A Heart in Winter

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Autumn was brief; scarcely two moons cycled before its spirit slowed and tipped white with frost. In spite of that, every one of its days seemed endless to Aeron. Only the time she spent with Caoile sped by. Caoile’s health improved. Color returned to her face. She regained much of her strength, laughed, returned to teaching the village’s children their runes. Away from her, Aeron’s waking hours slowed to an interminable crawl.

Though she kept up her usual duties, she had little energy or thought to devote to them. She floated through birth and burial blessings, lost in the noise of the war between her conscience and her heart. Her all-too-brief, bittersweet moments with Caoile could never be enough, but even the most selfish part of her could not justify condemning all of Toth Dail to death to save a single soul. To make matters worse, the division of her souls had set her adrift.

Who was Aeron Mailloy? She hadn’t asked that question since her seventeenth summer, and even then she’d known more of the answer than she did now. She’d always had clarity, but new conflict between her souls laid a thick fog across her. She couldn’t see herself, and she feared that she might be changing behind the cover of mist.

She felt tears welling up behind her vision again. Just as she always did, she pressed her eyelids tight. Pressure in her head screamed for release, but she refused it. Tides of worry and fear dragged her out into the horizon, and the opposing winds of identity whipped those oceans into waves that crashed across her, threatened to bury her. Her tears would not join them. These waters, at least, were hers to command. She needed them. She feared that if she freed them, her whole world—the one she understood—would pour out with them, and she’d sink to the floor of an ever-deepening sea. Her eyelids were thin, creaking walls between her and a host of bleak futures she could not stand to consider.

She’d spent this day floating through the last harvest festival, eyes blind to the people’s joy, ears deaf to their laughter and song. Her words fell without thought. A tiny corner of her mind thought she might have repeated the speech she’d offered last autumn, but if so, the villagers failed to notice, caught up in their simple lives. No complications for them. They didn’t fall asleep afraid that their loved ones might not wake in the morning. Their dreams never tortured them awake. She doubted they ever questioned themselves, their natures, purposes.

Perhaps some of the villagers wished her a good harvest on her way home; she nodded but didn’t hear them. She walked home in thick, unnatural silence, impenetrable even by the loudest, latest merry-makers. She sat staring into the fireplace for what felt like hours before she felt Caoile’s hand close on her shoulder.

“You have rough-day-face.”

Aeron leaned her cheek into Caoile’s hand. How could she explain? She didn’t even understand herself anymore. How could she put into words her hollow dread, her aimless uncertainty? She drew her hand across her chest to grasp Caoile’s hand and never let go, pressing her lips to her wife’s knuckles. Her words cracked as she spoke them.

“I’m fine. No, I’m not, I’m… I’m scared.”

“Want to talk about it?”

Aeron shook her head. “You’ve got enough to think about without adding my worries.”

Caoile leaned over her and kissed her cheek. “Is that how you think this works?”

Aeron nodded, struggling to keep her breathing steady. Caoile spun around the chair and sat in Aeron’s lap, pulling Aeron’s head to her breast. Aeron bit her lip to hold the tears in, leaning into the soft warmth of her wife’s embrace. She was tired of strength, and her cheeks hurt with the pressure of holding a brave face. She felt like a child here; tiny and vulnerable.

“Aeron…” Caoile’s voice was no louder than a whisper. “You’re a part of my life. I don’t know how much time I have left, and I want to spend whatever that is together. We can’t let all of this pull us apart while I’m still here.”

The words made Aeron’s stomach lurch, and she sucked in an involuntary breath, throwing her arms around Caoile and pulling her tight. “Don’t even talk like that.”

Caoile’s fingers tightened in her hair, and she felt a kiss against the top of her head. “Don’t think I’m not as afraid of it as you are.” Caoile’s chest resonated her words against Aeron’s ear. “But pretending it’s not possible won’t help either of us. We can’t disappear into ourselves. I don’t need an anchor right now. I need you, Aeron. You’re all I’ve got. As far as my father is concerned, I might as well already be… well, he is who he is. Anyway, I can’t deal with this by myself, and neither can you.”

Aeron felt her wife pulling her head up until their foreheads touched, felt Caoile’s tears flowing onto her own nose, trickling to her chin, tempting her own. “I’m sorry.”

“Stop that.”

A weak laugh broke through the miasma of fear. “Yes, ma’am.”

Caoile drew back. Her cheek twitched, forecasting a smile. “Now can we talk?”

Aeron took a breath, but it caught in her throat. Where could she begin? How much could she say? Was she keeping secrets now? She chose her words with care.

“I’m just worried about you, and on top of that, I’m… not sure who I am anymore. I’m not used to that. Feeling lost in my own head.”

“What do you mean?”

Aeron sighed. “I don’t know. All my life, every time I’ve turned my head, I’ve seen how different I am from everyone else. And it’s always been fine, because I understood what I was. Now, something’s… shifted. I’m losing myself, and it’s scaring me.”

“Aeron, everyone changes. Grows. No one lives just one life.”

“I’m not sure it’s like that. I feel like I’m slipping.”

“Everyone does that too. Just make sure you stand up when you’re done.”

“This is no time for me to fall down, Caoile. You need me to be strong right now.”

“No, I don’t. I need you to be close, and that’s all. You’re allowed to be human. If you slip, I’ll help you up.”

A brittle smile filled Aeron’s face. A million worries filled her head. If she did slip, what if she came up a different creature than the one Caoile loved and needed? What if Caoile disappeared while she was down?

She left her questions unspoken, and hated herself for having them. “I just want… only one crisis at a time, you know? And mine is so pointless next to—”

Caoile shushed her. “I’m sure I told you to stop that.”

The quivering in Aeron’s chest intensified, but she grinned in spite of it. “How can I possibly deserve you?”

“I don’t know. You’re just lucky, I guess.”

“I love you.”

She felt Caoile’s answer as their lips met. She joined the kiss, driven by desperate energy, and stood, Caoile now clinging to her. She half-ran to their bed, tripping onto it. Caoile felt as tiny beneath her as she herself had felt moments ago. Aeron wrapped her arms tighter around her. Nothing would touch this woman she loved, whether from within or without. Nothing would draw them apart.

Colors flashed. The world faded. Clothes vanished to the floor. Their kisses sank deep and never ended, their shoulders tautened and trembled. At last, they calmed, and breathed, and held each other so close that fear could find no place between them. They disappeared into one another, and for the first time in what felt like lifetimes, the night couldn’t touch them.

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