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ONE

 

“With glass eyes

And sweet lies

Winds of winter rise

And the Snow Queen arrives.”

 

Crier stared at the pages in her hand, a never-before-seen interpretation of The Snow Queen legend. Not even halfway through, she was already enraptured by the tale.

From the corner of her eye, she watched the quiet swing of her bedroom door. There was only one person it could be, only one person allowed into her rooms without knocking.

When Ayla entered, closing the door behind her with the same gentle movements, Crier looked up from her book and stared at the effortlessness with which Ayla moved, the way her Made leg was now a part of her as if she was born with it.

They had talked about that for days; Ayla was so adamant on keeping that leg exposed, a collection of inner workings, muscle and tendon and bone. She didn’t want to hide anymore, Ayla had told her. Crier had insisted it wouldn’t be hiding, that it was okay to have both legs look human. Shared between the two of the, there already existed battle scars aplenty. “I’m here for you regardless of your decision,” Crier had said.

And stubborn as ever, Ayla was yet to change her mind.

Now, as she walked towards Crier, she smiled, eliciting a well-known flutter in Crier’s chest. She wondered if she would ever get used to the feeling. She didn’t want to get used to it. Every time her train of thought brought her here, she promised herself that she’d never take Ayla for granted. Not after everything they’ve done, everything they’ve been through, just to be together. An automa and a human.

Crier smiled back at Ayla. The bed dipped beneath her as Ayla sat on its edge. Crier returned to her book, trying to find her spot. It wasn’t an easy feat, though, not with the weight of Ayla’s eyes on her.

The mattress beneath Crier moved with Ayla, her silhouette nearing Crier. She felt a hand next to her thigh, then the hand made contact.

Not for the first time, she felt the heat where Ayla’s hand was, the warmth rivalling the afternoon sun. She imagined trails of gold fluttering wherever the hand roamed, her skin turning gold where the hand touched. Every inch. Every caress, every casual touch. Everywhere she wanted Ayla’s lips, her thighs, hips. Other places.

“Just Crier,” Ayla whispered. Her feather-like touch travelled up Crier’s thigh, up her arms.

“Hmmm.” Crier resigned herself to her fate: she wouldn’t be reading more tonight, not when Ayla used that voice on her.

Earlier at the People’s Library, Crier had barely glanced at Ayla, afraid she would’ve been too tempted to touch her. To initiate yet another dance between their lips. It was too difficult to resist, and would be too difficult to stop once she started. How could she be aware of Ayla’s presence in the room and not immediately kiss her? Her hunger could barely be satiated between one kiss and the next, and not even her stories were an effective distraction.

Now, though, was a different story. Now, they were alone. She could do all those things.

She could do all those things and more.

Crier’s mind, too distracted analysing the situation, was too slow to react as Ayla put Crier’s book on the nightstand and slowly brought her face close. Too close. She kissed Crier. Gently at first, then pushing against Crier’s mouth and shoving her tongue inside. She tasted of sunlight and mangoes. Warmth pooled into Crier’s insides as Ayla pressed her back onto the bed, their bodies touching along their lengths.

The tug in her chest didn’t surprise her. Not when it started, and not when it spread to other parts of her body. She wanted more. Hands on her chest. Hands on her hips. Hands between her hips, silencing the oceanic tide there, calming the hungry waves.

She wanted harder, deeper. Skin on bare skin.

Lips on bare skin.

Crier wanted too much.

She sat up from underneath Ayla and disconnected their lips.

“If we don’t stop now, I likely never will,” said Crier between breaths.

Ayla’s cheeks were plums. She looked down. “I don’t think I’ll be able to stop either.”

Crier chuckled.

“And we both need to wake up early for the trip to Varn,” Ayla added.

It was now Crier’s turn to feel the heat creep up her neck and ears. “Yes.”

Ayla stood from the bed. “Good night, Just Crier.” Her eyes twinkled, which Crier interpreted as a promise of more to come. Crier’s heart fluttered then fell, and she wished she could ask Ayla to stay.

Ayla leaned down and gave her a chaste kiss. Crier turned her bedside lights off when Ayla left the room.

For the rest of her waking hours, she lay there, a slave to visions of Ayla. Of her hands in unspeakable places.

On the other side of the corridor, Ayla thought of Crier for hours.

How foolish of them to think Ayla’s leaving would stop them from staying up till the wee hours of daybreak.

 

~~~~

 

TWO

 

Ayla was singing when Crier found her in the music room.

Crier saw Ayla for only minutes at a time during the day, minutes that kept her going more than she would admit. The promise of Ayla’s embrace at the day’s end was how she endured the endless, boring politics of her position. So after finishing her duties for the day, her first thought had been to find Ayla.

Crier closed behind her the door to the music room.

Back when they had just met, Crier had given her the key to that room. Even back then, it was more than just a place for Ayla when she needed privacy. It was a promise from Crier that she’d always look out for her. Now, after the war was over months ago, the room turned into their space, alone or together. During the day, it was the first place they escaped to for solitude.

It was Crier’s escape when she craved Ayla’s company.

That was how Crier knew to find Ayla here.

Ayla’s voice rose and fell, the notes accentuating her words.

At the beginning of their relationship, singing was the only thing she was too shy to do around Crier. But now, as Ayla noticed her, she didn’t stop. Didn’t falter. Just kept singing, turning to face Crier. As if she sang for her, and only her.

Her sudden attention was maddening, and Crier felt a familiar tug in her chest at the sight.

She smiled and sat on one of the benches. Then she watched Ayla, the rise and fall of her chest, her lips turning like she was experiencing the story she was singing. Smiling when the main character smiled, frowning when they were upset. Her voice soared with hope at the end of the song, the line bringing the story to a close.

She beamed at Crier.

“You know you can sing anywhere you want in the palace and no one will disturb you, right?”

“I know.” Ayla sat next to her. “But I can only sing in front of you.”

“But your voice is wonderful. What are you afraid of?”

“I’m not afraid, Crier.” Ayla playfully nudged Crier’s arm. “I just . . . I want this to be our thing, you know? I want to only sing to you. And I don’t know everyone in the palace as well as I know you.”

Crier thought for a moment. She raised her eyebrows and grinned. “Do you, now? Know me, I mean.”

“Hmmm.”

Ayla inched closer, her mischievous grin yet unperturbed. Her face neared, her breaths on Crier’s nose. Crier’s eyes fluttered shut.

“Apparently, Just Crier, I do.” Then she connected their lips in a searing kiss. Her breath hitched every time they touched, and she wouldn’t want to change a thing about it.

Ayla’s lips broke away. The smile on them broke through to Crier’s heart like the most welcome of balms.

The kiss itself was short, but it was definitely worth the wait.

“So,” Ayla said cheerfully. “How was your day?”

Crier smiled and put an arm around Ayla’s back. Then she told her everything.

 

~~~~

 

THREE

 

Two things were always on Crier’s mind: her stories and Ayla. She was always thinking of new stories and, sometimes, writing them down. The stories always drew a smile from Ayla, and being the cause of those smiles was one of Crier’s proudest accomplishments. Not to mention how surreal she felt when she saw those dimples.

So it was the most dramatic of ironies that she’s gotten into a compromising position with Ayla because of her preoccupation with her newest story.

You see, Crier was coming up with an ending to that story. She wasn’t paying attention where she was going, but muscle memory had led her, for some inexplicable reason, to Ayla’s room.

Could it be that she’d been going there a lot lately? One could only assume.

So, in her reverie, she’d entered the room. She was just about to get the most brilliant of ideas, just about to, had it not been for the sight in front of her breaking her train of thoughts. Derailed it was a more apt description, even. Because standing there, lost in thought, was Ayla. Which she loved, you see. Just as she prized putting a smile on her face.

This time, however, there was no room for that.

For standing right there was Ayla, with the dramatic difference that she was wearing no clothes. Nothing. Nil.

Ayla would probably tease her about it later, but Crier truly didn’t mean to stare. She knew humans were self-conscious about their modesty. Of course, she didn’t mean to stare.

But oh did she want to. She wanted to stare so much it hurt even as she was doing it, but it felt like a violation. So she cleared her throat instead. When Ayla saw her, her shock registered as a well-formed O on her lips.

Ayla stood in place as her eyes met Crier’s. She didn’t know why Ayla wasn’t running, why she wasn’t turning around and away from Crier’s gaze. Why was she not grabbing the nearest shirt and covering herself? It made no sense. Should Crier remind her that she was naked?

Ayla’s gaze held Crier in place, then she walked towards her, her gait too slow and too gentle for the current situation. Crier swallowed hard as Ayla now stood closer than an arm’s length away. She took a deep breath and gave Crier an almost-imperceptible smile, and Crier heard Ayla’s heart

Thump, thump, thump, thump...

—or was it her own?—

Ayla reached down and took Crier’s hand, softly brushing her thumb against Crier’s knuckles. Her breath caught as Ayla guided their joined hands to her lips and brushed the softest kiss against Crier’s palm. She looked Crier in the eye, as if reassuring her that it was fine. That she could touch Ayla if she wanted to.

Oh, how did she want to.

She wished it were that easy.

Every time she saw some part of Ayla, she wanted to see more. But now that she has . . . How could she have been so confident, so naïve, to think her Made brain, despite being devoid of modesty, could handle it?

She parted her lips. She wanted to say something. To tell her she wanted to touch her everywhere. But her mouth was dry and she was too scared and too excited and her heart was hammering—

“Crier,” whispered Ayla, not breaking their eye-contact. She placed Crier’s shaking hand on her shoulder. At the touch, Crier felt warm all over—she’s read stories about that, even ones of faces turning red in the presence of a lover—but the way she felt now was more surreal than the mere idea. An out-of-body experience. She stared at her hand on Ayla’s skin.

Ayla took another step forward, giving Crier a sliver of courage. It wasn’t much, but it was there, and Crier dared let her hand linger. She inhaled deeply, then slowly traced her fingertips down Ayla’s arm. Ayla shuddered beneath the touch. Crier glanced at her face.

“Ayla,” she whispered, the hesitation returning to her voice.

“Gods, Crier, that’s torture,” said Ayla, before taking the final step to close the distance between them. Crier’s fingertips cupped Ayla’s cheeks and, with her thumb, she traced patterns on the freckles there.

Ayla was so beautiful.

Crier whispered her name again, this time quieter.

Standing so close, Crier didn’t think she could endure this agony any longer. Ayla seemed to think the same, because she crashed her lips into Crier’s.

Crier was breathless as she returned the kiss with equal force. She pushed, and Ayla pulled.

When Ayla pressed deeper, she pulled, and Ayla parted her lips. Her tongue pushed Crier’s lips open, and when it found Crier’s tongue . . .

How could this have been more perfect than all their previous kisses?

Her hands roamed Ayla’s back.

Her naked back.

That was when it dawned on her where this could go. She really, really wanted to go there. Had dreamed about it since that night she overheard Queen Junn and Storme, and had imagined it with Ayla.

But . . . what if Ayla didn’t want the same? What if she was pushing her into something she wasn’t ready for?

Crier severed the kiss, heaving. She kept her eyes shut. “You should . . . put some clothes . . . on,” she said between breaths. Ayla paused, catching her breath. When she let go of Crier’s arms, it felt like winter arrived way too early. She heard ruffling, and when she opened her eyes, Ayla was dressed in a blue shirt and grey khakis.

“Ayla,” she called. Ayla looked up at her, her expression unreadable. But she must’ve seen something in Crier’s eyes, must’ve understood how Crier felt in that moment, because her eyes softened.

“Just Crier,” Ayla teased. She once again stood a breadth away, then on tiptoes reached up to kiss Crier again. It was slower now, gentler, the flame between them partially doused.

For now.

And Crier wondered: if she already melted at the sight of a naked Ayla, how would she ever handle anything more?

 

~~~~

 

FOUR

 

Crier sat in the palace library, perched over a bulky text—the book had posed an ordeal to carry back to the palace earlier that day—as part of her endless search for the mysterious first Maker, H. Next to her at the desk, Ayla bowed over a notebook, a pen in her hand as she practised the Zullan alphabet.

In front of them was a tray housing a teapot and Ayla’s half-empty mug. Crier sipped orange-cinnamon tea from her own mug. Its taste reminded her of Ayla’s kisses.

Crier re-placed her mug on the table and looked up, noticing for the first time that Ayla’s eyes were glued on her.

“You’re staring.”

“I am,” Ayla said with the same determination she used when she was trying to convince Crier that she, despite being an Automa, needed to sleep.

Crier chuckled. “Well, maybe I, too, will stare.”

Ayla shrugged.

Crier did as promised, and seconds, even minutes, passed. It felt like a contest.

Crier fidgeted, adjusting herself in her seat. The weight of Ayla’s gaze overwhelmed her in the best way. “I’ve been practising for longer than you, remember?”

Ayla laughed, the sound music to Crier’s ears.

“Yeah back when you used to stare at me when I walked into the room.”

“I still do!”

“If you say so.” Ayla raised a challenging brow.

“I do!”

Ayla’s expression softened. “I was just teasing, Just Crier.”

“I knew that.”

“Really? Like you knew I wanted to put on my clothes the other day?”

The mention of that day took Crier by surprise, although she’d been thinking about it every night since.

She forgets nothing, Crier.

Ayla lifted both eyebrows now. “You know, when you walked on me naked?”

“Ahh, that.” Crier feigned innocence.

“Well?”

There was a long pause, and Crier turned that encounter over in her head. Her hands on Ayla’s shoulder, on her back. The strong desire to put them elsewhere on Ayla’s body. She forced her thoughts to the present. “I just . . . I didn’t want to push you into anything.”

“Anything like what?” Ayla looked at her, puzzled, but she didn’t think she imagined that hint of anticipation in her eyes.

“You know . . . anything you’re not ready for.”

Ayla paused for what felt like hours, then, “Crier, I was naked and I literally took your hand and put it on me. How much more obvious could I be?” The exasperation in her voice was evident.

“Well...”

“I really love that about you, you know? You’re always thinking about how I’m feeling.”

Crier cracked a smile.

“But next time, when you want something, I want you to go for it.”

Crier’s chest warmed. She imagined telling Ayla about all the things she wanted to do with her, to her, that deep ache. What came out of her instead was, “Who said I want . . . something?”

“Don’t you?” Ayla said, her voice so small that Crier might’ve completely missed her words.

“No.” Crier clearly didn’t know what her tongue was doing. Was the teasing and joking another of her defence mechanisms?

Ayla’s face fell.

“That was a joke,” said Crier.

“Is that you getting back at me?” Ayla tilted her head curiously. The fondness in her eyes was unmistakeable. “See? We need to communicate better.”

Crier felt her shy hesitation returning and just nodded.

“Great!”

“But for now, can we communicate . . . eh . . . without words?”

“So bold, Just Crier!” Ayla kissed her. She held on for a few seconds then broke away. “We’re in the library. People will see.”

“The palace library, Ayla. And it’s almost midnight.”

“Still.”

For a second, Crier felt the defeat like a blow to the chest, but then reminded herself of something: she would get to kiss Ayla once they were done working.

Ayla leaned in and gave her a tender kiss that lingered for longer this time, before she returned to her notebook.

“Now let me practise these damned letters.” She entwined her right hand with Crier’s left and stayed there. Crier gave it a squeeze.

“Wait, who won the staring contest?”

 

~~~~

 

FIVE

 

Crier was telling Ayla her newest story as she carefully watched her, her eyes darting away on occasion to avoid the heat of Ayla’s gaze. It was only in moments like these, with the two of them alone, so absorbed in each other that nothing else mattered, that Ayla managed to remain quiet.

She watched Ayla’s still mouth as she came to the still-tentative end of the story.

It took Ayla moments to move, too focussed on the story, even now that it was over. She shut her eyes and slowly shook her head.

Did Ayla not like the story?

Crier knew it! She had a feeling something was missing from this one. She had racked her brain for days, eventually settling on seeing what Ayla would think. Then she had managed, for a fleeting moment, to convince herself Ayla would enjoy it. A fleeting moment where she’d decided to go for—

“I love you.” Ayla softly sighed.

Crier froze. The words buzzed in her head. It was like she heard them from beneath miles and miles of sea water. Ayla stared in a daze, and Crier heard her heart speeding up until she tore her gaze from Crier.  The absence of its warmth brought her back to reality.

She registered the words, then.

I love you.

Ayla’s heart maintained its quickened beat. “I shouldn’t have—”

“I love you.” Crier knew she should’ve said it sooner. “I love you, Ayla.” She felt her own heart pounding—it was never as quiet as her original one, but pounding this loud was a first.

Ayla looked up. For good measure, Crier added, “I love you infinitely. Like the stars in the night sky and the drops in the sea. I love you like the night cradles the moon. I love you, Ayla, like the daylight loves the dawn.”

Ayla jumped into her arms, burying her head in Crier’s shoulder, and tightly, firmly, squeezing her arms around Crier’s back. Only the initial moment of surprise delayed her response. Crier wrapped her arms around Ayla just as strongly, if not more so. She buried her face in Ayla’s hair and inhaled its fruity scent.

Crier’s chest rose and fell with Ayla’s as they held on. For minutes, even hours. Crier wouldn’t have known, wouldn’t have cared to, consumed as she was in the woman in her arms. Ayla, the old paradox, the wash of starlight lighting up her world.

When Ayla pulled away moments, aeons, later, it took Crier a moment to see the tears streaking Ayla’s cheeks. The alarms rang in her head. Shouldn’t she have said all those things? But . . . Ayla had hugged her, was still so close.

“What’s wrong?”

Ayla shook her head, the softest of smiles breaking through the tears. “Nothing. I just—I never thought I’d be this happy.”

Crier heaved a sigh of relief. Then the immensity of Ayla’s words hit her. Ayla deserved to be happy, and Crier always knew it since that day at the rock pool, just as she knew she would do anything to make sure of it.

And now . . . now, Ayla said she was happy because of her. Her, Crier of Family Hesod. Her, the Automa girl who’d been utterly captivated by a human girl, by Ayla, from the moment she laid eyes on her.

Her.

Was that how it felt to achieve one’s dreams?

The words to describe how she felt in that moment have not been, would never be, invented. So instead, she enveloped Ayla in her arms. When Ayla squeezed back, it felt like their embrace, that embrace, rivalled their kisses a hundred-fold, was somehow more intimate. “I’m happy with you,” she whispered in Ayla’s hair. Ayla’s answer came in the form of a faint smile. And a kiss.

Crier was yet to get used to this part. This casual waltz of their lips, so unlike the heated kiss they’d first shared that night at the inn at Elderell.

They kissed and the back and forth of their mouths was so soft, so perfect. They kissed and Crier’s hand roamed Ayla’s body. Her arms, her shoulders. Her hair. They kissed and Ayla’s lips grew incessant, infinitely more inviting, and parted in wild surrender, Crier’s own parting in return and making way for their tongues to caress. Their tongues started their dance the same way their lips did, a tender sway. Then it grew wild, wilder. Sliding. Ayla’s tongue tasted so delicious it physically hurt when she pulled away.

They struggled to catch their breaths, but their gazes never broke as Crier’s hands rested on Ayla’s arms, Ayla’s hands on Crier’s thighs.

Ayla spoke first. “I’m exhausted.” Her features actually looked pained saying the words. “I love you, Just Crier, but I need to go to sleep.” Crier’s mind raced at the casual way Ayla said those words for the second time. She so could get used to this.

“Sleep here, then.”

Unlike the first time Crier had offered, Ayla didn’t question it. Didn’t hesitate. She simply whispered, “Okay,” and yawned as Crier turned off the lights.

Wordlessly, as if they’d done this millions of time before, Ayla lay on her side, Crier enveloping her small form. Ayla tucked her head beneath Crier’s chin, the smell of her hair once again irresistible.

Since the war had ended, Crier found that she enjoyed sleeping, found it sometimes necessary to rest her mind. It had taken practice to do it daily, but she got there with Ayla’s help. Mostly, though, it was on occasions like these, when Ayla slept next to her, that Crier found it easiest to fall asleep. She loved lying in bed with Ayla, just like that.

Crier gently stroked Ayla’s back until, only minutes later, her breathing slowed down.

Then Crier closed her eyes and drifted into slumber.

 

~~~~

 

PLUS ONE

 

It was just before dawn when Crier stirred from sleep. She looked at Ayla, asleep in her arms, and noticed she was fidgeting. Was that what had awoken her?

Ayla’s jaw clenched, her hands formed fists, her eyes too-tightly shut.

Crier remembered, then, that humans dreamed when they slept. And from the looks of it, Ayla was having a nightmare. 

Happy dreams wouldn’t make her so tense, would they?

Crier lightly patted her arm once, twice. No response.

“Ayla,” she called quietly. “Ayla, wake up.” She shook her arm gently. “Ayla.”

There was a moment when Ayla froze, drifting from the land of dreams.

“Ayla.”

Ayla’s eyes burst open. She looked around her in confusion, as if recalling where she was.

“It’s okay,” Crier whispered. “It was just a bad dream. It’s not real.”

Ayla looked at her, widened her eyes.

“You’re here now. With me.” Crier softly rubbed Ayla’s arm, hoping Ayla would find the gesture soothing.

“Crier?” Ayla asked. Her voice so small, so fragile and vulnerable.

“Yes,” whispered Crier. “I’m here.”

Ayla gave her a look that could only be described as disarming. Then she crossed her arms and pushed impossibly closer into Crier’s arms, burying her nose into Crier’s chest. She shivered, and it was all Crier could do to not shake. Crier knew she felt things too deeply, but now was not the time. Now, she needed to be strong for Ayla, to calm her down.

She waited for a few moments, not knowing what to do. She slightly pulled her head back to look Ayla in the eye. Whispered her name. There were tears in her eyes.

She looked so sad.

Crier couldn’t help herself. She gently touched her lips to Ayla’s. Ayla froze for a second then responded, held on to the kiss as she uncrossed her arms and wrapped them around Crier’s waist.

It was the gentlest kiss they’d ever shared. Crier was in new territory, lost. She didn’t know a kiss could be so calming. It was so unlike the heated ones they always shared.

She pulled her lips away, looked at Ayla. She kissed her again and lingered.

When she withdrew, Ayla stared up at her. She heard her pulse slowing back to normal.

“Thank you,” Ayla whispered.

Crier gave her a small smile that didn’t match the way she was feeling. She wanted to wrap Ayla in her arms. Ward off all bad dreams, all things that hurt her. She wanted to remove all the pain, the suffering her father had caused that still haunted Ayla long years later.

She wanted to fiercely pull her close and never let go, the world around them non-existent, only acknowledged as a mere second thought.

She longed to protect her from everything and everyone.

“I’ll always be here,” she told Ayla, tucking her against her chest and tenderly rubbing her back until she fell asleep. Crier fell asleep shortly after.

Her final thought was of Ayla’s eyes.