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Murmuration

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Myka is six years old, the first time she sees her.

Almost every Terran has gathered to watch the Starlings land, as they do every year: thousands of people, like fields of animals, all wearing their best clothing and standing quiet while the loud windy sounds of the engines die down. Myka tugs at her green dress. She doesn’t really like dresses and this one is too small for her but Mama said she had to wear it so she’s wearing it. Her hand is wrapped tight in her father’s grip. On his other side, Mama is holding baby Tracy.

(Last night, Myka heard Papa say, “It will be him, this year, won’t it.”

“Yes,” Mama said back.

 “Why the hell should we go tomorrow, then? I’ll just want to put my fist through his pretty, twenty-five-year-old face.”

“I know. I know, honey, and I understand. But unless we want to both quit being Archivists, you know we have to go.”)

Because Mama and Papa are Archivists, they get to stand near the front of the crowds and Myka can smell the metal smell that comes from the smoke that comes after the loud “clack” that means the door of the Starling ship is opening.

The first Starling to walk out is an old man with a beard. He steps onto the walk, stretches, waves to everybody and then goes to shake hands with President Frederic. They shake hands and from where they’re standing Myka can only see President Frederic’s face when she smiles and touches her fingers to her cheeks, pulling at her own skin.

More come out: a man with a moustache, a woman with red hair in a bun, a man with glasses. Then: a woman. Her hair is so black and shiny it almost looks white in the sun, and Myka wonders what that hair feels like. Is it soft? Could Myka braid it? Myka’s Mama taught her to do a braid just last week.

The woman is holding a girl’s hand, maybe Myka’s age or a little bit older, and everybody is looking at her because she’s a Starling and Myka always wonders how Starling kids don’t get scared with everyone looking at them but somehow they never do. They just look back and then they go and they talk to the people who are waiting to talk to them, near the front of the crowd. Once, when Myka was four, a Starling picked Myka’s family to come and talk to right after she got off the ship, and everyone asked the family about it for days and days.

Myka can’t stop looking at the lady and the little girl, watches them when the lady bends down and picks the girl up and carries her on her side the way Mama and Papa sometimes do with Myka when Myka is really tired. That’s all she notices until she feels her Papa’s hand squeeze tight around her own. That makes her look away, down from the black-haired lady, so she sees the Starling man walking toward them.

“Warren,” she hears her Mama says, in the voice she uses that means you are about to get into trouble if you aren’t careful.

Papa’s hand loosens around Myka’s hand.

The Starling is in front of them now. Specifically, in front of Myka’s mother.

“Jeannie,” he says. He talks a little funny. All the Starlings do.

Mama smiles. “Will." She touches her own face, but gently, like she’s pushing a bruise or checking for a broken bone. “It’s good to see you.”

Papa clears his throat, then lets go of Myka’s hand and holds it out to the Starling. “Warren Bering,” he says, “Archivist for Literature and the Arts.”

 The Starling looks away from Myka’s mother kind of slowly to look at Papa and shake his hand. “William Wolcott, Agent for Agriculture and Food Systems.”

Papa kind of laughs, just once, hard, but not hard like it’s funny, hard like it’s sharp and pointed. “I know,” he says.

The Starling stops smiling and steps back, biting his lip. Then he steps over and crouches down by Myka. “How old are you, miss?” he asks.

Myka leans into her father’s leg and she knows her face must be red because a Starling has never ever talked to her before.

“He asked you a question,” Papa says. He puts his hand on her shoulder.

“Six,” Myka says.

“Six,” the Starling echoes. Then he turns, still crouched down, and calls over his shoulder, “H.G.!”

Myka holds her breath because it’s the black-haired woman with the girl who turns around, and smiles, and starts walking toward them. Mr. Wolcott stays crouched down with Myka when the other Starling arrives.

“This is Myka, H.G.,” he says. “She’s the same age as Christina.”

“Really?” The woman puts the girl down on the floor and then she crouches down to Myka, just like Mr. Wolcott is doing. “Well, Myka. My name is H.G., and this is Christina. Christina will need a friend while we’re here. Would you like to see if you can be friends?”

The woman’s voice is low and thick and it makes Myka want to close her eyes and wrap herself in something warm, and she thinks, right now, that she could never say no to anything this Starling said.

But she feels Papa’s hand tighten on her shoulder. She looks up at him, then back at the Starling woman. H.G., she thinks, she said her name is H.G.

“I do apologize,” H.G. says to Papa and Mama. She stretches her hand up to each of them, but she stays crouched down with Myka and Christina. “Helena Wells, Agent for Engineering,” she says, when Mama and Papa shake her hand. Papa calls himself “Archivist for Literature and the Arts,” again. Mama calls herself “Archivist for Education.”

“We’d be delighted for our Myka to be friends with your Christina,” Mama says.

“Wonderful!” H.G. stands up. “I shall leave Christina with you, then, if you don’t mind. What time is it?”

Mama looks at her watch. “Thirteen hundred hours.”

“Marvelous. Would you be so kind as to bring her to the Agents’ housing by seventeen-thirty?”

Mama nods, and Papa grunts.

H.G. smiles big and nods her head. She turns, now, to her daughter. “Christina,” she says. “Please be kind to Myka and respect Mr. and Mrs. Bering. I shall see you in a few hours.” She bends and kisses Christina on the top of her head. Then she smiles at Myka and Myka’s breathing stops, actually stops, for a second. “Thank you, Myka,” she says, “Please be kind to my little girl.”

Myka can only nod.

Christina stands with Myka and they watch while the two Starlings, H.G. and… Will? Walk away. They don’t say anything to each other for awhile, until they are following Mama and Papa back to the Berings’ house. Myka is nervous. She doesn’t have a lot of friends. Just Pete, really, and that’s only because she’s known Pete since forever.

“So have you gone to all the seven worlds?” Myka asks.

Christina nods.

“Which one is your favorite?”

“Earth,” Christina says. “They have these big trees you can climb on.”

“We have trees!” Myka says, hopefully. “Papa said Starlings brought some a long time ago, from Earth, because they can grow here. And my friend’s mama Jane is the Archivist for Agriculture and she learned how to make more trees from the trees we already have and now we have a bunch of trees.”

Christina’s eyes get wide. “You have a forest here?” she asks.

Myka blinks. She has never heard that word before. “I… don’t know. But we have trees.”

“Can I see them?”

Myka feels herself smiling big, and nods. She tugs her Mama’s sleeve. “Is it okay if we go to the trees?”

Mama smiles. “Can you tell me what time it is, both of you?”

Myka looks down at her watch and sees the number and thinks about how to turn them into time. “Thirteen hundred…”

“..and twenty-five,” Christina finishes for her.

Myka looks at her, and Christina looks back, and they both smile.

“Can you be at the house by fifteen hundred?”

Myka nods.

“Then go have fun.”

There are not enough trees to make a forest, Christina says. And they’re way smaller than the trees on Earth. But still, it’s pretty good. Christina shows Myka how to climb up the trees and they sit together in the high branches.

“Why do Starlings talk funny?” Myka asks.

“We don’t talk funny, you talk funny,” Christina says, laughing. “Why do you call us Starlings?”

Myka screws up her face. “That’s just… because that’s what you are. You’re Starlings.”

“No, we’re Cellarium Agents. Your weird planet just calls us Starlings.”

“Well, what do you call us?”

“Terrans, because you live on Terra. What do you call yourselves?”

“Terrans.” Myka frowns. “I don’t know why you’re Starlings. You just are.”

They sit quiet for a minute.

“Hey,” Christina says, “D’you want to climb down here and play hide and seek?”

Myka smiles. “Yeah!”

They do get back to Myka’s house by fifteen-hundred. Myka’s Papa is sitting in the living room, reading something, but Myka’s Mama makes them a plate of honeyfruit and pieces of sweet choco. The choco melts in their fingers and Myka and Christina smear it on their lips, giggling.

“I’m a fancy lady!” Christina sings.

“Me too!” Myka howls.

Later, when Mama and Papa bring Christina and Myka to where the Starlings stay, H.G. is by the gate, waiting for them.

“Mummy!” Christina calls, and runs to her.

“Hello my darling!” She scoops Christina up into her arms. “Did you have fun?”

“Yessssssssssssss!”

“I can see that.” H.G. licks her thumb and rubs a spot of choco from Christina’s chin.

“Hope you don’t mind she’s a little scuffed up,” Papa says. “Apparently they were climbing around in the trees, and then my wife fed them treats.”

“Of course I don’t mind. Children can’t have real fun without getting dirty, can they?”

Papa shrugs. “I suppose not.”

H.G. looks at Myka. “Thank you, darling, for showing my girl such a wonderful time.”

Myka is quickly learning that she can’t talk, can barely think, when H.G. is looking at her. So she just bites her lip, and shrugs, and smiles.

That night, after dinner, Myka hears Papa say, “He’s trying to antagonize me, isn’t he? He’s just trying to get my goat, sending that girl home with Myka. With us.”

“Warren, you’re being ridiculous.”

“Am I? Are you sure? That girl had Myka climbing the trees, Jeannie! He’s trying to upset the balance our family!”

“Papa, I liked climbing the trees,” Myka says. She can’t help it. She did like climbing the trees.

Papa spins to look at her. “You’re a mess,” he says, eyes narrow. “Go take a bath.”

The next day, when Myka is at school, there's a knock on the classroom door. The teacher, Ms. Calder, opens it, and talks to somebody in the hallway. And when she comes back into the room, Christina is with her.

“Class,” she says, but it’s silly because the whole class is looking at her anyway, because everyone knows a Starling kid when they see one, but it’s not every day that one shows up in your classroom. “This is Christina Wells. She’s going to be joining us until it’s time for the Starlings to leave Terra.”

Myka can’t stop herself from grinning. She lifts her hand up, just enough for it to show over her desk, and waves. Christina smiles and waves back.

“I see you’ve already got a friend,” Ms. Calder says. “Would you like to sit with Myka?”

Christina nods.

The other half of Myka’s two-person desk is empty because Myka really doesn’t have friends so nobody picked her to sit with. She doesn’t really mind. She reads stories at recess anyway. But when Christina comes and hooks her bag on the back of the empty chair and says, “Hi, Myka,” Myka can barely hold in the feeling of glee and pride because how many of the other kids can say they have a Starling friend? How many of them?

Christina and Myka play every day at school. Sometimes Pete, who is older and in Grade 2, plays with them also, but usually Pete only plays with Myka outside of school because he has Grade 2 friends to play with in school. Christina and Myka tell stories, and play games, and draw pictures, and whenever they can they go climb the trees. Christina comes to dinner at Myka’s house a lot. A few times, Myka goes and has dinner with Christina and H.G. in the place where the Starlings live. Their place is smaller than Myka’s house but it’s fancier. Everything is new, and clean, and when you walk in it smells like flowers and manna-berries.

One night, Myka is in her nightgown in the living room when there is a knock on the door. Papa had been looking through the library on his comp to pick a story to read, but he puts that down and walks to the answer it.

It’s H.G., with Christina, and Christina is crying.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry to bother you so late,” H.G. says, and Myka wonders how H.G. could ever bother anybody. “It’s just—we’ve received notice that we’re to move on tomorrow evening, and Christina has been positively distraught about leaving Myka.”

Myka hears this and her heart is beating, it’s racing faster and faster. Because of course Christina would be leaving eventually. She knew that, because Starlings always leave. They travel from world to world – it’s what they do. And she knows that Christina and her Starlings will come back to Terra, eventually, but that it will be different, then. She doesn’t know why. She just knows that everyone says that it’s really different, when you see the same Starlings come around again.

So now Myka wants to cry. She wants to but she won’t because Christina has dropped her mama’s hand and run into the living room and she’s saying, “I don’t want to go! I want to stay here forever!”

Myka doesn’t know what to say. She looks up at Papa, who just shrugs, and then she looks at H.G., who looks like she’s going to cry herself. Then she hears a noise and looks at the door to the kitchen and there’s Mama.

Mama sighs. “Would you two girls like some honeyfruit?”

Christina nods, and so does Myka. They go toward the kitchen, and Papa and H.G. follow them. Mama makes them a plate of honeyfruit while Papa makes tea for the grown-ups.

“I can’t thank you enough for your hospitality,” H.G. says. Her voice isn’t think and warm, like usual. It’s still warm but it’s thin, and it shakes, like a tree leaf in the wind. She sips her tea. “It’s so terribly hard for the children. They make friends on every world. They have to, if they’re to become Agents. But Christina is just coming old enough to understand that these friendships go away. That even when we come back, Myka will be different and they can’t ever have this same relationship again.”

Papa makes a grunting noise. Mama nudges him with her elbow. She sets down the plate of honeyfruit between Christina and Myka. Myka finds the biggest piece and pushes it to the side of the plate that’s closest to Christina. Christina sniffs, and tries to smile, and picks the piece up.

“This will be hard for both of them, I think,” Mama says quietly. “Our Myka doesn’t make friends easily.”

“They are two peas in a pod, aren’t they?” H.G. says.

Mama makes a laugh, a weird one. She’s uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry,” H.G. says, holding her hand to her forehead. “Old world saying. Very old world saying.”

“I’ve seen it in the Archives of some of the old books,” Papa says. “I understand. They’re alike. They’re close.”

Myka and Christina hold hands between their chairs, eating their honeyfruit quietly.

“They are,” H.G. says, and she sounds so sad that Myka wants to climb into her lap and hug her, wants to press her eyes and nose into H.G.’s neck and make her warm the way Mama sometimes does with Myka when Myka is sad.

The next day, Myka’s family go to the Starlings’ launch. When the door lifts closed, Myka can’t hold it in anymore: she starts crying and can’t stop.

“Oh, honey,” Mama says, crouching down and pulling Myka close.

“Will we see them again?” Myka sobs.

Mama sighs. “Yes, but it will be different.”

“How will it be different?”

“You’ll see, honey. You’ll see.”

That night Myka keeps crying. Mama presses kisses to the top of her head but after awhile Papa gets mad and yells, "If you're going to be like this about it, next time we can just send you with them. Do you want that?"

And Myka doesn't want that, she doesn't want that at all, and that just makes her cry harder because would they send her away when she wants to be here with them and with Tracy? Would they do that?

"Warren," Myka's Mama says. "Stop. She's a child."

Papa shrugs. "It's not my job to be nice to her."

When she is nine years old and in Grade 4, Myka learns about the Starlings and the Archives and how they all work together to help all the people in all of the seven worlds. Because the seven worlds are very different, and people are doing different things in all the worlds, but people want to stay friends. And in order for all the people of all the worlds to get along, they need to share knowledge. So the Starlings are the people of no world: they travel from planet to planet to learn things from the people in one place and teach them to the people in the other places. The Archivists store the knowledge the Starlings bring, and they give knowledge to the Starlings take with them to other worlds. This is why, in the months after the Starlings leave, all kinds of new things happen on Terra: new technology, new medicines, new movies and books, new things to eat.

There are seven ships of Starlings, and each planet receives one ship each year for about a month.

Myka, who loves to learn and to teach, decides right then that she wants to become a Starling.

She says this to her father, who smacks her across the mouth and says “Starlings are good-for-nothing relics of older times who cause havoc and leave other people, good Terran people, to clean up their messes.”

Myka touches her lip, comes away with blood on her fingers. “But you’re an Archivist, Dad, you work with Starlings all the time.”

“That’s why I know what they’re like. Go do your homework."

Chapter Text

Myka is eleven years old the first time she notices that the ship of Starlings who have just landed is a ship she has seen before. She recognizes the man with dark skin and kind eyes, the woman with hair so light it looks white, pulled back in a tight ponytail.

It’s strange, though, because they look the same, almost exactly the same, as they did when they came last time, when Myka was 4.

Myka asks Ms. Calder about it, one morning, and Ms. Calder smiles and says, “It’s a good thing you asked. We’ll be discussing that today.”

Relativity, Myka learns, is really, really weird.

Starlings, you see, travel at lightspeed, Ms. Calder says. And when you travel at lightspeed, time moves very differently than it does when you’re on a planet. Time on the planets moves much faster. So when we see a Starling ship, seven years has passed since the last time we saw that ship. But for the Starlings, it’s been less than a year since the last time they left Terra.

A Starling who says she is 35 years old was born fifty years before the first person landed on Terra, and the first person landed on Terra almost 200 years ago. A Starling who says he is 65 years old was born on Earth or Durem, because nobody had moved to any of the other worlds yet, and nobody knew that Terra even existed.

This is why almost nobody ever leaves the world where they live, Ms. Calder explains. Imagine you wanted to take a vacation to Chthon, the nearest planet, for a week. It would take you two days of lightspeed travel to get there, and two more to get back, plus a week spent on the planet. But when you got back, you would find that several years had passed here on Terra. All your friends and your family would be much older than they were when you left.

This is why we have Starlings, Ms. Calder says. They have their own families and friends who travel with them, so they don’t have to worry about the people on the worlds who seem, to them, to grow old very, very fast.

Myka has always dreamed of being a Starling, but she thinks of going away from Mom and Tracey and Dad and Pete, of missing years and years of their birthdays and coming back and seeing Tracey be older than her and Pete be way older than her and… the idea of being a Starling sounds a whole lot less interesting than it did when she was younger.

When Myka is thirteen years old, Christina and H.G.’s Starling ship comes back to Terra. Myka’s father doesn’t hold her hand, this time, but she stands beside him anyway, and Tracy is seven and standing beside her, holding her hand.

Myka recognizes H.G. the moment she steps out the door of her ship. In her arms, H.G. carries a little girl, whose fingers hang nervously from her lips. Christina.

H.G. looks around, to one side and then the other, until her eyes land on Myka’s family. She smiles and walks over to them.

Myka looks at her while she walks, then she looks at her parents. They used to be about the same age but now Myka’s parents look older. Her father’s hairline has moved back; her mother’s hair is streaked with grey. Both have little lines by their eyes and mouth.

Myka is older, too. She's taller. She got her first period six months ago. And Tracey, well, Tracey was just a baby, back then, and now she’s taller than Myka’s elbow when they stand side-by-side like this.

H.G. looks almost exactly as she did before.

So does Christina.

“My goodness, Myka, how you’ve grown,” H.G. says. Myka brings her hands to her own face, runs her fingers over her eyebrows and down her cheeks. She understands, suddenly, why adults touch their faces when they’re talking to Starlings.

“I guess so,” Myka says, and shrugs.

“Christina,” H.G. says, “Look at how Myka has grown up.”

Myka smiles and dips her head to Christina’s line of sight, as one does with children. “Hi, Christina. Do you remember me?”

H.G. says, quietly, “Of course she remembers you, but she may not recognize you. It’s been quite a long time since you last saw her, but only a few months since she last saw you.”

"I know who you are," Christina says. She is blinking back tears, and buries her face in H.G.’s neck.

"How old are you now, Christina?" Myka asks, as warmly as she can.

"Seven," the little girl mumbles.

Very suddenly, Myka completely, absolutely doesn’t want to be a Starling anymore.

She holds her arms out to Christina, though, and says, with exaggerated energy as you do with small children, "Hey, do you want to go climb some trees?"

Christina sniffs, and then nods, and holds her arms out to Myka. Myka pulls Christina to herself, then awkwardly moves her around so she can carry her on her back. "I'll have her back to you by seventeen-thirty," Myka says, smiling. She turns to her parents. "If that's okay?"

Dad grunts. Mom smiles, and says, "Of course that's okay, honey."

She turns to face front again and H.G. is smiling at her. She reaches forward and runs her thumb down Myka's cheek and something inside Myka goes tight, very tight, and for a second she worries she might drop Christina so she blinks and blinks and, with a little hop, lifts Christina higher on her back.

"I knew you'd grow up to be a wonderful person," H.G. says. "I just knew it."

Myka smiles and bites her lip. She awkwardly nudges Tracy, beside her, with her elbow, and says, "You're coming too, right?" Tracy grins and nods and they begin their walk through the crowds together.

She is relieved, later, to see that it looks like Tracy and Christina can be friends, this time, but then she thinks about how, next time this Starling ship comes, Myka will be a an adult and Tracy will be almost a teenager and Christina will only be eight. Later that night, she touches the place on her cheek where H.G. touched her. She runs her finger over it, and over it, and over it. She feels the shadow of her touch, trailing down her skin.

When she brought Christina back, H.G. smiled at her and said she should come for dinner one night, like she used to. Myka smiled, and ducked her head, and palmed the back of her neck, and said yes, sure, okay. But when she gets home that evening and tells her Dad, he scoffs at her and says, “What, you too good for good Terran food, now, with your Starling friends?”

“But Dad—“

“Your mother is working late with the Starling for Education. Make dinner. I’ll be upstairs.”

Myka isn’t good at cooking. She knows how to do it, a little, but not well. She pushes her fingers through her hair and breathes deep. In the pantry, she finds a packet of dried noodles and a can of sauce and reads the directions on both, but when she calls her Dad and Tracy in for dinner the noodles have clumped to one another and the sauce tastes charred because it burned a little to the bottom of the pan.

“No wonder you want to go eat Starling food if this is what you think Terran food is supposed to be,” her father growls, dropping his fork on the plate. Tracy is poking at her food with her spoon.

“Here,” Myka says, reaching across to cut the noodles into pieces for her, but her father reaches across and bats the knife out of her fingers. It clatters to the tabletop.

“I’m going to take her to the diner,” he says. “You clean this mess up.”

Myka looks at the kitchen table, at the three bowls of inedible pasta, and scrubs her hand angrily over her eyes. He’s not always like this. He’s not usually like this, and she can’t understand, doesn’t know why—

The next day, she walks with Tracy and Christina back to H.G.’s quarters in the evening, after she’s finished her homework and Tracy and Christina have spent the afternoon playing. H.G. smiles wide at her when she opens the door.

“Thank you for bringing her back,” H.G. says. “Will you stay for dinner?”

Myka knows she shouldn’t, knows her Dad will be angry, but H.G. is smiling in a way that makes her entire body want to smile back so she shrugs and nods and steps into the entryway.

In the kitchen, something smells delicious. Tracy and Christina settle in the living room on the floor with a puzzle, and Myka takes a seat on a high stool near the kitchen counter.

“It smells good,” she says.

“I learned to make this on Durem, several cycles ago,” Helena says. “Such wonderful food on that world. Do you want to help me?”

Myka can’t hold back her grin and she nods harder than she knows she should. H.G. grins at her. “Here,” she says. She hands Myka some kind of root she’s never seen before, oblong and white, and a knife. “Cut that into pieces about this size,” she says, holding up her fingers. “Don’t cut yourself.”

Myka stands and lines the knife up carefully and brings it down slowly, one cut after the next, until she’s got a stack of white disks lined up along the counter.

 “I smuggled that from our last stop on Durem,” H.G. says, as she tosses the food on into the mix already cooking on the stove. “It’s completely against the rules. Can you keep my secret?”

Secrets are such rare things, for Myka, treasures to wrap in fluff and hold close and protect. The only time she ever had a secret before, she thinks, was when Pete was playing ball in the house and broke his mom’s lamp and made her promise not to tell Ms. Lattimer that it was his fault. (To this day, she never told, even though Pete ended up telling the truth in the end).

Red flushes Myka’s face and her heart thumps with pride and she can’t make her throat work so she just nods yes.

H.G. tips her head to the side and smiles a funny smile that’s bigger in her eyes than it is in her lips. She reaches across the counter to where Myka is frozen in place and she cups Myka’s cheek fully, this time, in her palm.

“You’re far too young to be looking at me like that,” H.G. says.

Myka’s heart stops beating while H.G.’s hand is on her and races double-time to catch up as soon as that touch moves away.

It’s worth it, Myka thinks. It’s worth it for the delicious dinner, and for the way H.G. asks her about school and friends but also answers all of Myka’s questions about the other worlds, and she does it in a serious way, like she thinks that Myka is smart enough to understand things.

“Why are you called Starlings?” Myka asks.

H.G. smiles through her bite of dinner. “Technically, we’re not. Technically, we’re called Agents.”

“But nobody calls you that. Everybody calls you Starlings.” Myka frowns.

“On this world, yes, you call us Starlings. Different worlds call us different things. On Durem, we are called Scholars. On Earth, Anthropologists. Illyria, Travellers. And so on.”

Myka ponders this for a moment: these words she hasn’t heard, or has only heard in different contexts.

“I have always been especially fond of ‘Starlings,’” H.G. says. “As though we are the children of the stars.”

Myka still doesn’t regret the visit, when she gets home to her father yelling, hollering about where on earth she’s taken Tracy for the evening and then back-handing her across the jaw when she tells him that they had dinner at H.G.’s. “If you’d rather spend your evenings with some Starling than with your own family, then just stay there,” he growls, so fiercely that a fleck of his spit leaps across the room and lands on her arm.

If the point of Myka’s father’s rage had been to get Myka to stay home the following night, it doesn’t work. She goes to H.G.’s again, though she waits until after dinner this time.

“What in the seven worlds has happened to you?” H.G. says, tugging Myka into the apartment, and then directing her down the hall and into the bathroom. Christina follows along behind them, and then props herself in the doorframe, watching wide-eyed and silent. The neon light over the mirror is near blinding and H.G. tips Myka’s chin up toward it, angling her face from one side to the other. “You didn’t have this bruise yesterday.”

Myka shrugs.

H.G. rummages through a bag on the counter and pulls out a metallic tube. “I got this on Chthon,” she says. “Another secret, all right?”

Myka nods and holds still as H.G. slicks the ointment over her bruised skin. It burns, and then feels cold, and then tingles, but Myka bites her tongue and waits for the strange feelings to subside.

“There,” H.G. says. Myka looks in the mirror. The bruise is still there, but the swelling is down, the color faded.

Back in the kitchen, H.G. hands Myka a warm choco drink. “Now,” she says, “tell me how you got that bruise.”

The choco sits in Myka’s stomach and presses heat outward, toward her arms and fingers and toes. “It’s nothing to worry about,” she says.

“I disagree, Myka.” H.G. leans forward on the counter, on her elbows. “Did something happen at school?”

“No.” Myka sips her drink.

“At home, then?”

Myka looks down and palms the back of her neck. A long, hissing breath pushes through H.G.’s teeth and Myka swears she can feel it tracking down her own spine.

“It’s a violation of the Seven Worlds’ Treaty for an adult to harm a child, Myka, and as an officer of that treaty I must—“

Her words are getting faster and more pressured and higher in pitch and suddenly Myka doesn’t feel them in her spine anymore, she feels them in a different way, tightening around her wrists and her ankles and pulling like she could be pulled apart. “It’s not a big deal, H.G.,” she says. “He gets stressed out when there are Starlings around and he doesn’t act like himself but he’s fine the rest of the time.”

“Myka—“

“I should go home.” Myka drains her mug and sets it on the counter. She doesn’t look at H.G. as she walks through the living room toward the door, palming the back of her neck the whole time.

A young voice says: “Bye, Myka.”

Myka can’t help smiling as she turns to look down at Christina, who is tugging at the hem of her dress where it’s a little frayed from when she and Tracy were playing in the trees.

“Bye, Christina,” Myka says, ruffling the little girl’s curls. “I’ll see you soon.”

Myka is turning to the door handle when H.G. says: “It’s funny, the way you smile at her, the way you touch your neck, you remind me…”

Myka looks back over her shoulder to where H.G. is looking at her, contemplating, her head tilted to one side, arms crossed over her chest. She looks just in time to see H.G.’s eyes narrow and her head cock to the other side.

“How old are you now, Myka?”

“Thirteen,” Myka says.

“Thirteen,” H.G. echoes. “Tell me, again, the year you were born?”

Myka tells her, and H.G. inhales sharply and nods.

“Why?” Myka asks, but H.G. just shakes her head and says “Walk home safely.”

By the next morning the bruise on her face is gone, but something about yesterday’s H.G. has scared her, the way the sky at night can scare her: mostly it’s just beautiful and vast and exciting but sometimes Myka feels like it could swallow her whole. So that night she doesn’t go to H.G.’s for a visit. She goes to Pete’s and they spend a long time kicking a ball in his backyard.

“You’re, like, in tight with that one Starling lady,” Pete says. “I’m jealous.”

Myka shrugs. “She’s… nice?”

“She must be nice if you spend so much time over there, man oh man. I haven’t seen you in days.”

“Sorry. I won’t go over as much anymore.”

“No! No. That’s not what I’m saying. In fact, I’m saying the opposite, because that lady is fi-iiiiine. Think you could bring me sometime?”

Myka picks up the kickball and, with a laugh, throws it at Pete’s head; Pete nabs it out of the air just before impact and rolls his eyes at her. “I’m just saying,” he says.

Myka rolls her eyes back at him. “Yeah. I know you are.”

When she goes home that evening she is surprised to see a man in Starling-style clothes knocking on the door. From afar, she sees her mother open it and let him in.

By the time Myka gets to the door the voices inside are loud, and she recognizes this Starling’s voice: it’s the man, Will, the younger one who came to talk to her family that day of the landing when she was six. He’s yelling, and so is her mother, and Myka is used to yelling from her Dad but Dad isn't home now and this is different. She presses her ear to the closed door.

“Is she mine, Jeannie?” the Starling, Will, is shouting. “Is she? Because H.G. says she thinks she’s mine, and she’s right that the timing works out.”

These are words that come to Myka, in her ear and into her brain, but somehow they don’t turn into meanings.

“What the hell does it matter, Will?” Myka’s mom answers, quieter.

“It matters to me if she’s my child! It matters to me if I’m her father!”

Myka blinks into the darkness and the cold, outside the door.

“Why, Will? What kind of father could you have been for her?” Now Myka’s mother is loud, angry-sounding.

There is a slamming noise, like somebody hit the wall or the top of the table.

“I could have taken her with me,” Will says.

“She wasn’t born until eight months after you left,” Myka’s mother answers.

“You could have told me the next time I came. She was only six.”

And now the words have meaning.

They had meaning from the beginning, Myka knows, but now, when he says that—‘she was only six’—there is no mistaking who they’re talking about.

Myka feels like she wants to vomit.

“And what, you would have stayed here with her? With us? Given up the glamorous Starling life?”

Things are quiet for a long time. Myka’s ear is cold against the metal of the door, and her breaths come in and out, shakily, through her nose.

“She had a father by then, Will,” Myka’s mother says. “And a sister. A family. There was no reason to upset that.”

Will’s voice is calmer now, his words drooping at the edges, rage turning into sadness. “Does he know that she’s not his?”

“Of course he knows. I was three months pregnant when we met.”

“And he knows that I’m—“

“Yes.”

There is a long, drawn-out pause.

“Does she know?” Will asks.

“Absolutely not.”

And this is when something inside Myka caves, falling to pieces like an over-weighted bridge. The sob that bursts out of her chest feels like a bubble heaved intact out of her lungs, pressing and expanding until it needs to burst out or have her chest explode. She pushes on the door, pushes herself away from it and turns around and starts running, back up the walk and down the road to Pete’s house and she will ask Ms. Lattimer if she can stay there forever because she never wants to see her mother or father or any of those stupid Starlings ever, ever again.

She doesn’t think about how the door is thin and her footsteps are heavy and both her mother and Will heard them. She ignores the footsteps pounding behind her. She hears Will’s voice calling, “Myka! Myka, wait!” but the last thing she wants to do is wait for him.

Then her mother’s voice, “Myka, honey. Myka.” Her footsteps lighter, but still chasing.

Myka can’t breathe, she’s crying and running at the same time and that doesn’t leave space for breath and now she’s tripping, stumbling over her own shoes and Myka’s mother is the one who catches her, catches her and pulls her into her warm, familiar chest, wraps her arms around the outside of Myka’s flailing limbs and murmurs “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over again into her head while Myka sobs “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,” until the words are garbled in her spit and her tears and her snot and all she can do is sag helplessly against her mother’s grip and cry and cry and cry.

When Myka is too exhausted to cry anymore, her mother pulls her to her feet and steers her back toward the house. Will is still standing there, hands in his coat pockets, looking completely lost.

“When she’s ready,” Myka’s Mom says to him. “You can talk to her when she’s ready and not a moment before.”

At the house, Myka is so tired she can’t do anything but take off her shoes and curl up around her bear in her bed, still wearing her clothes. Her mother leans down and presses a kiss to her hair but Myka jerks away from her and musters the energy to growl, “Don’t touch me.”

She doesn’t get up for school the next day. She barely gets out of bed except to use the toilet. Her Mom doesn’t make her. In the evening she hears a knock on the door downstairs and the sound of Will’s voice, just for a minute, and then, through the window, his footsteps walking away.

The next morning she wakes long after the sun has come up. Her mother is sitting on the edge of her bed.

“Myka, honey,” she says, “I know you’re angry. I know you are, and we can talk about it, but you can’t miss another day of school.”

Myka rolls her eyes and sits up and goes to take a shower without a word.

It helps, though, to go to school. At recess, she tells Pete what happened.

“Wait, so you’re, like, half Starling?” he says. “That’s so cool!”

“I don’t know if it’s cool or not, Pete.”

At the end of the day, when she leaves to start her walk home, Will is waiting outside the school. She tries not to look at him but she can’t help it, and she sees it, the way they look alike: their hair is the same color and they both have light eyes, a little wide apart, and tall foreheads.

 He falls into step beside her as she walks. He clears his throat nervously.

“So,” he says.

Myka swallows. “So.”

It’s strange to look at this man and compare him to her father at home. Will still has his full head of brown hair and smooth, wrinkle-less skin. Her dad is greying and is starting to get those freckles on the back of his hands that you get when you get older.

“Could I take you to the diner?” Will asks.

Myka shrugs.

“Just—just for an after-school snack,” Will says.

Myka sighs, and chews her lip, and then nods.

They don’t talk much while they sit, both picking at their own bowls of noodles.

“You’re in Grade 8?” Will asks.

Myka nods.

“H.G. told me you want to be the next Archivist for Literature, like—like your—“

“Like my dad,” Myka says.

“Right.” Will lets a breath slip out through his nose. “Myka, it’s important to me that you know that I—“

“I get it,” Myka interrupts. “You have your life. And I have mine. And they don’t work for you to be my actual dad and I have my own dad anyway so it’s fine.”

Will’s mouth opens and then just hangs there for a moment. “I heard your dad hits you,” he says, eventually.

Myka scoops a big bite of her noodles onto a fork and shovels it into her mouth. Chews, swallows. “H.G. doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“She worries about you.”

“Good for her.”

“No adult should ever hit—“

Myka slams down her fork. “It’s only when you guys are here,” she says. “He’s completely fine when there are no Starlings around. So I guess I know why, now.”

Will sags against the back of his bench. “I—I’ll stay,” he says, eventually. “I’ll stay here, to be here for you.”

In front of her eyes, the bowl of noodles starts to wobble and twitch but it isn’t until the tear slides down off her nose that Myka realizes she’s crying. “I don’t want you to,” she says.

“Myka—“

“It will just make things worse. And weird. I don’t want you to stay.”

The Starlings leave a week later. Myka does not hold her mother’s hand or her father’s, but she lets Tracy hang onto her finger. As the Starlings make their way toward their ship, Myka spots H.G. holding a sobbing Christina to her chest and she feels a surprising tug, that pull she has felt before, for H.G., and for her little girl.

She hasn’t seen H.G. since that day with the bruise.

H.G.’s eyes come up and snap to Myka’s, where Myka stands in the front row of the watching crowd. Myka is surprised, completely caught off-guard when H.G. breaks her line and walks over to her. She ignores Myka’s parents completely, but she bends down to kiss Tracey on the head and then reaches out, like she does, to cup Myka’s cheek.

“I’m sorry,” she says, quietly. “I didn’t mean to cause such—I’m so very, very sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Myka says, and shrugs. She reaches out and squeezes Christina’s shoulder, but Christina, as children do, shrugs her away and presses her face further into her mother’s chest.

H.G. smiles wetly at Myka, and then turns to walk back to the ship. She steps into line behind Will, who is looking at Myka now, too. He lifts a hand and waves, nervously, at her. She lifts a hand and waves, nervously, back.

She goes home with her family that afternoon relieved that the ship has gone, relieved that her home will go back to the normal, happy place that it usually is when there are no Starlings on the planet. Her father will pull out a chess board, or he’ll pull up a program for them to watch together on the net, or she’ll play hide-and-seek with Tracey.

It doesn’t happen that way, though.

Her father looks at her with the same anger he’s held for these past weeks.

“Is your mother’s cooking good enough for you?” he sneers at her, “or are you spoiled by all those nights of eating Starling food?”

“Mom’s is great,” Myka says through her mouthful, swallowing just in time for her father to reach across the table and swipe his fingers, hard, across her cheek. “Manners,” he growls. "Swallow, then talk."

“Warren!” Myka’s mother warns, reaching for his wrist. “What’s gotten into you?”

Myka rubs her jaw, the same spot that’s still a little sore from last week. What is this? She thinks. He isn’t usually like this.

“What’s gotten into me?” Warren roars, toppling his chair in his rush to stand up. “This isn’t about me! It’s about what got into you and landed me with responsibility for that eighth-world soulless half-Starling bastard you call a daughter!”

Myka had thought she was done crying for the week. Or the month. But no, here she starts again, and then Tracey, frightened by Myka’s tears, is crying too, and their father is storming out of the house in a rage.

This is the kind of thing that becomes normal.

When she is fifteen, Myka falls asleep at the kitchen table while doing her homework. Her head drops onto her open science textbook. Her father grabs the free side of the open book and slams it shut over her face, growling “Get up and go to bed if you’re too lazy to do your homework.” But what jolts her awake is the sudden, throbbing pain behind her eyes and the wetness on her face and she sits up and it’s blood, flooding down from her nose, soaking the pages.

The Chthonic bruise cream, the secret stuff that H.G. had used on her face, is widely available on Terra now, but when the nurse spreads it over her face it doesn’t make her feel the way it did when it had been H.G.’s hands coating her skin with healing balm.

The bruising on her face heals quickly, but that doesn’t help the broken cartilage of her nose. She will need to wear a splint over her face for three weeks.

It's finally enough, though, to drive Myka’s mother to take Myka and Tracey and move to a new apartment over near the Archives.

Chapter Text

When Myka is 20, she is happy, truly happy, for what may be the first time in her life.

She’s working as a Junior Archivist for Languages, because her father is still the Archivist for Literature and she refuses to work with him. But that’s fine: she loves languages; has a good ear for them, it turns out. She has mastered Illyrian and is becoming proficient in Duremese. Chthonic continues to elude her. And then there’s Earth… the old world, where more than ten languages are still spoken. She’s barely cracked those.

She remembers Christina when they were seven, and how she spoke such perfect Terran, and imagines that she must have spoken all the other languages, too, from the time she spent on all the different worlds. It’s astonishing, Myka thinks.

She wonders what languages the Starlings speak when they are just amongst one another, on their ship. There is no Starling language that Myka has learned of yet. She will ask H.G., she thinks, because this is the year for H.G.’s ship to come back around.

The Junior Archivist for Engineering is a teenager named Claudia who, by all accounts, is a prodigy, finishing all her schooling by age 13, five years early, and taking a position as Junior Archivist the following year.

“The Starling for Engineering on this next ship is so great,” Myka gushes to Claudia one day over lunch. “You’re going to like her.”

Pete leans across and nabs the piece of choco from the corner of Myka’s lunch tray—they both know she won’t eat it—and says, “Don’t pay too much attention to this one, Claud, she’s had a crush on that Starling since owwwww!”

Myka has punched him in the shoulder, but she’s laughing. One of the perks of the Junior Archivist gig is that she gets to spend more time with Pete than she did when they were in school. He’s the Junior Archivist for Military Issues, though she knows he’s trying to weasel a transfer over to Sports and Recreation.

“She’s a she?” Claudia asks. “She might be the only Starling for Engineering in all the ships who’s a woman.”

“Oh, is she ever a woman,” Pete says, tilting his eyes skyward. “Right, Mykes?”

Myka huffs a sigh and rolls her eyes but she can’t contain the little smile that curves her lips as she says, “Yes.”

“And, hey hey hey, don’t tell me you haven’t been waiting for this visit, now that you’re finally not total jailbait for her, right? Right?”

Myka can feel the hot blush crawling up her chest into her neck. She takes another bite of her salad and doesn’t dignify him with an answer.

Pete grins and pokes her in the shoulder. “Knew it.”

When the Starlings land, this time, Myka doesn’t stand with her family but in a different file with the other Juniors. She has been looking forward to this visit but she has also been dreading it, because it brings H.G. but it also brings Will. And it’s not that she doesn’t want to see Will, exactly. It’s more that she really doesn’t know what she’ll say to him when she does.

So she stands tall in her Archivist's uniform and thinks of how H.G. will see her and smile; she will put her hands on Myka's shoulders, perhaps, and squeeze them, and tilt her head to the side, and tell Myka she looks wonderful, and that she is proud, and happy that they will see one another in the Archives.

The lead Starling, who comes down and greets the President, is named Caturanga. Myka knows this because he is also the Starling for Languages, so she will be working with him. But her eyes don’t linger on him; they look back up the ramp toward the hatch and watch the others file out: the red-haired woman, the man with the moustache, the man with the glasses, all the same as before. She watches them file out, dozens and dozens of Starlings with no sign of either H.G. or Will or Christina until the very end, when H.G. and Will walk out together, his hand resting on her back.

H.G. looks terrible.

Her hair is dull and limp, her face pallid and gaunt. Her eyes scan the crowd and lock onto Myka’s and Myka smiles but then H.G.’s eyes are gone, shifted over and down and Will has stepped closer to her. She doesn’t go to greet the front row, this time, like she usually does; Will stands close to her like a bodyguard and they work their way through the crowds and toward the Starling housing.

Disappointment covers Myka like a winter cowl, tugging her down toward the ground. She thinks about the terms under which they parted last time, because Myka has had seven years to grow from that and can no longer relate to the sad and resentful kid she was then, even though she's pretty sure the resentment wasn't for H.G., because how could it have been? How could it have been, when H.G. was in tears and Christina was sobbing and—

And where on earth is Christina?

Myka's eyes had followed Will and H.G. into the crowd but they turn back to the milling crowd of Starlings, and there are several children among them and Myka can't see Christina's dark head but it's hard to see through all the clothing and the—

Pete leans over and nudges her with his elbow. "Hey, wasn't that your friend? And and, uh, your… your father?"

Myka swallows, and swallows again, and shrugs. "I guess I'll see them in the Archives," she says.

That night, Myka lies awake in her cube in the Junior Archivists' quarters, listening to Pete snore in the cube next door.

The Archivist for Languages is an older, kind of goofy guy named Hugo and Myka stands beside him as Caturanga approaches with a cart loaded with crates that Myka knows will be full, mostly, of datasticks, but also with artifacts—paper texts and different items with words transcribed on them in different ways. One of the perks of being in Languages, Hugo had joked, was that you didn't need a huge Carrier to lug your items from one place to another. You should see what the Sports and Rec Starlings bring with them—loads and loads of toys and games and game-pieces and only a small amount of data, all things considered.

Myka takes the first crate and sets about loading it into the database while Hugo and Caturanga bend over the documentation systems to see if the new material aligns with the systems already in place.

Mid-morning, when she gets a break, Myka jogs down the hall and up a flight of stairs to get to the Engineering Archive. Inside she finds Claudia, loading data into the systems as Myka had been doing, and she finds Abigail Cho, the newly-appointed Archivist for Engineering, and Artie Nielsen, the Head Archivist.

"Where's H.G.?" Myka pants, winded from her run.

Artie spins on his heel and fixes Myka with a narrow-eyed glare. "H.G.? As in, the H.G. who sent some Agriculture guy to drop off all these crates with her name on them but never showed up herself—that H.G.? Because I have no idea, Myka, but she's supposed to be here, and I am supposed to be somewhere else doing my job and not hers."

A few tables behind him, Claudia makes eye-contact with Myka and shrugs, apologetically.

"She—she looked really bad at the landing yesterday," Myka says. "I thought maybe she was sick, which is why I—I just thought I'd see if she was here. Because if she's here, she's not sick, but if she's not, she probably is, so—" She's rambling, but Artie's fixing her with his beady-eyed stare and she loves Artie, she really does, but sometimes she kind of wants to smack him and sometimes he intimidates her.

She's a little intimidated now, to be honest, but that's probably because her guards are down.

Before she leaves at the end of the day she pulls up the info on Starling housing assignments and writes down the unit numbers for H.G. and for Will. Then she sends Pete a message not to wait for her for dinner and walks the half-block to the Starling apartments: tiny free-standing houses in tidy rows extending back half a league.

She goes to H.G.'s first. She rings the bell once and hears it echo through the rooms inside. She forces herself to count to thirty, slowly, before she rings again and listens, again, to the echo.

It's a five minute walk to Will's unit and before she rings the bell she can smell the food cooking inside. She rings once and hears Will call "Coming!" almost right away, and then footsteps.

He smiles when he sees her, somehow both nervous and genuine, and she knows that he has a secret. "Myka," he says. "I'd intended to send you a message this evening to see if I could convince you to join me for lunch at the diner tomorrow."

He stands near her on the stoop, pulling the door half-closed behind him.

Through her teenage years, Myka grew accustomed to the idea of her Starling blood-father. But now, looking at him, his body fewer than ten years older than hers, she is struck by the strangeness of it.

"Yeah," Myka says. "Sure. We could have lunch. But—but I'm just wondering if you've seen H.G. since you got here? Because she wasn't at the Archives today but I thought I saw her with you at the landing. And I haven't seen Christina at all."

Will glances back over his shoulder at the half closed door, and then turns back to Myka. "Yes, I've seen her."

"So is she okay? She looked kind of sick, or something, yesterday."

Will looks down at the ground, this time. He reaches back blindly for the door handle and Myka sees him clutch it tight, until his knuckles are white. Then he sighs, and looks up to meet Myka's eyes with intent.

"Have you eaten?" he asks. Myka shakes her head.

Will pushes the door open. "Come in," he says, "I've made enough for both of us."

Myka follows him into the living room but instead of going to the kitchenette, he puts a finger to his lips and gestures to the slightly open bedroom door. With his palm, he pushes it open just enough for Myka to see inside, to see Helena sleeping in the bed, her face half-turned into the pillow, that heavy black hair draped over the  edge of the bed.

"Oh," Myka says quietly. "Are you and she, um. Well, are you?"

Will shakes his head solemnly as he pulls the door closed. "Never have, never will," he says. "That's not how we are together."

"Okay," Myka says. "Well, if you need someone to help with Christina while you're here, I mean, she knows I adore that kid, so."

Will is standing over his saucepan now, idly stirring vegetables over the heat.

"You haven't asked where she is," Will says.

Myka blinks. "I assumed with a friend? She was always at my house when we were kids together."

Will shakes his head. "Not all the worlds are as fond of Agents as you Terrans are," he says.  He glances over at her through the corner of his eye and she remembers sitting at a counter much like this, seven years ago, watching Helena cook.

"Chicha?" he asks.

Myka nods.

He pulls two green bottles out of the fridge and pops their lids off against the edge of the countertop. He slides one across the counter to her, and keeps the other for himself.

"Not all worlds are as fond of Agents as we are," Myka prompts. She has been getting a sense of this fact already, actually, from listening to and reading conversations and stories from the other planets.

Will nods. "It's always such a pleasure to come to Terra," he says. "We are appreciated here. Respected. Almost revered—it can be a little uncomfortable, even, on occasion, as though you think we're more than the people we are."

He pulls two plates from the cabinet and begins to scoop food onto them. Myka notices he leaves a good portion in the pan, for Helena, she presumes.

"Chthon is nice, too," he says. "It's a very… corporate state. They treat us as partners in their endeavors to design new things. Some places are annoying, if not outright offensive to us." He lets out a breathy laugh. "Earth," he says. "They act as though all the other planets exist to serve them."

Will has come around the counter, now, and taken a seat on the stool beside Myka. He lifts his chicha bottle to her. Myka looks at it, and then blinks at him, puzzled.

"Tap yours against mine," he says. Myka furrows her brow but obliges, clinking the butt of her bottle against the neck of his, and then copies him as he sips his drink.

"Earthen tradition that I'm fond of," Will clarifies. "It expresses goodwill at the start of a meal. Anyway," he sets the bottle down, "Illyria. In Illyria we are widely despised. The sentiment is spreading on Domus, too, but that's neither here nor there. Not everyone hates us in Illyria, of course, but it's the dominant sentiment. Illyria for Illyrians, who needs all this foreign rubbish invading our independent spirit and culture, things like that. If it weren't for the Seven Worlds Treaty, they would have banned us by now, I'm sure of it."

"That's terrible," Myka says.

"We're practically prisoners when we're there," he sighs. "Armed guards between the Archives and the Agents housing, for our own protection, and we don't really go anywhere else. We're all miserable on Illyria, but the children most of all. We don't send them to school there, because it's not safe enough. They spend time with each other, but Christina always suffered there. There's only one other child on our ship who's near her age, but they've never really mashed up, you know?"

The food is delicious but Myka finds that her bites are slower and smaller, because there's foreboding in Will's story, she just knows it.

"We do get on with the Archivists there," Will says. "And there is a man—the Archivist for Education there—who had a daughter about Christina's age. He offered to bring Christina to his house to have them play."

"Well, that sounds good, right?" Myka offers.

Will raises his eyebrows, and takes another slug of his drink. "One would think. He brought her some of his daughter's clothes to wear so she wouldn't be a target. And she wasn't. It wasn't her that the shooter was after—it was the Archivist. The extremist who did it claimed that since Agents were too hard to reach he would make his point through, and I quote, 'exterminating their snakes who hide among us.'"

Myka chews slower, and slower, as the words sink in. She swallows and sets her fork down on the edge of her plate. "No," she says.

"Yes."

Myka and Will both wheel around. Neither of them had heard H.G. rise from the bed and make her way into the living room where she stands, now, her head looking very small emerging from the thick blanket she's wrapped over her shoulders.

"And they won," she says. "They wanted to destroy me, and they succeeded."

"H.G.," Will says, and his voice is soft but even Myka can hear the strain of slight frustration beneath it. "It wasn't about you. You know that."

"They wanted to destroy us, Wolly, and to do that they destroyed me," H.G. says, and there's a stillness to her face and her voice that's troubling given the content.

Myka is hearing what's being said but she's barely processing it. Her brain is stuck, like one of her audio recordings skipping, on the word 'exterminating.'

She has many memories of Christina but the one that sits brightest in her mind, right now, is of Christina sitting on a tree branch, slightly higher and across the trunk from Myka herself, saying "Your weird planet just calls us Starlings."

Her fork drops loudly against the edge of the plate. Will jolts and turns back to her. "Myka?"

"Christina is—she's—"

"Myka—" Will says. He reaches out and puts a hand on her shoulder but she jerks away like his fingers are hot coals. She looks at him, then at her plate, and then turns back to H.G., who wraps the blanket tighter around herself.

She pushes her chair back and stands up. She looks at Will, and then down at her half-eaten plate of food, and says, "This was really—it was really good, but I think—I need to—"

Will nods.

Then Myka turns to H.G. Steps closer to her, and closer still, and puts her hand on what looks like a shoulder under the blanket, and says, "I’m so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

H.G. is still, and stiff. She takes a deep breath in, and as she lets it out she nods, twice, her lips pressed into a tight line.

And then Myka escapes out the door.

She starts walking back to her housing, but the thought of spending the night in her cube, four feet by eight feet with a mattress for a floor and a locker down the hall where she stores her things, is abhorrent. So she changes her plans and makes a left turn and winds up at the apartment where her mother and sister still live.

“Mom?” Myka calls from the entryway. She still has a key.

“Honey?” her mother calls back from the kitchen. A clatter of cookware, and then she appears at the doorway between the kitchen and living room. “Myka!” she says, smiling, “I wasn’t expecting you. Have you eaten?”

Twenty-year-old Myka is tall, now, and she crosses the living room in four strides and she has to half-crouch to get her arms tucked under her mother’s arms, her head tucked under her mother’s chin, and that’s when she starts to cry.

She lies, that night, in the bed where she slept from the time she was 15 until she was 19 and moved into the Junior Archivist housing, in a room that she shares with Tracy. Before bed she explains to Tracy what happened to Christina, but fourteen-year-old Tracy has only thin memories of her as a child she befriended for a month many years ago, so the impact is less overwhelming than it had been for Myka.

So she lies in her teenage bed but she doesn’t sleep. In the morning she changes out of the too-small flannel pyjamas and back into her work uniform; she kisses the still-sleeping Tracy’s forehead and leaves a note of thanks for her Mom and steps out into the grey light. She walks, first, to the cluster of trees, big things now, and spreading, where she and Christina had played as children, almost fifteen years earlier for Myka but less than two years ago for Christina. She trails her fingertips over the thick bark, feeling it crumble just a little under her fingertips. She looks up at the growing light between the branches.

There is a bakery on the main street between the trees and the Archives and she passes just as it’s opening its doors. The window is full of steamed dumplings, baked cakes and desserts with fillings peeking out between their layers and Myka thinks of H.G.’s head coming out from the broad puff of blanket last night, her eyes dark, her cheeks sunken.

Ten minutes later she is bound for the Starlings’ housing holding a box full of baked treats that she can’t really afford, but who can possibly turn down a baked manna-fruit twist? Nobody, surely.

There is no movement when she knocks on H.G.’s door so she goes to Will’s and knocks quietly. There is a shuffle on the far side and Will answers, still in pyjamas and looking disheveled, and only then does Myka realize just how early it is.

“I’m—I’m sorry, I just—breakfast?” Myka stutters, holding out the box.

Will smiles. “That smells heavenly. Come in.”

There are a blanket and pillow on the living room couch and Myka is strangely relieved to see that Will and Helena haven’t been sharing a bed.

“I don’t want her to be alone,” Will says, as if reading Myka’s mind. “Since she lost Christina, it’s… none of us trusts her to take care of herself. She sleeps almost all the time.”

“You’re good friends,” Myka says.

Will nods. “She has always been a mentor to me. Tea?”

“Sure.”

The cakes are still warm when Myka opens the box. Myka points: “Manna-fruit, purple, honeyfruit, choco, gold nugget, plain.”

“What’s your favorite?”

“Manna.” She pulls out the one with the reddish filling and hands it to him, but he holds up his hand. “Take it to H.G.,” he says. “With this.” He hands her a cup of tea.

Myka eyes the mug and bites her lip. “She’s asleep.”

“I think she won’t mind if you wake her,” Will says. “She’s quite fond of you, you know.”

Myka’s skin turns the color of that manna-fruit, she’s sure of it. She shrugs and takes the breakfast and quietly slips into the bedroom where H.G.’s head is, again, emerging from the thick wad of heavy blankets, her hair in disarray, spread over the pillows. Myka has a flash of that first time she’d seen Helena’s hair, how  it gleamed near-white in the sun, and now, against the white pillows, how dull it is.

She crouches by H.G.’s face and sets the mug on the bedside table, and then puts a careful hand on H.G.’s shoulder. “H.G.,” she says.

H.G. clears her throat and says, with surprising clarity, “I heard you come in.”

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Myka says.

“I know.” Slowly, H.G.’s eyes blink open. A hand emerges from beneath the blankets to rub away the sleep-sand. “Give me a moment and I’ll join you in the kitchen.”

Myka sits at the kitchen counter and picks at her gold nugget dumpling opposite Will, who devours the honeyfruit. She hears the shuffle of movement in the bedroom, the flush of the toilet, and then H.G. emerges in thick socks and a thick sweater and warm pants, her hair loose over her shoulders, tea in one hand and pastry in the other.

“This is delicious, Myka. Thank you.”

It sounds thin, a little forced, but genuine. Myka smiles carefully. “I’m sorry I ran away last night.”

“It’s quite all right, darling,” H. G. says with a dry laugh, “I’ve been running away ever since it happened.”

They sit in pleasant quiet, the three of them, eating breakfast and drinking tea.

“Would you like me to tell the Head Archivist what’s going on?” Myka asks. “I mean, I don’t need to give the details or anything, but just enough to explain why you won’t be in.”

“That might be a good—“ Will starts, but H.G. shakes her head.

“I’ll be in today,” she says. “It was… it was hard, yesterday, being here.” H.G.’s eyes begin to glisten. “This was her favorite planet at the end. She was so excited to be in Illyria because that meant we were halfway around to coming back again…” as her voice trails off, H.G.’s head tips down and she pinches the bridge of her nose.

“You don’t have to, H.G., people will understand,” Myka says. But H.G. shakes her head. “This is my purpose,” she says. “I can’t let them take that from me, too.”

Myka waits in the living room while Will and H.G. dress and then the three walk together to the Archives.

“The pink sky here,” H.G. says, “I’ve always found it to be one of the most beautiful things in all the worlds.”

Myka smiles. “It’s the rubidium in our star,” she says. “Burns pink.”

“Lovely,” H.G. says, with a smile that reaches her eyes. “Lovely.”

Myka decides in that moment that she will do anything, absolutely anything, to make H.G. give that smile as often as possible for as long as she’s on Terra.

So she brings pastries to Will’s house for breakfast a couple of times each week, until one day Will says, “If I’ve been paying attention, you’re going to bring us breakfast again tomorrow, so I’ve pre-empted you and made an order at the bakery that you can pick up on your way, because you’ve been spending far too much of your stipend on H.G. and me.”

Myka doesn’t complain, because she has been spending too much of her stipend on treats, but she can’t bring herself to want to stop.

In the evenings, she sometimes waits for H.G. at the Archives’ gate and says, “I want to take you somewhere.”

H.G. usually smiles, tight-lipped and a little down-cast like one does to a child who says, with great pride, “Look at my drawing!”

That’s not how Myka wants H.G. to look at her. That’s not the way at all. But it’s still a smile from H.G., so she takes what she can get.

Myka has only seen images of the other worlds so it’s hard to compare them to Terra, but she learns, quickly, what kinds of things H.G. likes to see. She takes H.G. on walks to the tops of hills where they can look down on the city, or where they can look out on the fields and the lands.

“The colors,” H.G. murmurs. “The purples and the reds… the colors of this planet take my breath away. I always insist on the seat by the window when we land here, so I can look down on this sea of colors.”

Myka takes her to the growing centers, too, where researchers and agriculturalists grow the food that people eat. Some of it, the edible stuff that grew here before humans arrived, is grown outdoors, but the seeds that come from other planets are raised in covered spaces because nobody wants to risk upsetting the delicate natural ecosystem that makes the planet habitable.

“Such a young planet,” H.G. marvels, “So few resources, and yet look what you’re doing with them!” She trails her fingers along the skin of a fuzzy orange fruit hanging from a tree. “Peaches,” she says. “An Earthen fruit. Durem is the only planet besides Earth and here that can grow them.”

Pete jibes her every time he sees her, which is, most often, when she’s climbing the ladder to her cube alongside his. “Awfully smiley these days, Mykes! You gotta be getting something in your life that you didn’t used to be getting much of in your life, know what I mean? Am I right?”

Myka punches him in the shoulder, but not hard enough to knock him off his ladder. “No,” she says, but she can tell from his face that he doesn’t believe her—and she’s kind of okay with letting him think what he wants.

One day her plans to find H.G. at the gate are foiled by Will, waiting for her there.

“Can I take you to the diner for an after-school snack?” he says, with a smile.

Myka smiles and shrugs. “Sure.”

They sit in a booth and there’s much less awkwardness over their noodles than there was the last time they met here, like this.

“I know it’s perhaps not proper for me to say this,” Will begins, “and I apologize in advance if it upsets you, but: I’m so terribly proud of the person that you have become. I know I have no real right to say it and I’ve certainly had no influence upon it but—“

“Will,” Myka interrupts, smiling. “It’s okay. Thank you.”

Will’s responding grin nearly splits his face. But then he sobers. “How—your father—“

Myka sighs a little. “We left him when I was fifteen. He’s still at the Archives and I try to avoid him there, but even when we cross paths he doesn’t talk to me so it’s not really a big deal. He’ll be retiring soon anyway.”

Will nods, then lets out a dry laugh. “We’d thought to take you away, you know.”

Myka isn’t surprised. “’We’ who?” she asks, though she’s pretty sure she knows the answer.

“H.G., of course. The idea that I was letting my own daughter be raised by another man who was mistreating her… and H.G., she was so very, very fond of you. You were here favorite of all the planet-dwellers, I think. Still are, as far as I can tell.”

Myka can’t contain the smile that pulls across her cheeks. She bites the side of her lip and then camouflages the whole thing behind a mouthful of noodles.

“I’m glad you didn’t take me,” Myka says, eyes down on her bowl, but when she looks up again Will is smiling sadly at her.

“I know you are,” he says. “And I know you’ve already done the math, that you know how old you’ll be the next time we come around. Same age as me, round about,” he takes a sip of his drink, “and catching up to H.G.”

Myka feels her heart race, her stomach settle, though in embarrassment or excitement she does not know. Because yes, she is aware of this. She is very, very aware of this.

“Please be careful, Myka,” Will says. “It’s not an easy thing, for a planet-dweller to love an Agent. And H.G….” he pushes his fingers through his hair, the same color as Myka’s. “She’s struggling these days. And you’ve helped her, I think, truly you have, but it will take her years to move forward from this kind of grief. Years by our measure, not yours.”

But Myka shakes her head. “Don’t you go trying to be dad-like with me now,” she says. “No offense, but we’re never going to have that kind of relationship.”

Will palms the back of his neck and nods.

“We can be friends, though,” Myka says.

Will smiles. “Friends. I like that.”

That night, as Myka lies awake staring at the low ceiling of her cube, she thinks of the word Will had used. Love.

The next day the Archivists receive notice that the Starlings will leave the following day. The Archivists and the Starlings work late into the evening, trading and documenting the information that needs to be traded and documented both for the Archives on Terra and the records on the Starling ship to take to other planets. Myka scrabbles, works so fast her eyes and her hands start to hurt, but she manages, still, to be done before the Archive of Engineering sends its people home.

She doesn’t go to the gate this time. She waits for H.G. in the corridor, right outside the Engineering door.

“I’ve been saving the best for last,” she says to H.G. instead of greeting.

H.G. smiles. “Lead on.”

They go, of course, to the trees. Myka makes a show of inspecting each of them as she walks past, “Not this one… no, not this one either,” until she announces, with the flair of an illusionist’s reveal, “This is the one!”

The trunk is quite big around, now. Myka can touch her fingers around it, but just barely.

“Christina taught me to climb this tree,” Myka says, smiling.

She turns around to look back at H.G., behind her, but H.G. isn’t smiling. H.G.’s eyes are wet, her lip held tight between teeth.

“She talked about it all the time,” H.G. says. “Everything was, ‘When me and Myka climbed the trees this,’ ‘When me and Myka climbed the trees that.’” She laughs a little, sadly. “I used to correct her. ‘Myka and I.’”

Myka takes a cautious step closer H.G., and then another one. She puts her hand on H.G.’s shoulder, and then, in a burst of courage, moves it to H.G.’s cheek the way H.G. would touch Myka’s cheek when Myka was younger. Myka’s heart nearly stops when H.G. tips her cheek into that hand.

“Are you okay?” Myka asks.

H.G. closes her eyes and breathes for a few moments before deciding, apparently, to settle on honesty: “No.” She lifts her head, now, and steps back. “I don’t know that I ever will be. But I’m trying.”

Myka nods. They stand in silence for a moment.

“Do you want to climb it?” Myka asks, suddenly.

This makes H.G. smile. “Oh, darling, I don’t think I’m young enough for that.”

“Don’t be silly. It’ll be fun. Come on, you go first. I’ll give you a boost to the first branch and then I’ll go behind you.”

That’s all it takes for H.G. to relent. Ten minutes later, they are perched high in the branches. H.G. sits sideways but Myka faces, straddling her branch with her cheek against the trunk. Both of them are breathing hard, and smiling, and Myka is relieved to see that H.G.’s eyes aren’t wet anymore.

“You’re right,” H.G. says. “That was fun.” She tips her head sideways to rest it against the trunk, eyes angled toward Myka.

Myka’s heart is pounding from more than just the exertion of the climb. Because H.G. is so close she can smell her breath, almost feel it puffing against her skin.

“What does H.G. stand for?” she says. She knew, sometime long ago, she knows, but now--anything to break the strain.

H.G. smiles. “Helena George.”

“Helena,” Myka echoes, because it’s the most beautiful name she’s ever heard.

Her heart is thumping harder still, pounding so she’s sure H.G. – Helena—can see it in her neck, she’s sure her hands would vibrate with it if they released this tree trunk. So she takes a deep breath and holds it and then leans forward and presses her lips against Helena’s.

It’s barely a kiss: lips pressed dryly against lips, without moving. When that touch of lips lasts long enough for Myka to process that Helena’s not pulling away, her heart all but flutters into arrhythmia.

But then Helena does pull back, carefully and without haste. Myka just watches her, blinking, and resists the urge to press her finger to her lips. She rests her cheek against the rough bark of the tree trunk.

Helena looks down—way, far down to the ground, and then over to the side. She bites her lip.

“I think we’d better climb down,” she says.

They climb wordlessly, and when they emerge from the trees and begin the walk back toward town, Helena keeps more distance between them than she did on the walk over, Myka notices.

They stop at the entrance to the Starling housing. “Myka,” Helena says, and it comes out like a sigh. She pushes her fingers through her hair. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, these past weeks. I hope you know that.”

And Myka knows the beginning of a let-down when she hears one. She pushes her hands into her pockets and nods.

Helena nods back. “Don’t give your heart to an old and broken woman like me.”

“You’re not old,” Myka protests.

“Centuries, by your standards, Myka,” Helena admonishes. “And even measured in relative terms, how old are you?”

“Twenty.”

“And I’m nearing thirty-five.” Helena shakes her head. “You’ve so much to give, Myka. And there are better people on this planet than I to receive it.”

Myka opens her mouth to respond but is silenced when Helena cups one cheek in her hand and rises up on her toes to press her lips to the other. “Goodnight, Myka.”

Then she turns and walks through the gate.

Myka stands alone beneath the darkening, purpling sky.

She takes a long route back to the Junior Archivists’ housing, choosing roads that are dark so that she can see the twinkling of the lights above. She presses her fingers to her lips and walks that way, as though it will keep the trace of Helena’s touch from escaping.

In the morning, she rises early after a poor night’s sleep, and she goes to the bakery. She buys a larger than usual box of pastries and leaves it on Will’s stoop with a note:

We are all children of the stars, aren’t we?

Travel safely.

Myka

 

Chapter Text

It takes Myka a little while to get over the heartbreak.

“Man,” Pete says, several years later, “You were kind of a mess for weeks after she left. When I see that Starling again I’m going to—well, okay, no, I’m not going to punch her, but I might see if I can get Amanda to do it.”

Amanda was the transfer brought in to replace Pete in Military when Pete did, eventually, get his transfer over to Sports and Rec. He had to train her before he could leave, and at the end of their two weeks of overlap, he was head-over-heels in love.

“I vote for no punching,” says Sam, Myka’s boyfriend. “I might actually hug her for being stupid enough to let this one go.”

“Oh, hush, you,” Myka says, but she leans over and kisses him on the cheek just the same.

Sam is the Junior Archivist for Medicine, a few years ahead of her class, and he’s good. Very, very good. There’s buzz that he’ll probably be Head Archivist one day. Myka admires him, enjoys his company and his conversation and, well, he’s great in bed. They’re a great fit—everyone says so. They’ve been dating about a year and a half when he starts asking what she thinks about different neighborhoods and different types of housing. Myka tries to be elusive, she really does, but she isn’t surprised when he takes her out for dinner and asks, while they’re waiting for their entrees, what she thinks of the idea of moving in with him. Not into his place, even though he’s got independent housing, because that’s just a weird thing where they’ll both feel like it’s his space, and of course he can’t move into her cube with her. But they could pick somewhere together, somewhere that suits both of them.

It’s the sweetest, most genuine and heartfelt way Myka could ever imagine being asked to take that step, and she feels terrible, absolutely gut-wrenched, that her first reaction is no, no, no.

So, “Sure,” she says. “Let’s look into it.”

But ironically she starts spending fewer nights at his place, and invites him more rarely to hers. When they visit different houses and apartments, he’s got such excitement in his eyes when they walk up and she watches that sparkle fade as she finds frivolous details to nit-pick.

When she ends things a couple of months later, they both cry, but he says he knew it was coming.

Myka stays single, for awhile, after that, tumbling into the occasional fling and one or two one-nighters, but by the time she is twenty-seven, she’s had nothing serious since she broke up with Sam when she was twenty-five.

When she watches Helena’s ship land this time, she notices how much thinner the crowds are than they were even seven years ago, let alone sever years before that. Attitudes are changing, on Terra. Starlings are respected, beloved even, but no longer revered; the landing of their ship is no longer treated as an event worthy of closing all businesses and cancelling all other events.

Later, she’ll call herself an idiot for it, but she is genuinely unprepared for the rush of emotion she feels when Helena steps off the ship. She’s had so many other entanglements—more serious ones—and she’s been in love once, all since that awkward kiss in the tree seven years ago.

But she sees Helena and her heart begins to pound so fiercely that she can feel it in her fingertips, like they may be swelling and receding under the pressure.

Helena still doesn’t look well. It’s still been less than two years since Christina died, for her, Myka reminds herself. Myka’s had time enough to feel that Christina's death is in the past, but Helena has had much less time, and Helena, as Christina's mother, will need a thousand times more of it than Myka did.

Still, this time, Helena’s eyes alight on Myka and she waves a greeting, and Myka lets out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Pete, standing beside her, nudges her with his elbow. “Don’t do anything stupid,” he says. “Don’t let her do that to you again.”

Myka says hello to Will when he comes to shake her hand, but Helena has been sequestered by Claudia, who’s talking excitedly at her, with animated gestures. Relieved, Myka slips away.

That night, she’s lying in her cube with a novel when the buzzer on her wall comm-unit sounds. She sits up and presses the button. “Yes?”

“Myka?”

She would recognize that voice anywhere.

“Helena.”

“Hello, Myka. I just—I wanted to say hello to you.”

“Hang on, I’ll be right out.”

Myka climbs down from her cube and runs to her locker for her shoes and jacket, and then ducks into the lav to fiddle fruitlessly with her bed-headed hair before giving up and pulling it back into a quick ponytail, berating herself the whole time.

Helena is waiting by the gate. When she sees Myka she breaks into a wide grin. As Helena’s gaze tracks from Myka’s boots up to her eyes Myka feels it like a touch, erotic as a lover’s caress. She clenches her hands into fists until her nails begin to cut into her own palms.

“Myka,” Helena says, as Myka is enveloped into her arms, as Myka is enveloping Helena into her own arms. “It’s so wonderful to see you.”

“It’s good to see you, too, Helena,” Myka says into Helena's hair.

Myka feels the shift of Helena’s head as she smiles and says. “Never stop calling me that, all right?”

And there it is, already: the ‘never’ that invokes time, as it passes, as it will continue to pass differently for the two them. Myka has a flash of herself as an old woman, leaning on a cane to watch the Starling ship land, and watching a young Helena, perhaps forty, step down from the hatch.

“Okay,” Myka says.

They go for a walk. Not a long expedition, like they used to, but a stroll around town.

“Wolly wants to see you, too, but I told him I wanted to claim you for this first evening,” Helena says.

They happen to be walking past the bakery. Myka points and says, “Maybe I’ll bring him breakfast tomorrow.”

“Better bring enough for an extra person, if you do. He’s got someone staying with him these days. Not me,” Helena adds hastily. “I’m all right on my own again now. He’s got a companion, as it were.”

Myka grins. “I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

“Him,” Helena corrects.

“All right, I’m looking forward to meeting him, then,” Myka says, with a nod. “How about you? Do you have a ‘companion, as it were’?”

Myka resists the urge to turn to look at Helena even though, in her peripheral vision, she can see Helena tip her head forward and cock it toward Myka.

“No,” Helena says. “You?”

“No. I mean, I did, for a while. A couple of years, with this really great guy, but things just—it wasn’t what it needed to be, I guess, which is why I ended things, and that was a couple of years ago now, and—“

“Myka,” Helena interrupts, “You don’t have to prove anything to me.”

Myka lets out a shaky breath and shrugs. “After last time, I just don’t want you to think I’ve been sitting around pining for you like some lovesick character in a bad novel.”

Helena leans over and bumps Myka’s shoulder with hers. “I’m glad you haven’t.”

They turn a corner and walk toward the gate of the Starling housing. Their pace slows as it approaches, until they drift to a stop at the turn.

“So,” Myka says, “I’ll see you tom—“

“Come in for tea?” Helena blurts. “It’s so good to see you again.”

Myka’s eyebrows leap up her forehead. “I, um, sure.”

Myka sits at the kitchen counter in Helena’s housing unit while Helena heats water on the stove and then pulls a zippered bag out of the fridge. “I haven’t unpacked yet,” Helena says. “I just put the whole bag in here before I walked to see you.”

Myka tries to ignore the twist in her stomach at the admission. She fails.

Helena rummages through the bag and pulls out a small, metallic box. She fits her thumbnail in to a tiny seam and pushes, and with a hiss, like the sound of hydraulics releasing, the box opens.

“Marvelous bit of engineering, this is,” Helena says. “It was developed on Earth. If you store food in here and keep it at cold temperatures, it prevents the food inside from ripening or bruising, indefinitely.”

She pulls out a fruit. Green and orange, somewhat oblong, about as long as Myka’s hand from the heel to the tip of her middle finger.

 “It’s called a mango,” Helena says. “It only grows on Earth, but it’s a very fragile fruit. Before this, we had no way to transport it this far along the planetary sequence. Do you want to try some with your tea?”

Myka swallows against a lump in her throat. “That sounds great,” she says, as nonchalant as she can manage.

“Aces,” Helena grins.

Myka watches as Helena peels the skin with a knife, revealing rich orange flesh beneath, and then begins to cut the fruit away from its center stone. It looks even more juicy than honeyfruit, and Myka tries and fails not to stare as the liquid trails down Helena’s fingers, dripping from her wrist into the sink.

Slices stack in different sizes and shapes on a plate on the counter. Helena washes her hands in the sink, and Myka snaps herself to attention. The water has boiled and Helena pours the tea, too, and sets a mug before Myka before sipping from her own.

“Go ahead,” she says, gesturing with her chin toward the plate. “Try it.”

Myka reaches for a wedge of fruit and it’s wet and a little sticky between her fingers. In her mouth it coats her tongue with rich sweetness, thick and fragrant but not cloying, and she can’t help the way her eyes roll back in her head a little. “Oh, wow.” She says, still chewing. She swallows. “Wow. That’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever tasted.”

“Isn’t it marvelous?” Helena asks, reaching for a slice for herself as Myka reaches for a second one.

Myka has a moment of remembering herself as a child with Christina, giggling over honeyfruit.

“I can’t believe you shared that with me,” Myka says. The plate is empty now, and Myka swipes her fingertips one after the other over her lips and tongue, tasting the juice. “If I were you I wouldn’t have shared it with anybody.”

She looks up from her own hand just in time to see Helena’s eyes jump up from Myka’s fingers as well.

“I wouldn’t have shared it with just anybody,” she says.

There are things Myka has carefully, very carefully, not let herself want in the past six and a half years. She has gotten used to not letting herself want these things.

This thing.

She stands up and reaches for the empty mango plate, saying, “Why don’t I—“

Helena reaches for the plate at the same time, saying, “I’ll just—“

Their sticky hands collide, fingers tangle, at the rim of the plate, pinching the fired clay surface. They stay there, and Myka can't tear her eyes from where their hands are touching, can't tear her eyes away even to look over at Helena's eyes. Helena, who isn't pulling away. Helena, who didn't pull away at first that last time, in the tree, until, eventually, she did. So Myka watches, and waits, until she can barely breathe, she can only take enough breath to say, "I was a kid the last we saw each other."

Helena's voice, equally breathless and quiet, says, "You were."

Myka swallows and takes a risk. She moves her fingers forward, over Helena's fingers and hand, until Helena is holding the plate herself but she hasn't got a firm enough grip, hasn't got enough of it in her hand and it drops out, clatters against the countertop, and then Helena's hand is in Myka's hand, back to palm; it's curled loosely, thumb pressed to the tips of middle and forefingers, where the plate had slipped out, and Myka cradles it as she would an easily-bruised fruit, or the blossom of a fragile flower.

Now Myka looks up, sees Helena staring down at their joined hands, breath escaping through slightly-parted lips.

"I'm not a kid anymore," Myka says.

"I know you're not." Helena's eyes snap up to Myka's, black pupils lost in near-black irises. "I know you're not," she says again.

Myka pulls. She pulls slowly, and gently, and not hard enough to compel Helena to follow if Helena prefers to resist. But Helena is not resisting, Helena is moving quite willingly, and now Myka is leaning forward, too, standing up from her stool and leaning across the counter that separates them, and if anyone had asked her that morning if she was over H.G. Wells she would have laughed, she would have called it a late-teenage crush and dismissed the whole thing, but now, oh, now their lips are touching, Helena's bottom lip has slipped into the dip between Myka's and Myka's top lip has slipped into the dip between Helena's, and there is none of the dry press of that time in the tree. Their lips are moving parting and coming together over and over, and Helena's lips are sweet with mango juice and then it's her mouth, her whole mouth that's sweet and open and reaching for Myka's again and again and again.

The kiss isn't tenable, with the edge of the counter digging fiercely into Myka's hips, and if she's raised this far up on her toes to reach she can only imagine how far Helena is stretching. So the kiss goes and goes and goes until it doesn't, until their lips naturally slow in their movements, until they are less kissing than sharing breath.

Myka drops back onto her feet and Helena, with a gentle twist, frees her hand as she stands up. As they step away from one another Myka watches Helena's eyes drift down and to the left, and they stay there.

Myka licks her lips. "I'm going to go wash my hands," she says.

Helena nods, and turns to the kitchen sink. Myka turns down the small corridor and into the bathroom. When she comes back to the kitchen she sees Helena leaning against the sink, twisting and pulling on a towel in her hands. Myka hovers at the junction between the three places she could go: to her seat on one side of the counter, to Helena on the other, or to the front door, through the living room behind her.

Is this where it ends? Myka thinks. Is this how it could possibly end?

A decision: she walks into the kitchenette and leans on the edge of the counter opposite Helena. They don't touch. Helena twists and twists the towel in her hands until Myka reaches across and gently closes her fist around its tightly-spiraled middle.

"Helena," she says.

Helena looks up, looks straight into Myka's eyes, and says, "I can't be what you want."

"You don't know that," Myka says. "You don't know what I want. I don't even know what I want."

"Oh, but I do, my darling," Helena says, her words touched with sadness, dropping down at the ends, "I do."

It's supposed to push them apart, Myka knows, but it has the opposite effect. Helena sets the towel on the edge of the sink behind her and stands up straighter, steps forward, tips her mouth down to Myka's where Myka is slouching, a little, at the edge of the counter. Myka's hands, that have wondered since they were six years old what it would be like to touch Helena Wells's hair, thread into its thick strands, tighten, pull Helena closer, closer, closer still, and Helena's hands are fisted in the front of Myka's shirt. And then Myka's lips are slipping down Helena's chin, across her jawline, and the sound Helena makes when Myka kisses her neck would almost be enough, just that, enough for a very very long time.

"Come on," Helena breathes, tugging on Myka's lapels. "This way."

The darkening purple of the night sky peeks around the edges of the window-coverings, casting Helena's skin in a kind of opal radiance as Myka peels away the unfamiliar Starling clothing, finding buttons and catches in different places than where she would find them on Terran clothing. It lends a thrill of discovery as Myka uncovers these pieces of Helena in unfamiliar sequence: first a shoulder, then an arm, then a breast and a scapula—and Myka pauses there, can't help but pause there to touch, to sigh shakily as Helena presses herself into Myka's hand—and then it's a side that Myka uncovers, the dip of waist into swell of hip, and then another breast, another shoulder-blade, another arm, and it's all she can do not to stop there, because Helena is fumbling with Myka's jacket now, Helena is lifting away the cotton under-layer, Helena is stepping into Myka's body, pressing open-mouthed kisses to the bend of Myka's neck and Helena's skin is warm and soft against Myka's and the idea of being further away from Helena than this, ever, is unbearable; even far enough away to crouch and tug at the fastenings of Helena's trousers. But after long moments of touching and kissing Helena pulls away just enough to brace herself on Myka's shoulder with one hand while she lifts her foot and reaches down to tug at the zip at her ankle, and Myka won't have that, no, she wants to uncover Helena herself. With a smile she bats Helena's hand away and then drops down to one knee, finds the small hidden zip just above Helena's foot and begins to slide it up, pausing just above the calf to pull away Helena's boot, and then she continues to trail the zip upward, over knee, thigh, hip, until the line of skin along Helena's side is uninterrupted from her hair to the floor. Myka kisses the curve of that hip and then, more quickly, unfastens the other leg, removes the other boot, and when Helena is naked Myka must remind herself not to gape, as she tries to decide where, on these beautiful pale expanses, she should first be bringing her mouth and her fingers. But Helena decides first, because Helena brings her hands to Myka's waistband and finds the closures in the front and, with fingers far more nimble than Myka's own, quickly undresses Myka the rest of the way, her eyes on Myka's the whole time. And then Myka's hands are in Helena's hands and Helena backs toward the bed, and then she pulls Myka over her onto the mattress, and then Myka stops trying to choose: she puts her hands everywhere, brings her lips everywhere, pauses in the places that make Helena arch her back and grip at Myka's hair and shoulders. Myka is not usually this assertive, not usually this dominant, but in the back of her mind runs a litany of: I am not the child I was and I can be enough, I can be good enough for you.

When Helena is quivering, when Myka's lips on her skin elicit soft gasps, that's when Myka begins to slip down her body. The intimate touch, for which Helena's impatient hips are longing, comes from Myka's tongue, first. "Oh my stars, Myka," Helena murmurs, fisting her hand in Myka's curls and Myka smiles against her body. But when Helena's movements and sounds become more insistent, Myka stops. Helena releases a disappointed gasp at the separation, even as Myka's mouth moves upward, her tongue looping around Helena's navel, lips pressing a kiss to the hollow between her breasts, until their mouths are open to one another again. Myka's fingers crawl to where her tongue had been, their pads slipping and playing over wetness in indication of what will come next, and then she pushes inside. Helena's moan sounds almost like a hiccup and Myka bites down on Helena's shoulder as she feels a squeeze around her fingers. And then they're moving together, Myka's fingers and thumb and arm and shoulder moving with Helena's hips, and Myka murmurs, "I wanted to see this; I'll give you my mouth again later but I wanted to see you, this first time." Helena nods, her eyes screwed shut and fingernails clawing at the skin between Myka's shoulderblades. When Helena's hips begin to stutter, when they press up into Myka's fingers and try to hold themselves there, Myka bends down and tugs on Helena's earlobe with her teeth and says, "Open your eyes. Open your eyes," and when she lifts up again Helena's eyes are open and then Myka changes her angle, curls her fingers and watches as Helena's body arcs and twists and falls to pieces beneath her.

Helena rolls her body into Myka's and Myka wrestles the blanket out from under them to cover them both.

"Myka, I—that was—" she trails off and shifts to press a kiss to Myka's chest.

Myka chuckles. "I think I've wanted this since before I was old enough to know what I wanted."

She feels Helena smile against her skin.

"It gave me some time to figure out exactly how I wanted it to go, I guess," Myka finishes. Inwardly she's cringing because it's true: some part of her has always wanted this, even when she swore to herself she didn't want it anymore. How else could her body have responded so immediately to the sight of Helena, stepping down from her ship? What else would have made her leave her cube, where she had happily settled in for the night, just because Helena came to her door?

Helena shifts, lifts herself up on her arms and presses a kiss to Myka's lips. Myka feels the roundness of a knee insinuating itself between her thighs and then—oh—Helena's hand at her breast, and then Helena's voice, humming in her ear, "Surely what you wanted didn't end there, did it?"

"No," Myka murmurs, tipping her head back to offer Helena her throat. "It didn't end there."

They're the last words Myka can speak for quite some time.

The sound of tinkling bells wakes them in the morning: Myka blinks, puzzled, until Helena reaches over her and slaps at a device on the nightstand until it turns silent.

“That alarm’s a much nicer way to wake up than the buzzer in my cube,” Myka croaks, but then she feels Helena’s lips travelling over her shoulder, along her clavicle, and Helena says, “I hope that’s not the only thing that makes this nicer than waking in your cube.”

“Mmm, no,” Myka says, as Helena shifts to straddle her, “I mean, there’s the light coming in the window. No windows in my cube.”

Helena jerks up and back from Myka’s neck and back-hands her playfully in the shoulder. “Brute,” she says.

Myka grins. “Only for you.”

They kiss and kiss and kiss in the bathroom with the shower running behind them until Helena finally says “I think we had better bathe apart this morning or we’ll never get to work.”

Myka sighs ruefully, then squeezes Helena’s bare hips and steps back. “You first,” she says.

They make a quick stop at Myka’s on the way to the Archives so that she can change into her uniform. Helena leans on the wall while Myka pulls things out of her locker and that’s where they are when Pete walks up, wrapped in a towel from the shower. He looks at Helena, then at Myka, wearing yesterday’s clothes while pulling fresh ones from her locker, and then grabs Myka by the upper arm and tugs her into a hug.

“Wha—“ Myka grunts.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” he sing-songs, very quietly, into her ear.

Myka smiles: he is protective of her, and she loves him for it. “I don’t,” she says, “but you have free rein to say ‘I told you so’ when it all comes crashing down on my head.”

But it doesn’t come crashing down. It feels, in fact, unbelievably healthy. They do spend every night together, usually in Helena’s unit but sometimes, when the weather is lousy, they only go as far as Myka’s, where she cooks them a passable dinner in the communal kitchen and then they crawl, together, into Myka’s cube, drawing the curtain across the window that overlooks the corridor and burrowing together into the small, cave-like box to play cards or watch net-streams on the wall-unit or read novels before, almost nightly, they make love.

But they don’t spend every moment together, even when they’re not at work. Myka still eats most of her lunches with Pete and Amanda and Claudia and Sam (it’s been long enough, now, that she and Sam can be friends) and Sam’s new girlfriend Deb. Then, one day, Claudia shows up dragging a bemused-looking Starling by the wrist, saying, “This is Steve. He’s a new Starling in Spirituality, and he’s awesome, so he’s going to be our friend and you guys are going to be nice to him.”

Myka knows Steve already, because Steve is Will’s boyfriend. Will invited both Myka and Helena over for dinner two nights after their ship landed. When Myka had arrived at the door, hand raised to knock, she was frozen for a minute by the sound of angry voices on the other side:

“I can’t believe you’re doing this, H.G. I can’t believe you’d do this to her.” Will.

“’Do this to her’? Come off it, Wolly, she’s an adult and a very willing participant.” Helena.

“You’re going to hurt her.”

“I might. Or she might hurt me—has that occurred to you?”

“You guys,” a third voice, unfamiliar. Its accent different from Helena’s and Will’s. Steve, Myka assumes. “She’s going to be here any minute. Can this wait?”

Myka takes this as her cue to knock. Will opens the door with a smile, and then holds his arms open to her. “Myka,” he says.

It’s strange looking at him: it is, she imagines, as it would be to look at a fraternal twin brother.

“Hi, Will.” She hugs him back.

Helena is leaning against the counter, sipping a bottle of chicha, the firm set of her jaw the only sign of the dispute Myka has just disrupted. But when Helena’s eyes meet Myka’s, Helena smiles.

Steve is wonderful: quiet and kind, but with a sarcastic sense of humor that has Myka clutching at her gut. He is from Domus, Myka learns. He had been alone there: his parents passed away when he was young, his sister died of a devastating illness just five years ago, and Steve’s long-time partner left him shortly after that. He had been all right, he says; he’d been training to be a mystic, but when he fell in love with Will, there was little to compel him to stay. So he left, and took to the stars.

(Claudia, Myka knows, also has very little family: her parents, too, had passed away, and her relationship with her brother is… not so much strained as simply thin; they aren’t close. It makes sense, it makes so much sense, that Claudia’s energy meshes so well with Steve’s balance, that her youth counterbalances his maturity.)

Helena is there, on the planet, when Hugo invites Myka to lunch at the diner one day. He invites Caturanga, too. Myka is fond of Hugo, of his goofiness and friendliness that doesn’t conceal his sharp intellect. She is fond of Caturanga, too: they are alike, in many respects.

“Myka,” Hugo says, as they await the delivery of their noodles, “I’ve decided it’s finally time for me to retire.”

Myka freezes with her water glass halfway to her mouth. “Retire?”

“I’m ready,” he says, “and so are you. I asked Caturanga’s opinion of it, which is why he’s here with us right now. He agrees.”

Myka sets her glass down and turns to look at Caturanga, who sits beside her. He nods, smiling. “You’re far more adept than many of the Archivists I work with on other planets,” he says. “You’re ready.”

The next day she tells everyone at lunch: Hugo will retire in three months, and Myka will be promoted to Archivist for Languages. Pete whoops and high-fives her; Amanda smiles and says, “I’m so excited for you, Myka, but a little jealous, I can’t lie.”

Claudia is quiet.

“Everything all right, Claud?” Myka asks.

Claudia nods. “Yeah, you’re going to be awesome as the Archivist.”

“But?”

Claudia shakes her head.

“It’s okay, Claud. I want to know what’s on your mind.”

Claudia shrugs awkwardly. “Abigail is awesome. She’s so nice, and smart, and good at her job, you know? But she’s young, and this is so morbid and kind of mean, but if I ever get to be Archivist for Engineering at all, it won’t be for very long.”

Myka reaches out and squeezes Claudia’s shoulder. It’s a completely fair concern, she thinks, and she doesn’t know how to make it better. Steve, who’s sitting beside Claudia, wraps an arm around her in a hug.

Three weeks pass, with Myka and Helena doing… whatever they’re doing, with Claudia and Steve being the best of friends and Will smiling at Myka with barely-restrained concern. After three weeks of this, Helena meets Myka at the gate and says, “Let’s go to the trees.”

They do. They climb the same tree they climbed last time, and kiss, again, amongst the high branches, though this time, when their lips touch it is not static or stiff, and Myka smiles into it, cradling Helena’s jaw in her palm.

They go to Helena’s unit and Helena is quiet when she makes dinner for both of them in her kitchen. When they make their way to the bedroom that night, Myka discovers that Helena is still more a multifaceted lover than she had thought: she has always been unapologetic in her sensuality but tonight she is more assertive, more dominant than Myka has ever known her to be: she jerks Myka’s jacket and shirt off but bats away Myka’s hands when they reach out to touch her; she bends Myka against the footboard and slides Myka’s trousers down below her hips and taps Myka’s still-booted feet apart as far as they’ll go with the waistband still snug around her thighs, and when Helena goes inside her Myka gasps, and she can’t help but release thin, keening sounds as Helena doesn’t so much give her pleasure as demand it, teeth and mouth sucking and tugging at Myka’s spine, and Myka is so, so willing to give it up.

When Myka comes her knees buckle but Helena catches her with both arms around her waist. Helena guides her languid body to the bed, easing off her boots and pants and then crawling up between Myka’s legs and before Myka has the werewithal to understand what’s happening she’s got Helena’s tongue, slower coaxing this time. The zip along Helena’s sleeve is cold against the inside of Myka’s thigh and this time, when she comes, Myka doesn’t allow herself languor; she sits up, and kisses Helena while she works her out of her clothes, and then lays her back on the soft mattress and sets about touching her everywhere, slow and surely, hard and soft, and when Helena is close, in every sense of the word, their foreheads pressed together, Helena’s eyelids fluttering in rising desire, Myka’s words come out before she can stop them: she says, “I think I’ve been falling in love with you since I was six years old.”

Helena crests, and shakes. When she is curled against Myka’s body, she says, “I think I’ve known since you were six years old that I would fall in love with the woman you would become.”

There is something else Myka wants to say, she wants to propose, but it frightens her; she feels her heartrate pounding, harder and harder through her body, until Helena says, “My goodness, darling, your pulse.”

“Stay with me,” Myka says. “Here, on Terra. Stay with me.”

Helena is quiet for a long time.

“I can’t,” she says, eventually. “You know I can’t.”

“I don’t know that,” Myka says. “Why can’t you stay here? I was thinking, you know, I was thinking that we don’t have an Archivist for Starlings, and how we should, because we should be saving the things we know about you because of the relativity and the time—“

“Myka,” Helena interrupts.

Myka falls silent.

“My daughter’s ashes are entombed on Illyria,” she says. “I would never settle there, but I could never live with the knowledge that she was alone there.”

Myka is surprised by the immediacy and the force of the emotion that rises in her chest, pushes tears up from behind her eyes. “But Christina is—“

“Be very careful how you finish that sentence,” Helena interrupts, the daggers unmistakable in her tone. Myka’s lips snap shut.

They lie in silence for a time, chests moving in tandem, Helena's inhales matching Myka's exhales.

"You could come with me," Helena whispers against the skin of Myka's chest.

Myka remembers her childhood dream of being a Starling: a dream she held the way children dream of impossible things, like becoming the President, or becoming the Head Archivist. But she thinks, now, of her mother, and how hard she worked to ensure Myka's happiness; she is nearing seventy, and if Myka left, she would likely only live through two visits, three if she's lucky. She thinks of her sister, who lost her father when she was eight years old because of the way he treated Myka, but who has never resented her for it. Of Pete, of his warm embraces and unflinchingly loyal friendship, and the way he has lived with an overwhelming fear of being left, ever since his father died when they were children. She thinks of him growing old without her, ahead of her. She thinks of her impending new position as Archivist, too. She thinks of pink Terran skies.

"When I was a child, I would have leapt at the chance," Myka says. "But now… I have too much to lose here."

She feels Helena nod, and knows that she was expecting that answer.

"Then we must enjoy the time we have," Helena says, "and then, when I go, you must move on from me."

Myka doesn't know how she will do that. Doesn't know how she can. But she knows that Helena is right.

They make love again, slowly. Their tears mingle on their faces as they kiss.

The following day, Will takes her to the diner for lunch.

"You're not older than me anymore," Myka says, forcing a smile. "It feels weird for you to pay for my meal."

"Oh, come on," Will's eyes sparkle, "Can't a man take his little girl out for a meal?"

It's become a thing they can joke about, which Myka is surprised to find she genuinely enjoys. She wishes she could smile more freely with him today. She watches the growing concern in his eyes and silently begs him not to ask her about it. She knows that if he asks her, she'll tell him, because part of her is desperate to talk and she's not ready to take it to Pete because he knew, he told her, and he was right, and she knew he would be right, and she's just not prepared to face his gloating, not yet.

"I know I'm not supposed to try to be a father or anything," Will says, as they wait for their check. "But there are things I can see in you because they're similar to me."

Myka cocks an eyebrow.

"Like that," he says. "I do that. But more to the point: you're upset. And I think I know why, so why don't you tell me anyway?"

Myka tips her head forward into her hands and she tells him the whole thing, just as she knew she would.

When she finally looks up, his eyes are hard, his jaw set. "I told her not to do this to you. I told her."

"She didn't do anything to me. She didn't promise anything she couldn't deliver.  I knew what I was doing. Don't be angry at her," Myka begs, "Please don't. It's me, too: I could come with you. I could choose to be with her. But I'm not choosing that either."

"Okay," Will says. "Okay."

Myka and Helena spend every moment they can together, now: lunches, nights, evenings. On their last night together, Myka quietly says, "I can't watch you launch tomorrow. I'll lose it. I can't. Please tell Will and Caturanga and Steve that I'm sorry."

"It's all right," Helena says. "I understand, and so will they."

In the morning Myka walks Helena to the edge of the launch site. She has composed herself. There will be no more tears. They pause, there, hand in hand, and Myka tips her lips down to Helena's, almost chaste, like seven years ago in the tree.

Helena squeezes her hand. "Goodbye, Darling."

Myka squeezes back. "Goodbye."

Myka doesn't look back as she turns and walks to her cube and bundles herself under the blankets.

Eventually, she feels the dull rattle of the ground as the ship launches.

Eventually, she hears the muffled sounds of the other Junior Archivists moving around in the common area, outside her cube.

Somebody knocks on her cube. She ignores it. Knocks again. And then a hiss and a click, and her cube door opens.

"Hey, Mykes."

"That was locked."

"You really think I don't know your access code after living beside you for eight years?"

Myka doesn't answer, but she feels the mattress shift as Pete climbs in and stretches out beside her.

"Here," he says, extending his arms toward her, curling his hands over her shoulder and under her neck. She lets him pull her closer. And he doesn't say anything, not an "I told you so," not a "You knew this would happen," not a single word as he holds her and lets her cry into his shirt.

Chapter Text

The timing of Myka's promotion could not possibly be more perfect, because it forces her not to dwell, at least not during her working hours. She is still sad for a very long time. Months. Pete eventually finds a gentle way to suggest that maybe she should see some kind of therapist about it, and if Pete is suggesting therapy, that means there's really a problem, Myka knows. She gets a recommendation from Sam, who is the Archivist for Medicine now, for a Dr. Sinclair. She goes once a week for two months, and it helps.

Given enough time, healthy hearts do heal.

Pete is expecting his Archivist to retire within a couple of years, and Amanda is optimistic that hers will a few years after that, but they bite the bullet anyway and move out of the cubes and into a small house near Pete's mother's place. Myka's promotion brings her a better paycheck, but she stays in the cubes anyway, to save up enough to try to actually buy a place instead of renting one. She gets into her old habits of dating around, occasional flings, and short-lived relationships. She's not averse to the idea of something more serious, of course, but she isn't exactly looking for it, either.

But then, two and a half years after Helena left, Myka meets Leena.

Archivists are a notoriously incestuous bunch, figuratively speaking, dating and partnering with other Archivists and then having children who grow up to be Archivists as well. Myka's parents were a perfect example, though Tracy grew up to want absolutely nothing to do with the Archives, and instead trained and became a teacher. It's a joke on Terra that Archivists meet Archivists and beget more Archivists.

Leena is not an Archivist, she is a horticulturalist, and Myka wonders whether that’s part of the reason that things are so much easier for them than they have ever been in any of Myka's attempts at relationships. Pete's mother, the Archivist for Agriculture, hosts a party, and Myka meets Leena there. Leena works closely with Mrs. Lattimer to apply the new science brought in by the Starlings, and to archive the new research that she conducts so that it can be given to the Starlings to share with other planets.

Myka meets Leena because they both go to the fridge at the same time for another bottle of chicha. Myka pulls two from the crate but she can’t help eyeing a strange-looking yellowish fruit on the shelf below.

“What in the seven worlds is that?” Myka wonders. It’s not an unusual thing, in the Lattimer house, for there to be strange foods in the fridge. Perk of the Agriculture gig, she supposes.

“Pomellon,” Leena says. “They grow it in hydroponics on Essess, so we’ve just started to see if it will work here, too.”

Myka palms the back of her neck and laughs. “Well, it looks like it’s working!”

“It sure is,” Leena smiles. She cocks an eyebrow gamely at Myka. “I grew that one.”

“Really?” Myka’s eyes widen in surprise.

Leena nods. “Really.”

As Myka gets to know Leena better, she loses all surprise that Leena coaxed a plant to life on Terra that has only ever grown on a space station before. Leena could grow anything, Myka thinks, with those calm, warm hands and that patient demeanor. The plants would want to grow for her, for her easy laugh and even easier smiles. Leena invites Myka to see where she works, one day. As Myka follows her through the terrarium, as Myka watches those slender brown hands, smaller than her own, with gentle surety testing soil moisture and bark texture and leaf thickness and fruit ripeness, she is overwhelmed with the urge to touch, to hold, to run her own fingers over those hands which are surely callused on the pads and soft down the backs.

She tucks her hands into her pockets instead.

At the end of the row, Leena stops and turns around. “I guess it’s less glamorous than an Archivist’s life, but I love it.”

Myka smiles. She looks up, through the glass, at the pink sky, and inhales deeply the rich air from all of these trees and plants. “It’s easy to see why you love it so much,” she says. “It’s easy to see why it’s the perfect place for you.”

Leena tucks her chin down and looks up at Myka through her lashes, smiling, and Myka can’t help but smile back. And then Leena rests her fingertips at the base of Myka’s neck and lifts herself up on her toes and presses her lips against Myka’s, and Myka is completely lost.

Myka and Leena fall into the kind of love that makes all their friends roll their eyes and make gagging noises at them. They can’t be near each other without touching. Let them walk together into the kitchen to get a drink at a party and they’ll disappear for fifteen minutes, but nobody will go to look for them because everyone knows perfectly well they’ll find them making out against the edge of the sink.

Myka looks at Leena and her heart feels too big for her chest, and then Leena looks back and smiles at her and Myka turns giddy, almost overwhelmed by how lucky she feels to have this incredible woman all to herself.

Myka’s mother and sister think Leena is undoubtedly the best thing ever to happen to Myka.

Pete just rolls his eyes at her, two weeks into the whole affair, and says, “Just figures that the hottest Starling in the history of Starlings didn’t work out for you, so you went for the second-hottest woman in the history of Terra instead.”

Myka punches him in the shoulder and arches an eyebrow at him. “Second-hottest?”

“Oh, come on, Mykes. Amanda’s my girlfriend. Also, she hits harder than you do.”

Myka and Leena have been together nine months when they agree to move into a house together. The place they choose is a five-minute walk from the bakery, and Myka brings stacks of novels and language texts and Leena fills it with potted plants and it becomes, very quickly, the happiest, the warmest, the most lovely place that Myka has ever lived. Leena can cook, which Myka appreciates because she never really got the hang of it, and Myka tidies, which Leena appreciates because it's easy for her to forget to put things away.

It takes about a year for the giddiness of the newly-in-love to begin to subside. But even once that passes they remain happy and good for each other. They bicker, sometimes, but they rarely truly argue. When they do, they do it poorly: Leena hates confrontation and will do whatever she can to defuse the situation, which frustrates Myka who feels like that will never resolve anything. But resolve things they do, eventually, every time.

Myka becomes so wrapped up in Leena that when Pete shows up on her doorstep, drunk and in tears, she is completely flabbergasted to learn that Amanda left him.

"We've been having issues for awhile," he says, and for the millionth time in her life, Myka berates herself for having been less a friend to him than he has been to her. She brings him into the house, and Leena brings him a glass of water and a plate of leftover dinner dumplings, and Myka rubs his back and lets him cry for as long as he needs to.

He falls asleep on the couch, his head on a throw pillow. Myka pulls a blanket over him and then goes to Leena in the kitchen, who is filling a canister to water her plants before bed. Myka comes up behind her, slips her arms around her waist, presses her body into that warmth and says, quietly, into the curls of Leena's hair: "Don't ever leave me."

Leena ducks her head to the side and then swivels it around, her lips reaching up for Myka's kiss.

"That's the plan," she says, smiling, after she pulls back.

Pete stays on their couch for a couple of weeks until he finds a small apartment he can afford to rent on his own.

"I just can't stand the idea of going back to a cube," he says. "Especially without you as my neighbor, Mykes."

Days blur into one another. Myka's mother is getting older, and thinking of retiring. Tracy marries the owner of the bakery and together they have a child.

Myka loves her job. She's good at it. She has a Junior Archivist of her own to oversee, now: a nineteen-year-old named Luke whom she hand-picked out of the local school, and they get along famously. Leena is full of new projects, new seeds to try to sprout at her terrarium. Myka begins to work on a novel in her spare time.

Myka blinks, it seems, and six years have passed since the last time Helena was on Terra, and for three of those years, Myka can honestly say she hasn't thought of her much.

(There have been moments. Manna-fruit twists always remind Myka of Helena. And after one awkward walk through the trees with Leena, Myka learns that she shouldn't go there anymore.)

But now there is only one year left before Helena and Will are scheduled to return. Myka laughs to herself to think about Will: he'll be younger than her, this trip, and she looks forward to ruffling his hair and calling him "pop" and teasing him about the whole thing.

A year out from the ship's return, Myka needs to begin to weed through the crates of material from the last time that ship visited. Working in an Archive is a Sisyphean task: there are always more crates to be logged and sorted than there is time to log and sort them. But the work needs to be done before the ship comes back, so she and Luke pull out the documents and the recordings and diligently settle in to sort them.

Myka is unprepared for how viscerally the sounds of these recordings throw her back in time. She hears the crackly Domish discs and remembers how, back then, she couldn't understand Domish, and she had though about how Christina could probably speak it. She hears an Illyrian speaking and thinks of Helena's joined hatred and need for that planet.

She is working through this endeavor for only a few weeks before she must admit to herself: she is thinking about Helena again.

She feels herself becoming quieter and more withdrawn when she is at home.

"You seem down," Leena notices. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Myka says, with false cheer, "I'm just… you know. Work."

Leena looks at her with skepticism.

After a month of this, Myka confides in Pete, who does a series of things.

First, he hugs her.

Then, he asks whether maybe she should schedule a couple more appointments with that shrink, to nip this thing in the bud before it starts to ruin her life.

Finally, he cautions: "If you let yourself get sucked in by her again, Mykes, I don't know how much patience I'm going to have. I know the heart wants what it wants, I get that, but at this point I've already picked you up twice after she's dropped you. You know what to expect from that woman."

Myka sighs. "I know."

"And you don't want to jeopardize this thing with Leena. She's so great for you."

"I know," Myka says.

 Myka does make an appointment with Dr. Sinclair, and then another. They do a lot of talking about what she wants and what would make her happy.

It helped, five years ago. It's not helping so much now. Myka lies awake at night, thinking, and the only explanation she can come up with is that last time, she had been trying to move beyond the lingering effects of an event that was in her past, no matter how wondrous it had been at the time.

Now, she's trying to stop herself from wondering about the future, and it's so hard to convince oneself to ignore the fledgling pieces of, well, hope.

Because that's it, she realizes, with a burst of clarity. In less than a year, Helena will be back. And Helena will be 37 and Myka will be 34 and this is as close as they will come to meeting in the middle of their respective timelines.

Myka experiments: she lies flat on her back and stops fighting it. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, she calls up memories of Helena's face, of her skin, of her laugh, of the way their bodies felt together. She calls up memories of the way Helena gasped when they climbed to the top of the hillcrest out past the Archives. She calls up memories of the way the bark grazed her cheek when she leaned forward to press a kiss to Helena's lips.

She thinks of all these things and is overwhelmed with a longing so powerful that it bubbles out of her in tears. She rolls over onto her side and curls herself around Leena's back, nuzzling into the hair at her nape. She feels Leena shift, and then roll back toward her: "Myka? Baby, what's wrong?"

Myka can only shake her head.

Leena rolls onto her back , half-tucked under Myka, and reaches up to touch her face. She says, "You haven't been yourself lately."

"I know," Myka admits.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Myka shakes her head.

A few weeks after that, Myka is home, dicing vegetables for dinner, when Leena lets herself in—a little behind schedule.

"I figured it out," Leena says to Myka's back.

"Hmm?"

"How weird you've been lately."

Myka sets the knife down on the cutting board and drops her head forward. "There's nothing weird about me," she says.

"Come on, Myka, denial doesn't suit you."

Without turning around, Myka can hear Leena going to the table and sitting at one of the chairs there.

"Leena—"

"It's been over a month since we last had sex," Leena says. "You rush off to work every morning instead of leaving with me like you used to. We don't go out. When you've got a free evening it seems like you come up with excuses to spend it with somebody else."

Myka palms the back of her neck. There's not much she can say to that. It's all true. It's all true.

"It's that Starling, isn't it. Your ex who wasn't really an ex, or whatever. She's coming back in a few months."

There's not much Myka can say to that, either.

Leena sighs. Myka can imagine the way she presses her fingers to her brow. "You're not denying it," Leena says. "I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

"I've been seeing a shrink," Myka says. Finally, now, she turns around and dares to look Leena in the eye. "I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to worry. But I know that what I have, for this woman, is a fatal attraction. That's it. Nothing more." Myka fists her fingers in her own hair and pulls. "But I can't figure out how to shake it. I'm trying so hard, but I can't."

Leena's gaze softens. She stands up and steps closer to Myka, and brings her fingers to Myka's cheek. "Thank you for telling me," she says. "I can't be here for you if I don't know what's going on."

Myka crumbles forward into Leena's arms. "I don't deserve you."

She feels Leena chuckle against the side of her head. "We'll see how things go on that one."

But despite Myka's efforts, despite Leena's patience, things don't improve. They come to a head when Myka forgets their four-year anniversary: she comes home, the next evening, to find Leena, in tears, moving potted plants into boxes.

"Wait, no," Myka says. "No no no. Please no."

"You knew this was coming, Myka," Leena says. "Don't pretend you didn't know."

Myka holds her hands out like she's trying to push back the wind. "I'll try harder. Give me another chance and I'll try harder."

"I think we've run out of chances." Leena straightens and walks across the room to stand in front of Myka, who is framed by the still-open front door. "You deserve to have someone you want more than anyone else," Leena says. "And I deserve not to be the second-best anyone settles for."

Myka is crying now, too, and shaking her head as though rattling her brain will somehow jolt this moment out of existence. "You're perfect for me, Leena," she says.

Leena nods. "We're perfect for each other. But that doesn't make us right for each other."

Six months before Helena's ship is due to return, Myka finds herself drunk on Pete's sofa, because she can't bear the thought of sleeping in her own bed knowing that Leena is staying at her mother's.

"I'm gonna get her back," Myka slurs. She rarely drinks and never to excess, but those carefully-crafted rules are gone out the window now.

Pete leans over and trades the bottle of chichia in Myka's hand for a glass of water. "Drink up," he says.

"I'm gonna get through Hel-Helena's next visit and I'm not gonna do anything stupid and when I've proved to ever'one I can do that, then I'm gonna find Leena and I'm gonna get her back," Myka pronounces, gesturing loosely at the empty air before her.

"Okay, buddy," Pete says, "But for now, I think we need you to get some sleep."

Leena contacts Myka a week later to ask about selling their house. Myka agrees, because when they fix things, they'll want a fresh start, she thinks. Somewhere without all that baggage. It sells easily, and Pete agrees to move out of his shoebox into a bigger place they can share as roommates.

Myka continues to see her therapist weekly.

"I have a thought," Dr. Sinclair, says, one day.

"Please," Myka says.

"You've been coming to me for months at this point. And you told me it's because you want to be better for Leena."

Myka palms the back of her neck and nods.

"But you don't talk about Leena. You talk about Helena. All the time."

"I know!" Myka groans. "I know. And that's the problem. Helena, she's got me in this grip. She never wanted to trap me there. I never wanted to be in this place. We both want each other to be happy."

"I’m going to put something out there, Myka, and feel free to tell me if it's inappropriate."

Myka tugs at her hair in frustration and nods.

"What if Leena's the one who's in the wrong?" Dr. Sinclair asks.

Myka does bristle at the suggestion. She has felt even more protective of Leena since Leena left her than she did when they were together. Which, she notes, seems to be something of a trend in the way she gives her love.

"We've all got the one who got away," Dr. Sinclair continues. "You were never unfaithful to Leena, were you? Or dishonest with her?"

Myka swallows and feels something thick in her throat, like mango juice. "I never cheated. I never even wanted to. And, I mean, I held things back a few times, about the way I was feeling, but—but I was scared, that's all."

Dr. Sinclair sits forward and puts her stylus and pad on the low table between them, and then bends forward, elbows on her knees, fingers steepled. "Committing to monogamy doesn't preclude a person from having feelings for other people, Myka. If you're being honest with me—and I've got a pretty good read that you are—you worked tirelessly to protect your commitment to Leena despite that pull. Had Leena stayed, she, too, would have experienced that at some point—feelings for someone different, someone new, and she would have had to grapple with them to honor her commitment to you."

Myka sags against the arm of her chair, grief and relief and anger and elation tugging her diaphragm in different directions. She breathes carefully through her nose for a long moment because she isn't sure what will come out—words, a sob, a laugh, a scream—if she opens her mouth.

Carefully, she says, "But—but—with Helena, it's not just feelings. It's so much bigger than that."

Dr. Sinclair sits up and tips her head to one side. "So you're in love," she says.

Myka's head drops into her hands as she feels a thousand different emotions coursing through her body in tremors.

"I can't be in love with her," Myka says. "I can't."

Dr. Sinclair smiles knowingly. "Believe me, I know a few things about loving someone you really wish you could just get over. But the heart doesn't work that way. You might as well look at a rock and yell at it because it isn't made of choco."

Myka is crying. Myka is so, so tired of crying over this.

"You can't convince yourself not to love her, Myka," Dr. Sinclair says gently. "What you can do is figure out how to live with that love."

Step one, Myka decides, is not to watch Helena's ship land. Fewer and fewer people go, these days, especially if they're not Archivists. Myka will be missed, and Artie will yell at her and probably issue demerits. But she'll deal with that when the time comes, she thinks. She'll tell him she got food poisoning or something.

She's confident: the key is to just… not see Helena.

It's only a month. She can avoid somebody for a month. She'll need to avoid the Starling housing, and choose her routes carefully through the Archives, but she can do it.

She goes to Agriculture, that first day, to find Will, and she's not quite prepared for how young he looks. His grin, when he sees her, is almost child-like.

"Let me take you for dinner?" she asks him.

He smiles. "Your Claudia has already commandeered my Steve's time, so yes, I am free tonight."

"So," he says, as they scan their menus, "How is my dearest darling baby girl doing?"

Myka chuckles. "Keep that up and you can pay for your own dinner."

It's good to catch up. Will and Steve are blissfully happy, it seems. Myka gives a brief outline of what's happened, for her, in the previous seven years; she mentions Leena but doesn't go into details, and talks about how she and Pete are roommates now, in an apartment not far away.

She doesn't mention Helena, and hopes he'll take the hint.

He does, but not in the direction she'd hoped he would.

"She's desperate to see you, you know."

"Will—"

"She'll understand if you don't want to see her. She told me so herself. She's been miserable, these past months, and given how much longer you've lived with that she expects you to be angry—"

"Will," Myka says, louder now, and his jaw snaps shut. "I'm not angry with her. I'm… frustrated with the situation, and with everything I've lost because of it. It's nobody's fault." She sighs, pushes her hair back from her face. "I've had to work really hard to get to be as close to okay as I am right now, and I can't upset that."

The waiter arrives then to take their orders, and they talk about other things: developments in languages, new fruits that may be coming to Terra from other worlds, and the like. When the check comes, Myka provides her credentials.

"Thanks, kiddo," Will says with a laugh.

He holds the door for her as they step out into the road. As they turn to begin their walk back to the Archives, Will says: "Okay, listen, I'm going to bring this up one more time, and I want to ask you to please just hear me out and then we never need to speak of it again, okay?"

Myka groans and pinches the bridge of her nose. "Fine. Okay."

She feels him swallow and square his shoulders beside her. "This may seem strange for me to say, but in all of the seven worlds, the only person as important to me as you is Steve."

Myka feels her throat thicken. They don't talk this way. It's an admission she's never asked for, from him, but she is surprised at how good it is to hear.

"I regret every day that I was never a father to you," he says, "even though you've so very clearly done well for yourself without me. I'm still not sure that my decision to listen to you was the right one, when you were thirteen and asked me to leave—"

Myka opens her mouth to respond, but Will charges through: "—and perhaps, one day soon, we can have an adult conversation about that but my concern for the moment is a different one."

Trying to follow this conversation feels a little like having a rope tied to her wrist, tugging in every direction, Myka thinks. She crosses her arms in front of her, tucking her hands in against her sides. "All right," she says.

Will pushes his fists into his pockets and shrugs his coat a little higher on his shoulders. "You and Steve are tied for number one for me, which means that H.G. can't possibly be higher than number three. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

It's a little juvenile, the way he's assigning numbers to people, but she understands the purpose behind it. "Yeah."

"I was furious with her when she took up with you. I don't know if you new that."

Now it's Myka's turn to laugh, and to nudge him with her elbow. "I heard you two arguing when I came to your place for dinner that time," she says.

Will groans. "I'm sorry. Our timing for that conversation definitely wasn't ideal. But at least you know, then, that your happiness is what I held dearest, even then."

This kind of familial sentimentalism is foreign, to Myka. Myka and her mother are close, Myka and her sister are even closer, but they don't talk like this, about priorities and happiness.

Beside her, Will swallows hard, again. "I ask you to keep that in mind when you hear what I'm about to say next."

Myka's smile falters.

"Please see her," Will says.

Now Myka's smile is gone.

"Just once. You needn't do it more than once if it goes badly. But you mean more to her than I knew when we were here before."

Their footsteps, falling in rhythm along the road, beat a steady passage of time. Myka and Will are silent until they reach the gate of the Archives.

"I won't be upset if you refuse," Will says. "But please, think about it, at least?"

Myka has no intention of doing any such thing, but Will is a good man, and she can tell his request comes from a good place, so she says, "I'll think about it."

Myka is at home, the following evening, when there’s a knock on her door. The curtain is drawn across the window and she peeks past it and sure enough it’s Helena. Everything in Myka’s body reaches out to her; it’s all she can do not to throw the door open and press her mouth to Helena’s without even a greeting.

Pete emerges from the kitchen, eyebrows raised to see the door still closed.

Myka points to herself, raises her eyebrows and shakes her head, mouthing I’m not here.

Pete’s eyes widen and he nods. He opens the door, smiles at Helena, shrugs, and says, “No, she’s not home. I’m not sure where she is.”

In the gap in the curtain, Myka watches Helena disappear down the walk, shoulders slouched.

Two days after that, karma catches up: they bump into each other, literally, at the lavatory in the Archives, Myka on her way out as Helena is on her way in. They collide forcefully, foreheads bouncing back, and both stand there, dazed, clutching at their skulls.

It’s not lost on Myka that there are at least two lavatories closer to Engineering than this one.

“Myka,” Helena says, and it’s almost enough to turn Myka’s knees to liquid. She looks down, and to the side.

“You’ve become a difficult person to track down,” Helena says. “One would think—one would think you didn’t want to be found.”

Myka lets out a dry laugh. “One would think correctly,” she says.

Helena drops her head. “I understand,” she says, with a nod. “Well—“ she steps back, holding the door open, and waves Myka through with a flourish.

As she steps by, Myka is struck, suddenly, by the fact that Helena, who looks almost the same as she has always looked, truly looks like a peer. She’s no longer older than Myka is.

Myka tries to imagine what it would feel like to be her own age and have already raised, and lost, a child.

She lets out a shuddering breath and turns down the hallway—

“Myka!”

--and spins on her heel.

Helena is still standing there, door propped open against her foot, wringing her hands between one another. She is still thin, Myka thinks; she never recovered fully from the weight she lost when Christina died. Which, she reasons, was only a little over two years ago, for her. Myka waits.

“I know you’ve had many years to move past me,” Helena says, “so perhaps this is an inappropriate request from someone who is still—still working on that.”

Myka can’t hold Helena’s gaze any longer. She looks down and palms the back of her neck.

“Would you join me for a walk this evening?” Helena asks. Her voice makes a creaking sound, like the branch of a tree under the weight of a person’s body, and she has never heard Helena sound vulnerable before. Helena is always so neatly-assembled, so assertive and powerful. When Myka looks up again, Helena looks a hair’s breadth from dropping to her knees and begging.

Spending time with Helena will hurt, Myka knows, but watching her beg would hurt more.

“A walk,” Myka echoes. She takes a deep breath and releases it through pursed lips. “Sure.”

A warm, if tentative, grin pulls across Helena’s lips. “Aces,” she says. “Shall we meet at the gates at the end of the workday?”

Myka nods.

Helena is waiting when Myka emerges. She’s got a bag slung over her shoulder. Myka can feel it already: the impulse to touch, to hold. She drives her fists deep into her pocket.

They stroll aimlessly in silence for some time.

“Tell me about yourself,” Helena says. “What’s new, these past few years?”

Myka shrugs. “Not much.”

“Your living situation has changed.”

“Yeah.” Myka doesn’t want to deliver a baldfaced lie, so she says, “I know you stopped by.”

Helena nods. “Are you and Pete…?”

Myka can’t help but laugh, louder than she intends to. “No, no. We’re just a couple of bachelors sharing a pad,” she says.

They walk in silence a little while longer. When Helena speaks again, it’s tentative: “Have you… anyone… in your life, then, these days?”

“That’s a bit of a loaded question, isn’t it?”

Helena shifts her bag higher on her shoulder. “I don’t mean it to be.”

But maybe this is the way to end this awkwardness. Perhaps this is the opening. So Myka says, “I was with someone for a few years. She left me because I couldn’t get over you.”

“Myka—“

“I’m working on it,” Myka says. “I’m still hoping to patch things up with her.”

In her peripheral vision, Myka sees Helena tug her jacket collar closer to her neck. Abruptly, she grabs Myka by the sleeve and makes a sharp u-turn.

“H.G.?”

“Humor me, darling, please?” Again, that faint note of desperation that Myka can tell she’s working hard to subdue. They aren’t strolling anymore: Helena walks with such determination that Myka struggles a little to keep up, despite her longer legs. They turn one corner, and then another, and quickly Myka comes to realize that they’re headed for the trees.

The tree that had been theirs, and that had been Myka’s and Christina’s before that, is enormous, now. Myka’s arms will not reach around it.

“I’m really not up for a climb today, Helena,” Myka says, as they stop before it.

“That’s fine,” Helena says. She sets her bag carefully on the floor, and then lowers herself to the ground beside it. “Sit with me.”

All Myka wants is for Helena to make sense, for once: to be direct and purposeful and just say what she’s thinking, without games or intrigue or poorly-made assumptions. A growl of frustration tears out of her throat and she steps back, pinching the bridge of her nose.

“What is this, Helena?” she asks, and now she’s the one who’s begging. “I am so, so tired of feeling like a drifting ship in space when it comes to you.”

Helena leaps to her feet and reaches for Myka, pulling her hands back just before she would touch Myka’s arms. “All right. I’m sorry. All right,” she says.

She bends down and opens the drawstring of her bag. She pulls out another, smaller, decorative bag, and then opens the tie on that. The object she pulls out is cylindrical and ornate, fitting easily in Helena’s two hands.

“I fell in love with an Earthling, once, ten years ago,” Helena says, clutching the object to her chest. “But it wasn’t until after I had left the planet that I discovered I was pregnant. Christina was born on our ship, between planets. I was so excited to bring her back to Earth, and I was prepared, so fully prepared, to stay there with him, to have a family with him.”

Myka inhales deeply, shakily, and wraps her arms around herself.

“But when I returned,” Helena continues, “He had a wife. A wife. Earth clung to that strange tradition of ‘marriage’ so much longer than anyone else.” She swallows. “And they had two children, two and four years old. And Christina, conceived before either of them, was only an infant.

“I was heartbroken, but I decided to leave him to his happiness, and to make my own with my daughter. I never told him that he was her father,” she says.

“What happened to him?” Myka asks.

“He lived out his life happily, as far as I know. He’s long gone, now. His children have great-grandchildren.” Helena tips her head back, looks at the pink sky. “I lived for Christina. She was greater to me than all of the seven worlds and any future worlds still to discover. My entire universe.”

She is turning the cylinder in her hands, against her chest, the slow movement polishing it against her shirt front.

“She always hated to travel,” Helena says, looking down again. “That was the only thing. Most of our children are happy with our nomadic life, because it’s all they’ve ever known. But Christina wanted to stop. She loved Earth, and Domus, and Chthon, and here, and every time we’d stop at those planets she would ask me if we could stay. And if I'd listened—stars, if I'd only given her what she asked, I might," her voice breaks, "I might still have her."

“Let’s sit, Helena,” Myka says softly.

Helena nods and gropes behind herself for the tree trunk, bracing her hand against it as she lowers herself to the ground. Myka sits leaning against the next tree, facing Helena.

“After—after she died, I knew I didn’t want her to have to travel with me forever. I knew I needed to let her rest somewhere, as she had always wanted to do. I wasn’t in my right mind, when I let them entomb her on Illyria. I couldn’t think, couldn’t process.  I couldn’t make decisions. You can’t imagine how I was, Myka. I hope to the seven worlds that I am never like that again, and that you need never experience anything like it yourself.”

She bends down, now, and presses her lips to the cylinder, and suddenly, with a catch of breath Myka understands what Helena is holding.

“I didn’t want to leave her on Illyria but I was afraid to take her with me, even as far as Domus, the next planet on the cycle. I would have—I would have inhaled her ashes, or eaten them, or something, so sick was I with grief. I would have harmed what little I had left of her.”

Myka can see the tears rising, again, in Helena’s eyes. Her hands twitch against her knees and they want to reach out, to reach across to her. She clenches them into fists and grinds them down into her trousers.

“Wolly arranged for her to be entombed there, alongside the Archivist who died with her,” Helena continues. “That Archivist’s companion promised that she would see to it that their crypts were well-maintained, and that her daughter would maintain them after she, herself, had passed. It seemed as good a plan as any. At least there, she would be cared for by someone who understood the horror of her death, and I thought, perhaps, her presence there might inspire some recognition that the endemic hatred of Agents there needed to be rectified.

“More recently, though, Wolly explained that he arranged for her to be entombed there because Illyrians keep the ashes of their dead in crypts above the ground, so he knew that if I needed to move her, I could retrieve her.”

Helena’s eyes lift from the ground, finally, to meet Myka’s, and then she holds her hands out, the cylinder clutched between them. Myka reaches out and takes it with both of her hands, reverent.

“Be careful with her,” Helena says. “I know you will, but I’d be remiss not to ask.”

Myka nods. She takes the cylinder and looks at it, traces her fingers over the abstract shapes and lines etched into the clay.

“I’ve little that’s nice to say about Illyria,” Helena says, with a wet, sad laugh, “but they do craft a beautiful urn.”

Myka nods once, wordlessly, and then clutches the urn to her own chest, eyes downcast in reverence.

“You’ve had time,” Helena says. “You’ve had so much time to move on from me, but it’s been barely a year, for me, since we were together, since you made me feel so full of love I thought I might burst from it.”

Myka’s eyes are closed, and she will not open them, she will not open them for fear of what that might unleash.

Helena takes another shaky breath. “After my first week with you, that last visit, I knew what I would do. I knew I would go to Illyria, retrieve Christina’s ashes, and bring her back here.”

Myka’s eyes are still closed, but she roughly scrubs across them with the back of her wrist, her sleeve coming away wet.

“I thought she’d forgive me one last trip, if it meant she could rest on Terra forever,” Helena says quietly.

Myka’s eyes open and she looks up, tilts her head back as though she can keep the tears from overflowing. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asks wetly. "Why didn't you tell me before you left?"

“Because it would be seven years for you, Myka. There was nothing I could do to change that. I couldn’t ask you to sit and wait for me, thumbs idly crossed before you like some storybook maiden, through those prime years of your life.  It wouldn’t have been fair. You would have grown to resent me.”

An incredulous, tearful laugh pushes out from Myka’s throat. “I grew to resent you a little anyway.”

“I can see that,” Helena smiles sadly. She holds her hands out toward Myka and Myka carefully gives her the urn. Their fingers brush in the transfer, shooting electricity up Myka’s arms. Helena twists her torso and gently lays the urn on the soil beside her hip.

“I knew it was a risk. I assumed that you would have found someone else, by the time I came back. And I fear I’ve handled so much of this very poorly,” Helena says. She takes a deep breath, her gaze still fixed on the ornate urn beside her. “But I thought—I thought Christina would be very happy to stay here, in the ground beneath her favorite tree.” She looks up at Myka, who is swallowing and swallowing and swallowing against the lump in her throat. “And if you’ll have me, Myka, I think I would be very happy to stay here, on this planet, with her, and with you.”

This is the thing Myka has spent seven years refusing to let herself want, refusing to let herself think she could want, because it never seemed a realistic possibility.

She looks across at Helena, in the darkening evening shade, looking back at her with glistening eyes.  She is ancient, alive for centuries, but it suddenly strikes Myka that she is not old. She is young. She has most of her life still ahead of her.

So, too, does Myka.

Myka opens her arms, reaches them out toward Helena. “Come here,” she says. Helena’s face breaks into a relieved smile and she gets up just enough to pitch forward and land with a soft thud against Myka’s chest, her head tucked under Myka’s chin, and they clutch at each other and they are both crying, and they are both laughing, and when they kiss it feels, to Myka, like coming home.

“Of course I’ll have you,” Myka breathes into Helena’s mouth. “Of course I’ll have you.”

They come back the next day with a shovel and lay Christina’s ashes a few feet deep in the ground beneath her tree. Myka finds a rock—black and shiny, like Helena's hair, and reflecting the pink of the sky through the branches—and uses it to mark the site.

There are other things to be arranged. Claudia, who had grown so intensely bonded to Steve, had in the previous cycle secretly approached Caturanga and asked him what would be involved in becoming a Starling. She had been so young, at the time, that Caturanga had been fearful to agree. But when he, along with Helena, approaches her now, seven years after that first conversation, and asks if she might be interested in becoming the new Agent for Engineering, the grin that shoots across her face—combined with the hand-clapping and the foot-stomping—convince them that this is more than a passing interest or childhood fantasy.

Before the ship launches, Myka spends as much time as she can with Claudia and their mutual friends, as Helena spends hers with Will and Caturanga and her other ship-mates. Helena and Claudia spend a few hours together, too, the afternoon before the launch.

“She’s nervous,” Helena says to Myka, that evening. Then she laughs. “So am I.”

On the day of their departure, Myka pulls Will into a hug.

“You take care of her,” she says to him.

You take care of her,” he replies.

Myka and Helena hold hands as ground trembles and the ship lifts off.

“Funny,” Helena says, as her eyes follow the ship into the sky.

Myka leans closer and wraps her arm around Helena’s shoulders. “What?”

“It never occurred to me to wonder what a launch looked like from the ground. It’s louder than I expected, and less majestic, somehow.”

Myka hums. “Town will be different, too. It’s less crowded without all the Starlings. Quieter.”

Helena turns minutely in Myka’s arms and tips her head up for a kiss, which Myka gladly grants. “I think I shall enjoy a quiet life with you, darling.”

“Yeah,” Myka replies, with a smile. “Me too.”