“You say it like this,” Avery said to Basil, then added a whole bunch of complex English words that Cameron didn’t understand. They all sat together in the Centrum that day, they, Avery, Basil, and Maywood. Maywood had gotten out of work early with Basil, and Cameron had just finished up scouring through the tunnles before Avery came down to visit.
They didn’t mind her getting to know their friends. After crying over her shoulder, she’d become closer to Maywood and joked with her in Arkeh:nen. She and Basil had finally come to terms with how they felt about each other and had formed a brother-sister relationship more topsy-turvy than the one Basil shared with his own sister. When Avery said a perfectly fluent sentence in Arkeh:nen, Basil came at her with a flawless phrase of English. Or what had to be flawless. Cameron had yet to get a handle on the adverbs.
They tore off their morning beetle’s head, chewing their contempt into their cheek. It bugged them in the most childish of ways. It was the main reason why they didn’t want to plunge into this type of love. They hated how they got with people they liked, be them friends or acquaintances or friends of acquaintances.
They wanted to be there for them for everything they needed. They wanted to solve their problems and help them through terrible times.
They wanted to be the only person to do that.
And if they had a girlfriend, they wanted her all to themselves, and they hated that they had to face this selfish, childish mindset of theirs.
Maywood bided her time knitting a pair of slippers for an upcoming baby. Whenever Cameron tore into another beetle, she giggled to herself.
“If it makes you feel better, I don’t understand half of what they’re saying,” she said. “I’m not very equipped at learning new languages like Basil is. He only learned it to one day speak with his Fader. He listened to hikers and men who drill into the mountains.”
“We should be practicing it together. I want to learn it, too. Basil already knows it.”
“Then ask her.”
Something Basil must’ve said prompted Avery to laugh out loud. When he saw her reaction, he chuckled back and playfully hit her knee.
Stuffing three whole beetles in their mouth, Cameron crawled over to them and shook Avery. “What did he say?”
“Something about a cave-in. You made it?”
“It was an accident! Basil, don’t tell her this.”
“They were upside down in the cave for hours,” Basil explained. “It was pretty funny.”
“Yeah, but not when it was happening.”
Still, Avery kept snorting until she pulled something out of her pocket. It was one of their orange gemmes. “Basil tells me its name is a color. You call them orange gemmes, right?”
“Yeah,” they said simply. What else would they’ve called it?
“I think it’s called citrine. It’s what Autreans call it. A lot of your gemmes are different cuts of citrine.”
“Yeah,” Basil said. “I once snuck into an Autrean store and read a book about gemmes. I saw this gemme in it, I just didn’t know how to pronounce its name. English words are difficult to read.”
“No wonder you got transferred,” Maywood said. “First talking with Autreans, then going into their stores.”
“But no wonder he knows so much,” Avery said.
Cameron reevaluated their most prized gemme. All this time they’d been calling them by their colors. How many citrines had they collected over the years without ever knowing it? What about the red gemmes and brown gemmes, the green and blue ones? Did they have names, too?
Avery probably had the names for them.
“Avery,” they said, “do you want to come collect gemmes with me?”
They didn’t have to translate it into English for her to understand. Basil and Maywood got it just as clearly, because they became rigid at the invitation.
“What?” Maywood asked. “Did you say gemme collecting?”
“You can’t do that,” Basil said. “Even when I go into the caves, I get bad looks from the Community. To bring a fully Autrean girl there would make them mad.”
The caves, the uninhabited parts of Arkeh:na, held a sensitive place in the Community’s hearts. It was where they excavated gemmes and where the Rivière flowed in from the mountainside. They were considered the most magical depths of Arkeh:na. Children under thirteen weren’t allowed in, and only trained excavators like Cameron could properly explore their niches without tracing their kaart scars for guidance.
“I think she can see them now,” Cameron said. “She’s been in my bed, ridden on the gondolas, and visited the Grandmoeders’ Den. Seeing the uninhabited caves might finally seal her in as an Arkeh:nen.”
“I’d like that,” Avery said.
“You should ask around, just to be sure,” Basil said.
Cameron cast aside his concern. Jealous as he might’ve been, they wanted to spend alone time with Avery. Just once, they wanted to think for themselves and be with her, their new girlfriend.
They sat up on their bad knees and took her hand. “Come with me.”
“Which tunnles are we going to?”
“None. First, we have to stop by my den.”
“Cameron,” Maywood warned.
“It’ll be okay. I’ll be with her the entire time.”
“Stay close to her,” Basil said. “She doesn’t know the caves like you do. Be safe.”
They would be. They worked in the caves multiple times a week. It wouldn’t make sense for the caves to accept them and not Avery, someone who respected the Earth likely as much as they did.
After reaching their den, Cameron strapped on their backpack and tied a lantern around a sturdy walking stick. Sometimes they needed one if they were planning long excursions into the caves, and Avery might’ve needed one if she got too tired.
“What is it?” Avery asked, hovering at their den’s entrance. “Caving?”
“Caving is like getting lost on purpose and not being afraid of what you’ll find.”
“I’m a bit scared.”
“You won’t get trapped. I’ll protect you.” They smiled. “If you get scared, you can hold onto me.”
“That’s a lot.”
“A lot of what?” They tickled her sides until she squeaked out her fear. Then they caught Nuvu hanging on their metal mesh. “You wanna come?” they asked her. “Caves, Nuvu. Wanna come?”
She nibbled on her hooked thumb, thinking it over.
“You’re gonna be awful lonely here by yourself. I’m planning on spending a long time in there with Avery.”
Sensing their playful tone, Avery made a cooing noise and reached out to her.
She chirped, but made a move to come closer, interested to see if she had any grubs.
Cameron took out a fried beetle and placed it in Avery’s hand.
Nuvu clicked, cocked her head from side to side, then swooped down and ate cautiously from Avery’s hand.
Avery held back her smile at Nuvu’s acceptance.
“She likes you!” Cameron said. “She accepted you. She never does that for people.”
“She likes me,” Avery said, relieved.
Cameron side-eyed her. “Maybe…maybe she’ll let you sleep here, too.” They dropped it semi-casually, pretending they hadn’t been hoping for it for the past week.
Avery just smiled and made her way out of the den.
Cameron was sure they’d said that right in English. Whenever they spoke it, they worried about saying something wrong or hurtful, but it didn’t seem like they could do anything to hurt her.
They took their favorite route to the main caves, but it also meant taking her through the more deserted parts of Arkeh:na. They hadn’t meant it in a bad way; they didn’t mind who saw them taking her down here. It just made sense, and they didn’t want anyone to question them and make Avery feel bad about something she shouldn’t have to feel bad about.
Keeping their steps light, Cameron quietly led her through the dark entrance of the caves.
Her grip tightened around their hand. Without the Sun, the tunnles must’ve been an experience for her. To help her, they kicked rocks from their path and kept her close until the first cave opened up to them.
They wondered if she felt more at peace in these caves than in Arkeh:na. As soon as the air cooled and the Arkeh:nen noise trickled away, her grip loosened. She looked less and less at her feet and craned her neck up to the steep, cramped walls slick with water.
They led her north to the more scenic caves. Here, the walls expanded for more air. Pools of water flowed around stalagmites and other rock formations. Ancient logs held up parts of the walls, but most of the rocks held themselves up with aged pride.
Wobbly bridges helped them cross the wider abysses, yet Avery still held onto them as if she didn’t believe the caves would like her.
“It’s okay,” they said as they crossed a small bridge. “Something would’ve happened to us already if the caves didn’t like you.”
Her eyes traveled back down to the foot-sized holes in the bridge. “This’s your job? You do this every day?”
“Yeah, it’s fun.”
“I should excavate some gemmes for you. If you hit the walls right, they shake.”
She ducked down as if Cameron could predict the future.
When they touched back down to solid ground, Cameron followed a trail of water that would’ve led them to the gondolas. Their steps echoed off one another’s. “It’s not that bad so long as you know where you’re going. See these?” They showed her their newer kaart scars. “I helped make these tunnles. They’re still tight, so we won’t go down them.”
“It reminds me of when I get stuck in the rocks.”
Cameron slowed down. “Do you want to head back?”
She shook her head. “I want to see more.”
The northern caves winded into illuminated paths, bright gemmes shining with joy as they lit their way. Nuvu, who flew back and forth through the caves, landed on the brighter gemmes to hunt spiders and cave flies.
“Oh!” Avery pointed up ahead to a pool of water cut into the wall. The miniature stalactites and gemmes on the ceiling perfectly mirrored themselves in the water, creating the illusion that there was no water at all.
Cameron nudged up against her.
“Cool,” she said. “How do they shine?”
“They are.” They ran a finger through the still waters. “Can I show you something prettier?”
Trusting them, Avery followed their way.
After taking the prettier routes and watching her eyes sparkle in the ponds, they came up to the site. No Arkeh:nen considered it sacred or magical, but knowing Avery, they knew she’d find it breathtaking.
Her shoulders drooped like the tree’s mighty branches. Before them stood a large oak tree. It somehow found peace growing within these caves. Its branches stretched towards the tiniest opening in the ceiling, which let go a single stream of sunlight. Flecks of snow glittered across the leaves struggling to keep on the branches.
Avery touched the tree’s bark. “This is amazing. Cameron, this’s so pretty!”
She said the last part in English, but Cameron had memorized the phrase. “I know,” they said. “It’s pretty, like you.”
Again, she didn’t respond. Their forcefulness to compliment her didn’t sound right in their ears, but they wanted her to know that saying such things was alright when they were alone. Maybe they were trying to convince themselves of that.
They looked up at her, remembering how tall she looked when they’d first met. It took a few moments, but she finally looked back, snagged.
They took her hand. They tried to think of how to explain their feelings to her in both Arkeh:nen and English. They wanted to sound poetic and lovely. They wanted her to get everything that was stored in their brain, but they didn’t have the words.
Standing up on their tiptoes, they leaned forwards and kissed her.
Unlike last time, instead of panicked admiration, Cameron felt wrong. Was this right? Should they have pulled away by now? They’d never had a girlfriend or boyfriend before. Did people kiss this often, or were they making her uncomfortable again?
They pulled back. “Sorry.”
“You don’t like it.”
Without explaining herself, Avery leaned down and embraced them. Her arms wrapped around their waist and hoisted them up. It forced them back on their tiptoes to meet her height.
“I do like it,” she confessed. “I like it, a lot. I feel better when I’m with you. I like hanging around you.”
Their heart pounded against hers. This sounded like a break up.
“I’m getting more confident around you,” she continued, “but I have trouble with things. Personal things. Kissing is scary for me.”
“Should I stop?”
“No. You’re helping me through it. I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”
Knowing she wasn’t breaking up with them, Cameron wrapped their arms tightly around her. They never thought they’d be scared of love. What were they so afraid of? Being close to her? Getting caught with her in their arms? Why?
“I want you to stay here,” they whispered. “I want to see you when I fall asleep and find you by my side when I wake up. I want you to become an Arkeh:nen.”
She was already shaking her head before they finished. “I can’t. My parents would…I have school. I have my family.”
They knew that. They knew it was impossible. It was like asking them to abandon Arkeh:na in exchange for the surface world.
That way, though, they’d get their wish and spend more time with her.
It wouldn’t have been so wrong, right, to spend one day outside Arkeh:na? If it meant being with her…
Avery pulled back.
“What’s wrong?” they asked, but when they asked, they looked up at her, and when they did, they saw what she’d seen.
A pebble fell between them. Then another. Then three more.
Cameron had only lived through one of these twice. They’d been taught what to do as a child, but no one truly knew how to act during the first moments of a cave-in.
An avalanche of rocks caved in around them. The world crumbled. The walking stick cracked. Their hands moved before their brain did and shoved Avery away just as a tower of rocks cascaded between them.
The cave reformed itself in a turbulent storm. Dust and dirt choked the air. Cameron was pushed against the rock with the strength of a bully, and all they had was their backpack to protect them. They knew it wouldn’t save them, but they taught you this as a child for a reason. It made you feel safe in a world you couldn’t control.
It always scared them how calmly a cave-in ended its rage. It took out so much, killed so many, then disappeared into the cloudy air as if it never happened. When its energy fizzled away, Cameron couldn’t breathe. Rocks clogged their throat and lungs. Their lantern was gone. Their chest had a heartbeat. It took Avery screaming their name for a fourth time before they moved.
A new wall sectioned them off from one another. Cameron leaned their ear against the wet dirt and listened. “Avery?”
Their heart skipped. She was alive. Whatever had befallen her, whatever they’d done to make this happen, she’d survived. The caves had spared her.
“Cameron, help! Help me! Trapped!”
They felt up the wall. It’d take hours for them to dig her out by themselves. But if they called for help…
“I-I’ll get you out,” they promised. “Wait here.”
“No, don’t leave me alone. Please!”
They stumbled back home. The realization that they’d caused another collapse didn’t hit them as harshly as Avery’s safety did. They needed to get her out. They needed to right this wrong.
They needed the Community to forgive them.