As a child, Aida didn’t dream. She had dreams, had them piled up on her desk, written out for when and how she’d achieve them, but she never dreamed while unconscious. She’d tried different methods—falling asleep with a glass of warm milk, listening to the swallows chirp outside her childhood home—but nothing ever came of it. She’d toss and turn from leg pain and then wake up five hours later when it felt like two minutes and a song had gone by.
This sleep was different. This sleep was heavy, a dozen blankets smothering her in weight and heat. And she dreamed. She dreamed of crossing forest islands like she was Pinnacle. She searched for a magical dragon through a thicket of roses and thorns. She found Eve and her daughter locked in a tower in search of a magical key.
What scared her most was that she didn’t want to wake up. She smelled the forest, felt the gritty texture of the medieval palace walls. She was having fun, why would anyone want to come back to the real world? In the real world, she had sisters who beat her with insults, her mother, her terrible reality always pummelling her. Here, she was her own Goddess. Here, she was happy.
And lonely. As she dreamt up new worlds she was centered in, she found that these dreams weren’t as pleasant as she imagined. There was a distance she wasn’t used to, and after looking to her side once or twice, she found someone missing.
Her head throbbed.
“Aida, please wake up.”
She looked behind her.
A bloody body lay behind her in her past, their thick innards spilling out into the dirt.
They looked up to her with hollowed-out eyes.
She didn’t bolt awake as women did in poetry. She felt her body fall into a bed, bobbing with the waves. The blankets weren’t as suffocating like before, but she didn’t have the strength to push them off.
A headache welcomed her to the world. She expected nothing less. Her body was a massive bruise that ached with every thought. She couldn’t remember why she felt like she’d been thrown out a window and she also didn’t want to open her eyes and face it head-on.
But her hand was stuck. Trudging through her brain fog, she turned her cheek and cracked open one eye.
Lorian was asleep by her side, sitting on the floor, holding her hand. She had a bandage over her left cheek, a bruised eye socket, and spit forming in the corner of her mouth like a child. Aida wondered if she herself looked any better, given the state of her headache.
“Lorian.” She coughed. Her voice was barely above a whisper and tasted like gravel. It triggered her headache to pulse through her body.
To better get her attention, Aida massaged her thumb over the top of Lorian’s hand.
Lorian’s head lifted before she opened her eyes. Heavy bags drooped her eyes like she’d been awake for days prior. “H-hey.” She took both of her hands. “Hey, you’re awake.”
She hoped? What did that even mean? She racked her brain for any memories of what could’ve happened, but it hurt too much to think.
Why was Lorian crying about her waking up? She tried playing it off like they were sleepy tears, but she hid her face in the crook of her arm to sob. “I’m so happy you woke up.”
“Was I not supposed to?” She fell back into her pillow, sleep just out of reach. If she were to close her eyes, she didn’t think she’d wake up again. “Wha’ happened to you?”
“Don’t move around too much. Just rest.”
“My head hurts.”
Lorian sat up and pushed back Aida’s hair. She was too weak to resist, or she thought she didn’t have to. Hadn’t she just touched someone like this before?
Lorian placed the back of her hand over Aida’s forehead. “Your fever’s down, and your eye’s changed.”
“What’s wrong with my eyes? My glasses…” She blindly reached over to the bedside table.
Her vision doubled. That name, and how she’d said it. That woman…
Unexpected tears pooled in her eyes. She blinked them back.
She passed out seconds later.
The next two times she awoke, either her brain wanted her dead, or she was just that tired, falling back asleep after a few turns. Her dreams came back to her, though they were a bit blurrier and harder to make out than before. And she was more acutely aware of her surroundings. When she was in this half-awake, half-asleep state, she heard the creaks of the floorboards from downstairs, two kids playing in the room across the hall. By the smell of freshly cooked sugar bread and spices, she figured she was back at Missus Sharma’s. When she turned and saw the photograph of Missus and Mi’Sharma by the bedside, she realized that much more than her head was aching.
Just like her first trip into the past, her body had been affected.
The memories resurfaced behind her eyelids and dripped down into her conscience. Lorian and their date to the Catacombs. Eve, dying in Lorian’s arms. Eve with Jules, with King Julius II and her affair amongst affairs with them. She’d been right there. Aida had held the queen she knew so well and she’d lost her like the fool she was.
She choked on the tears rolling down her cheek and onto her warm pillow. What an idiot she was. If only she’d acted quicker, she could’ve saved her. The timeline could’ve been changed and she could’ve been here to help. But all Aida had done was sit and stare at her like she was an indescribable piece of artwork.
“Lorian.” She turned for Lorian, but she wasn’t there. “Lorian!”
Her voice broke in her throat, and she curled up in her bed and cried softly to herself. What was she expecting? That Eve could’ve survived? Half of her stomach had been torn out, she’d been unable to stand up without falling over, begging for Aida’s help.
And she’d known her. Somehow, from the past, Eve had known Aida’s name. And she’d called for her and Aida hadn’t gotten to her in time. Had she even said anything to her? Her one chance to get to know her, to ask her everything she’d ever wanted to know, and she’d squandered it by basking in her dying light.
She cried into her hands. Her mother had been right. She was a failure. Her brain, body, and heart were not right, and one of her biggest role models, the one person she thought might love who she wanted to be, had died because of her ineptitude.
She let herself weep in whoever’s bed she was in until a hand pet back her hair. She didn’t look up to see who it was and only sobbed more at a touch she longed for until she passed out, Lorian’s mournful voice in her ears.
The following day, she was able to sit up. Missus and Mi’Sharma had come in with a wet cloth for her forehead, a change of nightgowns and undergarments, and a bowl of homemade soup filled with chunky pieces of carrot and celery. She tasted the amount of love the women had put into it. It tasted like home.
“Is there anything else we can do for you?” Mi’Sharma asked.
Aida shook her head but quietly gave them her thanks.
She lay in bed for most of the morning, sinking into her body heat. It got considerably cold that week and even snowed for a few hours. Missus Sharma had come in multiple times with a bag of heated rice to warm Aida’s socked feet.
Chrissie and Onti went up and down the hall as kids did, sometimes stopping by her door and whispering before scampering away. At around noon, she heard a piece of paper slip underneath the door, and she wriggled from her cocoon of blankets to find a drawing of herself and Lorian and their family. They were ringed by blooming flowers and happy rays of sunshine.
Aida scoffed at it and returned to sulking. Then, after a pause, she picked it up and rested it by her lantern, studying what the children thought a happy family was. They must’ve spent a long time on it.
Lorian never came back up. She didn’t know why. She didn’t ask, and she pretended like she wasn’t as lonely as that made her feel. Missus and Mi’Sharma still came up and asked if she was okay. She wasn’t lonely.
She just really, really wanted to be with her. She wanted to hold her and feel her warmth and take her hand and never let it go. Very, very much so, thank you very much.
As the loneliness ate her away and she went to nap away her thoughts, a chirp drilled into her. Even though winter was starting, these animals were stubborn enough to keep by the branches near her windowsill.
She glared through the pane. Two turtle doves, of all things, were sitting in the lemon tree: Old World birds meant to symbolize love.
She threw her feet off the bed, letting them hang. The birds didn’t move.
She pulled herself up onto her feet, swaying a bit, and threw up on the floor. It wasn’t a lot—she couldn’t remember the last time she ate—but it was enough to make her feel sicker than she thought she was. Stumbling over the mess, she brought one of her blankets with her and walked to the window.
“Get out.” She knocked on the glass, then blew on it as if her breath could reach them. “Stop it.”
One fluttered a bit only to perch closer beside its mate.
Aida left the bedroom with her blanket.
Someone was cooking downstairs, maybe a soup, and Lorian kept asking questions about the right number of cucumbers to add and how many potatoes would be right with the broth.
“I’m sure she’ll be happy with anything you cook,” Missus Sharma said. “I’ve never seen you so restive over a task before.”
“I want to make sure it’s right.”
“What a noble thing to do for a sick girl,” Mi’Sharma said.
“A sick friend,” Missus Sharma corrected.
“That’s it, isn’t it? Just a friend?”
Lorian chuckled. “Is it two potatoes or three?”
“Preferably three,” Aida muttered to herself, and walked down the second set of stairs that led to the back doors. She didn’t want to worry them that she was up or that she’d made a mess of herself upstairs. Right now, all she wanted to focus on were these damn birds.
She pulled open the double doors and was careful not to trip on the stairs. She did, but at least she made the effort not to eat it. She only skinned her knee. It took a few minutes for her to lift herself up on her wobbly knees.
The birds looked down at her, mocking her.
“Oh, shut up.” She trudged through the frosty grass. “You’re out here at whatever time of the day it is chirping like you give a damn about people hearing you. You’re birds. You’re flying rats. I’ve survived through so much and don’t need to hear you squawking like you think you’re chickens—You’re worse than chickens, do you know that?” She pointed at them. “You are nothing but noise and easy meals for hungrier birds. Remember that. I mean…I mean…” She began walking around the tree. “Here I am. I put so much energy into the world. Some of it’s good, a lot of it’s shit. But I’m trying, you know?”
“And yes, I mess up. I know I’m abrasive and rude, and can be selfish when it comes to what I want. Do I wish I could be better? Yes, but to do that, I need my sleep, so shut up and let me rest for a minute!”
“And stop preening each other. It’s gross.”
“What?” She whipped her head around, got dizzy, and fell against the tree.
Lorian held her up, her chest pressing against her back. “Hey.”
“Hey. I’m falling, so…”
“Okay—Okay.” She walked her to the hammock. “Hang on, I got you.”
As she lay her down horizontally, feet dangling, her eyes began to close. She was back in bed, she needed her sleep.
Lorian, giving the hammock to herself, came around and kept playing with her hair. “Who were you talking to?”
“Those two turtle doves. They kept chirping. I had a few words to give him.”
“Oh.” She smiled in the fake way. “That’s…fine. They say the smartest people talk to themselves to get their excess thoughts out. Sometimes, back at the palace, I’d pace in the clock tower to the beat of the seconds passing by.”
Her head cleared a bit. “You can pace in the palace clock tower? There’s enough room to do that?”
“There is. Sometimes, I’d bring blankets just like this and sleep up there by myself. I loved looking out the glass and seeing my country. The country,” she corrected herself. “It’s not mine.”
“I never knew that. I’ll have to redesign my design of the palace.”
“Do you have it all inscribed in your head? I can draw out the hidden rooms for you.”
Her eyes widened. “You must. Let’s do it now. We’ll find some papers.” She went to sit up, then remembered she was dizzy and fell backwards into Lorian’s arms.
She tried and closed her eyes. “What happened to her? Don’t sugarcoat it. Just tell me straight out.”
Her arms relaxed around Aida’s head. “Zaahir had her body buried. When you jumped, I met with my sister and Zaahir in the Catacombs. I told you all about it when you were somewhat conscious. I don’t know if you heard me.”
“I didn’t. Don’t you hate your sister?”
To answer, she pointed to her busted face. “We got into a little spat.”
“A little spat? It looks like she went for your throat.”
“More or less. That’s how it was in the castle, back when they hid me away. It just never got so extreme. Anyway, after that, Zaahir did most of the work. He’d lied to the queen’s men and said she was a homeless Visatorre who had family in the Catacombs. They buried her in her own niche, surrounded by others. I’m sorry. I tried to help, but…”
Aida looked up at Lorian so hurt for something that obviously wasn’t her fault. Aida was the time traveller, she should’ve been the one to prevent all of this from happening. “I can’t believe you kept that fucking necklace away from me.” She reached backwards and tried digging her hand into Lorian’s vest.
Lorian’s face went red and she scooted back. “Uh, maybe a different time. My emotions are scrambled right now.”
She pulled back. Even upside down, Lorian looked so much like Jules, with her blond, curly bangs framing her face, her long nose, her tiny freckles. She wondered if Jules had them, too. She wondered if Eve also thought they looked pretty on the person they liked.
Her brain finally connected the pieces. “Ah.”
Lorian hid her head in her shoulders. “Sorry.”
Her head tingled, and it wasn’t from her brain being how it was. This feeling was something different, a self-discovery coming at the absolute worst time. Out of everything wrong to happen in her life, this was by far both a blessing and a curse in terms of timing. Circa just loved to mess with her, didn’t she?
“Before all of this happened,” Aida said, “before I travelled, before Eve, I promised you a thing.”
“You can forget about that. Your health is more important.”
“And you don’t think that’s part of my health? My wellbeing?”
Lorian ran her hand through her own bangs, covering her eyes. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I do.” She touched her thigh, bringing her in closer. “I want to experience it. It’s not fair that Circa decided to skip over the development that most girls and boys can play with. Kissing, and everything that comes afterwards. I think frolicking in fields is a part of it.”
“You’re still injured.”
“Yeah, and I feel like I’m high on Nectar.”
“I gave you some when you were sleeping. You were thrashing.”
“Okay, then. So, you’re not going to get this chance again, I’m asking for it, and it seems like you want to kiss me, don’t you? What’s stopping you now?”
She swallowed. “Not that I disagree with any of those points, but I don’t want to ruin what we might have.”
“Lorian, you just caught me talking to birds and you didn’t call me weird.”
“I’d never. Aida, you accept me and listen to me. I’m a problem child and you still like being with me. Do you know how much that means to me?”
She didn’t. And she couldn’t place why. She could never understand why people liked being around her when she herself hated everything about herself. But knowing Lorian liked her in the same way Jules liked Eve, that must’ve meant something.
“You won’t ruin it,” Aida said. “If anything, I’ll ruin it like I ruin everything, so you don’t have to worry.”
“But you don’t—”
“Quit making me wait.” Wrapping two arms around her neck, she pulled Lorian into her. “Take my mind off of this for me, will you?”
Lorian’s breath, which smelled like cake batter and something nice, hit her nose. Aida saw the faintest trace of her eyes before she moved in a different way, tilting her head in closer and closer until their lips touched.
She probably should’ve called it a kiss, but her mind was racing over other nonsensical bits. The way Lorian’s hand curled around her ear, for instance, and how she moved herself onto the hammock to get a better angle for this…interaction. An interaction that made Aida’s heart race, something Lorian must’ve been dreaming of for weeks or even months.
Her hands. Her soft lips. Nobody had ever touched her like this before.
All the poetry and novels she’d read about were wrong.
This was so, so much better.
Taking a breath, Lorian went in for a second kiss, then a third. Sensing she wanted this to keep going, Aida brought up her legs, toes curling around the edge of the hammock, and something between her legs felt incredibly off and definitely new. She reached around her thigh, pulling down the blanket so she wasn’t flashing anyone in the house.
Lorian pulled back. “Hi.”
“I think I love you.”
She felt her eyes widened. She thought that was only to be said in the dead of night or a lover’s dying embrace, dramatic with flare. She expected half as much from her future self, but then again, she felt it appropriate that her firsts came to her half-naked, half-dead, yelling at birds outside a grandmother’s home.
She caught herself smiling from how Lorian said that, how Lorian’s smile invited two dimples on her red cheeks and how right it felt to hear that phrase from her lips. Even though snow was gathering around them, Aida felt a new warmth flood her veins with the knowledge she always knew.
“Hey, there she is.” Lorian gently pinched her cheeks. “I’ve been waiting to see that again.”
“Your smile. It looks good on you. And your eyes, too. Did you see that?”
“Not unless I look into a mirror.” Feeling daring, feeling less like herself, she leaned more upwards and kissed somewhere on Lorian’s face. Between her lips and cheek, in an awkward place. She was feeling it today, or she wanted to take her mind off of terrible truths.
Lorian covered her mouth in embarrassment. “My goodness.”
“What do you want from me? I’m sensitive.”
How long have you been wanting that. A kiss?”
Carefully, Lorian sat with her on the hammock. Her weight pulled Aida into her gravity, slipping her into her lap. Her long legs stretched out around her thighs. “You really want to put me through a swell of emotions, huh?”
“I wouldn’t expect any less from me. I can see my future self being like that to you, so I guess I should start early.”
“You now think she’s you, huh?”
“Enough. Give me a timeline.”
“Honestly, it was in the library.”
“Ah, the one time I was in the library.”
She giggled. “It was the week school started. I was making my rounds, surveying the campus, when I saw you at the end of one of the aisles. You had about fifty books stacked around you. I thought it odd, you studying so intently when classes had just started. I was going to ask what you were doing when you suddenly smiled down at whatever you were writing. Let me tell you, it was one of the cutest little smiles I’d ever seen, and it stayed on you even when you turned the page. That’s when I tried grabbing your attention, wondering if you’d ever give me the pleasure of seeing you smile at me like that.”
Just to tease her, Aida made a point to not smile and instead pouted like she was angry. It had little success and made Lorian blush. “I was probably reading about Eve, I’m not going to lie. The first month I was there, I tried learning everything I could from that damn library. I must’ve read every history book there.”
“About as much.”
Lorian went to touch her face again, but before she did, Aida snatched her fingers and squeezed them. “You’re going to give me more acne than I already have.”
“Sorry. With you giving me permission and all, I feel like I need to try everything I’ve ever wanted with you. You’re a very beautiful girl, Aida.”
“And I suppose you, too, are quite a pretty girl.”
Lorian opened her eyes a bit wider, processing that, then smiled and dropped her forehead onto hers.
This time, Aida didn’t think to run away.