The sky was so big she could drown in it.
This was Mute's first thought on stepping out into the light for the very first time, blinking at the glare from the sun - a new, unfamiliar sensation, the pulling of synthetic muscles at the corners of her eyes, as the tiny, intricate mechanisms constrict her pupils. But all of that was background noise to the wide, wide blue above her.
She could always see, of course. As the head of security, she could access any of the cameras on the Mugunghwa - all at once, if she needed to, although attempting it would probably have overloaded her data processing systems. So how was it that she could be overwhelmed like this, staring out into the world with just two human (or nearly, anyway) eyes?
"Are you okay?"
A body stepped in front of her, blocking out some of the endless blue and grounding her again. Mute blinked again as her eyes adjusted.
Hyun-ae. She looked... like Hyun-ae. Which shouldn't be surprising, but it was, a little. She looked not like the Pale Bride, but like the Hyun-ae who had rendered herself on the screen of the White Princess. It was a little uncanny seeing those features represented in three dimensions, but not unpleasant. She was tall, with cheerful eyes and glasses still perched on the end of her nose, as they always were. It was... oddly comforting.
"Mute?" she prompted again, and Mute shook herself out of her reverie.
"Fine, I'm fine," she muttered, and looks away. Her eyes turned toward the sky again. Hyun-ae noticed.
"It's so big, isn't it?" she said, echoing Mute's thoughts. "I mean, space is obviously much bigger! But I didn't really... get to look at it, so much."
Mute hadn't either. Her attention had been directed inward, focused on the Mugunghwa and its inhabitants. When they had existed.
She shook her head to clear that thought away. It would do no good to dwell on such things.
"Come on!" Hyun-ae took her hand and tugged. "Miss Investigator's waiting just up ahead!"
"I'm coming, hey, you don't need to drag me!" Mute snapped back, but without malice. She followed after Hyun-ae, resolutely keeping her eyes straight ahead.
She was gone again, their savior, out on a new adventure while Mute and Hyun-ae remained on Earth, in the little flat the university had provided for them.
Mute knew she had no right to feel bitter. This was exactly what a good wife should do, wasn't it? Stay at home, keep the house clean and tidy, and await her husband's return with a smile.
Not that their arrangement was anything close to man and wife - there wasn't even a man involved at all, to start, and the way she she was always flitting off alone... But still, Mute felt like she owed her that much. It was foolish to feel like she'd been left behind.
She tried not to feel that way.
A message came, with a brochure attached and an encouragement for Mute and Hyun-ae to go enjoy themselves while she was gone. Mute allowed Hyun-ae to pick the destination. And so they traveled to the Pyongyang Gardens in the middle of March, watching the muddy countryside fade into a lovely spring.
This was a sense she had never had before.
Blooming flowers surrounded them, releasing their perfumes into the air, blending and competing, vying for attention. Mute had had a chance to try out her olfactory senses a little, but this was on another level entirely. She breathed in deeply.
"Hee, I thought you'd like it!" Hyun-ae said with a smile.
"It's... not bad," she replied, rubbing the back of her neck and looking down at the ground.
Hyun-ae took her hand, and they strolled through the gardens together. Mute considered trying to shake her off, but Hyun-ae looked so content, she decided it wasn't worth the effort. And she would never admit it out loud, but it was nice to have the contact, to keep her from getting lost in the scent of the flowers.
As they walked, one particular scent began to overpower the others. When Mute looked around, she saw that they were surrounded by large, pink flowers, blossoming everywhere.
They were familiar, somehow. Mute approached the plaque nearby with a growing sense of doom.
Hibiscus syriacus - Mugunghwa
She swallowed hard. Suddenly the smell of the flowers was overpowering, invading not just her senses but her memories, and the weight of all she'd lost hit her full force, deeper and deeper with every breath she took.
"Mute!" Hyun-ae's voice sounded like it wa coming from far away. But her hands were solid around Mute's back as she pulled her against her chest.
This was so weak of her, but she had no control over this stupid body, and the tears spilled out of her eyes unchecked. Hyun-ae held her close, occasionally babbling something that was probably intended to be soothing, but Mute couldn't bring herself to listen.
She buried her face in Hyun-ae's chest, where the scent of artificial skin and fabric softener drowned out the scent of the flowers.
"I promised I'd brush your hair sometime, didn't I?" Hyun-ae said, waggling the hairbrush in front of her.
It was just the two of them again. They'd fallen into something of a routine by now: Hyun-ae spent her days at the university, taking engineering courses, while Mute ran errands and did the housekeeping. In the evenings, they'd read or watch one of the baffling programs Hyun-ae liked. It was... cosy.
"I guess you did..." Mute replied reluctantly, eyeing the hairbrush. She bit the inside of her lip - a novel sensation - before turning around and reaching up to begin unpinning her hair.
"Wow, you have a lot of hair..."
Mute shivered as she felt Hyun-ae's hands come up to assist her, running along her scalp searching for pins. The soft brush of her fingers sent sparks of sensation shooting down her spine, especially when they lingered for a moment at the nape of her neck.
That was different.
"Are you hot? You're a little red."
"I'm fine!" Mute snapped, trying to will away the blush. What had gotten into her?
Finally Hyun-ae freed the last of the pins, and Mute's hair cascaded down her back. Hyun-ae scooted up behind her and set to work with the brush.
Mute tensed at first, but slowly she began to relax, the soothing feeling of the brush and Hyun-ae's hands in her hair melting away her anxieties. Her eyes began to drift closed.
A hand on her shoulder brought her back to awareness. "I'm all done," Hyun-ae said.
"Ah." That pang of disappointment wasn't so strange, right? It had felt nice. It wasn't wrong to be a little sorry it was over.
Arms draped themselves over her shoulders, and she felt Hyun-ae press against her back in a light hug.
"We can do it again, though." Did her voice sound a little shy? Mute was imagining things, surely. "It could be part of our nightly routine. If you want."
"Yeah. That... wouldn't be terrible."
She hated the sound of her own voice, sometimes. Like now, as she testified on Hyun-ae's behalf - the way it wavered as she confirmed the number of lives lost, the way the pitch trended upwards into shrillness as she fought to control the emotions. How could anyone take her seriously like this? She was just another hysterical woman. Why should they listen?
The judge's voice was a deep rumble. There was a solid sound, something worthy of attention and respect. She wished again that she had been designed differently, that she could be that kind of solid, dependable person... but she was only Mute. She said her piece, though the words lodged in her throat and clawed at her ears.
Hyun-ae... she'd hated her so much.She'd taken everything from Mute - her friends, her home, her reason for existing. The Mugunghwa was a graveyard because of her. She was a selfish, spoiled brat with no sense of duty or honor.
...She was a scared, lonely girl, with no way to reach out, no way to ask for help. No voice.
Despite it all, she couldn't hate her anymore.
The court took a recess, and Hyun-ae found her in the hall. She was paler than usual, and her eyes were more serious, but there was still that brightness in them they never seem to lose.
"Mute... Thank you so much," she said quietly. "I know that must have been really hard..."
Her voice was hardly any deeper than Mute's own, but somehow, the cadance of it was comforting.
"I'm fine," she said, lying only a little. "It was something I had to do."
Hyun-ae smiled at her then, and Mute flushed. She tried to turn away to hide it, but found herself enveloped in a warm hug instead.
"I'm really, really glad you're here," Hyun-ae said as she pulled away.
"I..." Mute trailed off. I'm glad you're here too. I'm glad you have a voice.
She cleared her throat. "I don't want you to get hurt."
Hyun-ae smiled again, and Mute turned on her heel and hurried back toward the courtroom.
"Come on, try one!"
Hyun-ae waved a strawberry in front of her face. It was early June. The spring balm was beginning to turn into summer heat, the air was filled was the chirping of birds and insects, and Hyun-ae had been cleared of all charges related to the Mugunghwa incident.
It was nice, being here with her like this. Comfortable. Normal. Mute hadn't felt normal in a long, long time.
"You don't need to eat! That's a waste of perfectly good food and perfectly good money," she groused.
"Oh, please. We're celebrating!" Hyun-ae popped another strawberry in her mouth and hummed with pleasure. Mute watched a little too intently as a line of juice dribbled down her chin, which Hyun-ae wiped up with her thumb and sucked clean.
"Well, if you don't want any, that's more for me," Hyun-ae continued with an exaggerated sigh. She savored another strawberry, then another, and another...
"Alright already!" Mute burst out. "I'll eat a stupid strawberry!"
"Oh..." Hyun-ae looked a little sheepish. "That was actually the last one."
Mute's eyes narrowed. "Well in that case..."
She stood up on tiptoe and tugged on the lapels of Hyun-ae's jacket to bring her close.
Their lips met.
Hyun-ae's lips were soft, and they parted in surprise. Mute flicked her tongue in, just enough to get a taste of strawberry, sweet and tart, before pulling back.
And hiding her face in mortification.
"I can't believe I just did that," she groaned.
"I can't believe you just did that either," Hyun-ae agreed, a little dazedly.
The taste lingered on Mute's tongue.
"...Can I do it again?"
Hyun-ae began to laugh at that, cute giggles punctuated by the occasional unladylike snort. Mute felt her face grow even redder, which wasn't sure should have been possible.
But then Hyun-ae's cool palms cupped her cheeks and tilted her face up, and soon their lips pressed together again.
As they broke apart, Mute grasped Hyun-ae's hand tightly.
"Don't go anywhere, okay," she muttered, unable to look Hyun-ae in the eye.
Hyun-ae leaned against her. "I'm not going anywhere."