'm inadequate, it means that I'm incapable, it means that—
It means what?
That she should what?
Cel's breath catches in her lungs. What's worse is she can feel Cordeio's eyes on her. What's worse is that Cel doesn't need to see to feel the pity emanating off him in bounds, feels the humiliation, so rife, spread across her fucking face.
If I'm dismissed for my abilities - fine, fuck, fine, I know I'm not suitable, I know I'm blind, I'm substandard, I'm impotent, I'm crippled, I'm broken - but I don't need your pity.
That flame - that flame that she hasn't felt, for so long, that fire that she hates, despises, that hurts, fuck, it hurts - stirs red on her cheeks.
"Perdanez," Cordeio says, but Cel's half listening to him - not over the roar of embarrassment in her ears and that tinge on her cheeks. She can practically feel their stares too, from the boat - Alithyia and Tal, the rest of the cadets, and their eyes. On her: getting chewed out by Cordeio, with her weakness espoused to the world— it's so much, it's too much—
(Cel's arms tighten across her chest, and just like that, she's back to the Head Trainer's office - back to Anahita's, her body bowed over, her arms clenched so tight to herself, as if she's cold, as if she's not cradling herself, as if she's not trying to stop herself from breaking apart. She's here, by the docks, with the salt sea wafting in her nose and tanging her tongue, by the boats that her grandfather would use to take her onto trips, Cel, don't let yourself drown to the waves, stay unaffected, stay strong.)
And Cel stands there, with those lessons in her mind, with her grandfather and Anahita in her mind, and she can't do this. Cel can't - her blindness is branded on her, for fuck's sake. It's what they'll all see when they see her: fragile little girl, detestable burden, wretched coward—didn't do anything when she could've done something about it—accepted her fate, weak, she deserves her blindness, isn't she so sightless—
"Perdanez," Cordeio repeats. It's as if he wants her to look at him - fuck, fuck you, is in the back of her throat, as is a laugh. She can't look at him. But he wants her attention - wants her attention, because Cel's hunched over with her arms huddled against her chest, brittle, frail, incompetent—
She lifts her head.
"For what it's worth," Cordeio says. "I'm sorry. But it's just policy - you'll be a liability on the field. We can't have somebody who's indisposed or ineffectual—"
—inadequate inept incapable inferior incompetent impuissant impuissant impuissant—
"—not someone that's afflicted, a sufferer—"
And she should protest, because fuck, Cel can do it. She's blind - but that doesn't make her incompetent, she's navigated the seas since she was a mere child with her grandfather under the dome of the night, she isn't unable, she knows the riggings and the masts like the back of her hand. Cel isn't alone - she has her friends, she has Alithyia and Tal, she has the rest of the cadets—
(—who stare at her with a gape in their mouths and a raise of their eyebrows, huh, so that's why Perdanez couldn't volunteer. Suits her - that blind bitch always had a stick up her ass, let's see if this humbles her. Funny, huh - the girl that's beaten us's at the bottom now. Hah, I knew she wasn't perfect, I knew she had to be weak. Perfect: Cel Perdanez is going blind and the whole world knows—)
Shut up is what croaks out of her mouth. Instinct rouses in Cel's fingers: she just wants to fight, fuck, she just wants to do something, she can't stand staying still, not here, metal to flesh to death, she doesn't care where, she just wants to—
(You're unworthy. You're unable. You're useless. Make no mistake, Perdanez, that hasn't changed. That will never change. You're blind. You don't have your sight. You're lesser. What possessed you to think otherwise? What possessed you to think that you were equal, what possessed you to think that things would've changed, what possessed you to think that they weren't going to treat you different—)
"—I'm sorry, Cecilia, but that's just how it is. You've done good work here, but I'm afraid we can't keep you around any longer."
He waits. He waits for her leave.
She doesn't take a moment longer.
Cel turns. She turns away from the bay and she feels their eyes bore into her back and the weight of their words in her spine dragging her down and down and down—
Cel Perdanez… what a pitiful cause. The Academy's top trainee - too cowardly to volunteer. Do you think she could've turned her fortunes around, had she volunteered? The Capitol has technology that can fix her sight. Can you see her? She's a husk of herself. I'd rather go into the Games than sit around blind. Rather be corpse than walking cadaver. But she's resigned herself to this life. She has nobody but herself to blame.
Do you think she should've died instead?
I don't know. Could've been better for her to - better that than let her potential be wasted away. Look at her: she'd used to be so competent, so able, a bastion for her family and her fiancee too. But look at her now. She's reliant on everybody to take care of her - she needs a person to guide her, needs somebody to help her read, needs people to help her dress, too, no doubt. I wouldn't know how I'd survive if I were her. Losing my independence - I'd rather lose my life.
Their words coalesce in her head. With every more her shoe crunches against sand and stone and street: six hundred and three, six hundred and four, six hundred and five—
Somebody knocks into her shoulder. Fuck is gritted on her lips, but Cel doesn't stumble. The man does.
"Hey—" he voice says, but Cel ignores him.
(Are they wrong? She is indisposed. She is useless. It doesn't matter if she tries to let those words go - they'll come back to her anyway. Infirm, invalid, inferior, hopeless, liability— and they won't stop.)
There are tears that prick by her eyes. There's a seethe that rises by her lips, because damn them all, fuck them all, I don't need them, fuck, why am I like this, why did I damn myself—
(Perhaps that is why Cel does not feel the presence of the man behind her. Perhaps that is why she does not hear their steps, as they follow her: winding from Havenside towards home.)
It's after Cel twists her key into their apartment gates that she feels the presence behind her.
She's been so embroiled in the tumult in her mind - in the chaos, in the discomfort that grits her teeth, that grips her shaky breaths, that lets every footfall of hers hurt - that it's only when she goes to the gates, and focuses on wedging the fucking key in (—fucking hell, why are there so many damn locks, who invented keys, who made them so hard to manage, god—) that she feels their presence behind her back.
Cel steps into their hallway. Footfalls creep in, as soft as snow - a moment before the gates click shut. She ascends the staircase: one, two, and her fingers run up the rails.
That echo of steps follow her right behind.
Cel closes her eyes. She has options. She isn't - she isn't unable to fight. She still has her keys: best, she can slip them between her fingers and jam them into her stalker's eyes. Kicking him down the stairs wouldn't be so difficult either: a slam, a grunt, a neck's twist, and they'll be done.
Their floor's approaching. Cel steels herself. Keys between her fingers, a whirl around and a punch—
That male voice doesn't surprise her. What does take her aback is its mellowness.
Cel turns her head towards him - might as well. He doesn't know she can't see.
"You followed me from Havenside," is what exits her lips: half-gritted, strong, secure. "Why?"
His mellifluous voice is jarring to hear. "I'm sorry - it seems creepy, I know. But I don't mean it in that way."
Cel blinks in disbelief. Her laugh shorts in her throat. "What other way could you have meant it?"
"Don't you recognise me, Cel?"
Oh, certainly not, it's not as if there's static where his face is. Sure, his voice is familiar - she's heard that melodic undertone somewhere, but that rasp of his throat tells Cel that he's far older than her - forty years in the very least. Perhaps a mentor from the Academy, but Cel doesn't know any. There were Academy students, sure, who'd kept in touch with their mentors as if they were best friends, but Cel isn't like that. Cel doesn't do that - the Academy was the Academy, and friends were friends, family were family. Categorisation was how she'd thrived.
"I don't," is what Cel finally sets on. She locks her jaw: because this man's voice may be familiar, but he's still a stalker and a stranger. "Why are you here?"
"It's—" he sighs. It's quiet, for a few moments, before he starts again. This time, he clears his throat. "I wanted to see her."
Something settles into Cel's stomach - something that churns stomach with an uneasiness that she despises. "See who?"
"Do you really—fine, Cel." One exhale. "I'm here to see Daria."
"Who are you?" Cel grits out. Red flashes in her head: warnings, flashes, that red before a man meets a bull's maw.
"What the fuck—what the hell are you doing here?"
A half-laugh lives in her breath: because it's ludicrous, it's unreal. He can't be here.
But Daria's father is - here and heaving: bristling, hostility radiating in waves.
"Why can't I visit my daughter's apartment?"
Cel stands her ground. She fixes a glare at him: despite the panic erratic in her heart, despite the thousand thoughts that whirl in her head.
"Better question. What the hell made you think you were welcome here?" Cel snarls. "There's a reason why she didn't tell you our address. I don't want to see you. Daria doesn't want to see you. Respect Daria's wishes, for god's sake - if you won't her autonomy. Go away, before I do something that I won't regret."
Silence. Cel waits—for him to leave, for his steps to clatter down the steps, for the slam of the gates, for her to never see him again—
A caustic laugh breaks through the air.
"Oh, come on. Who are you, Cecilia—oh, her protector, her savior, isn't that right? Came to my doorstep with lilies and took her away from home. Do you think that she wants you? Do you think that she cares about you? She's with you because you're the only person she has. Do you enjoy being her knight in shining armour? Is that the only thing you have?"
"This isn't about me."
"Isn't it?" There's a scoff that curls by his lips. "Look, Cel - I'm doing you a favour. I'm going to change that. I'll take her off your hands. I'm going to bring her back."
"Shut up," Cel says - it rips from her throat. "Shut the fuck up. I don't care what you have to say— so what if I'm her knight from scum like you? I don't want you here. She doesn't want you here. You're detestable. Leave."
There's a moment of pause. And then -
"It's pitiful," he says, "Is what it is. Your love, I mean. But fine. I'll go. This won't be the last you've seen me."
His steps echo down the stairwell. And oh - Cel wants to hurl a knife at his head so badly, a dozen, preferably. If only she could see to make the mark.
But not quite soon enough.
"Who was that?"
Cel turns towards their door, open wide. Undoubtedly Daria was there, too - listening and looking at Cel, with what in her eyes - confusion, surprise.
That apprehensive note in Daria's voice does not help matters anyhow. "Cel, what are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be at work? Who was talking to you? Who's the person that's just left?"
Nobody you have to care about, is what Cel wants to say. Perhaps those are the words that Daria wants to hear - perhaps those are the words that Daria deserves to hear, because if there's anything that Daria doesn't deserve it's this.
But the lie dies in her mouth. No. No, Daria deserves the truth.
"It's…" Those words falter into her throat. Cel lets out another breath. "Your father."
Daria's eyes widen. "What?"
"Your father," Cel repeats, and regrets it immediately. She doesn't need to see to know that Daria's face shrivels. Doesn't need to see to imagine that change in her face - from astonishment, eyes wide, to aghastness, no way - until a certain fear subsumes Daria in its entirety.
Daria's paces around their apartment doesn't alleviate her imagination - her anxiousness any.
"Oh—oh god. He knows I'm here?"
Cel closes her eyes. Fuck, she shouldn't have said anything. Because—now what? She's only letting Daria spiral.
"Daria…" Cel tries. "I'll keep you safe."
Daria shakes her head vigorously. In her voice's the breathless quality of tears. "No! No, Cel, you can't. Cel, you don't know what he can do. Please…"
"He can't do anything to you—not when I'm here."
"Cel, you don't understand, you can't protect me—" Finally, Daria shakes her head. A shuffle of clothes, the clash of clutter, the jangle of clasps: all of it stuffed in a bag. "I need to go."
Cel's throat tightens. There are words - reassurances - that stay in her mouth, yet they don't leave her lips. Because there isn't anything that she can say. All Cel can say through it all is—
"Daria. Don't leave."
Daria grabs her bag. That clack of its buckles against their table says so much. And just the thought of her packing is enough to drive Cel back (— two years ago, looking at Daria from across the table, with scattered toiletries across their table, with Daria's smile and her breaths laboured, thank you Cel, but really, I can't stay—)
Her motions are so frantic and her breaths are so short, so desperate, like an animal's. Tears infiltrate Daria's voice. "I have to—"
"Cel, I don't want him to touch me again!"
Cel's heart leaps in her throat.
There was a night where they were exchanging truths by the seaside. It was a casual game: one that they'd pick up, for days where there was nothing better to do. What was your home life like? She'd asked. Daria's eyes flickered: had shuttered and died, despite the clearness of her eyes. She'd looked away. Can we talk about something else?
And Daria's breaths. Hard, heavy - that's all that's left in their room. Not so different from her breaths when she'd found her in the stalls. So heavy, for she was heaving down the toilets, even if Cel didn't know why then. Cel had reached out, a hand over her shuddering shoulder. She'd flinched. Cel recoiled. Daria apologised. Tells her that she tries her hardest, she really does, but she can't help the flinch when others touch her. So Cel should ask, before she does anything - it's not like she's scared of her, it's just that she flinches, and she tries, she really does, she just can't quell it. Asking helps her get ready.
Cel's fingernails dig into her palms.
"Fuck," Cel grits out, under her breath. She slams her eyes shut. A certain fury rises in her stomach: pits of fire and heat. "Okay, okay."
She sucks in a breath and opens her eyes.
"Right. I'll… we'll leave. He doesn't know where my parents live. Will that help, Daria? Should we go there?"
Daria's shaky exhale is Cel's answer. She's still hyperventilating. But less now. And it hurts. It hurts, because Cel wants to do something, but she can't - what even can she do, anyway?
She just wants to kill something.
"Okay, good," Daria says, and her voice is so shaky - shakier than ever, shakier than Cel's ever heard her. "Let's… let's go. I think I have everything."
Cel's stomach wrenches.
"Of course," Cel says, her heart hammering in her throat.. She opens the door, and they leave, and Cel screws her eyes shut, lets out a breath—
They arrive to her parents's house not long after.
Cel hadn't expected to come here - not so soon, at least. Not to meet the sight of their oceanside bungalow today. And yet now is what they need - for Daria's panic and disassociation practically emanates from her in waves.
Cel clutches Daria's hand as they go upon the path to her parents's house. Six hundred and twenty steps, a turn down the road - she knows the path. Cel knows the scent of the sea that hits her nose; knows the sea-breeze and knows its mad medley and knows it all.
Cel hasn't really let herself think about home. Not its familiarity. Not the solace it gives. She had shut her mind off, before, when she was upon the volunteer's path. Home was a distant comfort, a faraway haven, a prize to relinquish.
That feeling is cheapened now.
A serpent coils in her stomach. Gnaws at her flesh and razes its fangs across the pit of it. It is not even a consolation prize that she has: Cel has a world that should not be. A world that should be lost to her with death; a world that should be hers again with victory. Not this liminality, black sight, half-living—
They ascend the steps. It's so quick that they come to the door. It is so quick that it swings open. Before her knuckles even land a knock.
"Mother," Cel murmurs. She steps in and tugs Daria into their house. Their bungalow is not spacious: it is wedged together, stairs forming by the left, upwards from the entrance, and their living room to their right, which sprawls into two more rooms. It used to be homely: now it is only confining.
Cel takes a few steps into their living room and stops. Steps echo their stairwell: her father, no doubt, and his baritone confirms that.
"What's going on, Cel?"
Cel swallows. What can she say? It isn't in her place to say anything. Neither is Daria ready to speak. They remain there, with Daria's hand in Cel's - unmoving, unspeaking. And Cel's mother and father stares and waits.
Their pause is too long until her mother breaks it.
"Daria… is there anything that you need? Do you want to go to Cel's old room, for now?"
Cel can only presume Daria nods. Because so quickly does her fingers slip away from Cel's grasp - like water. So quickly does she melt away. So quickly does she go.
So quickly is Cel left alone.
That tension in their room does not need to be so thick. And yet it lasts around them - it's so suffocating, so much, too much.
It's her father that speaks up first.
"Cel. What happened? Why aren't you at work? Why's Daria… crying? What's happening?"
Oh, Cel wishes she knew. Can she even tell them? To relieve her humiliation today?
All my fault.
How did Cordeio learn of her condition?
Barely anybody knows.
Sure, Ailythia and Tal might've suspected something was up, but Cel was not idiotic. She'd concealed her illness from the Academy. Just two more weren't so difficult. Daria wouldn't say anything, either. But other than that…
"Why the fuck did you tell them?" Cel says, coldness inhabiting her voice.
Silence suffocates the room.
It is worse than anything Cel could've imagined. Because it means she is right. It means that they did, they did fuck her over and let her down and embarrass her. Pain clings to her chest and heat clings onto her cheeks and madness pounds in her head. Her gut contorts and her dignity withers and her pride chokes—
"So I'm right," Cel mutters. Bile and tar gather in her mouth, and she wants to spit it like venom. What's more virulent than her embarrassment is her pathetic misery. Of course they won't believe in her, of course she'll be dismissed, of course she'll be seen as lesser, seen as useless, seen as incompetent—and are they wrong?
Cel lets out a breath. She collapses onto the couch by her side, sinks a hand in her hair, and lets a half-not-there laugh in her breath.
A moment of silence.
"Cel..." her mother says. Cel doesn't bother to look up. Why bother? She's blind and her parents know it. She's blind and the whole world knows it. Why the fuck does it matter?
"We thought they'd have accommodated you - we thought they'd have helped you. We didn't think that they'd push you away."
Cel pushes down the disbelieving laugh that bubbles in her throat.
Funny. Did you really?
She lets her eyes flutter shut. She lets the breaths in her throat steady.
How nice for them to prove her right. It was better to keep it all a secret. Better to not say anything, better to not do anything. Better let her blindness be her own, better leave, better die, better let society forget about her existence than to turn their spotlight on her.
It would've been better in the Games.
An uncomfortable quietness overwhelms them. Cel sits there, as her parents stare - at her ruined form, at her ruined self, at herself, and Cel can't, she can't—
Her father shifts away. His steps platter across the squeak of wood. He walks past Cel, and soon the creak of the door - to where Daria is - overwhelms their silence. It clicks close.
It's just her and her mother left.
Their shared silence is more awkward than anything. Her mother's kind. She's always been so kind: helping the weak and the infirm. And yet in the same hand she'd espoused a Career's values and had encouraged her on. We'll help the blind and the deaf and the disabled because it's a charitable cause - but you, Cecilia, should be the best of them all.
Did you think that your daughter would go blind?
It's a question that lodges in the back of her throat. It's the question that she needs the least - not after all that's happened. Yet it sits in the back of her throat, unheard, unsaid. Unseen - unfelt.
Cel doesn't speak.
Their shared terseness is too palpable. Cel's embarrassment is too present.
Cel's father shuts the door to Daria's room.
"I'm going to find Daria." Cel murmurs. She gets up from the couch and ignores the vertigo that seizes her. Six steps. Cel lets her knuckles rap against the door.
After a moment, she enters.
The distinct sounds of sobs choke through.
A heaviness resides in Cel's own throat. She wants to say something, wants to apologise, but—
What will she say?
It's her fault. Her fault that she'd brought Daria's father from Havenside. Her fault that she didn't even realise. What did Daria say again? You can't do anything?
Cel can't. Do anything. Not what she'd promised to do— to protect her. Not to help her. Aren't they so right? No matter how Cel tries to frame her thinking, her reality won't change. She's weak. She's useless. She's incompetent. She's unable. She's reliant. She's pathetic.
"I'm sorry," Cel says. Her words are heavy, because her cheeks are heavy, because her stomach is heavy. Heavy with a glut of grief and gut and gallstone.
Aren't they so right?
Daria's tears say so.
Cel's heartbeat's in her throat.
You couldn't help her. What makes you think you could've helped her? What made you think you could've been competent, Cel - to be the able fiancee, the able lover - that Daria deserves?
Aren't they so right? You're so useless. What made you think that you could protect her? Sure, maybe when you were sixteen - but now? You can barely defend yourself. Don't even consider defending her. Your promise was a lie you'd willingly undertaken.
"Daria… " Cel exhales.
What's on Daria's face? Tears. Running down her throat. And pain. Riven upon her lips. And resentment. Rushing down her eyes. And hate. Ravaged in her screams. Rent so because of Cel's.
Because of Cel's.
What's on Cel's face?
Other than her broken sight.
She lets in a breath. She blinks a tear out of her eyes. A crystal spills down her cheeks.
"... It's okay," Cel says, softly. "It doesn't have to be like this."
And Daria's voice - soft, vulnerable, confused…
Cel closes her eyes.
"I understand I've failed." Cel says, quietly. "I couldn't protect you. When I should've. When I'd promised. I can't help you, Daria. And that was my fault. And it won't change, as much as I—as I wished it could've, and so I understand, Daria. We don't have to do this."
"Cel, no, please. Cel, that's not what I think—I won't, I'd never, I— Cel, please don't leave me, Cel, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please don't go, please, I need you—"
It rushes out in chokes and sobs: so incoherent, so senseless, so nonsensical.
It stiffens stone in Cel's heart.
It writhes a half-scoff on her lips.
It sickens her stomach.
What resides in her throat is so bitter.
Did Daria feel the need to lie? Even through her tears?
"You don't have to say that," Cel retorts. Her words are too acidic on her tongue. "Daria, it's fine if you want to say the truth. I know I'm useless, I know I'm weak. I'm blind. I know I'm incompetent, you don't have to stay. You don't have to spare my feelings - I understand. There are better people out there. There are able people. I know I'm not one of them."
"Cel, no," Daria protests. "Cel, that's not, that's not what I think, please, I don't—"
Cel is many things. She is cautious, she is cold; she is corrosive. But she is, too, acerbic and acidulous; she is caustic and cutting; she is vitriolic and vehement and virulent and violent. When she wants to be.
Venom is what she picks.
"No? Is that why you'd insisted to go with me to Havenside, Daria? Forgoing your own fears? Is that why we'd stayed for our anniversary? Is that why you're so desperate to help, is that why you do what you do, Daria? You know I'm incompetent. You know I'm insufficient. You know I'm a burden, you know I'm an impediment, an encumbrance—you don't have to lie."
"I'm—Cel, please, that isn't what I think, please, I'm so sorry you feel that way, I'm so sorry, it's not, I never, I wasn't, I never thought—"
A choke again; a sob again. Something coagulates in Cel's gut: something cold, something hard.
"You don't have to save my feelings, Daria. I know I'm not able to - not able to protect you anymore. I understand why you won't want me anymore."
"Cel, that's not—"
Cel almost laughs.
She doesn't, though.
"You don't have to try so hard to please. You don't have to try so hard always, Daria. I know I'm an invalid, but I don't need to be saved. I don't need your care, I don't need your fussing, I don't—I don't need any of it. I don't need your pretending. I don't need you, Daria. So stop trying."
There's a swallow. It's so soft, at first, that Cel barely hears it. Steps come, next, but they patter away from Cel. Towards the back door. Next is the twist of a handle, the creak of wood, and then the sea-air washes into their room. Outside would be dreary, mottled skies: that's what Cel, fourteen, would've seen, when she couldn't sleep and wanted a place to leave, and so she'd make an escape by her room's back door, trek down the beach and be somewhere other than here.
The door slams.
Cel bites her lip.
She closes her eyes.
What doesn't change in her chest is its emptiness.
The distant, drifting sobs that echo from the sands say so much; those sobs that magnify, with every crunch of Cel's feet against sand.
It doesn't stop, either. Not even as Cel's footsteps stop - only a few feet away from Daria. There's a momentary gasp, before it's stifled - and then an audible swallow follows. Then a thunk: the unmistakable noise of glass - drops by Daria's side and sinks into the sand.
Tension coils in Cel's stomach. She stares, at what should be Daria, at what would be her - if not so obliterated by her eyes.
"Daria," Cel says, and her name comes out tight. Too tight. "What are you drinking?"
A shuddering gasp. A half breath. And then -
"It isn't water," Daria says, quietly. "If you're worried."
"Alcohol isn't much better."
No response. What would curl Daria's face now - a flit of guilt? A bit of embarrassment on her cheeks? A bitter smile?
But it's only silence that fills their gap. It's excruciating. Perhaps Cel prefers quietude over talk - but there are words in the air, flitting around them, constraining them, bulging in their excess - that lives in the air.
Five more steps.
She takes them. Cel slips down on the sand, by Daria's side. That thunk of her on the sandbed's enough to rouse Daria's eyes at her.
Cel should speak. There's tenseness - in her shoulders, hammering in her chest, and words, forcing themselves upwards in the flap of her throat.
But it isn't her that speaks.
It's Daria who lets out an exhale. Daria who turns her eyes to Cel. Daria, whose's words exit her lips - half bitter, half not quite so.
"Are you going to apologise?"
Cel's fingers curl into the sand. "Why?"
"You know why."
It's not insincere. Regret claws at her chest, the more she thinks it. Cel, typically, would suppress it all. Better to forge on her path, better to go forward with her rightness than admit she was wrong. That's been the adage of her life, that holds true, still.
Except that she can't. Not anymore.
Not with Daria.
Not with this.
Too much guilt swallows Cel alive. She'd lashed out, in her anguish and her scorn. She'd let her words pierce. She'd hurt Daria, deliberately.
And now they're here.
Daria exhales. "... How did we get here?"
Cel doesn't know. They'd started just fine: Daria was drowning. And Cel had towed her out of the seas, had resuscitated her with a breathless kiss. Then they were together, they were living together, lovers and fiancees to be married. That was their storybook ending.
How did they get here?
They were supposed to be married here.
But then Cel was swept out to the seas, and—
Everything went wrong when Cel started to drown.
"Isn't it obvious?" Cel says, half a chuckle laden in her breath. "We're here because of—"
My own problems.
My own turmoil.
My own inadequacy.
"—me. That's why you were crying, wasn't it? I wasn't enough for you." Cel says, something rueful on her lips. But it's devoid of hostility. Devoid of venom. Devoid of anything. Cel waits for Daria to speak, for its finality - I'm sorry, but I can't do this.
But Cel doesn't expect the the bitterness in Daria's breath.
"No. I was crying because I pushed you away."
It's a moment out of her breath. Because out of everything - that was what Cel was least expecting.
Daria's exhale is so soft: yet so solemn.
"... It's not just your fault, Cel. You're not... wrong, when you said I wasn't enough."
"... because I'm not. Not enough for you. Not enough for anyone. Not enough for myself. I-I relied on you too much to protect me."
"I don't understand."
"Do you remember the day you found me? In the stalls?"
Cel nods. "Of course."
Daria lets out a quieter breath. "Well, um. You were the only person that knew. You were the only person that helped. You were the only person I had. You were my knight, Cel. And... I think I needed it at first. I just, I don't know. You never talked about your problems. And… at first I appreciated it. I needed it. Or else I really was gonna self-destruct. Because I'd already had to handle everyone's emotions, but I didn't—I didn't need to think about yours. Because you'd take care of them yourself and mine, too. You were my escape."
Cel stills. That stir of a sensation's unusually thick in her chest. She's always known that Daria had issues with her own self-esteem, with her own self-value. She'd known what it meant in the context of their relationship: it meant Cel supporting Daria, Cel uplifting her, Cel helping her. But Cel's never thought that it would mean… this.
Another breath. There's so much bitterness intermingled in Daria's voice.
"... I saw you were suffocating but—but I let you suffocate anyway, and it was - it is so selfish of me. But then as I got better and then I was ready, you never spoke. And when you did speak I tried to reach out, I'd tried to help, but you wouldn't - you wouldn't accept it, and I get why you wouldn't, because I relied on you so much and then I never helped you and so you'd never opened up and I'm sorry, Cel, I failed you. I let you go down that way. I did and I'm so sorry. Cel - I left you to drown."
Coldness churns in her stomach.
Pain churns in her gut.
Thoughts churn in her head.
Cel doesn't know how to feel.
Did Daria leave her to drown? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Daria was Cel's escape, too. She threw herself into Daria's problems so she could run away from her own. Focusing on Daria meant suppressing the pain of her sight. It meant letting herself live again. Focusing on Daria had helped Cel, because then Cel could shoulder both their burdens for her: there was no need for Daria to suffocate. Yet what good came from that? Because Cel wanted to stand alone, because she wanted to bear her own misery alone, because she wanted to bear Daria's pain alone— she'd pushed everyone away.
Her family. Her friends. Her fiancee.
For her independence?
For her life?
Because it certainly wasn't for them.
Her next words are bitter as it is wistful; as painful as it is regretful.
"No. I let myself."
They're quiet, then. All that's left is the swishes of water against sand; all that's left is the wind that swirls sand against their skin. That creates susurrations out of granules.
Cel's fingers find the bottle. She slips the rim into her mouth. Downs its liquid. She imagines Daria's eyes, bleary, flicking up to her. And Cel lets the bottle hits the sand.
It doesn't take long until it's taken up again. Cel listens, as Daria swallows the rest, and lets out a quiet exhale. And then they fall quiet once again.
They stay in the sands by the sea of Cel's childhood home. As does an ache stay in their hearts.
(Did they ever think a union could've come from - what was already in the beginning - so forsaken?)
"What do we do now, Cel?"
"I..." Cel stops. She swallows.
Things can't be the same. Not after this. There's something that's been broken between them: something sanctified, something that was at the basis of them. There's something fractured in the air that they can't salvage - that they can't save.
"... I don't know." Cel admits.
Daria exhales. If Cel could see her, then her eyes would be glimmering - with a light touched by moonlight and tears.
"I don't know, either."
It's just them in the darkness. It's just them that's laden in the night's chill. It is that, and the heaviness of knowledge that rests.
"I think we have to," Daria says, a quiet sound in her breath. "... take a break."
Her words are so stark. Cel bites her lip. She lets out a small exhale: because she knows it's… true.
They both do.
She would've protested before. It was better to pretend that all was fine, better to maintain what was all around her, better for it all. But the weight of Cel's failures stare back her in the face. The weight of her wrongs. And she can't deny it anymore.
Not her problems. Her misery. Her self-loathing. Her melancholy.
Not how they've affected all around her.
(Not how she's affected everyone around her.)
"It's not a goodbye," Daria says, quietly. "Not one for... forever."
The protests that coil around Cel's throat tighten.
Daria lets out a breath. It's a small exhale - a small sigh.
"... I won't be gone. I'm still here. I'll still be here. And you'll still be here, too. It's just that we can't…"
"... do this. Not anymore."
Cel closes her eyes.
"Not until we've both changed enough for it."
There's something bitter that curls by Cel's lips. "Will it take a miracle?"
"No." Daria says, softly. "... at least I hope not. "
That chill that lasts in her heart is so cold. That melancholy is. A shiver that creeps up her skin. A breath catches in her throat. It all washes over her, like the tides down and that resound in the seas.
Cel's sitting the sand. Daria gets up from beside her. Her footsteps plop down against the wet sand, and fade, away and away until only an oblivion of sound is all that's left.
Daria leaves Cel by the sea.
One tear curves by Cel's eyes. It drops down onto her skin: crystal-cold.
Cel lets out a breath.
There are no more tears that make by her eyes.
(That is what she wishes, at least.)
FIN. PART 1.
A/N. Welcome to my THG wlw tragedy of 2021. Yep, gigantic fucking oneshots seems to be a yearly theme now.
First of all, I'm so sorry for breaking up Celdaria. Before you hate me for the ending… I suggest a re-read of Metanoia; there are some moments that you could perhaps catch out that lended itself to their break. (': But this is a twoshot for a reason, and still a fix-it for a reason. Other than that… well, yes, my obsession with Cel Perdanez came to a head. Thanks Haiden, I don't know if I love or hate you for it. It's obvious that without you, and without the wonderful fic that is Centrifuge, this fic would not have happened. So thank you!
Most of all, though, I really appreciate anyone who's gotten this far, honestly! I hope you've enjoyed. Thank you so much for reading: I do so appreciate you all for giving this fic a chance. These two girls have been living in my head rent free and its just nice to have y'all follow me along for this. For anyone who's gotten here, you're truly the best.
Metanoia, Part 2, will be coming to you soon. We'll be looking at things from Daria's perspective this time, I think. It it, too, going to be a 20k word monstrosity? Hopefully not.
Thank you so much for reading! It would be lovely to hear what you've thought in a review. If you ever wanna chat, in general or about Meta or anything else, y'all know where to catch me on Discord. There's a few extras on there too - namely the playlist, art, moodboards, and otherwise. If not, well, my FFnet dm's are open anytime!