Kuvira’s life hadn’t been easy for a large number of reasons, but this was something she’d come to accept. She was an orphan – and that was fine. She couldn’t see the soulmate string – and that was also fine (more than fine, actually, because only imbeciles cared about finding their soulmate). She’d lost her place at MIT, and dropped out of high school – and that was… Well, she was still working on being fine with that one, but she would be okay. She could make it so that it would be okay.
The actual events that had led her to where she stood then, to the front of the Beifong Manor in a part of China she’d never heard of in her life, had also been far from easy. They hadn’t been painful, though, which was more than she could say about the other occurrences. No, getting here had been a mental challenge, but it had never hurt her.
“Kuvira, are you okay?” Suyin Beifong asked. She was a nice lady, and she’d been very sympathetic about Kuvira’s situation. Overly sympathetic, perhaps. And with the most obvious ulterior motives that Kuvira had ever witnessed. Still, she did like the woman. She reminded her of her own mother, in a sick and twisted way. Always doing whatever she could to get what she wanted, and not settling for anything less.
“Perfectly fine, thank you.” Kuvira nodded politely, picking up her bag and hauling it over her shoulder. It wasn’t too heavy – she’d left most of her belongings back in the States – but it was a little difficult to carry up the steep grey steps leading up to the large home. The sun was beaming down onto her as well, and she could feel a sticky layer of sweat forming on the back of her neck.
“Most people in Zaofu speak English,” Suyin continued, stamping up the steps and inviting Kuvira to follow her. The house was very large, larger than Kuvira had first thought, and it stood alone at the top of a steep hill. Vegetation surrounded it, and according to Suyin, they had a very large garden that Kuvira was welcome to explore. “But it definitely wouldn’t hurt to pick up some Standard Mandarin. There’s plenty of books in the library, that I’m sure will help you. Oh, and the internet of course.” She chuckled.
“I shall, thank you, Mrs. Beifong.” In all honesty, Kuvira had started learning the language four months ago, when Suyin first got in touch with her.
“Call me Su, there’s no need to be formal.” She waved Kuvira off. “My husband will want to meet you, and then we’ll show you to your room.”
“Okay. Uh, Su.” Kuvira stumbled over that last part, the name feeling foreign on her tongue, but Suyin didn’t comment on it. The foyer they’d walked into was grand, decked with paintings and a very fine rug. Kuvira wondered if it was real gold interwoven into the red material.
The Beifongs were very well-known in the scientific community. It all started with Toph, Suyin’s mother, who had made some very impressive discoveries and innovations in metal engineering and mechanics. Then, there was Lin, her eldest daughter. Kuvira hadn’t heard of her till she’d looked her up, but she was a distinguished scientist currently working for NASA. There was a rich list of things Lin had accomplished, and the Wikipedia page hadn’t failed to mention that she was blind, just like her mother, six hundred times at least.
Suyin was probably more famous than Lin, simply because of Zaofu University. A tech university, founded less than ten years prior, that was already as renowned as MIT. Of course, the positioning of the college helped – Europeans and Asians no longer had to cross the Atlantic to attend a top-tier tech school with a worldwide reputation.
Of course, Kuvira did have to cross the Atlantic, but after the death of her parents, there wasn’t much left for her in Massachusetts.
“And you must be Kuvira!” A warm voice greeted her. She looked up from the rug that she’d been so thoroughly analysing, to see a man of firm build. He was greying, but still handsome, and very tall. Suyin had definitely done well for herself, not that she too wasn’t pretty. “I’m so glad you agreed to stay with us. You will feel quite at home here, I promise.”
“I’m thankful you offered me a place at your institution.” She said solemnly.
Suyin patted her on the shoulder kindly. “You shouldn’t thank us, dear. In a way, you’re doing more for us than we are for you!”
All three of them knew that that wasn’t true – there were plenty of people Suyin and Baatar could have offered the scholarship too, and most of them probably hadn’t dropped out of high school – but the sentiment was kind.
“When shall I meet your daughter?” She asked.
That was another part of the deal. Their daughter was a year younger than Kuvira, and apparently she’d managed to scare-off the last ten nurses they’d had taking care of her. The Beifongs thought that someone her own age, in her own year at college, might make things easier for her.
Kuvira hadn’t actually known this was part of the deal, until she’d signed her name on the contract.
But despite having wool pulled over her eyes, she had eventually decided that this wasn’t so bad. The girl – who’s name Kuvira didn’t even know yet – didn’t need any special care, since she knew the house and the bathroom, and since she was eighteen, there probably wouldn’t be anything that Kuvira actually had to do outside of keeping her company. Maybe she would have to read to her? As far as she could tell, Kuvira was more there for companionship, than anything else.
A roommate might be better than sleeping alone, but she hoped she wouldn’t have too many nightmares in the other girl’s presence. That would be embarrassing.
“Opal is just upstairs.” Mr. Beifong said. “But I doubt she’ll come down till dinner. You’re welcome to speak to her now, if you want.”
“Uh, no I can… I’ll wait till she wants to meet me.” Kuvira said.
“She won’t need looking after.” Suyin said at once, confirming Kuvira’s assumption. “If that girl needs anything, it’s certainly not being cared for. Opal just needs a friend. That’s one of the reasons we picked someone like you, if we’re honest.”
Kuvira had no idea what someone like you meant.
“And it’s a temporary friendship, so don’t you worry about it.” Suyin continued. “She’s having a Spring Wedding, after all, and then she’ll be out of all our hairs.”
“She… Is?” Kuvira hadn’t known that. Opal must have found her soulmate, and been married off by the respective parents. A bitter part of Kuvira wanted that for herself – to be married, to have someone to rely on, always. But that didn’t seem like it was going to happen anytime soon, so she wasn’t overly bothered.
“Ah yes. We need the connection for the university.” Suyin frowned. “The boy is nice enough, and Opal said yes to the whole thing.”
“Kuvira doesn’t want to know all that.” Baatar said to his wife, placing an arm on her elbow. Something went unspoken between them. To Kuvira it felt like, Kuvira shouldn’t know all that.
“Can I put my bag in my room?” She asked, breaking the tension.
“Call it Opal’s room, dear, or our daughter will blow a fuse.” Suyin said with a half-laugh. “It’s in the West Wing, so go up and turn right.”
“Got it. Thank you, Mrs Bei– Su.”
Suyin gestured for her to hurry up, and reluctantly Kuvira began climbing the wide staircase. The house was similar to a Gothic Manor, and she could imagine a series of vampires living here quite easily. Vampires that had a taste for things of green and gold. The prettiest thing by far was the stream of sunlight ploughing through the window. It bathed Kuvira’s skin in tingling warmth.
She turned right, taking a long corridor and crossing quite a few doors. How was she supposed to know which was Opal’s? Deciding that Su would have told her if it was harder to find than this, she kept walking. After about thirty seconds, and more doors than Kuvira could keep track of, the corridor came out onto an oval-shaped opening. There was a large window coating the wall, and Kuvira could see the sea in the distance, crashing against the cliffs.
Her eyes traced a boat that was coming into the harbour.
The voice startled Kuvira, and she jumped backwards.
“He…llo?” She looked around, but she couldn’t see anyone. The space appeared empty.
“I’m at the piano.”
The piano. How had Kuvira not seen the piano a second ago? It was the same colour as the floor – brown, dark wood, blending in like a chameleon, and there was somebody sat on the stool.
The figure stood up. Short black hair, olive skin, closed eyes. Definitely Opal.
“Yes.” She said simply. She glided elegantly across the floor from the piano, and entered through a door near to where Kuvira was standing. Her new stature revealed two things – the first, her outfit, a silk emerald green slip-dress, which probably cost more than anything in Kuvira’s wardrobe, and the second, that she was quite a bit shorter than Kuvira. When she went passed, Kuvira could smell her perfume. Vanilla, or something. Kuvira didn’t know any scent well enough to identify it, but this one had to be vanilla.
“Is this your room?” She asked awkwardly, following Opal through the door.
“Mhm.” Was all Opal said, going to lay down on the bed in the middle.
“It’s big.” Kuvira said.
“My parents made it big. You know, in case I walk into something.” She said it with a scoff. Kuvira wasn’t an idiot – she could sense the animosity there, but since the Beifongs had been kind enough to let her live there till the school year started, she wasn’t going to join Opal’s tone.
“That’s nice of them.” Kuvira said curtly, putting her bag down next to the door. “Where’s my bed?”
She looked around the room, only seeing one very large King-sized bed. One wall of the room, like the space on the corridor, had a very large window spanning the entire wall. There was an opening into a small attached room, and she could already see the start of a small workshop – something that excited her terribly. There was another room, presumably the bathroom. But… No second bed.
“I’m not sure.” Opal shrugged, laying back on the covers.
“Well, I can’t see it.” Kuvira growled, the situation become clearer to her by the second.
“And you think I’d be able to see it?” Opal snapped back. Kuvira hadn’t realised what her words literally meant, and she reddened.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
“It’s cool.” Opal sat up, smiling widely. She had thin lips, Kuvira noticed. Thinner than hers. “How old are you, Kuvira?”
“But you’re just going into college?” Opal tilted her head. Her face was directed at Kuvira, even if her eyes were closed. Kuvira wondered how she knew where she was – she’d heard stories of the blind being able to feel vibrations that allowed them to picture a room, without the need for eyesight. That was how Lin did it. Could Opal do it too?
“I dropped out for a year.” Kuvira said, her eyes still scanning the room. “Should I tell your mother there’s no bed in here for me?”
“No, I don’t suppose it would change much.” Opal shook her head, laying back on her sheet, her face pointed towards the ceiling. “She said you would have to share with me.”
“There has to be one hundred rooms in this house!” Kuvira exclaimed.
“There’s thirty-eight. Not even close to one hundred. Is my mother sure she wants you at the university?”
Kuvira ignored the girl’s comment. “Why do I have to share with you?”
There was a falter in the girl’s schooled features. Kuvira didn’t know what it meant.
“I don’t know.”
It was a lie, and Kuvira knew it. But there wasn’t much else she could do. She’d find out, eventually, anyway.
“Okay.” She sighed, taking out some work from her bag. “Do you mind if I study here?”
“Not at all.”
Kuvira found it difficult to work in the same room as Opal. She hadn’t been very welcoming, and being forced into close proximity with her, was, well… Irritating. But there was nothing that could be done about it now. She was here, she was going to a top university, so what if she had to play nanny for a blind girl? There was university accommodation, for when she needed it.
“Kuvira.” Opal said after a minute had passed. Kuvira rolled her eyes. At least Opal couldn’t see her doing it. That was an advantage.
“What do you think of soulmates?”
Kuvira lowered her pen to her sheet. It wasn’t an odd question, considering they were teenage girls and this world was built on the requisite that one day, everyone would find that true, fairy tale love story.
“It has never… Been a huge concern of mine.” She said honestly. “My parents didn’t even tell me of the strings, and I had to find out through the other kids on the playground. My future always lay at MIT, in science and tech and engineering, and there wasn’t time for love. There still isn’t. I doubt there’ll ever be.” She laughed dryly. “So yeah, not super into the whole soulmate thing.”
She didn’t know why she was being so truthful with Opal. Perhaps it was that she didn’t want to continue this conversation, and her true feelings were a sure-fire way to stop it. It wasn’t the typical answer after all.
“Ah. That’s a bit boring.” Opal said after a pause.
“I don’t see the string, either. So.” Kuvira added. Soulmates would always find one another eventually, but it was the person who could see the string who could confirm that the couple were indeed soulmates.
It was an interesting social system, and nothing more, as far as Kuvira was concerned. From a young age, everything was about soulmates, finding your soulmate, being the person who could or couldn’t see the string. Romcoms were almost always about a woman hating their soulmate, and falling in love with someone else, only to find out that their soulmate was ‘the right guy’ all along. The media populated horror stories of men who told women they were soulmates, only to assault and murder them. Even novels going as far as back as the tenth century, spoke of the red string turning gold when the love turned pure. Kuvira had affectionately named this Capitalist brainwashing technique as Soulmate culture.
Kuvira was glad she didn’t see the string. It saved her from having to seek somebody who was meant to be her perfect matching piece, from having to see that tiny red glowing line every second of everyday. Many scientists said that the string in the back of their vision was a distraction, more than anything else.
There was no reason for her to tell Opal that. She supposed there was no real choice in the matter; she would have to befriend Opal, considering her mother was giving her a free-ride through an amazing tech college. “What about you? Do you care about soulmates?”
“I don’t see the string.” Opal said instantly. She took an audible breath, shifting on the covers. “I don’t see the string. Or anything else, actually, in case you didn’t notice. So I kind of understand what you mean. It’s not… It’s not a big deal to me.”
“Is he not your soulmate?”
Kuvira had thought he was. The anger Opal felt towards her mother started to feel better placed.
“Who? Wu? Christ, my mother told you about that?” Opal sat up, her face turning angrily to Kuvira, eyes still only lightly shut. She didn’t look to be angry at Kuvira, however. “No. Wu isn’t my soulmate. Just a prince my mother needs an allegiance with for her precious university.”
Kuvira grimaced, feeling a little bad for Opal. Soulmates, to the non-geniuses of society, were pretty much the whole world. The goal.
“That sucks. I’m sorry. Maybe you will meet your soulmate anyway. Soulmates can be platonic, right?”
There was a silence in the room. Kuvira was about to turn around and repeat herself, thinking Opal hadn’t heard her, but before she could, Opal replied.
Opal’s voice sounded strangely thick. Kuvira must have hit a nerve. Perhaps Opal had already met her soulmate.
“I think so.” Kuvira mumbled, scratching some words down into her notes. “After all, not everyone can fall in love.”
Kuvira’s pen halted.
“I don’t know.” So honest. Why was she being so honest? There was really no reason for it at all.
The words on the paper seemed far away.
“Well, you’ll find out soon enough.” Kuvira pointed out, returning her attention to her work. “I’m sure being married to a prince isn’t that much worse than marrying your soulmate. Probably second best. He’ll probably be a nice husband, as well. There aren’t many people who marry a prince, but there are lots that don’t marry their soulmate.”
A sniff from the bed. “Yeah. I guess.”
Kuvira found out that night why she had to share a bed with Opal.
She was sleeping dreamlessly, and before midnight – a rare occurrence for her – when suddenly a jerking motion woke her up. Her eyes focussed slowly on the features in front of her. Closed eyes, soft hair, wet face. Tears. It calibrated in Kuvira’s mind, slowly, that Opal was crying.
Abruptly, a hand gripped the sheets directly in front of Kuvira’s face, and Opal let out a morbid cry, burying her face into her pillow. She was shaking, and making a loud noise. Like a whale’s mating call. Kuvira didn’t know what to do, so she slid out of bed and made her way around to the girl’s warring body.
Was this why her room was so far away from everything else?
The girl didn’t stop crying, her head raising up and down, beating her face into the bed. Kuvira didn’t want her to hurt herself; she didn’t know much about the nature of Opal’s blindness, just that it was a genetic condition, but this couldn’t be good at all.
“Opal!” Kuvira tried again. This time she grabbed the girl’s shoulder, but Opal just shrugged her off, her sobbing growing increasingly louder and louder. Kuvira grabbed her shoulder again, yanking her away from the covers and up into her hold. She was built-well, something she’d been insecure about when she was younger, but at least it meant she held muscle well.
With Opal’s back pressed to Kuvira’s chest, she felt the girl’s shaking stop in her arms. She stood silently, waiting, unsure of what to say.
“You can put me down now.”
“Oh. Yes.” Kuvira lowered Opal to the floor, watching the way the girl’s feet reached out expectantly. She expected Opal to say something – because, well, obviously – but she didn’t. The dark silhouette that was Opal Beifong slithered back under the covers, and rolled so her back was facing away from Kuvira. “You’re welcome?”
Kuvira’s voice sounded loud in the quiet room, even though she was only whispering.
Opal said nothing more, and Kuvira decided that that was fine.
The next day, Kuvira couldn’t put off working with physical metal anymore. She’d finished all the necessary sketches, she’d refined them, she’d even re-refined them. There was no other choice in the matter.
There wasn’t a particular reason that she didn’t enjoy working with the metal. She used to love it. Well, maybe it was something to do with her parents, and how metal reminded her of their lab back home, of how her father had showed her how to bend the shape of it, how to fix the coded chips into the project, and how her mother had brought them snacks whenever she took breaks from her work upstairs.
Metalwork and coding went side-by-side as far as Kuvira was concerned. Her main focus had always been robots. She’d been obsessed with them when she was a child. More than obsessed. From the ages of four to twelve, she’d gone as a robot every Halloween. On her thirteenth birthday, she’d gone as Marceline from Adventure Time, but that was less about her interests and more about her fast-approaching lesbian realisation.
She hadn’t made anything proper, not the way she’d used to, since her parents had died. That was over a year ago. And part of Kuvira really didn’t want to. She didn’t think she could. It was like her parents were watching over her now, and not in the kind and loving and supporting way. They would see her mistakes before she even got to fix them, and even though they weren’t there, it was as if she could feel them watching.
When she’d woken up that morning, Opal had already disappeared.
Kuvira had found Suyin and her husband in the kitchen, eating, and had gladly joined them. She asked them about Opal’s meltdown, but they were stiff-lipped about the whole situation. Or rather, they would discuss how much it annoyed them, how inconsiderate Opal was being, and how they were sorry they hadn’t mentioned it to Kuvira, but they didn’t say why Opal cried. Kuvira got the impression they didn’t know. Moreover, that they’d never asked.
She spent the day in the town with Suyin, picking up parts. Kuvira liked the woman less and less as the days went by. Everything about her personality that had once seemed caring, was growing more and more artificial.
“Next Saturday,” She said, picking up a wrench from the stand and turning it over steadily in her hands. “We’re having a barbecue with the local royals. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t get you out of it, so you’ll have to be there. Wu is eager to meet you.”
“Okay.” She said. “I don’t mind.” And she didn’t. It wasn’t like she got out much, in this town where she had no friends. “Wu is Opal’s fiancé?”
“Why, of course!” Suyin grinned. “He is quite enamoured with her. It’s good, really, that he likes her despite her condition.”
There was something in what she said that rubbed Kuvira the wrong way, but again, she couldn’t say anything.
The rest of the day had passed slowly, and by the time Kuvira was back in her room, Opal was still missing. Kuvira was slightly worried she wasn’t being the caregiver she was meant to be, but the blind girl didn’t actually need her, either. And Suyin probably didn’t care.
She’d skipped dinner, hoping it would make her work. It didn’t. She stared at the workbench for hours, willing her hands to be put into motion, but they simply didn’t know where to start. She switched music on and off, making a playlist when her hands got truly restless. Her pen was chewed, but never put on the paper. It was like for the first time ever, she had the time to take her time, and yet she had no drive or inspiration whatsoever.
The digital clock, blue and cracked, above the workbench read 22:06 when the music started. The other music. The non-Spotify-playlist music. It almost shocked Kuvira, because everything had been so silent before. She hadn’t heard anyone approaching the piano just outside. It must have been Opal.
The music was soft at first, quiet. Sad, as well. Kuvira heard the sadness in the music and felt another wave of remorse for Opal flush over her. Whatever front Opal put up, Kuvira had been there twenty-four hours, and she knew it was just that. A front.
After a few minutes, the music picked up, becoming lower and louder. Another reason that Opal’s room was so far away from everything, probably. The change of pitch had awoken Kuvira from whatever daze she’d been in, and suddenly she was looking at a screw in her palm. She blinked. Underneath her hand was the start of a shape she was very familiar with. It was one of her own designs, from when she worked as an intern in her fathers’ company.
It was a flat robotic vacuum. A Roomba. Or at least, the initial shell of one. Kuvira stared at it in wonder. Had she made that? It couldn’t have been anyone else.
The music changed again. Back to quiet. This time it was different. If it was sad before, this music was verging on suicidal. It was the sort of music that played at a funeral scene in a movie. Kuvira blinked. She should check on Opal, shouldn’t she?
She’d made her way to the white door, but it opened in her face.
“Kuvira.” Opal said shortly, her eyes dashing past the girl in front of her and to her bed. “I’m going to sleep now.”
“Uh. Okay.” Kuvira nodded blankly. Opal walked past her, already wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, and slid under the covers, her back facing Kuvira once more. Kuvira stared absently for a moment, noticing the slither of tan skin that Opal’s hair didn’t cover, before looking away. She awkwardly left the door’s side, returning to her work. “I’m going to be up a little longer.” She told Opal, but for all the reply she was given, she may as well have told the air.
The music continued the next day, and the day after that. Kuvira was sure it reflected how Opal was feeling. Some days the music was fast, loud, angry, and some days it was sad. It was always beautiful, though, and Kuvira liked to work to it. It was better than anything on her playlists, anyway.
Opal didn’t cry that week, or at least, she didn’t wake Kuvira up with it.
Apart from the nights spent together, in relative silence – although, Kuvira would describe it as comfortable silence – she didn’t spend any other time with Opal. She had no idea where the girl ate, or even if the girl ate, but she tried not to think about it so much. And for the most part, she succeeded. Opal wasn’t her problem.
(Technically, Opal was her problem, since she was meant to be taking the Beifongs’ daughter off their backs. But Opal wasn’t on their backs. So, Kuvira was doing just fine.)
Her work had come along amazingly. Her vacuum had come out well, and now she was back into working with robotics, even if it was just on a minor level. She’d need to find a better computer than her laptop soon enough, to help with the coding. Maybe Suyin would allow her access to the library a little prematurely, if she asked politely.
Despite her workflow however, Kuvira couldn’t quite finish anything. She lost her interest quickly enough, her inspiration changing at the same pace of Opal’s music.
She hoped that that was a coincidence.
Soon enough, it was the day of the barbecue. It was the only social event Kuvira had planned to attend for months, and it was really nothing at all to do with her. Still, she was excited. Distractions from work led to better work, ultimately.
She’d picked out a simple shirt and slacks look, one that was the perfect difference between casual and smart. For a barbecue with a royal family, it would probably be fine, right? They weren’t the royal family, just a branch that ruled over Ba Sing Se and all it was nearby, which included the coastal town of Zaofu. It was archaic, Kuvira thought, to marry into a family for the protection of land. Literally something out of a medieval romance novel. Opal deserved better than that.
They hadn’t exchanged any kind of conversation, except the occasional pleasantries, but even so. Today, her thoughts were with the girl. She pitied her.
“Do you think this outfit will be fine?” She asked her. Opal was sat on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Suyin was bringing up her dress. She didn’t move up to see Kuvira at all, but her eyebrows furrowed slightly.
“Oh, you look stunning, Kuvira. Truly breath-taking.”
“…You can’t see me. I forget.”
“You do forget.” Opal agreed, sitting up. She didn’t seem angry. She probably didn’t have time to be angry, with everything else going on in her life.
“I have the dress.” Suyin’s head popped through the door. She was holding a piece of sheer fabric. Kuvira was glad she didn’t have to wear it. Opal sprang up from the bed, taking the dress off Suyin sharply. There was rage in everything she did when she was with her mother – it dripped from her like blood from a wound. Suyin sighed at her daughter.
“Don’t snatch, Opal.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, mommy dearest.” She smiled sweetly, sauntering over to the bathroom. The door clicked in place once she’d entered, and the room stood as if she’d never been there.
Kuvira turned to Suyin, expecting her to make some sort of snide comment. She didn’t. Instead, she shook her head, not looking at all at Kuvira, before ducking out of the door and back down the stairs. Unsure of what to do but wait, Kuvira perched at the edge of her and Opal’s bed. It was Opal’s bed, really, she just slept there.
It took Opal ten minutes to change. She was almost certainly just biding her time, trying to push off the inevitable. Kuvira didn’t blame her.
When she came out, Kuvira thought it was well worth the wait.
The dress was tight around her top, and puffed out into practically transparent sheets of blue. The material seemed to glitter like it was the night’s sky. It had a turtle neckline, and was completely sleeveless, revealing just enough skin to catch Kuvira’s eye but not enough for it to be revealing. Her midsection, though… The dress had an open midriff section, and the softness of Opal’s flesh there was… Kuvira almost wanted to run her hand along it. Especially on that mole, right next to her bellybutton.
“Beautiful.” Kuvira hadn’t meant to say it aloud. Luckily, it had come out as a mumble.
“What was that?”
“You look really good.” Kuvira said more loudly, her eyes still staring at Opal’s dress. The blue was perfect on her. She looked like a goddess of the night.
“Do I?” Opal asked flatly. “I wouldn’t know.”
“You do.” Kuvira nodded. She wondered if dressing took longer for Opal, because she couldn’t see. Kuvira doubted it. She did it every day, after all. “The prince will love it, if he’s sensible at all.”
“By those standards he’ll hate it.” Opal said shortly, holding out her hand. Kuvira stared at it for a moment, unsure of what to do with herself. After a second, she grabbed it. Her hand burnt in Opal’s touch, as if the girl was made of molten lava, but after a second it faded away, erupting into something much different. Soft skin.
“Let’s go then, shall we?” Opal said quietly. Her eyes were closed, but her face was pointed towards Kuvira’s chest.
Kuvira nodded, before realising Opal couldn’t see that.
“Yeah… Yes.” She said. Her face felt hot.
Opal led her down the corridor, walking in front of her. Her hips swayed with the fabric, and Kuvira had to force herself not to watch.
“Ah! You both look splendid!” Baatar called, as soon as he saw them. “Opal, your brothers are in the next room. You should say hello.” Opal nodded shortly at her father, and he put a gentle hand on her shoulder as he walked past. His attention turned to Kuvira, his expression darkening.
Somewhere along the line, Opal had let go of Kuvira’s hand. She hadn’t noticed, because it was still tingling.
“Kuvira.” Baatar said. “I must speak to you before you meet the royals.”
“Okay.” She nodded quickly. Relief washed over her. She’d thought she’d been in trouble.
“Wu is… He’s a fool, quite plainly. But he’s Opal’s age and Suyin latched on to that and well… Here we all are. You have to humour him. Laugh at his jokes. Especially the unfunny ones.” He pulled an even darker expression. “As for his Aunt… Well, the same goes for her. She’s a scary woman, Kuvira, but she doesn’t speak much English, which is possibly the only good thing about her.”
“Is there anyone else?” Kuvira asked.
“No. Just those two. And a palace.”
“Like this place?” Kuvira asked.
He laughed lowly. “This is no palace, Kuvira. Come on, we mustn’t take too long. The boys have been waiting for me to play Pai Sho.” His manner changed entirely, when he strolled into the next room. Kuvira watched where he stood for a second, before following him in.
The room was laid decoratively, the large coffee table covered in delights of all kinds. She was sure the curtains had been switched, as well, for it was dim and the gold of everything stood out. Kuvira took her seat next to one of Opal’s brothers – one of the twins, she wasn’t sure which – and placidly picked up the closest thing to her. It happened to be golden fire flakes. The taste wasn’t great, but it did taste expensive.
“And you must be Kuvira?” The shrill voice harboured for a couple seconds in her head before she thought anything of it. Her eyes shot up. A boy was talking to her. He was roughly the same age as her.
So, this was Wu.
“Hello.” She said politely. “I am Kuvira, your, uh, majesty.”
He laughed at her. Not with her – at her, and despite his pretty-boy features, his laugh wasn’t pretty at all.
“Just call me Wu.”
“Prince Wu. Your highness.” A harsh and heavily-accented voice spoke up from nearby. Kuvira turned to see an aged and wrinkled woman, wearing a ridiculous amount of gold over silk green robes, staring daggers at her. Kuvira said nothing, simply nodded courteously at the both of them.
Wu was sat next to Opal, one of his hands on the inside of her thigh. A little high up for Kuvira’s liking. She thought Opal looked a small bit uncomfortable. He had turned to Huan, the Beifong boy with green hair, and was animatedly talking about – Kuvira could hardly believe her ears. Mud baths, apparently. Kuvira was surprised. Part of her had expected the prince to be someone distinguished, with strong muscles and sharp features and a destiny in the military. Wu didn’t seem to be any of those things.
Maybe that would be better for Opal. Or maybe it was worse. Kuvira didn’t know Opal well enough to say.
The families moved out to sit in the manor’s large garden. The sun was still hot – it was the peak of summer, and Kuvira’s gaze landed on an orchard not too far away. Everything, from the sea to the valley to the town, was idyllic from where she sat. A lone cloud traced the sky; Kuvira watched it.
They all talked aimlessly, and Kuvira was becoming tired. She had only been there an hour, and her limbs were aching just from listening to Wu go on and on and on about nothing of meaning at all. The boy was nice, though. Just talkative. And with his hand on Opal’s thigh.
“I hear you’re a female technician?” He turned to Kuvira again.
“I’m working towards a mechanical engineering degree.” She corrected him, ignoring the way he’d phrased his question. “I do specialise in metalwork, but I can do computers too.”
“Oh. Well, that’s certainly impressive. Especially for a woman. A beautiful woman.”
Kuvira had to school her features, hiding her immediate outburst of anger that threatened to erupt. A few people had looked over, clearly hearing Wu’s comment themselves. Was he really flirting with her, and in the most sexist way he could possibly manage, whilst his hand was stroking up and down his fiancé’s thigh?
“Hardly beautiful. Not at all, really.” Kuvira said quickly, ignoring the looks she was getting. Even if he was a prince, she wouldn’t agree with him in front of his fiancé. “Not half as beautiful as Opal, that is to say.”
Wu seemed to remember himself. He wrapped his arm around Opal’s shoulder. “You’re right. Smart girl. Not half as beautiful as Opal.” He kissed her temple, making a wet noise. Kuvira looked away, had to look away, but she didn’t have it in her to be offended. Not when Opal looked so upset.
They ate the meats that Baatar had cooked after sitting for ten more minutes in the sun. Kuvira didn’t mind, but Opal didn’t touch her food. More than once she looked over to Opal’s plate, noticing how she was only moving her food around, none of it going towards her mouth.
Kuvira wasn’t worried, per say. She just noticed it.
“We should practise our stances!” One of the boys announced, at the end of the meal. Wing. It was Wing. Kuvira was sure of it.
“Stances?” Wu asked.
“You should join them.” Opal said with a forced smile. It wasn’t lost on anyone that she wanted to be away from him. Kuvira watched as Wu’s Aunt raised her eyebrows. Opal couldn’t see that, of course, and maybe that was for the best. Wu’s hurt expression faded away as he stared at his fiancé, and placing a kiss on the top of her head, he agreed.
Suyin clapped as the boys’ practised their martial arts. They were good at it. Kuvira had done martial arts once, as a child. Dance, too. But they had both been put on a back pedal when she started high school, finally able to throw herself properly into robotics. Still, she had trained for long enough to know that they were all very skilled, all except Wu.
Whilst they moved, Suyin turned to Kuvira. “They’re all nice boys. Don’t suppose I could marry you off to one of them?”
Kuvira’s eyes widened in horror, and Suyin burst out in laughter.
“Oh, my dear! I was just joking!” Suyin wiped away a tear from her eye. “You should have seen your face.”
If she was being honest, the joke wasn’t to Kuvira’s taste.
“No,” Suyin shook her head, turning back to the boys. “I would never take you away from finding your soulmate. That’s what’s important to girls your age, am I right?”
She was wrong, actually, but Kuvira bit back the truth.
“I’m excited for the day I find my soulmate.” She lied. Fucking ecstatic for it.
“Good. You should be.” Suyin thought for a moment. “I’m sure your soulmate will work in the tech field. They say soulmates are meant to help you follow your endeavours. Baatar and I… Well, you know about the university, of course. Maybe you’ll meet yours in Zaofu! Wouldn’t that be exciting.”
She spoke so kindly to Kuvira, but any warmth Kuvira had had for the woman had faded once she’d seen how she treated Opal. Like the blind child, turned hindrance, who’s only purpose was to marry for the sake of building her own convenience in life. It was something that no kindness could make Kuvira overlook.
“Maybe I will.” Kuvira said. “I don’t see the string, so they could even be nearby.”
“You don’t, do you? Well, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” Suyin said with a shrug. “It’s better when you meet your soulmate. Some people say when they touch their soulmate, it’s like touching the stars. Or that the string is made of stars. Something beautiful, and perfectly fabricated. I don’t know about all that, but there is a feeling of comfort in it.”
Kuvira didn’t care.
“Mhm.” Suyin nodded. Wei must have done particularly well, because she cheered his name and clapped loudly, bringing Kuvira’s attention back to the boys. She noticed that everyone else had dispersed from where they had been sitting, and Kuvira couldn’t see Opal.
She dismissed herself from Suyin’s company, and began to slowly trail around the garden.
Repeatedly, she told herself she wasn’t looking for anything in particular. It was denial, and part of her knew it, but she told herself it anyway. To protect herself, more than anything else.
Kuvira saw Opal sat far away from the group, on a slight bump of green grass. It wasn’t like Kuvira had been looking for her. Again, she just noticed. Either way, she hadn’t planned to walk over, but she felt bad for the girl. That was it. Pity. And she’d only feel worse if it was Wu that would walk over and sit with her, and not someone at least somewhat nice, like herself.
“It’s me.” Kuvira said, sitting on the grass next to Opal. She didn’t seem surprised.
“People say he’s handsome.” Opal’s eyes were open. Kuvira had never seen them open before. They were grey, but a pretty grey. It was like looking into a crystal ball. “Kuvira?”
Kuvira blinked. “Sorry, what?”
“They say that he’s handsome.” She repeated. “Wu.”
“Oh. Do they?” Kuvira asked.
Kuvira tilted her head curiously at the girl. “I didn’t think that mattered to you. You know, because of your… Um, you know. Your—”
“Blind isn’t a swear word.” Opal said. “And no, I suppose it doesn’t matter to me. Or it wouldn’t, if I loved him.”
Why did those words fill Kuvira with such sheer relief? Probably because Opal deserved to love better, and Kuvira recognised that.
“Like you said.” Opal spoke before Kuvira could. “That will come with time. Do you take that back, now that you’ve met him?”
“It’s normal not to love him yet.” Kuvira assured her, ignoring the question. Now that she had met Wu, Opal’s tears seemed far more justified.
Opal breathed out slowly. “I suppose you’re right. But he is handsome, right? My mother told me he looked like a knight.”
“A knight, huh?” Kuvira winced, about to correct Suyin, but then she stopped herself. Opal needn’t know, really. What she wouldn’t ever find out for herself, would never hurt her. “Yes. He is quite the knight. More handsome than I thought he’d be.” She nudged the smaller girl playfully. “Your mother picked your husband well.”
“Picked her investor well, more like.” Opal said simply. She had a marvellous talent – she could say the worst things in the plainest of voices.
Kuvira sighed. It didn’t take a genius to know that Opal was right.
“She loves you.” Kuvira said after a second.
“She loves her university more.”
“Please.” Opal laughed. “I don’t want your pity or your lies, Kuvira.”
So Kuvira said nothing, because it truly felt like she couldn’t offer her roommate anything else. Not that it was all bad, staying silent. Being sat next to Opal was nice. She liked the warmth of Opal’s body, even if it was a few inches away.
“You didn’t eat much.”
Opal laid back on the grass. For a second, Kuvira worried she’d ruin her dress.
“I’m a vegetarian.” She said. “And I don’t like eating in front of others.”
“Because you can’t see?”
No response. Kuvira didn’t know if that meant she was right or wrong.
“I want to go to bed.” Opal said suddenly, jolting up. She concealed her face from Kuvira. “I have to… I have to go to bed.”
Kuvira nodded her head in understanding. “I’ll tell your mother.”
When Kuvira was finally allowed to leave for the bedroom herself, after the royals had gone home, and after Wei, Wing, Baatar Jr and Huan had gone back to university accommodation (why were they allowed to stay there, and she wasn’t?), she was exhausted. Who could have known that simply making idle small talk for so many hours could be so deeply tiring? She felt like she could sleep for a week.
“Opal?” She asked, popping her head through the door in case the girl wasn’t decent. She usually got changed in the bathroom, though, so Kuvira figured she was safe. It didn’t hurt to check. The room was empty, so she must have been changing.
Kuvira quickly changed out of her shirt and slacks, and into something more comfortable – baggy shorts and a tank, her go-to. She could remember many a night in this outfit, pouring over slightly out-of-date Chinese food, and a new robot design for her father.
The bathroom stayed closed for another ten minutes, and try as she might, Kuvira couldn’t help but grow slightly concerned. She tried to stop herself from glancing at the white door, turning her attention back to the blueprints in front of her. Another thirty seconds passed and she groaned at herself, before standing up and approaching the door.
“Hey? You okay in there?” She asked the door. The door didn’t reply, and neither did anyone behind it. “Fuck it.” She growled, turning the handle and entering the bathroom. The shining white of it all was just that – shining and white. And empty.
Opal wasn’t there.
“Eh?” She muttered. She walked back out to the bedroom, and for the first time that week, opened Opal’s wardrobe. The hanger that Suyin had given Opal for the dress was hanging there, dress-less. Opal had never made it back to the room.
Kuvira ran a hand through her hair, catching her fingers in the braid. Fear filled her. What was she meant to do? Find her, right?
But just as she went towards the door, the soft melancholic notes of the dark wood piano wafted into the bedroom. Kuvira knew the tune, or at least, she knew the style of music. She’d never heard this song before. It wasn’t at all like the other pieces.
She wouldn’t call it happy, for it was anything but, but it wasn’t miserable like the others. It wasn’t music of mourning, but rather, if Kuvira’s limited musical knowledge had to guess, music of acceptance.
For some reason, that annoyed Kuvira even more. But what could she do? Nothing at all, was the answer. Opal’s fate was sealed to Wu’s, because of her mother, and there was nothing she could do about it. Escaping was hardly an option, and even if she could, she would be a blind girl in China. A moment passed, and Kuvira imagined escaping with Opal herself, taking the girl and fleeing, maybe catch a flight back to Massachusetts.
Except, there was nothing there for her. Maybe a few old friends, but that was all.
She couldn’t do that, because like Opal’s, her fate was here, ten miles outside Ba Sing Se.
“Don’t be the damn hero, Kuvira.” She whispered to herself, turning back to the robotics station in her room, and continued coding. It went a little more smoothly than it had before, with the music as her backing track.
The music went on for longer than usual. Kuvira hadn’t been timing it – she was obviously busier than that – but she guessed it usually went on for around forty minutes to an hour. Today, however, it was two hours, non-stop. Kuvira almost sat up and checked on Opal after an hour and a half had passed, but she decided instead to be selfish, and to use the music to power her work.
Eventually, however, it did stop, and Opal opened the door quietly.
“Hey, Kuvira.” Opal whispered. Her voice was hoarse. She’d been crying. Kuvira turned around, but there was no trace of it on the girl’s face. She wanted to ask if the girl was okay, but the answer seemed obvious, so she didn’t.
“Hi. I’m just, uh, working.” Kuvira cursed herself for stammering.
“I’m going to sleep.” Opal said, in the same voice. Kuvira winced.
“What’s wrong? Wu?” Kuvira asked.
Opal didn’t reply. Her back was turned to Kuvira. Maybe she was already asleep.
Kuvira turned back to her work, but she couldn’t focus at all. It wasn’t the same without the music. Plus, this was the hardest part of the coding. She’d need Opal’s piano for this part. Kuvira added more to the schematics for a little while, and was about to retire to bed, when a noise alerted her.
A soft cry.
She turned to Opal, immediately making her way over to the bed. The girl was shaking more dramatically than before, but she wasn’t bashing her face into the covers. In fact, she wasn’t wailing like the last time – no, she was just crying.
“Opal…” Kuvira whispered, and the girl on the bed sat up suddenly. Her eyes were open again. Kuvira wondered if that made crying easier. She hardly had time to chew on this thought, because suddenly the crying girl had thrown herself at Kuvira, her face burrowing in Kuvira’s chest.
Where Opal’s skin touched Kuvira’s, electricity sparked, but she sighed a sigh of relief at not having to wake the girl up.
“Kuvira…” Opal’s voice was muffled against Kuvira’s chest.
“It’s okay. I’m here.”
Opal’s arms wrapped around Kuvira’s neck, pulling the two girls impossibly close together. Kuvira’s shoulder was now wet with tears, but Kuvira didn’t have it in herself to be uptight about it. She stroked the girls lower back gently, hoping to ease some of her inner turmoil. After a few minutes, the crying died down to faint sobs.
“I’m sorry.” Opal whispered quietly.
“Don’t be.” Kuvira shook her head, as if what Opal had said was insane. “You… I understand why you’re sad.”
“Do you?” Opal asked quietly.
Their eyes meet. Clear grey meeting sea-green. She knew Opal wasn’t really looking at her, but she’d never felt so seen in her life. Kuvira felt a lump in her throat, one that she couldn’t swallow down.
“No.” Opal sighed, looking away. “You don’t.”
“I… No, I do.” Kuvira insisted, Opal climbing out of her hold.
“No, Kuvira, you don’t.” Opal said with a sigh, climbing back into the sheets.
“You don’t want to marry Wu. It’s not that hard to understand.” Kuvira wasn’t sure why she was being so defensive, but at the same time, she didn’t like people speaking down to her. Not when it came to what she did and didn’t know.
“I’ve been engaged to Wu for two years.” Opal said flatly. The words hung in the air. Kuvira didn’t like them. The girl rolled over, her back facing the wall. Kuvira looked at the softness of her features, the curve of her chin, the crook of her nose. She wanted to lean down and kiss the girl’s cheek.
Wait, she wanted to what—?
“You…” Kuvira was struggling to find her words. She was a mathematician and a scientist, damn it, not a poet.
“I’m not crying for myself.” Opal whispered. The words seemed to mean a lot more to her than they did to her roommate. Kuvira stared down at the girl’s form, unsure as to what to say. Unsure as to what Opal even meant. Who else was there to cry for? Opal was the victim.
The girl didn’t say anything more, and soon enough, Kuvira was positive she was asleep. Her body seemed to relax into the covers, and Kuvira finally joined her. As soon as her back hit the bed, Opal curled her body next to hers, reaching a hand over Kuvira’s chest and resting her head on her shoulder.
Kuvira’s breath hitched.
“Opal?” She muttered. As if in reply, Opal’s sleeping form let out a delicate snore. “Shit…”
The organ in Kuvira’s chest, previously used exclusively to pump blood, was now beating like she was running a marathon. Kuvira was a scientist. She knew what that meant. In fact, she’d already had her suspicions; this was a confirmation more than anything else.
She liked Opal.
“Shit.” She breathed. “Shit. Shit shit shit shit. Shit!”
There wasn’t enough money in the world to make Kuvira stay in that bed another second. She slid out, forcing herself not to look at Opal. She couldn’t look at Opal. This was not part of the plan.
She went straight to her work, and scrapped it. It was only a few hours of work, and she could redo it later. But right then, there was something else she had to make. There wasn’t any going to sleep for her that night anyway. She worked well into the morning, reminding herself of processes of her work that had once come to her naturally many months ago. More intricate processes than she’d dared to produce, as of late.
At around four in the morning, she even took out her old paints. Black paint, since it was the only colour Kuvira could even consider. Her hands shook, but the paint was applied cleanly.
Opal woke up around six. Kuvira had wondered about that. Not once that week had she awoken before Opal.
“Are you working?” Opal asked.
“Mhm.” Kuvira made herself not look up.
“Were you working all night?”
“Yeah. I needed to do this.” Kuvira said, keeping her eyes pressed as harshly as she could against her workshop.
Opal didn’t say anything else. Kuvira heard the sound of the girl getting dressed behind her. She didn’t go into the bathroom to change this time. Kuvira assured herself that was because Opal saw her as a friend now, someone she was comfortable around, or at least they’d shared a room long enough that this had to happen at some point. The thought both disappointed her and thrilled her.
Once Opal was finished changing, she went into the bathroom. Kuvira waited for her to come back, even though she knew she shouldn’t. She waited, and she waited, and she waited. Opal never came. Kuvira finished what she’d been working on in that time, and satisfied that her checking on Opal wasn’t a subconscious ploy to see the girl, but rather, her duty as Opal’s roommate, she tentatively opened the bathroom door.
Nobody was in there.
Nobody was in there, however the window was laying wide open. Kuvira approached, peering out into the fields that lay beyond, and at the large tree that almost blocked the sight of them. There was a branch, more than big enough to climb on, that extended from nearby the window ledge, all the way down to about half way up the tree. The path the tree naturally made was easy enough for even a young child to climb down and up.
“What the fuck…” Kuvira breathed. Opal hadn’t vanished. She’d left. But where to?
Kuvira thought back to the last week. Every time she’d woken up, Opal had been gone, and that was around seven. She usually didn’t see Opal again till the night time. The Beifongs had family dinner together every night, with everyone that was in the home (and the boys at university would come back for the weekend, so sometimes it was quite busy). The meal was always bang on seven, and Opal was always ten minutes late.
So, looking at those numbers, it was probable that Opal went out for the day.
There was no other conclusion that Kuvira could come to.
Disgruntled, she changed into something presentable and made her way down to breakfast. She would have to confront Opal about this. First, however, she placed the small, black robot she’d made on the hood of the piano.
“What is this?” Opal asked, entering their shared room.
Kuvira was working at the robotic station, mindlessly playing around with some old junk she’d found in the bottom of her bag. It was the only thing she could do from going after Opal and finding her herself.
“I made that for you.” Kuvira said, not looking up. “Where do you go?”
“You made… Where do I… What?”
When Kuvira turned around, Opal looked confused. She also looked very pretty, wearing a white frock and stockings, but Kuvira bit that thought down. It didn’t matter how pretty Opal was, she couldn’t have the girl risking her place at Zaofu university.
“I’m meant to be making sure you’re okay. I assumed you were somewhere in the house during the day. But you’re not, are you? So, where do you go?”
“Kuvira, c’mon.” Opal said with a sigh. Her hands were playing with the robot absently, and it gave Kuvira the impression that she was nervous. Which wasn’t like Opal at all.
“No.” She stood up, striding over to Opal. She put a hand on the girl’s bare arm, letting her know she was there. As if she knew Kuvira was coming, Opal didn’t flinch. “You have to tell me.”
“And what are you going to do if I don’t? Report me to mother?” Opal snarled, pulling herself out of Kuvira’s grip and stomping past her. “She won’t believe you, anyway, you know. As much as I’m the disobedient moody child to her, I’m also an ittle-wittle blind girl, who can’t possibly do anything for herself.” Opal said the last part in a mock-Suyin expression. Kuvira thought it was unnervingly accurate.
“She’ll want to know where you go. I want to know where you go.” Kuvira said sternly.
For a second, Opal faltered. Kuvira wasn’t sure why, but it was hard to miss. The girl’s face contorted, before she turned away steadily, staring straight at the bathroom door.
“No, you don’t.” Opal said softly. “Not really.”
“Of course I do!” Kuvira approached again, but Opal shrank away from her.
“You just want to make sure I don’t die, so you can still go to your damn university!” The girl cried. Kuvira furrowed her brow. Opal was right – that was literally the reason she was there.
“And so, you couldn’t give a flying fuck about me, Kuvira. You don’t… You’re…” Opal frowned, seemingly losing her words. A silence hung over them, and Kuvira could think of nothing to break it. At last, Opal spoke. “Shall we go to dinner?”
For a brief moment, Kuvira thought Opal was asking her on a date. Then she realised the shorter girl was referring to family dinner.
“You want to go to dinner?” Kuvira asked.
“It’s not for half an hour.”
The awkwardness made Kuvira wince.
“You can’t follow me tomorrow.” Opal said quietly. “Please don’t… Please don’t follow me.”
Kuvira sighed, putting her face in her hands. This girl was a nightmare. Still, she’d said please, and Kuvira was sure that it didn’t matter what Opal wanted, if the girl said please Kuvira was bound to do it. That prospect worried her.
“I won’t.” She promised.
“You’re safe, right? I assume so, since you haven’t died yet. I won’t follow you, and I won’t tell Suyin either.”
“…Thank you.” Opal sounded genuinely grateful.
“It’s fine.” Kuvira checked the clock. “We could probably go early to dinner, if you wanted? Considering how often you’re late, I think your mother might be grateful.”
Opal smiled at Kuvira, holding out her hand.
“Take the damn hand, Kuvira. I can’t see.”
They both knew that Opal could make it to the kitchen perfectly well on her own, since she did it most days (as well as apparently being able to scale a tree on her own). But the part of Kuvira who sweated when Opal smiled, and whose heart beat a little quicker when Opal laughed, couldn’t say no. Wouldn’t.
The comfortable burn of holding Opal’s hand was becoming Kuvira’s favourite sensation. They let go before walking into the kitchen, and Kuvira didn’t ask why.
The days passed steadily from then on. Kuvira worked on her projects, and eventually got access to the university computers from Suyin, and Opal vanished everyday to wherever she went, but slowly she was coming home earlier and earlier. Kuvira didn’t pretend it was because of her.
Suyin was largely absent from the Beifong manor, but Kuvira started to really like Baatar Sr. He was always kind to her, and eager to see what she’d been working on, and he didn’t treat Opal half so badly as Suyin did. In fact, he seemed a little upset about the arranged marriage, but it was also clear who wore the pants in his relationship, so he was never going to say anything.
“How do you feel about going to the beach tomorrow, with Opal?” He asked Kuvira one morning.
“Isn’t Wu coming tomorrow?” He came every week or so, to take Opal on a date. Every day that he did, the music Opal played that night was particularly angry.
Baatar smiled, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s only natural to forget things, sometimes.”
Kuvira couldn’t help but grin.
“I’m down.” She said. “I can try and get Opal to say yes, too.”
Everyone had noticed the friendship blooming between Opal and Kuvira. It was only natural, being both girls of the same age, sharing a room.
“I doubt she’ll need much convincing.”
“Much convincing about what?”
Kuvira turned around, spying Opal in the doorway. She was wearing a crop top and shorts, her knees covered in dirt from wherever she’d been. Baatar didn’t notice, but Kuvira couldn’t help stare at it. Where had she been that was dirty? There was the orchard, nearby, but despite Opal’s capabilities, there was no way she could navigate through a forest.
“We want to go to the beach tomorrow.” Opal’s father told her.
“Wu is coming tomorrow.”
“I was sure that was the day after.” He said seriously, and Kuvira watched as realisation dawned on Opal’s features.
“It is!” She practically yelled. “I mean, uh. It is. So, yeah. The beach. I can do the beach.”
“Excellent.” He grinned.
Kuvira grinned at Opal, which she didn’t see of course, but she smiled back at her anyway.
That night Kuvira and Opal stared up at the ceiling. Well, Kuvira did, but she knew Opal was awake too. When Opal first fell asleep, before the crying and the bad dreams, a great softness overtook her body, as if she was holding a tension in her body all day. That tension was still there.
“I know you’re awake.” She whispered, her words hanging crisply in the dark.
“I know you’re awake, too.”
It was obnoxious, really, just how much Kuvira’s heart fluttered, simply from hearing Opal’s voice.
“You excited for the beach?” Kuvira asked.
“Excited not to see Wu. You?”
“Yeah. It will be fun.” Kuvira said noncommittedly. “Sometimes taking a break from work helps me work better afterwards.”
“Life isn’t just about work, you know.”
Kuvira sighed. There were some things that nobody could understand, and she’d become okay with that. Work was what made Kuvira, Kuvira.
“It is for me.”
Opal turned onto her side, and Kuvira did the same. Moonlight fed through the thin curtain, casting a brilliant light on her features. Kuvira couldn’t help but marvel. Button nose, thick and sleek eyebrows, bangs messily protecting her forehead. There was nobody quite like Opal.
“You’ve just chosen that for yourself.” She whispered. “That’s not… Your life should be more than just mindless work, and I don’t care how much you like it. Anyone can work. Even me, and I can’t see.”
“Not everyone can work on what I work on, though.” Kuvira pointed out. “I don’t mean to brag, but I’m an expert in what I do, and I’m only eighteen.”
“Only eighteen.” Opal laughed dryly. “Only eighteen.”
“Eighteen is a lot of years, Kuvira. And what do you have to show for it? Robots?” Opal’s hand came out from under the covers. Kuvira sucked in a breath of air. Her palm rested on Kuvira’s jaw, gently stroking the skin there, featherlight. How could a sensation both scald and ease?
“My work is more than just robots.” She whispered weakly. Opal’s palm was distracting, as well as warm and comforting,
“Fine. Robots and coding. It’s still work.” Opal frowned. “I’m sure I could do it if I tried hard enough.”
Kuvira felt herself chuckle lowly. “I’m sure you could.”
Opal shuffled closer to Kuvira, so close that she could feel the other girl’s body heat. “But you know what I can’t do, that you can? See the stars. Have you spent your eighteen years looking at the stars?”
“My father,” Opal murmured, her hand still stroking tentatively at Kuvira’s face, as if she was memorising the shape of it. “Used to read me stories. Not just before bed. Everyday, all day long. This was before I had the piano, and everything else.” Everything else, being wherever she went during the day. “And I used to love the stars. The idea of them. I wanted desperately to see the stars. I suppose it won’t sound as pretty to you, but the idea of tiny speckles of light poking through a blanket of darkness… To me, that sounds like little portals to heaven. To me, they sound beautiful.”
Kuvira understood why that would sound so good to Opal. She supposed heaven wasn’t something Opal felt often.
“I like your father.” Kuvira whispered. “He doesn’t want you to marry Wu.”
“I thought you wanted me to marry Wu.”
“I never said that.”
“You said he was like a knight.” There was accusation in Opal’s voice. Kuvira gulped.
“I want you to be happy.” She said after a beat. Opal’s features contorted for a moment, before she let out a long sigh.
Opal said nothing in return. Kuvira was itching to keep talking. Aching, craving it. There was something softer and more open about this Opal, sleepy Opal. This Opal wanted to be friends with Kuvira, and since Kuvira couldn’t have what she really wanted, she would settle for this. She would settle for this a thousand times over.
“You know they say the soulmate string is made of stars?” Kuvira said suddenly.
Opal stiffened beside her. “Why would you say that?” She asked.
“I don’t know.” Kuvira confessed, turning back to face Opal again. The girl didn’t move, showing off her angular side profile. Her face possessed a duality that Kuvira’s didn’t – there was sharp beauty, as well as softness and chub. Kuvira, born with a handsome, if a little manly face, couldn’t even bring herself to be jealous, because she was too busy admiring it. “You talking about stars made me think of it.”
“My parents weren’t soulmates.” Kuvira carried on. She didn’t know why she kept going, but it was as if she couldn’t stop herself. “They were scientists, and they found each other through compatibility. People called them crazy all the time, and I never understood.”
“They had the choice to be with their soulmate, and they chose not to be. That is crazy.”
“Is it? I never thought so.” Kuvira thought back to her childhood. Her parents were a lot of things – strict, hard-working, occasionally angry. But never with each other. They were always, always in love. “They made each other happy. I don’t think there’s anything crazy about that. Being with someone who isn’t your soulmate is fine, if they make you happy.”
“Is this about Wu?” Opal asked.
No, it’s about us! Kuvira wanted to yell. But there wasn’t an ‘us’. She had to reaffirm that with herself then and there. Her and Opal were never to be an ‘us’.
“It’s about me, actually.” Kuvira said. “If I never meet my soulmate, then I will find someone who can love me just as hard as one. You asked me what I thought of soulmates, and that’s what I think. They’re not the be all and end all of everything.”
“It’s a pretty thought.” Opal whispered. “You’ll be fine, then.”
“If you never meet them. Your soulmate. If they never…” Opal let out a shuddered breath. Kuvira suddenly felt terrible, because why on Earth would she bring up soulmates, to the girl who was being forced to marry someone who wasn’t hers. “…Sorry. I’m happy you can find your own happiness, Kuvira.”
“You will too.”
“Unlikely.” Opal scoffed. “But like I said. I’ve been engaged for two years. I’ve made peace with it.”
“Lot’s of things are unfair.”
“You can say that again.” Kuvira half-laughed.
She felt Opal’s hand slide into hers under the covers.
“Do you think your parents are up there, watching you?” Opal asked quietly.
The question surprised the mechanic. She’d never even considered it. They weren’t religious people, after all.
“If there is an up there, I doubt they’re watching me.” Kuvira said. “They’ll be building and making and experimenting. Sometimes they’d forget to pick me up from school, because they were so busy. I used to do my homework on the side of the road, outside the classroom, waiting for them to pick me up.”
“My dad’s the same.” Opal giggled, squeezing Kuvira’s hand. “I think our parents would have got along.”
“Maybe too well.”
“Do you miss them?”
“No.” This time Kuvira didn’t need to think. “I’m too busy to miss them.”
“…Is that why you work so hard?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know.” Kuvira furrowed her brow, thinking. “Work makes me feel close to them. As close to them as when I was alive, anyway.”
“Ah.” Opal said, nodding her head as if she was finally understanding something.
“Not anyone can work like you, then. I take it back.”
Kuvira blinked. She slipped her hand out of Opal’s, shifting her body so that she was slightly above Opal. On top of her, really. Shakily, she moved a lock of hair out of Opal’s face. She could hear the girl’s unsteady breath, feel it against her hand. Never before in her life had she wanted so badly to tell a girl she was beautiful.
“Kuvira…” Opal breathed. Her voice was thick. For some reason, tears began to sting at Kuvira’s eyes, and she couldn’t for the life of her work out why.
“Opal.” She replied.
Opal surged forward, and for a second, Kuvira thought they were going to kiss. But, Opal didn’t see her like that. She didn’t want her like Kuvira wanted Opal. Her hands gripped around Kuvira’s back, pulling the taller girl onto her. Kuvira used her knees to balance her weight out, not wanting to hurt the smaller girl.
“It’s scary.” She whispered into Kuvira’s neck. She was sure she felt her heart break in her chest, but that wasn’t scientific. Heartbreak was just a hormone. It wasn’t real. But Kuvira was sure she felt it. Her arms tangled around Opal in reciprocation, and she breathed in the steady smell of sheets and warmth and vanilla that she had come to know as Opal.
In a way, it smelled like home, but Kuvira didn’t stress over that for too long.
After a while, she felt herself slipping into sleep. Opal was gone long before her, and she shifted over to her side so as not to put anymore weight on her. Opal’s hands didn’t leave her back though, and despite the pumping in Kuvira’s chest, she didn’t let go either.
When she woke up, Opal was still there.
It surprised Kuvira, actually, for she hadn’t been expecting it. Then again, Opal obviously couldn’t go to wherever she went today, since she already had plans to go to the beach. What also surprised her, was the clock behind Opal’s head. It was almost eight. Opal didn’t set an alarm, so surely she awoke at six naturally. It was something Kuvira had figured out a while back.
Which probably meant she’d woken up, then chosen not to move, and chosen to go back to sleep.
Kuvira felt herself smile.
“You up?” Opal groaned, her hand tightening around the back of Kuvira’s neck. She could get used to this. Even if it was just a friendship thing, Kuvira could pretend in her head. She could let it happen in her head. It was harmless in her head.
“Mhm.” She mumbled, rolling away from Opal and sitting up. “It’s sort of late. We should get ready.”
“Pick something for me to wear.”
“Huh?” Kuvira turned back to the girl. She was propped up by her eyebrows, her face pointed towards Kuvira. Sometimes it felt like Opal could see her.
“I never know what to wear. Literally.” Opal didn’t ever need help picking out outfits, and yet she always looked good. Kuvira had never wondered how until then. “I usually buy more neutral clothes that look good with everything. Or they’re meant to. No doubt I look like a total idiot sometimes.”
“You always look good.” Kuvira said, looking away so she wouldn’t see Opal’s reaction. “But sure. I’ll pick something out. Are you trusting me not to pick something pervy?” She said with a smile.
“On the contrary.” Opal grinned. “Pick the perviest thing you want.”
For herself, Kuvira found a bandeau and board shorts, as well as a loose-fitting shirt to go over the top. She supposed there was no reason for her to dress especially nicely, but nevertheless. Next, she chose for Opal. Her eyes stared at the black bikini for a solid ten seconds, before skipping over it. Opal had been kidding. She didn’t actually want Kuvira to pick the perviest thing she had.
There was a white one-piece underneath it, with part of the midsection cut out, as well as two strings tying it up from the small of her back, meaning that a lot of skin would be on show. Kuvira wondered for a second if there was something problematic about choosing it, but then again, she was looking at Opal respectfully.
“Here.” She said. “This one is pretty. And you can have one of my shirts to go over it.”
“Thanks.” Opal mumbled, taking the fabric off Kuvira. “Is this really the perviest thing I’ve got? I swore there was a bikini in there…”
“No. But there could be randoms at the beach. That sight isn’t for everyone.”
Opal brushed passed Kuvira on her way to the bathroom, causing the taller girl to shiver. “You’re right. It’s not.”
After about five minutes, both girls were ready to go down to the kitchen, to meet Baatar. Suyin was out that morning, but even from all the way in Opal’s far-off bedroom, they’d heard her making a fuss. She wanted the house spick-and-spam for when Wu got there. Kuvira supposed that made sense.
They walked in silence down to the kitchen. Kuvira was tempted to take Opal’s hand, but she’d never been the one to initiate the touch before, so she kept her hand firmly pressed to her side.
“Girls! Come on, quickly.” Baatar ushered them through the back door, that led to the outside workshops. Kuvira wasn’t permitted to work in there.
“Coming.” Opal said, following Baatar’s voice and winding her way around the kitchen. Kuvira was beginning to understand that Opal’s blindness, though a disability, hardly stopped her from doing anything. Maybe it was because Opal had been blind her whole life, so she made do with it. Maybe Kuvira’s preconceptions about blind people were all incorrect.
They ran around the large house to where the cars were kept, Opal and Kuvira sliding in the back, Baatar sitting in the front. He turned back to the smile at them, before reversing and making his way to the beach. There was adrenaline pumping in the air. Kuvira wondered if Suyin would be angry.
The sand was warm and gritty under Kuvira’s toes. She realised this was a feeling she was sharing with Opal.
“I’ve not been here enough times.” She told Kuvira, her hand reached out. “You need to help me for a bit.”
“I was sure you’d be okay here.” Baatar called from somewhere behind them. “It’s open space after all.”
Wordlessly, Kuvira and Opal pretended they did not hear the man, interlocking their fingers together and striding out through the beach. Kuvira watched the shoreline, measuring with her eyes how far each wave came inwards. The waves left a dark mark in the sand where they’d been.
Opal walked out in front of her, and Kuvira noticed how her toes sunk into the sand a little less deeply tan her own did. The shorter girl turned around, her hair whipping around in the wind, and smiled her prettiest, happiest smile. In response, Kuvira’s chest lurched. She hadn’t considered the implications of her shirt on Opal’s shoulders when she’d handed it over, but now she was enjoying the view. It was like they were girlfriends.
No, it was like they were soulmates.
“Can you take me to the water.” Opal asked, already walking nearer and nearer towards the ocean. Kuvira trailed behind, letting Opal’s grip on her fingers loosen so she could guide the pair of them. Opal asking was clearly nothing more than a ruse – wherever she wanted to go, Kuvira was bound there too.
Kuvira pulled Opal to a stop, so they could take their first step into the water together.
“It’s cold.” Opal shrieked. “Was it always this cold?”
“The peak of summer is over now. It will be fall soon.” Kuvira acknowledged. That made Opal pull a face.
“You ought not to say that.”
“Why?” Kuvira frowned.
Opal let out a rigorous sigh, turning her ears towards the ocean. “I’ll be a married woman soon. Too soon. This is my last summer.”
“Marriage isn’t like death.” Kuvira pointed out, despite the fact that the thought of Opal marrying Wu made her want to drown herself in the sea. “It’s like a new start. And you won’t be so far from home, will you? He lives thirty minutes away, right? You can come to the sea still.”
“I suppose so.” Opal agreed. “This place really is my home.”
“It is.” Kuvira agreed.
“And yours, you know? Does it feel like yours, too?”
“I don’t know about that.” Kuvira laughed. “I’m not sure if your mother likes me, or simply needs me.”
The shorter girl frowned, sniffing the air as if she’d smelled something bad. She pulled Kuvira along, following the coastline, their ankles still submerged in the salt water. Kuvira said nothing, allowing the girl to take her to where she wanted to go. The blue sky was dotted with clouds, and Kuvira found herself admiring them.
Opal obviously did know the beach quite well, because at one point there was a rock laying in their way, but Kuvira didn’t have to say anything before Opal made her way around it.
“I knew it was still here.” She said with a smile. Kuvira looked out to sea, unsure what they were looking at. The line where the sea met the sky was crisp, like it had been drawn on paper, but there was nothing out there at all. Not even a boat coming into the harbour.
“It’s just the ocean?”
“And I’m the blind one. Turn around, rocks-for-brains.” Opal tugged Kuvira’s shoulder, and the taller woman let out a gasp. They were stood at the foot of a large cavern, it’s mouth open like that of a beast’s. Despite the angry shape of the cracked rock, it wasn’t that which had taken Kuvira’s breath away. It was the glowing. The walls shimmered with iridescent blue moss.
“It’s gorgeous.” She praised, running her hand over the nearest rock. The moss felt soft under her hands. She wondered if it was toxic.
“Is it?” Opal said flatly, trailing inside. “I want to show you something, anyway.”
“Is it safe?”
“I’ve never died here before.” She said with a shrug. “Now, come on.”
Cogs began to whirl in Kuvira’s brain. “Is this where you go? During the day?”
Opal didn’t reply, and as always, Kuvira didn’t push it. Being with Opal was a good reminder, actually, that you really didn’t need to put any words to your name unless you actually wanted to.
There was a small body of water that ran through the cavern, too small to be a river but larger than a stream. Opal followed it, closer to the edge than Kuvira would have liked, and she followed close behind. At one point Opal slipped, and although the water was nowhere near deep enough for a watery death, Kuvira’s heart still lurched in her chest.
She reached out, clutching Opal to her chest.
“I’m fine.” She groaned, pushing away. Her cheeks were red with annoyance, and Kuvira winced.
“It’s still my job to look after you, you know?”
“That was never your job.” The shorter girl grumbled, shooting Kuvira what must have been meant as an annoyed look. Kuvira thought she looked very pretty.
They walked further through the cavern, and this time Kuvira made sure she was stood on the side of the water, not letting Opal passed her.
“How tall are you?” Opal asked, as they walked.
“How tall? I know you must have insanely good posture, because your so damn rigid.” She laughed, shoving Kuvira lightly. “But you aren’t that much taller than me.”
“I’m five seven.” She replied. “Last time I checked, anyway.”
“I’m five foot three.” Opal conceded. “That adds up, I guess. Tall people are always boring.”
“I’m slightly above average. Hardly tall.”
“You’re three whole inches above the American average. That’s tall.”
“How do you even know that?”
Opal shrugged. “Not much else to do but know things, is there? Wait!” She extended her arm, halting Kuvira in her step. “You have to close your eyes.”
“I’m not closing my eyes.”
“You have to.”
“I’m not doing it.” One of them had to be able to see in this murky and foreign cave. It wouldn’t be safe otherwise.
Kuvira bit her lip, letting out a long-suffering sigh. “If I must.”
She closed her eyes, her vision becoming completely null. However the darkness wasn’t overwhelming. A hand intertwined with her own guided her slowly forwards, and she heard Opal giggle into her arm, her face pressed against her shoulder. They were close. The touch was nice. Intimate.
The sound of gushing water was getting louder and louder, which worried Kuvira. How could there be such a fast flowing current, this close to the mouth of the river?
(If it even was a river.)
“Okay, open your eyes.” And so Kuvira did.
The sound of water wasn’t, in fact, coming from the river, but instead a large waterfall ahead of them. It roared in front of her, like a dragon in it’s den. The blue moss stretched from alongside the wall, and down into the area the water was held, glowing underneath the clear blue ripples. There was a small crack in the ceiling, letting in a pillar of sunlight, casting everything in gold. It was like a scene from a fantasy novel.
“This place is amazing.” Kuvira said warmly. “How did you know it would look like this?”
Opal shrugged. “Trade secret.”
“I don’t like your secrets.” Kuvira said absently, bending down to put her hand in the water. “Do you want to go in?”
“Aren’t you scared?” Opal teased. “What if there’s a big, bad shark, in there, who’s going to kill ittle wittle old me.”
Kuvira laughed. “You make me sound like Suyin.”
“Sometimes you do sound like Suyin.”
“I just want you to be safe.” Kuvira replied, turning her face back to the water to hide her blush. Obviously, that action was pointless, but she did it nonetheless.
Looking away from Opal had been a mistake, obviously, because one second Kuvira was admiring the clearness of the water, peering down to look at the small fish and plants at the bed of the small lagoon, and the next she was completely submerged, coldness and the colour blue completely overtaking her senses. She swam to the surface, gasping for air.
“Opal, you bitch.” She panted. “What if I couldn’t swim?”
“If you couldn’t swim, you’d definitely have mentioned it before we got to the beach.” Opal giggled, sitting at the side and dangling her feet in the water. Kuvira noticed that her nails were painted a pretty pastel green colour.
Kuvira lunged forward, moving through the waters like a great white, and grabbed Opal by the knees. She pulled the girl down and into the cool waves, laughing as Opal cried out in shock.
“You can swim, right?” She asked, as Opal clung to her for dear life, whilst simultaneously pounding the top of Kuvira’s chest in order to be let go.
“I didn’t think you’d have the balls to do that.” Opal pouted. “You’re a bitch too, it seems.”
“I am not.” Kuvira pretended to be offended, but really, she enjoyed Opal like this. Like she wasn’t holding anything back.
“Oh, you are.” Opal grinned, staring up at her. She’d opened her eyes, and the glazed over gaze that stared up at Kuvira was as beautiful as pearls inside a clam. Kuvira was becoming sappy. Opal was making her sappy.
Kuvira grabbed Opal’s arms strongly, and pulled her down under the water. She laughed as Opal struggled, but nevertheless relented after only a few seconds. Opal came out with hair like a wet dog’s, and she shook it dry appropriately.
“Ugh!” Kuvira cried. “You’ll ruin my hair.”
“Is it not already ruined?” Opal asked. “It’s in a braid, right?”
“Yeah, of co—How did you know that?”
“How did you know I braid my hair. You’ve never seen me do it.”
“Finally catching onto the blind thing, Kuvira?”
It felt like Opal was dodging the question.
Opal flushed, looking away. “Why do you need to know so badly? We share a room. I know things about you. Shut up.”
“Awe. Embarrassed that you’re not an emotionally distant bitch anymore?” Kuvira smirked. Opal took her hand and flicked some water at her.
“I hate you.”
Kuvira reached forward, grabbing Opal and pushing her against the wall of the lagoon. Her feet probably weren’t touching the bottom, but Kuvira’s could, and she used it to leverage a stable advantage. The waterfall roared behind them, but neither one played it a blind bit of notice (pun unintended.)
“You hate me, then?” Kuvira asked more quietly. The air was thicker than it had ever been, and bravely, she moved her hand up to Opal’s shoulder, close to her neck.
“I do.” Opal breathed. The conviction wasn’t there. They both knew it.
Kuvira leant in, moving her lips along Opal’s ear. “Are you sure about that?”
After a second, Opal pushed Kuvira away, splashing her with heaps of whatever as she did. “Of course I’m sure, asshole. Fuck you.”
“Language.” Kuvira scolded, splashing Opal back with water and letting out her booming laugh, the one she tried not to do in front of others. If Opal thought it was funny, she didn’t say so.
The two messed around in the pool of water for hours, blissfully unaware of the passage of time. Not once did Opal’s father, who must have been growing gradually more and more concerned about the girls’ whereabouts, cross Kuvira’s mind. She was far more preoccupied in keeping Opal entertained. And what a rewarding task it was. Every time the girl shrieked with laughter, or cried out in victory over Kuvira, she felt her own heart swell. She would rather live this moment over and over again, than any other she’d ever experienced.
Eventually though, the time did cross her mind. She gasped, noticing how the trail of sunlight had disappeared, a soft blue filling the cavern instead.
“Your dad is going to be furious.” She cried, grabbing Opal by the arm and carefully lifting the girl onto the side. “Dry off and put the shirt back on.”
Opal gave Kuvira a look – she resented orders – but she understood the urgency of the situation.
“He won’t be mad if you say I had fun. In fact, he probably won’t be mad at all.” She assured Kuvira, who was trying to wipe as much excess water off her body as she could. Kuvira bent down and interlocked her fingers with Opal’s, who didn’t pull back, and led the two of them out of the cave and to the beach.
Baatar was sat on a deck chair – did he find it? Or bring it with him? – staring off to the sea. When he saw the two of them, his expression didn’t change at all from his look of mild content. This surprised Kuvira; she’d expected at least some shift in mood.
“Hey, you two. Have fun?”
Opal smirked, clearly because she’d been right about her father’s temperament. Kuvira rolled her eyes.
“Yes, Dad. And you?”
“The sea is always very calming.” He nodded. “I’m glad you had fun.”
“Has mom called you?” Opal sat down next to him, on the sand, and Kuvira followed.
He let out a long sigh. “Probably. I wouldn’t know since my phone is off.”
“Oh. Do you think she’ll be mad?”
Kuvira knew the answer to that, so she was sure Opal did as well; the question seemed pointless. Maybe the shorter girl was just testing whether or not her father knew.
“Certainly.” He laughed weakly. “But it’s nothing I can’t handle. She wouldn’t be my soulmate otherwise.”
“Sometimes I don’t know how you two are soulmates.” Opal mumbled.
“Soulmates fit together like pieces of a puzzle.” Her father replied solemnly, casting his eyes over to the two of them. “People aren’t perfect, but the puzzle always is.”
Kuvira thought that was rather cryptic, but it seemed to sate whatever annoyance Opal was feeling. She realised their hands were still entwined, but made no effort to push away. It wasn’t like Baatar minded, since he hadn’t said anything about it.
The three of them fell into a comfortable silence, staring out at the sea. Kuvira watched as some boys (brothers more than likely, for they were all different sizes) jumped from a nearby cliff into the ocean below. She wondered how it felt. The rush of adrenaline, the hard and piercing cushion of water. Would it hurt? Or would it just shock you?
“There’ll be fireworks soon.” Baatar told them. His eyes weren’t on the boys, but that same line from before, that connected the sky to the sea. It was blurrier now, the night-time almost hiding it completely.
“Why?” Kuvira asked, speaking for the first time. She knew of no celebration.
“It’s a local tradition.” Opal answered. She rested her head on Kuvira’s shoulder, lightly, but it made Kuvira lose the ability to speak. Luckily, she hadn’t been planning to. “They’re honouring a hero that saved their village a long time ago.”
“Yes.” Baatar nodded. “You remember the story, Opal. I’m impressed. It’s a sad story. A man who was born a peasant, who’s soulmate was born a princess. They couldn’t be together, even though the man was diligent and strong, because he was not royalty, and that was all the princess’s father cared about. But the man trained, and saved lives, and became a hero. A renowned hero, I should say. Yes, he was quite famous. The avatar they called him. He was sure that would make his soulmate’s father, the King, let him marry his daughter.”
“The ending is still sad, though.” Opal sighed. “The princess married whilst her soulmate was away, making the name for himself. When he comes back, he vows to unite all soulmates, because he couldn’t unite with his own.”
“Is that a sad ending?” Kuvira asked. “It sounds quite honourable to me. He vowed to help people.”
“There’s more than one way to look at it, I suppose.” Baatar said wisely. “Perhaps how we view such things, tells us more about ourselves than we would like.”
“Yeah. Kuvira’s a total stick in the mud.” Opal whispered, and Kuvira barged her lightly with her shoulder.
“Would you two girls like to go up the cliff?” Baatar asked. “You’ll see the fireworks much more brightly up there.”
“You should come with us.” Opal offered. “Kuvira can carry your chair.”
“No, you two go have your fun.” He waved her off. “God knows you both need it.”
As they walked up the winding path, that led to the top of the hill, the first cracks of fireworks could be heard in the distance. Kuvira kicked a small pebble out of her way as she went.
“He did this for you, you know.” Opal said. Her voice held no emotion.
“It’s not like I can see the fireworks.” She pointed out. “He wants you to have a nice time. He likes you. Of course he likes you.”
For some reason unknown to Kuvira, this seemed to upset Opal. Did she think that he liked Kuvira more than her? That was clearly untrue. He had literally stolen Opal away, risking the wrath of his terrifying wife and soulmate, in the hopes that she wouldn’t be so miserable, at least just for one day. Kuvira had been brought along because he knew how much Opal liked her.
“Why do you sound upset?” Kuvira asked. “He still definitely likes you more, don’t worry.”
Opal let out a cold laugh. “You aren’t clever, you know?”
“You’re meant to be a genius, right? That’s why my mother wanted you. You were a promising woman in a male-dominated field, and your name would stay attached to her university forever. That was why she wanted you.” Opal ran a hand through her hair, laughing all the more. “When I heard your parents had died, I was so sad for you. But I also thought… I also thought that would make you smarter. That you’d be clever. You know, more than just robot clever. But it didn’t, did it?”
“I am clever.” Kuvira argued. She spent hours every day working on designs and machines so complex, some scientists could work their whole lives and never hope to understand them. Her being clever was sort of a given. Her not being clever had never even been an option, not with her parents raising her.
“No, Vira. You’re not clever at all. In fact, you’re quite stupid. Unbelievably, preposterously stupid.” The nickname made Kuvira’s stomach flutter, despite the fact that Opal had very obviously and plainly just insulted her. They were nearing the top of the hill now. Kuvira took a second to look at the stars, remembering her conversation with Opal from the night before. They were pretty, and she had never noticed before, but if she really looked at them she could definitely see them twinkle.
“And you’re quite mean.” Kuvira responded with, unsure of what else to say. It wasn’t like arguing with Opal got her very far. The girl never seemed to care about what she said – or is she did, it was always about something seemingly irrelevant.
Opal shrugged. “Don’t I have reason to be?”
Kuvira supposed she did.
They arrived at the top of the hill. There was a lamppost that Kuvira hadn’t seen against the black of the sky. It lit the area dimly.
“Have you come here before?” She asked Opal.
“There’s a lamppost. Don’t walk into it.”
Opal snickered. “Always taking care of me. So good at your job.”
“I don’t just do it because I’m meant to.” Kuvira said suddenly. This accusation of Opal’s had bothered her previously. She couldn’t let it go unresolved again. “I do it because you’re my friend, too.”
Opal found the lamppost, leaning back on her heels and pressing her back to it. Her eyes opened slowly, her face finding Kuvira’s. Nothing caught Kuvira’s attention like the beauty of Opal’s eyes. They truly were awe-inspiring.
“Did you have a boyfriend in Massachusetts? Or a girlfriend?”
It took a second for the question to process in Kuvira’s mind.
“Have you ever dated?” Opal asked, louder this time.
“Heh, no.” Kuvira looked up at the stars. In her mind, she imagined the night moving to day, the stars moving through the sky and being replaced by soft fluffy clouds. “I was never the type to date in high school.”
“Because of robotics?” Opal asked.
“No. Maybe. I don’t know. Nobody ever showed me any interest.” Kuvira said nonchalantly. Truthfully, she’d never had any interest in them, either. Occasionally there was a straight girl who Kuvira crushed on, but she never pursued it. “You wouldn’t know, but I’m not the prettiest.”
Opal seemed disinterested. “What have looks got to do with anything?”
Kuvira looked at Opal incredulously. “Everything. In high school at least. I suppose they don’t matter to you. Not only can’t you see, but you’re pretty yourself. Therefore, looks have never concerned you.”
“Or I’m just not shallow.”
“Because you have the luxury not to be.”
“You’re saying being blind is a luxury?” She spluttered.
Kuvira put her face in her hands. “You know what I mean.”
“I truly don’t.”
“Then it doesn’t matter.” Kuvira shook her head. “Pretend I never said it.”
“Shall I pretend you didn’t call me pretty, too?”
Kuvira turned her attention from the stars, and onto Opal’s face. The expression there was unreadable, even for Kuvira, who was confident she understood all of Opal’s faces by now.
“Why would you do that?” She asked, approaching the shorter girl. The bangs of fireworks faded of into nothing when she looked at Opal. It was as if the girl demanded the attention of all five of her senses at once, and wouldn’t settle for any less.
Opal’s cheeks looked darker under the moonlight.
“Because.” She shrugged. “That’s pretty embarrassing for you.”
“For someone who doesn’t care about looks, you’re making a pretty big deal out of a compliment right now.”
“I didn’t think you were big on compliments, is all.” Opal said, her face still turned away from Kuvira.
“Sometimes you act like you can see me.” Kuvira said suddenly. She was unable to hold it in anymore. Why would Opal look away from her, if she couldn’t see? Just to hide her features? “Why?”
Opal turned to her, surprised. “You think I can see you? They did explain to you what blind means, right?”
“No.” Kuvira shook her head. “I mean, no, I know you can’t see me. I know what blind means. Stop, ugh, twisting my words!” she complained, but Opal didn’t laugh.
“Okay, dumbo.” Opal whispered. Kuvira smiled at the nickname.
“I used to love that film.”
They stood in quiet silence for a minute, the only interruptions being the firework display behind.
“I looked at the stars, like you said.”
“What did you think?” Opal asked, as if her question had been obvious.
“They’re pretty, when you look.”
“Can I feel your face?”
“What?” Kuvira had to do a double-take. She definitely hadn’t heard that right. Opal was just standing there. She must have asked if they were good go back, or something, because there was no way that—
“Your face. I want to know just how ugly you are.” She added the last part with a mischievous smile.
“Oh. Yeah. Sure.” Kuvira stepped forward, her personal space melding with Opal’s. She hoped she came off as cool, because she certainly wasn’t feeling it on the inside. As Opal’s hands reached up to feel her face, she was positive she was going to pass out. Her heart was racing, and the breaths she was taking in didn’t seem to be working.
“Jeez, Vira. Chill the fuck out.” Opal laughed, her hands making contact with Kuvira’s face. Immediately, they started to move around softly, tracing lines of muscle and bone. The sensation was oddly pleasing to Kuvira, and for a brief second, she let her body react. “See, it’s not like I’m—”
Opal’s hands froze, and she pulled them back all at once.
“What?” Kuvira asked.
“It surprised me.” Opal said. “Just how ugly you are. Seriously. Could my mother not have picked someone better looking at least?”
But Kuvira wasn’t stupid, regardless of what Opal said. She saw the way Opal’s face had reddened, how her hands were shaking. Kuvira doubted Opal touched many faces, in the way she just touched Kuvira’s. She saw it, and her body seemed to react on its own.
One of her hands reached up, pinning Opal’s shoulder to the lamppost. Her feet took a step forward, so there was little to no space between them, and her hands, trembling, moved to cup Opal’s face. The girl’s eyes, open, in their most beautiful form, blinked up at her, her soft-looking lips slightly parted.
“What are you—?”
“Let me kiss you.”
Opal’s face tensed, but slowly, she nodded. “If you insist, I suppose you can—"
Kuvira cut her off with her lips.
Immediately, Opal’s hands and arms wrapped themselves around Kuvira’s back, pulling them even closer together, their chests and hearts seeming to combine into one place. A sensation filled Kuvira, something she’d never felt before in her entire life. Not with her parents, not with any friendship she’d ever developed, and not when she’d kissed that girl at a party when she was sixteen. This was different.
Unattainable, unreachable, intoxicating warmth. Warmth Kuvira was positive she never thought she’d feel in her life. What was a soulmate, when she could feel this with Opal? As their lips moved against one another, as Opal let out a soft groan into her mouth, and used her hands to untie Kuvira’s braid, playing with the hair there, Kuvira knew. She knew in her heart of hearts: nothing she’d have with a soulmate would beat this.
This was more than enough for her.
Opal broke the kiss off for a moment, putting her palm against Kuvira’s chest, right where her heart was. Where she touched, the warmth spread. Kuvira never wanted to let her go.
“Kiss me again.” Opal whispered, and so Kuvira did. And again, and again, and again, until they couldn’t hear the fireworks anymore at all, and Baatar was almost certainly coming to meet them.
(Or maybe he wasn’t, because he hadn’t been before, and didn’t seem bothered by the girls gallivanting in the least.)
“You’re a good kisser.” Opal mused, breaking their faces apart for the last time. “Makes up for the face.”
“Heh.” Kuvira chuckled, scratching the back of her neck awkwardly. Her hair hung loose around her shoulders, messy from where Opal’s hands had been.
“So, how did you know?”
Kuvira blinked. “What?”
“What gave it away?”
Kuvira didn’t understand what Opal meant. Gave away that Opal liked her? She hadn’t got a clue. She’d just kissed her, letting go of all the consequences in that moment. Wait, did this mean that Opal did like her?
Whilst her brain was ticking through possibilities, Opal spoke again. “After you didn’t get it following the crying, I thought you never would. It was so obvious. But finally… Finally, you—”
“The crying? What does that have to do with anything?” Kuvira frowned.
Opal opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it again. After a second, her mouth formed an ‘O’ shape.
“What?” Kuvira pressed. “Opal, what are you talking about?”
“Oh my god.” The shorter girl breathed. “Oh… Oh my god.”
“What’s wrong?” Kuvira tried to grab her shoulders, but Opal took another step back. She was shaking her head, a forced smile playing on her lips. It almost looked like she was in pain. Had Kuvira hurt her?
“Jesus.” Opal laughed. “Jesus Christ. You are the stupidest person on the planet. I’m serious. There is nobody dumber than you.”
“…Opal?” Kuvira tried to keep the hurt out of her voice, but she was very precious about her intelligence.
“Fuck you.” Opal spat. Tears were forming in her eyes, and one spilled down her cheek. “Fuck you, Kuvira.”
And with that, she took off, back the way they came.
Kuvira stood at the spot where she’d stood for a moment, before realising that Opal was blind, and could definitely hurt herself running down the unfamiliar path, and she very much needed to follow her.
She ran as fast as she could, but when she’d got to the beach, Baatar and Opal were already in the car, parked in the car park. Baatar was balancing an ice cream in one hand, some of the melted substance dripping down his hand.
“Come on, slowpoke!” The man chimed. “You took forever.”
“It was a big hill. I’m sorry.” Kuvira apologised, sliding in the back next to Opal. They didn’t speak for the entire trip home.
If Suyin was angry at the three of them, she let it out solely on Baatar. Kuvira was too preoccupied by Opal to give it a second’s thought, mind.
The silence on Opal’s end continued for days. When they’d got back that first night, Opal had changed in the bathroom again, sliding into the bed facing away from Kuvira. Kuvira had tried to talk to her, but the silent treatment was all she received in return. She got into bed, and when she woke up, Opal was gone again, the bathroom window left ajar.
On the second day, Kuvira realised why Opal was angry at her. Kuvira had kissed her, and Opal was engaged. She had affectively cheated on her fiancé, who happened to be a prince. Kuvira hadn’t thought much of the engagement, since Opal had essentially been forced into it by her mother, but clearly the girl cared a lot more than she was letting on if she was going to react like this.
She brainstormed ways to apologise to Opal, but for once, she came up empty. The only way to truly redeem for what she’d done, would be to build a time machine, and fix the issue. But time machines didn’t exist, could never exist. She’d done research on it when she was thirteen. Therefore, she was well and truly snookered.
Dinnertimes were insufferably awkward. What had once been tolerable, simply because Opal would make small comments about her mother, making Kuvira have to bite back a laugh, was now a silent affair. Suyin asked them how their days were going, they replied separately. There was no overlap at all. Nobody even noticed.
A week passed. Wu came, and he took Opal on a date, and Kuvira spent the whole day at the university, locked in one of the computer labs, trying not to think about it. Wu was her fiancé. He was allowed to take her on dates. And she wasn’t, but that was fine. Opal didn’t even like her back anyway, because if she did, she would have said something to Kuvira by then.
The piano music that she’d been playing was the angry kind, and Kuvira could hardly work, knowing the anger was directed at her.
Finally, when the chip she’d been holding crumbled in her hand, she snapped.
It was sometime after Opal told her mother that she’d rather go to Wu’s house that Sunday, than spend it at home, whilst she shot Kuvira a rude look.
She couldn’t take it anymore.
Something had to be done to solve the problem. There was hardly any time left in summer, and she couldn’t go to the university with her relationship with Opal like this. Opal might have her whole family, and a fiancé, and a whole secret life that she kept to herself, but all Kuvira had was work and her. And work wasn’t exactly a person.
The penny dropped at a nearby restaurant. Kuvira couldn’t read the name of the place, since it was written in Mandarin. Wu referred to it as the Golden Cauldron, when he picked them up, but up until that point, Kuvira had thought it was called the Golden Basin. Perhaps there was room for interpretation – or perhaps Wu was just wrong. Probably the latter.
He, Kuvira, and Opal, drove in the back. He sat between the two girls, chatting amicably about nothing at all. It was vaguely annoying, but Kuvira was too busy seething to care. If anything, she was upset with Opal. Who kisses someone like that, and then proceeds to get angry at them for no reason? Or at least, a reason that she refused to speak out loud?
They got a seat on the upper-most floor of the restaurant, and Kuvira forced herself into the window seat. She’d need something to look at, whilst she ferociously ignored the conversation at the table, and the breath-taking view of the sea would do just nicely.
Their starters came, and then their mains, and Kuvira hardly said a word.
“What do you think about that, Kuvira?” Suyin asked amiably. Kuvira blinked. She hadn’t been listening at all.
“Sugar lumps as a pet name. It’s what Baatar called me when we first got married.”
“Oh.” Kuvira tiled her head, staring at Baatar. “That’s… Nice.”
“Typical woman.” Wu laughed. Kuvira gritted her teeth, but turned to face him as politely as she could muster. “Head in the clouds. We’re discussing what I should call Opal once we’re married? It’s only a month away, now.”
“A month?” Kuvira gasped. Her eyes tore towards Opal, who sat very still, face pointed at the plate “I thought it was in Spring?”
“It was.” Baatar sighed. He sounded as angry as Kuvira felt blindsided. “But with the university year approaching. Well, the sooner the better.”
Kuvira wanted to lean over and punch Suyin in the face.
Why was all this woman cared about, a damn university? Her daughter was clearly miserable. Kuvira couldn’t bare it, couldn’t bare it at all. The worst part was, she was only there, only eating with them, because Suyin wanted her for the university as well. She was nothing more than another tick on a spreadsheet, and she wanted to scream. More than that, she wanted to take Opal with her, and run away. Far, far away.
“Oh.” Was what Kuvira managed to say. Not even a word, really. Just that one, singular noise. Opal’s shoulders seemed to tense. She wondered if the blind girl felt bad for Kuvira, pitied her. That made Kuvira angry too. She hadn’t been this angry since her parents died.
“So, what do you think? Sugar lumps, or Sweet cheeks?” Wu asked, prodding Kuvira’s shoulder with his used fork.
“Oh, definitely Sweet cheeks.” Kuvira snarled. “It’s just adorable, really. Sums up Opal perfectly.”
Opal stood up suddenly from the table, making a clattering noise as the cutlery banged together. A few guests looked over, but other than that, the restaurant moved on.
“I’m going to the bathroom.” She said quietly.
“To powder your nose.” Wu corrected her, turning to Suyin and laughing obnoxiously. “Honestly, I’ll be teaching my wife manners whilst she’s teaching the children their ABCs.”
That sentence clearly made it all the worse for Opal, who dashed off in the direction of the bathroom. Baatar gave Kuvira a meaningful look.
Damn his amazing fathering skills.
“I’m going to check on her.” Kuvira said.
“Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary.” Suyin said with a light laugh. “You know how temperamental she gets. Sometimes, she acts like she’s seven, not seventeen.”
Kuvira gritted her teeth. “Even so. I need the bathroom, too.”
She left before Wu would bother to correct her as well.
Upon first entering the bathroom, Kuvira thought it was empty. Certainly, none of the cubicles were engaged and the bathroom appeared to be empty. Still, Kuvira knew better than anyone that Opal could move as silently as a mouse. She checked each cubicle, finally stopping at the last one.
“Opal.” She said shortly. The girl was sat on the toilet seat, her face pressed into her hands. She looked up, eyes wide open, tears running down her cheeks and onto her hands.
As soon as Kuvira saw the state the girl was in, every square inch of anger she’d been feeling evaporated into nothing. All that was left was the hurt.
“Kuvira.” The girl whispered. It wasn’t a plea, but it wasn’t angry either. It was more than enough for Kuvira, though, who had been living off of radio silence from the shorter girl.
“Come here.” She said at once, softly, moving over to the girl and ripping some toilet paper from the roll. She dabbed at Opal’s face, taking the clip out of her hair from where it had been dislodged, and pushed a lock behind her ear.
Opal sniffed, but said nothing. In silence, Kuvira guided the girl to standing, and took her towards the sink, flicking on the cold tap.
“I can make it look like you weren’t crying, okay?” She said. “It will be cold though. I’m just warning you.”
She soaked the toilet roll in her hand with the cold tap water, before dabbing it gently under Opal’s eyes. After a few seconds, the redness gave away to the usual tan of Opal’s skin. Kuvira rummaged in her purse, the purse she’d never bothered to take off her shoulder, and took out some mascara.
“I’m going to put mascara on you, okay?” Again, no reaction, but she didn’t pull away either. “Blink when I tell you to.”
Silently, and with intense focus, makeup was reapplied to Opal’s face. Kuvira re-slid the clip into her hair, holding it back just as it had been before. She looked better than when she’d left the table.
“There.” She said softly. “Good as new.”
Opal sighed, her face meeting Kuvira’s. “Why?”
“Why are you being nice to me? I don’t deserve it.”
Kuvira sighed back. She lifted her hand up, about to stroke Opal’s cheek, but thought better of it. The girl wouldn’t want that. The girl had made it very clear that she wanted nothing to do with Opal.
“Even if you’re mad at me,” She said slowly, “It doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
Opal’s lips parted slightly, but she said nothing else.
“We should get back.” Kuvira said.
Kuvira and Opal had gone to sleep facing each other for the first time in a week, and Kuvira couldn’t pretend she wasn’t happy about it. The soft sun of the Saturday morning woke them both up at the same time, and she smiled as her eyes flickered open, a hand that wasn’t her own brushing her face.
“Morning…” She groaned, rolling over so that her back could stretch out.
“Morning.” Opal whispered, softer than any voice she’d used with Kuvira before. “Are you busy today?”
Kuvira turned back to look at Opal, studying her face. “No?”
“Would you like to come with me?”
Kuvira didn’t need to ask to where. She knew what Opal meant. Come with me, to wherever she went every day. Come with her, into her secret life.
“Are you sure?” She asked.
Opal took her by surprise, leaning forward and kissing her forehead. The touch of her lips against the skin lingered for a second, before she separated. She looked radiant.
Kuvira rolled out of bed, immediately looking for something to wear. She wanted to go straight away.
“You needn’t go so fast.” Opal laughed, following behind. “It’s not going anywhere.”
“I’m guessing I’ll find out what it is when I get there?”
“Mhm.” Opal nodded, taking out a white sweatshirt. Kuvira’s white sweatshirt.
“Hey, that’s mine.” She said, trying to grab it off the girl. Opal moved her hand out of the way, tugging the soft material to her chest.
“It’s mine now.” She said simply. Kuvira stared at her for a moment, before retracting her hand. Her cheeks burnt.
“Okay.” She mumbled, and Opal laughed.
“You’re so stupid, Vira.” She giggled, shoving the girl with her hand. Kuvira was starting to think that Opal’s definition of stupid differed from her own.
Kuvira picked out a shirt and jeans for herself, as well as comfortable trainers. Her sweater hung over Opal’s frame, larger on her than it was on Kuvira, and Kuvira was sure she’d never seen something prettier. Her belly fluttered.
“You look nice.” She said. Opal turned to her – again, she always knew where Kuvira was. She supposed that was a mystery that she’d never understand about the blind girl – and giggled.
“Got a crush on me or something?”
“What! No!” Kuvira spluttered, only making Opal giggle more.
“Come on.” She grabbed Kuvira’s wrist, and pulled the girl towards the bathroom.
Opal slid the window open effortlessly. Kuvira watched with understated surprise; when she’d tried to open the window, it had taken quite a bit of shoving, and made quite a lot of noise. Opal must have been practised, then. She wondered just how many times Opal had left the confines of the manor. She wondered when she first felt the need to go.
“Do you need help getting down?”
“Sometimes.” Opal hummed, before smiling. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I’m here.” Kuvira nodded eagerly – too eagerly, probably. “What shall I do?”
“Just… move your hands so…” Opal grabbed Kuvira’s other wrist, and twisted her body so that Kuvira’s hands were slightly under the curve of her ass. Kuvira’s eyebrows raised impossibly high, but who was she to say anything? Opal was wearing an impish smile, and suddenly Kuvira realised that Opal had done this by herself countless times, and definitely didn’t need this action to get down. The girl was teasing her.
She retracted her hands quickly.
“That’s not funny.” She muttered, probably the colour of a tomato. To think only a month ago, she was serious and composed. Opal had been her undoing, and she didn’t know if it was a good thing or the worst thing that had ever happened. It felt good, but that never meant anything.
“Oh, but it is funny.” Opal said with another giggle, before unceremoniously stepping out onto the branch, not even turning back. Kuvira gasped, shooting forward in case of catastrophe, but Opal stood, still as a statue, looking at Kuvira with a wide grin.
“Impressed?” She asked.
“I always underestimate you.” She confessed.
“You do.” Opal turned her attention away, her ears pointing towards the sea. Kuvira could hear it faintly, lapping against the sandy beach. The blue sky overhanging them both made for a stunning backdrop, the atmosphere crisp with morning air. “You should stop doing that.”
She grinned again, before leaping backwards.
This time, Kuvira made it all the way out of the window, horror coursing through her, but once more Opal was intact. Two hands clutched tightly to the branch, and gently she lowered herself to sit on the one underneath it. Kuvira knew that the fall wasn’t much – in fact, she could probably jump it and be just fine, considering how soft the earth was here, but the way Opal was swinging her feet, grinning up at Kuvira, made her highly anxious.
“You coming, Vira?”
Kuvira sighed, clutching the branch herself and slowly lowering herself down to Opal’s height.
“How did you first do this?” She asked, jumping the rest of the way down and landing squarely on her feet. She held her hands up to Opal, wide as if inviting her into a hug. “You can jump, by the way. I’ll catch you.”
Opal fell into her hands softly, her body hardly weighing anything at all, and Kuvira lowered her to the ground. For a second, her hands remained on the shorter girl’s waist, and she stared dumbly down at Opal’s lips, unable to pull her eyes away. They looked so soft, so tempting.
“Is there something else you need?” Opal smirked, and Kuvira quickly let go. “And yes, the first time jumping from there alone was bad. Like, real bad. A servant found me, and not my mother, thank goodness, but after that I was a little more careful.”
“Alone?” Kuvira asked. The idea of someone doing what Kuvira just did was tugging at her chest a little, but she tried to push it down. “Someone is with you, usually?”
“You think I just go out and about on my own?”
It hadn’t occurred to Kuvira that Opal could know somebody outside of Wu and herself and her family. Then again, that was foolish, Kuvira realised in hindsight. Opal had lived here for her whole life. She was bound to know somebody.
“You really do underestimate me.” A frown, now, and Kuvira’s chest sunk at the idea of disappointing Opal. The girl turned her ear back to the sea. “No matter.”
And with that, she strutted off.
Opal was a quick walker, and it unnerved Kuvira with the accuracy that Opal avoided trees and bins and benches. She obviously came this way a lot – every day, now that Kuvira thought about it. Despite her worry, she was desperately curious to see where Opal was taking her, so she held her tongue.
They walked from atop the valley the manor was situated on, down a rural path, all the way to a small stream. It gushed out from under a large pile of rocks, and down to where the sea lay. Kuvira took a second to admire the view. The whole area of Zaofu was picturesque, something from a fantasy novel that her parents would have made her discard.
“You’re slow, Vira.” Opal said, grabbing the girl’s hand and tugging her along. “And not just in the head.”
This time, Opal insulting her intelligence made Kuvira laugh.
They walked for another twenty minutes, through a small pear orchard. Kuvira hadn’t known pears grew in China – but she supposed there was a lot she didn’t know about the country she was residing in. Opal, on the other hand, felt a nearby tree, running her hand up the branch until she enclosed her claw on one of the fruit. She brought it to her chest, ripping it in half with an incredible feat of strength that left Kuvira gaping, and held out one half – the larger half – to the taller girl. It looked delicious, and Kuvira could see the rich juices of the fruit glimmering under the sun.
“Here.” She said with a smile.
“What are you, The Incredible Hulk?”
Opal frowned until she felt Kuvira take the fruit, before she turned back to the trail. It took Kuvira a second to catch up. “No, I’m not.” She called, as Kuvira picked up her pace. “That’s actually something my dad taught me.”
“He taught you how to tear fruit in half?”
“Yes, and no.” Opal sighed, taking a bite of pear. A drip of juice fell from her mouth, and she licked it off of her chin. “He used an apple the first time. Made me feel it. Before he took it in his hands and tore it wide open. I remember yelling at him.” She laughed softly. “I was so mad, because I’d really wanted to eat it. And he said to me that if I could do the same to another apple, he’d let me have both.”
“For an apple? Why not, like, a chocolate bar.”
“I don’t really like that kind of stuff.” Opal sniffed. “And anyway, snapping a chocolate bar is too easy.”
“So did you snap the apple?”
They emerged from the orchard, and Kuvira’s eyes were distracted from Opal for just a second, so she could behold the magnificent town in front of her. It was less than a mile away, standing out on the barren valley like an oasis in a desert. Tunnels of smoke from burning chimneys blew upwards into the sky, and Kuvira was sure she could smell something tasty.
Her and Opal were stood next to a river. Kuvira looked back, following the river till it reached around the grove. Now that she was there, she was surprised she hadn’t realised it was there before, considering how loud it was. Maybe that was how Opal knew she was going the right way.
“It took me a few tries, and a few apples.” Opal said.
Kuvira blinked, briefly forgetting what they’d just been talking about.
“Oh. Then how do you do it?”
Opal shrugged. “For me to know. Now come on.”
Once more, the shorter girl grabbed Kuvira’s hand and yanked her down, following the path of the river. To Kuvira’s disappointment, they curved away from the town and towards the sea, heading for one of the highest cliffs on the shoreline.
“I feel like cliff-diving today.” Opal said matter-of-factly.
Kuvira took her hand back with force. “No.”
Part of her had been expecting something like this. It was Opal, after all, and the girl was nothing if not stupidly, dangerously, adventurous.
“And why not?” Opal beamed. “You chicken?”
“Come on, Opal. You know I’m not. But… But what if… You’ve done it before, right?”
Opal sighed. “Yes, mother, I’ve done it before.”
Kuvira’s eyebrows furrowed. “And it’s safe?”
“Not at all.”
“You’re blind. You can’t cliff dive!”
“See, that’s the thing with you twenty-twenty vision folk.” Opal tutted as if she was scolding a child. “Sight isn’t everything. And there’s nothing to see once you hit the waves anyway. I know which way the beach is. The one time I got caught in a net under the surface, I still—”
Opal groaned. “Let me finish. The one time I got caught on a net, I was fine because Kai saved my ass. And there is also a lifeguard, although admittedly, they never do much.”
“Kai?” Kuvira paused. “Who’s Kai?”
“Her partner in crime.” A voice crowed from behind them both. Kuvira whipped around, instinctively stepping in front of Opal. In front of them both was a short boy, no older than fifteen, with black mussy hair and sharp facial features. His skin was darker than the usual local, and his crooked smile reminded Kuvira of Opal’s, when she was about to do something dangerous.
“Kai!” Opal crooned, running forward to where the boy’s voice had been. He found her halfway, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her in for a tight bear hug. Despite his stature, he managed to lift her off the ground.
“So this is her, huh?” He asked, putting Opal down and turning back to look at Kuvira. “She’s hot, Opal. You’re lucky.”
Kuvira raised her eyebrows. “Why would that make her lucky?”
Opal elbowed Kai in the ribs and a look of obvious realisation passed over his features, before he schooled it into something nonchalant. “Well, rather a hot roommate than an old nurse, right?” He shrugged, and Kuvira decided that even though his reaction had been strange, that was probably all he had meant by it.
(Unless Opal had told him about the kiss. In which case, it was certainly that. But she wouldn’t have, would she? There was just no way, since it had been a mistake.)
“You headin’ to old jumpy?” Kai asked, following the trail they’d been walking on with his eyes. “You sure?”
“The wind is a little hectic, is all.”
Kuvira hadn’t even thought about that. “Is it unsafe?”
“We’re jumping off a cliff.” Kai panned. “Why don’t we do it later? Let’s get breakfast first.”
Opal sighed. “I am hungry.”
“Let’s go then.” Kai grabbed Opal’s wrist, shooting Kuvira a cheeky smile as he did so. The taller girl ignored the jealousy burning in her chest. “I know a place.”
“So where did you two meet?” Kuvira asked, sipping her soup.
Kai had taken them to a small restaurant on the outskirts of town that served breakfast, and the three of them had hauled into the last three seats at the large counter, next to the crackling fire. It warmed their bones. Kuvira hadn’t realised how cold she was from the wind until she was away from it. Now the thought of going back out was daunting.
“I met Kai at one of his jobs.” Opal said simply, her body leaning into Kuvira’s, and the taller girl had a small internal meltdown. Kai didn’t react at all to the intimate gesture. Maybe she was crazy for overthinking it in the first place. And maybe the fireplace had just got a lot hotter for no apparent reason.
“That’s a simple way of putting it.” Kai laughed, pointing his chopstick at her. “She got me fired, the bitch.”
“But I got you another job to make up for it!” Opal gasped. Kai was grinning at her.
“Yeah, a job that sucked.”
“You make a good cleaner, if you ask me.” Opal pouted, picking at her food. “And I saw you all the time.”
Kai’s eyes softened a little, and Kuvira noticed. It warmed her heart to know that someone else was fond of Opal as well. She squeezed the girl’s waist, tugging her a little closer. Her warmth was comforting, if not exhilarating.
“I worked in a kitchen. Apprentice chef.” He told Kuvira. “At the nicest restaurant in this crappy town. I don’t know how I got the job. Guess I just lucked it. Or they were shorthanded.”
“The golden cauldron?”
“The golden basin.” He corrected her. “And this one!” He pointed his other chopstick at Opal this time, accusation dripping from the tip. “Complained about my dish.”
“It was terrible.” She laughed. “You had hardly cooked it.”
“Nobody else ever complained about it!”
“It was your first day. Nobody else had the chance to!”
“Potato, potahto.” He waved her off. “There aren’t many jobs for American boys round here. I pleaded with the chef in front of everyone, and he still fired my ass. Then, Opal felt so bad for me she made me her cleaning bitch.”
“You were the Manor’s housekeeper’s apprentice.” Opal giggled. “Don’t make it sound worse than it was.”
“And you couldn’t do that either!”
Kai laughed, throwing his head back. “They caught me sneaking Opal out of the window. Fired me straight away. Made it nearly impossible for me to get another job here, too.”
“So what do you do now?” Kuvira asked.
“Part-time Lifeguard. Shelf-stocker at the convenience,” He counted them off on his fingers. “Shoe shiner for Old Zhang’s. Pickpocket. I clean down at Ba Sing Se hospital on Saturdays, too, but they don’t pay me half as much as they should. Oh, and sometimes I busk.”
That was a busy schedule. Clearly, they hadn’t made it that hard for him to get another job.
“He’s really good at guitar.” Opal praised.
“That’s very—Hold on. Pickpocket?” Kuvira’s eyes snapped up to Kai.
Kai laughed, rummaging in his jacket and placing a black square of leather on the table. Kuvira stared at it for a second, before processing what it was.
Opal burst out laughing, followed by Kai, and two other patrons in the restaurant looked over sharply at the noise. The place was full of stern looking old people. Kuvira shot them an apologetic look.
“You didn’t take anything, did you?” Kuvira asked, rummaging through her sparse wallet.
“Not much to take.” Kai shrugged. “You keep it all in a fancy bank account, or something?”
The truth was, Kuvira hadn’t a penny to her name. Every last cent her parents had earnt and kept in their lifetimes, they’d put in their will and testament that they wanted it donating to science. It had even stated for them to sell the house, and give that money to MIT as well. Kuvira hadn’t thought anything of it when the lawyer had informed her. She had known it was coming, but he’d been so sad for her, treating it like her dog had died.
Kuvira hadn’t been upset about it at all – she’d always known it was up to her to make her own money.
“I’m the rich one here.” Opal grinned, throwing her arm over Kuvira’s shoulder and placing a wet kiss on her cheek. “I didn’t tell you, Kai, but she’s actually my sugar baby.”
“Nasty!” Kai cried. “Disgusting!”
Opal giggled, before whispering lowly in Kuvira’s ear, “Well, yeah. Hopefully she is.”
Kuvira went bright red again, and Kai widened his eyes in horror.
“Oh, I didn’t know she could do that.” He muttered.
“Do what?” asked Opal.
“You can’t see it,” A smile slowly grew on Kai’s face, “But your girlfriend is the colour of pickled plum pudding.”
“She is?” Opal gasped, turning to Kuvira as if she’d done something wrong. “And you never told me?”
“Told you that I…. Blush easily?”
“Yes.” Opal’s eyes were wide with disbelief. Kuvira had never seen such a look before – her eyes were never expressive, in fact they were usually closed. “Now I have to completely change what you look like in my head when I flirt with you.”
“Flirt with me?”
“Ah, young love.” Kai sighed, resting his chin in his palms.
“You’re younger than both of us!” Both Opal and Kuvira snapped at once. Then, all three of them laughed.
“I don’t know about this.” Kuvira sighed. The water looked awfully far away, and it crashed thunderously against the side of the cliff. It looked anything but safe.
“If Bella can do it in Twilight, then so can you! There’s barely any wind now!” Kai cried. Kuvira assumed it was an encouragement; she’d never watched the Twilight films, and had certainly never been permitted to read the books.
“I told you she’d be chicken.” Opal said, loud enough so Kuvira could hear. Then, the girl began making chicken noises, squawking at the top of her lungs. Kai soon joined in.
In indignation, Kuvira turned around sharply. “Hey, I’m not—Woah!” The ground beneath her feet gave out, crumbling like it was made of grit, and suddenly she was falling, falling, falling.
Faintly, she heard a voice cry out her name. Opal’s voice, though that didn’t calibrate in Kuvira’s mind till a few seconds after she heard it. Or was it milliseconds? It was hard to know when you were plummeting to the freezing cold ocean on a windy day.
She had just enough time to wonder if she was going to die.
Then all at once, her world went black.
A harsh shaking woke her up. For a minute, she thought they were having an earthquake. Occasionally there were earthquakes in Massachusetts, but they never caused any real damage. To be on the safe side, she should go find her parents. And invest in a nicer bed, since it felt like she was laying on sand.
“Oh, she’s awake. Thank fuck.” A boy’s voice. Nothing at all like her father’s.
She blinked, staring up at a pair of closed eyes, and perfectly smooth soft skin.
Oh. She was in Zaofu. The world came to her all too quickly.
“Kuvira.” A breath hit her face, and suddenly she was being embraced.
It took her another second to get her bearings.
She was sat on the beach, a body wrapped tightly around her own, her heart pounding in her ears. Opal. It was Opal holding onto her, and Kai right behind her. He was looking at her with serious and genuine concern; and the shorter girl, on the other hand, was holding her as if her life depended on it. If she didn’t know any better, she’d thought she’d fallen off the cliff, as good as dead.
Wait. That had happened.
“What the fuck?” She breathed, and Opal pulled back. Her eyes, closed as they so often were, were scrunched, her eyebrows pulled down, adding to the frown in her features.
“Tell me how you feel.” She asked – or rather, ordered. “Can you stand? Can you breathe?”
“If she can talk, she can breathe, Ope.” Kai pointed out. His concern had dissipated.
“She fell off a cliff.”
“I thought… You said it was…” Kuvira’s words didn’t sound right coming out of her mouth. Like there was some sort of delay. Maybe she’d hit her head a little too hard. She’d never had concussion before. Why was everything spinning? “…Safe.”
Opal placed the back of her hand against Kuvira’s forehead. “No fever.”
“Why would there be a fever?” Kai sighed. “Opal, I love you man, but move.”
“What are you… going to do?” Kuvira croaked.
“I told you I worked at the hospital, didn’t I?” He grinned. “Just this morning, in fact.”
“As a cleaner.”
“Let him.” Kuvira groaned. The spinning had stopped, and now she just felt tired. Really, really tired.
Kai knelt in front of her and stared at her for a long second. Upon closer inspection, his eyes weren’t black, but a very deep shade of brown, and she could see small flickers of amber in them. Of course, when he slapped her hard across the face, his eyes were the last thing she was thinking of.
“What the fuck, Kai?” She gasped.
“Kai what the hell!” Gasped Opal, running protectively over to Kuvira. She couldn’t inspect the red mark on her cheek – didn’t even know which cheek it was on – but she did place her hand tentatively on the other, stroking softly.
“Fuck you.” Kuvira muttered, but in all honesty, the slap had woke her up.
“No, you fuck Opal. Have you not been paying attention?” Kai cheesed, and this time it was Opal’s turn to slap him.
“Shut up, dickhead.” She groaned. “Can we just go? It’s getting cold again?”
“The bar?” Kai asked.
The eagerness in his eyes was unnerving. He was definitely too young for a bar.
Opal nodded in agreement. “It will have to be the bar.”
She turned to Kuvira, giving the girl another look of concern. “You really scared me, you know.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“I know, but you really did.”
“Ugh, can you two stop? I want to go. And Kuvira is chill. She just blacked out when she fell. Happens to the best of us.”
The bar was misleadingly named. Or rather, Opal and Kai’s nickname for it was. In actual fact, it was called The Iron Bar Tavern, and it was a cobblestone building, similar to the ones she’d seen in British holiday posters, and it stood out severely against the landscape of the quiet town. It was probably the only one with a wooden door.
“Let’s go.” Opal chirped, grabbing Kuvira’s arm and leading her in. Her touch was warm and encompassing; she liked it a lot.
As soon as they entered the building, a wave of hot and sweltering heat hit her, as well as the smell of stale beer. Kuvira grimaced. Despite the setting, it still smelt like cheap Chinese alcohol. Opal tugged her along to a corner booth, Kai trailing behind, and a few men roared as they saw her. A boy as well, about Kai’s age.
“Got yourself a new girlfriend, Kai?” The boy jeered. His English was pretty good. Kuvira remembered what Suyin had told her about most of the town being English-speaking.
“Shut up, Ping.” Kai mumbled, adding something in Mandarin on the end that Kuvira didn’t understand at all.
“You shouldn’t say such things.” Opal chastised, still hanging onto Kuvira even when they sat down.
Kai sniffed grumpily.
“He deserved it.”
Kuvira didn’t know what he’d said, so it was hard to gauge if the boy had deserved it or not.
“Three?” The softly spoken voice made Kuvira jump.
A woman, broad-hipped, and wearing something Kuvira would have seen in a Hooters back in the States, was standing before them. She’d been heavily accented, and Kai replied in the language of her homeland. Kuvira remained quiet, feeling impossibly stupid for not picking up any of the language during her stay at all.
(In her defence, everyone in the manor spoke English.)
“You got us all beers, right?” Opal asked, her fingers playing up and down Kuvira’s sleeve. Her skin tingled where she touched, and she sank into Opal a little more, earning herself a pinch.
“Aren’t you a little young?” Kuvira raised an eyebrow.
“The drinking age is eighteen here.”
“Aren’t you a little young?” She repeated with more force.
“It’s not strictly enforced!” Kai protested, but Kuvira gave him another stern look. “Fine, Kuvira Beifong, would you like mine?”
“What?! That’s not my na—Kai!” The boy was laughing loudly, but nobody turned to look like they had in the restaurant that morning. Everybody was having their own conversations, blissfully unaware of the young people in the back. Kuvira liked the energy of the place – warm, lively. It felt like somewhere her friends would have taken her back in high school, when they were trying to pull her away from her work.
“You’ll dance with me, won’t you?” Opal asked – whispered – into Kuvira’s ear. If Kai heard her, he didn’t react, taking another sip of his beer and eyeing the waitress.
Kuvira gulped. She didn’t want to, but she also didn’t want to say no. Would she dance with Opal?
She knew very well that she would, when she considered the way that Opal was looking at her. Begrudgingly, she nodded, and Opal let out an adorable squeal, clambering up and pulling Kuvira along with her. As she stood, she caught Kai smiling a small bit. Punk.
“I don’t know how to dance, you know.” She said, as the music roared around them. Nobody else had stood up, and although most people were still distracted, some had turned to look at them. “People are staring.”
“Not a me problem.” Opal giggled, almost walking into a chair that Kuvira narrowly managed to move out of the way. “Hurry up, slowpoke.”
Kuvira rolled her eyes, letting herself be dragged to the centre of the room. If people weren’t watching before, they certainly were now. Faces were turning to look at the odd pairing. Kuvira wondered if it was unusual for two girls to stand up in a bar, even in such a Westernised and well-off town like Zaofu. She worried someone was going to say something.
Opal, though she wouldn’t have been able to see it on her face, seemed to sense this fear, for she pulled Kuvira that jolt quicker, until they finally stopped. The music was loudest here; they were right below the speaker.
“Put your arms around my shoulders.” Opal said softly. “That is how to dance.”
Kuvira didn’t have a reply within her. Stiffly, she raised her limbs and balanced them on the girl’s shoulders. Even after that, she didn’t move. Opal was already swaying gently to the beat, clearly inviting Kuvira to join her, but she just couldn’t. Not with people watching. She wasn’t one to get stage fright – she could present one of her inventions to a hundred people with very little anxiety – but this was different. She wasn’t good at dancing.
“You know, you’re shyer than you ought to be.” Opal said with a small downturn to her lips.
“You have no idea how bad I’m going to be.” Kuvira confessed. Opal’s frown grew, before she burst out into laughter.
“And you,” She laughed. “Have no idea how much that doesn’t matter.” Her face softened, and she pulled Kuvira closer, so that there was only half a foot of space between them. “Kuvira, please. I want to dance.”
Kuvira finally submitted, her name and the plead to her ears like whiskey was to the mouth. Awkwardly, but with as much courage as she could muster, she moved her hips along with Opal. Anyone that had been watching had turned away by now, and Kuvira knew that – she was very observational, a trait picked up from experimenting her whole life – but it didn’t matter. She was still nervous.
Only now, maybe, she was just nervous to dance with Opal.
The music quickened, and so did they.
“This is so much fun!” Opal giggled, as Kuvira twirled her.
At last, a smile broke out onto her features, and she felt herself laugh. “It is.”
“I never want this to end!”
Kuvira didn’t either. She wished she could dance with Opal for the rest of forever, could scold Kai for drinking at too young of an age, whilst enjoying her cheap but legal beer herself, forever and ever. She wished she could kiss Opal, too, but she wouldn’t. Not again. It would be wrong to do it again, since that first time had been such a long while ago, and Opal was engaged.
“The stars.” Opal announced suddenly, as if she could sense that Kuvira was thinking of something sour. “The stars will be out by now, and I want you to see them.”
“You sure love the idea of stars.” Kuvira commented, but Opal was already pulling her out of the bar. Kuvira looked back to find Kai, but as if Opal had planned it, he was very clearly chatting up the waitress, and wouldn’t want to be disturbed. “That kid is mature for his age.” She murmured to herself. Opal didn’t hear her.
They bust through the doors of the tavern and into the pale moonlit street. It was empty, apart from a small grey cat, that looked at them, let out a hiss, and dashed down an alley. Kuvira watched it go quietly.
“How are they?” Opal asked. Her eyes were open, and she was staring at one side of the street blankly. Kuvira followed her gaze, before remembering that Opal wasn’t seeing a thing.
“How are what?”
“The stars, stupid.”
“Oh.” Kuvira mumbled, turning her neck upwards. The stars were the brightest she’d ever seen them, scattered over a trail of purple. It was like she was seeing the whole Milky Way. They weren’t what she wanted to look at though. “When did I become such a sap.”
“Oh, nothing.” Kuvira felt her neck prickle with embarrassment.
Opal sat down on the street, and gestured for Kuvira to follow.
“We can’t. What if a car comes?”
“Then we’ll move.” She shrugged.
“Ah.” Kuvira sighed, knowing she wasn’t going to win this debate. “Okay then. If we really must.”
She sat down too, and Opal put a hand in her lap. Her fingers entangled with it, holding it like it was a precious stone. In a way, she supposed it was. Opals were precious stones, weren’t they? She had never seen one in person, but at some point in the last few weeks she’d looked them up.
She’d expected them to be green, but they weren’t. Maybe she’d first expected them to be green because that was how Opal had appeared to her. The house was green, the fields were green, the slip dress she’d first seen her in was green. Instead, however, opals were stones that contained a mirage of colours; red, green, and blue, all pressed together in shining balls. Kuvira had been surprised, but it had made sense to her all the same. Opal was just like an opal.
“When you first met me,” Opal asked. “What did I smell of?”
Kuvira blinked, the question surprising her. Still, she knew Opal well enough to know that there was always a hidden meaning behind her actions. “Vanilla. I remember being unsure though. I’m not big on girly scents. I don’t smell it much anymore.”
“Because we share a room.”
Kuvira nodded. “Vanilla.”
Opal laughed, but it didn’t seem genuine. “Vanilla.” She hummed. “You smelled like the forest. I don’t suppose I know many scents either, but I know you smelled like a forest.”
“Do forests smell good?”
Kuvira looked away from Opal and back up to the sky. The shorter girl wanted her to look at the stars after all, and her face would burn to ash if she stared at Opal for any longer. They shone above her, glittering down onto them both as if they cared they were there. They didn’t; they were stars – giant balls of burning gas, millions of light years away – but it was like they did.
“Will you kiss me again?”
The words felt stale in the air. For a second, Kuvira thought Opal had said them, until she realised that it was her own voice. That had never happened to her before. She was always in control.
“Do you want to, still?” Opal had turned to her.
“Oh. Uh, okay.”
Kuvira hardly had time to giggle at the shorter girl’s rare bashfulness.
The shorter girl lunged forward, grabbing both of Kuvira’s cheeks (albeit messily), and crushing their faces together. Their lips moved against each other like wild fire moved through a forest, and Kuvira felt her hands moving down to the small of Opal’s back, holding her in place. Kuvira felt whole when kissing Opal. She felt purposed. Like she had when her parents had been alive, and she had a future in mind. It was contradictory, really, because kissing Opal was something that could very easily destroy her future, if Suyin were to ever find out.
“You’re thinking about my mother.” Opal said, pulling back, a look of disgust on her face.
“I… How did you know that?” Kuvira demanded. Opal swatted her on the arm, and let out another belly-aching laugh.
“I didn’t. But you just confirmed it. Your jaw felt very tense, is all. And I know what makes me stressed.”
“And you like me, so what does that say about you?”
That I’m unbelievably stupid, probably.
But she wouldn’t say that, because proving Opal right would have been a nightmare.
“Come on, Romeo and Juliet, we have places to be.” Kai called from behind them. “Your dinner is served in twenty minutes.”
Kuvira knew the dark sky had been too good to be true.
“Crap. He’s right. Come, Opal.”
“Not tonight, but hopefully soon.”
“Huh?” Kuvira looked back, Opal’s words’ meaning completely lost on her. Opal smiled at her mischievously.
“Stupid, stupid Kuvira.”
Kuvira woke up in the middle of the night. She wasn’t sure why she had; maybe it was the moonlight. The moon had moved past a cloud and her light was poking through the window, shining over Kuvira’s features. Either way, Kuvira stirred, but did not move, fearing that she would wake Opal up.
The whisper was almost silent, and for a second, Kuvira was sure she hadn’t heard it. Sure that it was just her tired and dreamy brain playing tricks on her. She tried to fall asleep again, but a feeling stopped her.
More specifically, a touch.
Fingers were trailing down her braid, the one she always wore, twisting down the hairs their and running back upwards. It was so gentle, so light, that Kuvira probably would have never felt it if she’d been asleep.
“How can she think she’s not pretty?”
Kuvira’s eyes shot open. Oh. Opal was talking about her.
The girl’s voice sounded sleepy, but not like she was sleep-talking. Kuvira wondered if she’d done this before. Opal had known that she braided her hair, after all. The thought of Opal’s hands gently caressing her skin whilst she slept soundly, was not a thought she entertained for long. It was too improbable. Not from all those months ago, anyway.
A soft kiss was pressed to the back of Kuvira’s neck, next to her braid. “You’re beautiful, Sweetheart.”
Kuvira’s heart was racing. She wanted to throw herself out of the bed and run away, to roll over and kiss Opal, and to combust into nothingness, all at once.
She did none of these things.
The soothing touch of Opal’s slim fingers returned, this time higher up, under the braid. They scratched gently, and it was like they were absorbing the conflict in Kuvira’s head. Gentle, soft, loving.
The patterns on her scalp relaxed Kuvira, and she felt her body soften into the sheets. Exhaustion seemed to take over. Perhaps she should say something, but the tension was unbearable, and she didn’t want to ruin the moment. How many moments like this did she really have left, after all?
She really was tired, and it took no time at all for her to fall asleep.
“You girls ready to go?” Baatar asked. They were sat in the back of his car again, only this time, their destination was the palace. The palace where Opal would spend the rest of her life. Kuvira pushed that thought to the back of her mind. That was future Kuvira’s problem, not hers. Suyin had gone back inside to fetch something – a gift for Wu’s aunt, some kind of incense. Kuvira hadn’t brought anything, but Baatar assured her that was fine.
“Trust me,” He laughed, “The fact that we’re bringing another barely legal girl with us is enough to keep that buffoon pleased.”
Kuvira wrinkled her nose with disgust.
Opal pushed a blanket over her and Kuvira, moving to sit closer to the taller girl.
“You two are really good friends, aren’t you?” Baatar said with a kind smile. His eyes were warm. Kuvira wished she’d seen the same warmth in her father’s eyes, but alas.
That morning, Opal had told Kuvira that she had to accompany her to the palace, and that she had no choice in the matter. Kuvira had said no. She had said no, reverently. But Opal wouldn’t take no for an answer, and after just one ‘please’, Kuvira had caved in.
Fingers tangled under the blanket.
“Yep. Gals being pals.” Opal said with a smirk. Baatar was none the wiser. Kuvira cringed so hard that she was convinced she’d feel it in a future life.
Suyin returned, looking immaculate – make up painted perfectly, dress the ideal mixture of elegant and modest – and slid into the car. She didn’t turn around to greet Opal and Kuvira. Something told Kuvira that she wasn’t completely happy about her accompanying them, but she’d not said anything of it.
The journey was short, but it felt even shorter to Kuvira. It was like time was slipping through her fingers when she was with Opal. How long did she truly have left? Opal would leave Wu if Kuvira asked, wouldn’t she? But how on God’s good green Earth could she ever ask that? It wouldn’t just be asking Opal to leave the fiancé she didn’t love, it would be asking her to abandon her family. Opal may not like her mother, but she’d never do such a thing to her father or brothers.
A hand squeezed hers. Opal turned to her, her expression gentle and fearless. It told Kuvira what she needed to know.
Stop stressing about it. We’re here now. That’s what matters.
“This place is always beautiful.” Suyin gushed to Wu’s aunt. The queen. “I’m amazed. Always, truly amazed.”
“Mm.” The woman made a noise between a hum and a grunt. It didn’t deter Suyin in the least, for she immediately threw herself into a discussion about local politics. Kuvira zoomed out, intent on inspecting the grand hall they’d been brought to.
At one end, a throne stood, and next to it, a smaller one. She assumed that was where Wu sat. She couldn’t imagine the pompous boy doing any sort of serious ruling, and she was quite sure that this region also had a fully-functioning local government, and therefore the monarchy was less of a ruling force and more of a moot point, but she chose not to question it. Besides, she was fixated on something else.
Next to a marble statue, Opal stood. She was a priceless piece of art, looking at her own kind. Wu stood next to her, his hand on her lower back, defiling her.
Okay, chill out. Kuvira told herself. They’re engaged. If anything, you defiled her.
“Not yet I haven’t.” Kuvira said aloud.
“What was that, dear?” Baatar asked. He was stood next to her, watching the same scene she was. “Oh, I know. They are quite cute, aren’t they? I can only hope he’ll make her happy in marriage.”
“He will. Of course he will.” Kuvira assured both him and herself.
“Would you like to see the royal baths, Sir?” Wu called over his shoulder. His voice rang uncomfortably loud through the palace’s throne room. Kuvira winced. He was far from any prince she’d ever read about. There was nothing subtle about him.
“I couldn’t possibly.” Baatar laughed.
“Oh, but I insist.” Wu’s smile was charming in a doll’s sort of way. Kuvira wondered how much of his manners were real, and which were fake. Perhaps everyone’s manners were fake, since everyone was raised to do them. If nobody was taught how to behave, she wondered, how would society suffer? “I can’t possibly go in alone.”
Kuvira looked away from Opal, to the prince. Confusion showed on her features. Wu stared at her with moderate and polite interest.
“Why do you look at me like that, dear Kuvira?” He asked, not unkindly.
“Would Opal not join you, your…” She couldn’t remember the right word to refer to a prince as. Was it Majesty, or Highness? “…Majesty.”
It was definitely Highness.
Wu’s smile didn’t falter, even though Kuvira was sure she’d got it wrong.
“Gendered baths, my friend.” He said calmly. “Forgive me, I simply assumed you’d join Opal. That is okay, is it not?”
“Oh.” Kuvira’s face dropped. It wasn’t from disappointment, but rather fear. Fear that she would give away her eagerness with her face, if it wasn’t completely slack.
Wu misread her.
“Can you not swim?”
“Oh, she can swim.” Opal said with a smile, strolling over and latching onto Kuvira’s arm. “She loves to swim.”
“Grand.” Wu beamed. “Come on Baatar. I think you must have questions as well, concerning how I will care for your daughter.”
For a split-second, Kuvira saw something that resembled anger on Opal’s father’s features. Resentment, maybe. It passed as quickly as a star shoots through the sky. “Of course.” He smiled brightly. “You’ve convinced me.”
They walked to the baths in silence. Kuvira had nothing to say; neither did anybody else. Wu kept opening his mouth as if he was going to say something insightful, but nothing came out. Maybe he was upset that Opal was hanging onto Kuvira, rather than him. Expressing such discontent would have been improper, though, and Opal surely knew and was taking advantage of that.
Parting ways with the males, Kuvira and Opal entered a small changing area. Kuvira stripped with little to no insecurity – after all, Opal couldn’t see her – but Opal was less sure. Either that, or this was just one of her games.
The room was hot and humid, and a bead of sweat slid down Opal’s neck, from under her bob of black hair to the crevice of her collarbone. Kuvira watched it with a dry mouth.
“Can you undo my bra, Kuvira?” Opal asked playfully.
Kuvira snapped out of her heated haze. “Huh?”
“Your… Sorry, what?”
“Kuvira.” Opal pulled a face. “You’re a disaster. My bra. Help me.”
“Oh. Ah. Yes. Bra. I can… Do that.” Kuvira almost tripped on her way over. She usually held herself with some forbearance, but meeting Opal had stripped that from her. She was a disaster, to quote Opal.
The bra unclipped steadily, and Kuvira let out an audible sigh of relief. If the situation had become even more uncomfortable, she might have imploded.
Opal turned around.
The syllable left Kuvira’s mouth before she could look away.
“My eyes are up here.” Opal said teasingly.
“You can’t see where I’m looking.”
“Oh, Sweetheart, I know where you’re looking.”
Kuvira reddened, grabbing Opal by the wrist and guiding them through to the bath area in a hurry. She couldn’t stay in that changing room for even a second long (and she was secretly very glad that her and Opal were alone, away from Wu, and wanted to make the most of it).
It was half a bath area, and half a hot spring, but it didn’t interest Kuvira in the slightest. In retrospect, she would later wish she’d looked at it more closely, because the architecture was a powerful mix between imposing and intricate.
The palace of Ba Sing Se was built against a mountainside – apparently there had been another one, long ago, but it had been destroyed by Japanese soldiers, during one of the past wars, and this was the replacement.
This room must have been built into the side of the mountain, for one side was completely black and crooked, the hot spring spewing out of it into a ceramic bath. Every other inch of the room, however, was covered in beautiful paintings, smooth white marble, and greenery, which grew from all areas, sprouting beautiful pink-coloured flowers.
Kuvira’s eyes would not move from the curves and dips of Opal’s body, no matter how much she tried to stop. There was nothing so beautiful.
“You’re so pretty.” She said aloud. It was a habit she was going to have to break at some point.
“I know, right?” Opal grinned cockily, dipping her toes in the heat. “Let’s get in.”
And so they did.
The water was warm, and it seemed to sink in through Kuvira’s flesh and into her chest. Or maybe that was the result of Opal blowing bubbles, and giggling when one tickled her nose. Kuvira watched fondly.
“Are you looking at me?” Opal asked.
“I know you wouldn’t be able to resist, perv.”
“You don’t know me at all then.” Kuvira said. It came out more harshly than she intended.
There was a crack in Opal’s armour. Kuvira’s words had made it.
“Do you think that?”
Kuvira kept her mouth zipped. Opal would surely tease her for going back on herself. Even so, she didn’t want to upset her…
“No. No I don’t.” Kuvira shook her head. “Saying that was wrong.”
Opal smiled in satisfaction, before gliding through the water towards Kuvira. Once she was in front of her, and everything else seemed to slip away, she straddled her lap.
“This is comfy.” She said with a grin. Kuvira’s heart was racing. “You don’t have to tremble, Kuvira.”
“Sorry, it’s just…” Kuvira bit her lip, frustrated and flustered. She wasn’t used to feeling like this. She’d never felt like this before. “You make me nervous.”
Careful fingers brought Kuvira’s face towards Opal’s, and she pressed her forehead against hers. Electricity danced on her skin.
“You make me nervous too.” Opal whispered softly.
Kuvira leant up and kissed her fiercely, her hands grabbing Opal by her rms and swivelling them around, so the shorter girl was the one pressed against the wall. Opal kissed her back with just as much force.
“I want you.” Opal gasped, and Kuvira giggled.
“I want you too. What’s stopping us?”
For a second, Opal grinned, kissing her again, but suddenly she stopped. A frown tugged on her lips.
“Not here.” Opal breathed, pushing Kuvira away lightly with her foot. Kuvira stood up instantly, almost falling into the water. Hands reached out and grabbed her shoulders. “Not here.” Opal repeated. “Follow me.”
She guided Kuvira out of the room with haste. Kuvira held on for dear life, knowing there was nothing else for it. No other choice left for her.
In the changing room, between heated kisses and risky gropes, they managed to bundle themselves in thick white robes. Kuvira didn’t care for them, but they could hardly walk through the palace naked.
They moved through the corridors quickly, and it was a testament to how often Opal had been here. A testament Kuvira tried not to think about. Finally, they pulled to a stop.
“If you want to.” Opal nodded.
Behind the door was Wu’s bedroom.
Kuvira knew it to be so, because nobody else would demand a room so large and grand and golden. The sheets were white, the four poster bed was black, and everything else was made of the precious metal.
“Oh my god.” Kuvira breathed. “This is…”
“He says it’s beautiful. It isn’t, is it?”
“It’s a lot. Like. A lot.” Kuvira laughed, but the tugging in her lower stomach seemed to grow from the sight of it. “I hate it.”
She kissed Opal again, pulling the girl towards the huge bed.
“Here?” Opal asked breathily. Kuvira didn’t even want to reply, she just wanted to keep tasting the sugar of Opal’s lips. The sweetness.
“Yes.” She muttered in agreement, her voice lower than she’d ever heard it naturally. “I can’t think of anywhere better, can you?”
Opal grinned, sitting down on the great bed.
“I like this side of you.”
“Good.” Kuvira breathed, leaning down and taking her face with her own. They’d kissed before, passionately as well, but never like this.
Hands wrapped in hair, fingernails scraped over skin. For the first time in days Kuvira smelled Opal’s vanilla again, the scent she’d thought she’d gotten used to. It was paradise on Earth. There was no heaven better than this. Everything she could ever want, could ever need, were on these white sheets.
“Do you love me?” Opal breathed against her lips.
Kuvira froze, pulling back for a moment.
Opal was staring at her, wearing her most vulnerable expression. It was one Kuvira had only seen a handful of times, right after she’d cried. She hadn’t cried this time, though.
“That’s not what you’re meant to say.” She said softly.
“I know.” Opal sighed. Kuvira saw the tears welling in her eyes, so she kissed them shut. “I know it’s not. But I can’t say it. I need you to say it first. Kuvira, please. Please can you—”
“I love you.”
The words tasted like honey.
“I love you too.”
Lips crashed against each other once more, and this time Kuvira was rolled onto her back. She nodded eagerly, untying her white robe whilst Opal did the same. Kuvira was sure she’d never get tired of Opal’s breasts. Her hands, warm from the sheets, cascaded over the delicate skin there. It occurred to her that she was the first to do this, just like Opal would be the first to do with her.
“Love you.” Opal muttered against her lips, her hands finding Kuvira’s breasts and squeezing eagerly. Kuvira groaned into the touch. Having someone else touch her there was far different from touching there herself. Alien, even. But so, so good. “Love you. Love you, Kuvira.”
Between the kisses, Kuvira said it back.
Kuvira started getting to know the rest of Opal’s body. Her jaw, her neck, her collarbone and that nook in the middle of it. The suprasternal notch, as she’d always known it by. It tasted sweeter than skin ought to. Maybe there was something in Wu’s hot springs. She liked what the two of them looked like, pressed into his white sheets, so she had multiple things to thank him for.
“More.” Opal whispered.
“Opal, are you—”
Before Kuvira could finish, Opal grabbed her by the wrist and pulled it down to where she needed her most. Soft skin was all Kuvira could feel. The softest skin she’d ever felt. And wetness. Non-bath related wetness.
“Oh, jeez.” She muttered, and Opal let out a shrill laugh.
“You’re so American.”
“Well, yeah.” Kuvira smiled up at her, kissing her face and moving her fingers in a slow circular motion against her clit. Opal grunted in approval, moving her hips forward.
“That feels good.” She praised, and Kuvira kissed her harder.
They found the motion of it all soon enough. If Opal needed Kuvira to go quicker, she would, and all it would take was a small thrust, or a nip at her ear. Soon, however, Kuvira knew Opal wanted more. She wanted more as well.
“Kuvira, please fuck me. I can’t take this shit anym—Oh!”
Kuvira was a scientist. She’d followed countless sets of instructions before. This was no different. Except, it was. It was the furthest thing from a guide to an experiment.
It was just as exciting, however.
“Like that.” Opal nodded, when Kuvira pushed her fingers inside slowly. She took them out, before sliding them back in again with more force. Her middle finger and ring finger laboriously moved in and out of Opal, and soon, the girl was on the edge.
The edge of what, Kuvira blushed to think about.
“Don’t stop.” Opal commanded.
Kuvira couldn’t if she tried.
Opal’s orgasm hit her, and her face contorted to keep her lips tightly shut, the noise only coming out as a muffle. Kuvira had never seen anything more beautiful in her whole life. Her eyes opened wide, her face twisted with pleasure, and soon they were kissing again, Kuvira’s hand, now soiled, cupping Opal’s thigh.
The door flew open with a thundering crash.
Kuvira jumped away from Opal immediately, but the damage was done.
Maybe they could have been gals just being pals, if her and Opal had been clothed, but the bath robes strewn lazily on the floor gave it all away. They’d been gone for too long. They’d been caught.
Suyin stared, eyes wide with horror, mouth hung open like a masterless puppet’s. Behind her, wearing a hardened expression, was Wu.
“I don’t understand how you could do this!” Suyin slammed her fist onto the table. “Kuvira, I understand. She’s not like us.” Kuvira wasn’t sure if this was meant to offend her, but with the way Suyin was acting – or overreacting – she didn’t consider it particularly insulting. “But you, Opal? You’re a Beifong. And you’re engaged to a prince. How could you do this?”
“I never asked to be engaged to him!” Opal yelled back. She was crying, but Kuvira didn’t reach out to console her. She had a feeling that would not be received well by anyone at all.
Baatar Senior was looking at her in a way that made her feel sick to her bones. Not because he was angry, or disappointed; he looked sad. As if he pitied the both of them. As if there was nothing he could do at all to help.
“He’s a prince, Opal. You should be happy!” Suyin threw her hands up into the air theatrically. “A prince! Your family, too. Do you know how much we need his backing? The university depends on it. I don’t know if you noticed, but the rules of these lands fall into his domain, and now he might positively despise us. If you’d just…” She let out a long and pained groan. “Think of your family! If you’d just thought of us, then all of this could have been avoided!”
“Think of you?” Opal spluttered. “I think you do that enough for the both of us.”
Kuvira bit her lip, stifling a snicker. Suyin turned on her like a wild boar.
“And you! We invite you into our home. We fed you, we funded you, we gave you a place at the university, despite the fact that you don’t have a high school diploma. And this is how you repay us?” Suyin was growling through bared teeth, and Kuvira’s heart was racing. She couldn’t even argue back, because in all fairness, Opal’s mother made a point.
She didn’t have a response, so it was lucky that Opal jumped to her rescue.
“Leave her alone!” Opal cried.
“Why should I?” Suyin stood up sprightly. “There’s nothing special about her, Opal. I know you know that. Sure, she’s a young woman in a male-dominated field of science, which is always something I will admire, but there isn’t anything excellent about her. She isn’t irreplaceable. Considering who her parents were, any less from her would have been outright disappointing.”
“Nothing… Nothing special about Kuvira?” Opal choked back a laugh. “She’s my fucking soulmate, you blithering idiot.”
Silence flooded through the room. Kuvira’s eyes widened in surprise, her heart beating harder in her chest than it ever had before. Opal was her…? How was that possible?
“So you do see the string!” Suyin said angrily, and to her surprise she was looking directly at Kuvira. “Yet another lie you’ve told me.”
“No, she doesn’t.” Opal answered calmly, before Kuvira could claim the same. “I do. I see the string. I always have. In fact, it’s the only thing I’ve ever seen. The only thing I ever will see.”
Another, far longer silence, filled the room. The only thing barring it from total quiet was Baatar’s fingers tapping at the table. Kuvira watched his expression numbly, unable to look at Suyin or Opal. He let out a long and withered sigh, his face sharpening with something Kuvira didn’t understand at all, before standing up and storming out of the room.
“Baatar!” Suyin cried. “Baatar, get back here now!”
The man didn’t return, and after an indignant gaze at Opal, Suyin Beifong rushed out after him.
“I’m your soulmate?” Kuvira asked at once. The word sounded foreign in her mouth. She hadn’t thought of soulmates since they’d last discussed them, all those days ago. Why would she, when her mind was utterly consumed by Opal?
Opal didn’t look in her direction, like Kuvira now knew she could. Instead, she stared at the floor.
“My grandmother had the condition. I’m sure you knew that. My aunt does, too. They’re the only other blind people I know of, and neither was the string-seer. So, we’d all just assumed it wasn’t possible to see the string. I mean, I always knew, of course, but I never… I didn’t tell anyone for a long time. I don’t know why. When I told my grandmother, right before she died, that I could see the string, she told me never to tell anyone. Said I could use it as an advantage with my soulmate then. I’d always see where they were, and they’d never be able to work out why. She was always full of pranks like that.”
To Kuvira’s dismay, small droplets of liquid began to drip onto the table. Opal wiped under her eyes furiously.
“I’m so tired of crying.” She mumbled through her tears. “But it’s just so sad, Kuvira.”
And with the sound of her name on her soulmate’s tongue, Kuvira stood up and rushed over to Opal, trapping the girl in her embrace. Opal leant into her, clutching onto the clothes on her back desperately, her nails raking into her skin. Her sobs grew louder and louder, and soon Kuvira joined her, unsure of what else she could do, and overwhelmed by an awful sense of grief.
“It’s going to be fine.” Kuvira whispered. “We’ll work this out.”
“How can we? I’m going to marry a prince. And you’re going to… Be a scientist, or whatever, and…” She started crying more loudly, and Kuvira broke their hug, wiping away each tear as it fell.
“You should have told me.”
“You said we could be friends.” Opal replied simply. “I was going to tell you, but you said soulmates could be friends.”
“I asked you what you thought of soulmates the day I met you. The day I realised why the string I’d always seen was growing brighter each day. I asked you, and…” She let out a terrible noise. Something between a wail and a laugh. “You said soulmates could be platonic. You made it sound like that was what you wanted. And your parents weren’t soulmates, so I just thought… And then it was far too late to tell you.” She sighed. “Plus, I thought you did know. When you kissed me. I thought you’d figured it out.”
“But I hadn’t.” Kuvira said dumbly.
“But you hadn’t.”
“Is that why you got so mad?”
Opal only nodded.
“I’m sorry I didn’t know.” Kuvira groaned, throwing her head back. “I really am stupid.”
Opal giggled, and Kuvira leant down and connected their lips briefly. They still tasted sweet, even coated in the salt of her tears.
“What now?” Opal asked.
Kuvira didn’t know. There wasn’t anything left for them, not now they’d been caught. Their only salvage would be if Wu called off the wedding, but Kuvira doubted that would happened. Even if it did, that meant the university probably wouldn’t open, and Kuvira would either be abandoned in a country whose native tongue she couldn’t speak, or she’d be shipped back to America, to crash on a friend’s couch until she inevitably became homeless. “We will figure it out.” She said, but it tasted dishonest on her tongue.