Hearts and Houses
K. Ryan, 2011
They stood together in at temple services, novices pressed in a great, once-voiced huddle with the wall of coloured Dedicates on every side. Treasured—or herded—if symbolism was the sort of thing to keep anyone's attention. They all touched each other. Shoulder to shoulder, voices raised and blending, and a steady vibration came even from the throats of those who claimed, singly, that they could not sing. Each note licked out to join every other, and Niva's hand brushed Paras's as her warm, soft alto caught and covered the stitch-witch's surprisingly thready soprano tones.
Paraskeve was in what had become, through steady bursts of effort, her workroom. It was a place of lightness of which she thought even Niko might be proud, and she enjoyed her shiver of delight at the feeling of true Hajran linen in her hands, in this place she had her own, just as much as she enjoyed the fabric itself. Niva, standing in the doorway, was almost lost behind drifts of cloth that she had let pile up on tables on either side. Her jaw was set, her eyes level.
"When you're ready," Paraskeve answered, smiling as her friend flushed and scowled.
Niva's workroom, this first summer, seemed to take in air and breathe out marjoram. The air was heavy with the scent of it, living and drying, its heavy, rich growth spilling from pots and small trenches, and sticking in the folds of Niva's robes. Paras closed her eyes in the cool sweetness of the place, while Niva bustled and snipped and brought herbs to her hands so they might be used in dinner.
"I know you're not, love. Not yet."
The word was not new, of course. But it was new for them, and felt good in her mouth.
"But you want to."
Niva did not know why she did not shout. She should shout, surely. But instead, she looked up at Paras, who stood so serenely in another's private space, and watched as the other girl opened her eyes. They took in the green shadows on each other's faces.
"That," said Paras evenly, "Is only a fraction of what I want."
Evening light shivered through their kitchen, and Paras propped open one window to let the birdsong in, which made them both smile. Niva worked slowly in the flour, a slow and heavy rhythm that seemed to make the dough forming under her hands into more of itself. It grew and stretched and she pushed and pulled and slapped at it, warming and smoothing beneath her like something living. And she swore Paras would find it easy if she only tried. This was rubbish, but Paras let her hand come up to run gently across the stocky, taut shoulders, and lower along the curve of Niva's spine.
"You were thin when you came here. You look so much better, now."
"It's all the bread. I grow fat off the scraps you leave me." Niva leant back into her hand, always working.
"Do you have a name, yet?"
Niva's hands stilled, and she turned a little to smirk up at Paras, who could not resist touching a falling lock of hair, bright and sleek from recent cutting. She let the tips run over the rounding curve of her cheek.
"Now?" Niva asked her, a little strangled.
Niva swallowed. "Then I shan't tell you," she said, forcing herself back into her first conversation, and the growing loaf of bread.
The night was thick. Airless and slightly scorched. Paras was not sleeping. Sweat stuck the shift she wore to her body; no matter how politely she asked the cotton to repel such things. Her hair hung limp, parts of her stuck together in ways she could not bear thinking about, in this little stucco and wood house she had made her own. The ceiling pressed close.
A darker shadow in the gloom, small and sturdy and filling what air the space had left with nasturtium and new sweat and old clothing—different skin.
"It's cooler in my room. The plants help."
"I love you."
"I wasn't joking."
Niva was right. Her room, full of greenery lush with hoarded water, was cooler. A larger space, the bed-linens crisp from recent change and glorious against Paras's skin. They do not see more than the shapes of each other, Paras shifting out of the way as she feels Niva's slight weight change the texture of the sheets beneath her.
"I wasn't joking," she said once more. "I just...laugh at some things more than you do."
"I don't want to laugh at this. I want—"
"—it's laughter that keeps all the joy," she whispered, letting Niva's rough words move over and through her. She could feel the other girl's breath on her cheek. "And I think there can be joy, with you."
Niva swallowed, and Paras imagined the slow, helpless movement of her throat, and the pulse beating there.
"I feel that already," Niva mumbled. And Paras moved to hold her, despite the heat. She turned in the small space, and Paras could not stop a shudder as Niva's lips brushed her collarbone. Her neck. She shuddered and stretched, and Niva let her mouth open gently, allowing herself to taste and feel while Paras's hands tightened around her back.
"Not yet," she groaned. "But—"
"—but?" Niva felt laughter, now. It was rising slowly, nervous and strange. The room was very dark and their heartbeats very loud. And laughter pushed in her, at her, and some would do nothing but trickle into her voice, no matter how her body stabbed itself with frustration as Paras eased herself away.
Niva whimpered. She could help it. She should be embarrassed, she was sure, but the flush to her skin was all heat and confusion and hope, and that laughter that had no reason to fill her, and yet never seemed to stop. "How did you know?"
"I know you enough to guess."
They stood together in temple services, though they knew they should not. It broke the pattern. The new Dedicate's dark green robes were a shout amongst all the white. Her whole body, brilliant and light with the euphoria that came from fasting and completion and newly made, longed for vows, could have been Mila's younger guise incarnate, riotous within a contained circle of the others who had welcomed her, and named her, and would have to live with her now. Paras stood by her side and brought her hand up to her lips, tasting marjoram and nasturtium, bright sweat and Midsummer salt.
The new Dedicate's voice faltered, and she glowered at the girl, who only smiled.
Dedicate Rosethorn kissed her, others in the circle singing louder to lift the interrupted song, and she felt words in her mouth. A promise.
Yes. Let's go home.
Eyes closed, the part of her that could think and fly did a handstand on the roof.