Once the roaring flames die down, leaving only black ash and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh behind them, Dani succumbs to the jellied give of her legs, falling to her knees and digging her hands into the rich ground. Her flower cape, once a trophy of her status, starts to feel like a prison; poppy metal bars and daisy guards wrapped in white linen, restricting her breathing and choking her more than the stench. Dirt builds under her fingernails, and hot tears gather at her lash line and race down her face; her grief is palpable and thick, stuck in the back of her throat as her loud wails slip around it. She eyes the black smoke dispersing into the rays of the Swedish sun, and she feels another emotion come over her, striking and full bodied. Her nausea, once a steel ball in the pit of her stomach, disappears and leaves in its wake an eerie stillness.
The emotion, she realizes much later, is relief.
✧ ✧ ✧
Things don’t go the way Dani expects them to.
They never do, of course- dead dead they’re all dead lost to monoxide there’s no family to miss you- but she expects some sort of caging after the ritual; instead of being watched like a hawk by the Hårga, she instead is given free rein over the compound and in and out of the buildings. She floats over the hills, lets her hair damply curl and wet her linen dresses as her feet dig into the soil. The sun never stops beaming, bright and incessant on the back of her neck. The people let their eyes trace her with no sense of wariness; they grasp her wrists thankfully, pressing kisses to her cheeks and singing her praises. She blesses the teas at meals, her voice wobbly but never fully breaking. As hundreds of azure eyes stare up at her throne adoringly, Dani wonders if this is what family is.
Each day she strays further from the buildings, from the people cooking and cleaning and gardening. She skims the forest, lets her fingertips dance across the rough bark as the shrieks of delighted children get farther and farther away. She thinks of Christian, paralyzed and stiff and crammed into a bear skin, burning into a crisp nothingness. She thinks of the way he treated her, cold and detached and resentful, always so miserable. She thinks of the way he fucked her, rough and unforgiving, his hands balling into fists on either side of her head. He never looked her in the eyes when he finished, Dani still writhing under him and begging for more, more, love me love me love me I’ll take anything you want to give please just love me.
She thinks of the way Christian loved her: invisibly.
✧ ✧ ✧
Pelle startles her with the question.
“I’m sorry?” she gasps, her head still reeling.
“Would you like to go home?” he asks again, soft and soothing. His voice has always been calming to Dani, ever since Christian introduced them, but now it’s almost overwhelming; it slides off his tongue smooth and honeyed and lowered just for her.
“Like… back to the US?”
“Dani.” Pelle says, eyes boring into hers as he grasps her hands in both of his. His palms are warm and silky, and they feel huge against her slight fingers.
“You are pure intentioned. The others were brought here because I saw the ugliness rotting like a disease inside of them. You are not that. You are free to leave as you wish. We do not want you to feel like a caged bird.”
“What about Josh? Did he have ill intentions? You can’t just use that as an excuse-“ Dani cuts herself off, voice hoarse. She has no more tears to spare, and she taps her fingers against Pelle’s wrist, desperate for an answer that won’t make her float away, for something that will mimic the Ativan she has become so accustomed to.
“Dani,” Pelle simpers again, her name falling from his lips like a prayer, “the gods willed it, and so it was. There is no explaining it away. Just as there is no explaining you being May Queen other than it was meant to happen.”
“You are family, now. If you so wish it.” Pelle adds. The word family is murmured so easily in his tone, like it’s a given. Like he didn’t even think twice about it. Dani feels her thighs clench.
“I’ll think about it. Going home, I mean.” Dani finally lets the quiet words fall from her lips. The space between their bodies is warm from summer and the heat of each other; Pelle gives her a knowing smile in answer, lips plump as they quirk up, his cheeks dimpling. His eyes are alight with mirth at her words. Dani thinks of when she was crowned May Queen, the flowers breathing in time with her heartbeat, the dancing grass twining up her ankles and down her neck. She thinks of the way Pelle kissed her, deep and fervent and caring.
“Ah. Of course, älskling. Please take your time.”
Later, Dani asks one of the young women- Anna, she remembers- what the term means.
“Who called you that?” Anna asks, cocking her head to the side, giggles tripping out of her as if she already knows the answer.
She finally lets laughter fully escape, ushering Dani into the bakery to taste the new cherry pastry recipe. She doesn't answer the question.
✧ ✧ ✧
“Will you track me down? If I go back.” Dani forces the question out of her head, tired of it bouncing around her skull and keeping her awake at night. She drags her gaze up to meet Pelle’s. His face is gentle in the shade of the trees, curls rustling in the light breeze.
“Free to go means free to go, Dani. There is no silver tongue work.”
Dani considers it. She imagines her old apartment, stale and empty. She thinks of the bed she didn’t make before leaving, the milk souring in the fridge. She thinks of the friends who are probably worried for her. Mostly she thinks of the half empty bottle of Christian’s cologne on her dresser, never to be worn by anyone again.
Well, Dani thinks, cologne wouldn’t cover the smell of a burnt corpse anyways.
The next day she’s in the car with Pelle, the windows down as the countryside races by in a blue-green-white blur. The people had let her go with wails and kisses, but none had begged her to stay. Siv had watched it all from the back, a thin smile gracing her features, eyes as sharp as a hawk’s. Dani knew in another life she would have been panicked. In another life, she would have clawed her way out of the crowd and into the woods to uphend lunch. Now, all she felt was a twinge of indifference. Pelle’s voice rolled in her mind, reassuring her. Whatever will happen, will happen.
She has seen the plane ticket herself- one way from Stockholm Arlanda to Chicago O’Hare with her name on it- but still she does not believe it.
“Aren’t they worried about me saying something?” she finally asks towards the end of the drive. The street signs of the airport are starting to flash by, and Dani knows it’s a reckless question, but she figures she doesn’t have much to lose. Pelle stops at a light, turning his torso to face her. Whatever Dani expects to find on his face, it isn’t what she gets; the corner of his mouth is twitched upwards in amusement. She can’t help but think he looks handsome like this, hair windswept and tangled, sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose.
“No, älskling. I don’t think they are.”
✧ ✧ ✧
Being in an apartment again is almost unsettling.
Being alone is definitely unsettling.
Her bills are all set to automatic withdrawal, so the only thing Dani has to take care of is the expire food in the fridge. She takes a shower with scalding water after, scrubbing her skin pink and raw, then lays on her bed and stares a hole into the popcorn ceiling until the sun is setting through her window. It paints her furniture orange and golden, and she can't help but feel nostalgic for the sight of sunrises and sunsets. Her phone rests dead and ignored on her nightstand. She eyes one of Christians old shirts discarded on the floor, well loved and showcasing some obscure podcast’s logo on the front. Dani remembers when she would wear it to sleep before, when it still smelled like him and soothed her on the nights her love choked him enough to drive him away.
The loneliness seems to consume her as she settles in, seeping deep under her skin and burrowing into her veins, worse than her family’s tragedy. A pit opens in her stomach as she thinks of the men and women she left behind, their loving eyes and empathy moans, their sense of community and family. She thinks of Pelle, of his hands on hers, of his kiss. She thinks of Christian burning.
When she finally sleeps, stomach empty from her dry retching into the toilet, her dreams are wracked by her sister’s face covered in a gas mask, a crown of flowers sitting atop her head.
The next day she googles älskling. The results pop up quickly, and she considers the daunting blue text for a moment, heart threatening to thump out of her chest. She leaps up shakily, fingers numb as she throws the full bottle of Ativan in her medicine cabinet and several pairs of cotton underwear into a duffel bag.
Then she buys a one way ticket to Stockholm.
✧ ✧ ✧
Pelle is waiting for her.
Dani’s not sure how he knows. The driver had been an old man, too unassuming to have any relation; he had dropped her off miles from Hälsingland, and she had hiked the rest of the way, two liters of water and a sandwich rattling around with her pill bottle. She follows the road, her gut guiding the way through moss and flowers and gravel. It’s stupid, she knows. Coming back had been stupid. She was finally free- your past is not your freedom a small, traitorous voice spits venomously at her- and she cast it away for what? An instinct? There’s no way she’ll end up where she’s going, anyways; no way she had committed this trip to memory so well before she had even known the significance it would take in her life, the meaning it would hold-
He’s standing on the first hillside when she arrives. He’s wearing the usual white linen, stitched with blue detailing and airy in the wind. Dani stops at the base of the knoll, duffel bag dropping onto the ground beside her. She inhales deeply, the fresh air mixed with the smell of burning bodies that has been permanently plastered to her nasal cavity.
“ Älskling. I have missed you.” his voice is fond, its warmth flushing her face and leaving an ache in between her thighs.
“I didn’t know,” she starts, finally allowing herself to break down, to cry for the first time since the ceremony. She disintegrates into his arms, and he holds her easily, like she’s something precious, pressing her face into his neck and shushing her gently.
“I know, Dani.”
“I couldn’t have known.” she insists, on the verge of hysteria. It’s just them on the sunny patch of grass and flowers, the puffy clouds overhead framing them as a Shakespearean poster.
“I already told you, we are your home now. But you had to discover it for yourself, little one.”
Dani’s throat tightens at the endearments, and she surges up on her toes to kiss him before she can stop herself. His lips are as supple as she remembers, and he immediately spans his big hands around her waist, pulling her flush against him.
“Dani.” he murmurs against her, laying them down on the fertile dirt.
“Dani.” he rasps into her core, tongue warm and wet and splitting her open. Her dampness paints her inner thighs, sticky and shiny from being loved, and Pelle laps it all up, biting and sucking at her until she’s red and swollen with it.
“Please.” she whines, high and young sounding, like a little girl being shown attention for the first time. Pelle continues his ministrations, palming her breasts gently, his fingers lavishing attention on her pert nipples. She comes with a low groan, her fingers clutching his hair and pulling him up. He tastes like her, wet and pleasantly bitter, sunshine on her tongue.
“You deserve to be held, älskling.” Pelle mumbles into her hair. He grasps her thighs and stretches them apart; he nudges at her entrance softly, hot and silky, and she cants her hips up to meet him.
“I knew from the moment I saw you,” he whispers, hips trying different angles until he finds the one that makes her gasp and claw at his back greedily.
“He always said I was too- that it wasn’t-“ Dani whimpers at a particularly velvet thrust, her legs curling around him.
“He never knew. That is why he burned.” Pelle gasps assuredly, kissing her cheeks, her forehead, the tip of her nose. “He never knew what he had. You are everything.”
She smells him, dirt and summertime mixed with his natural berry must, and she feels Pelle spill inside her at her heavy inhales, pulsing and warm. She watches the sky and waits for the inevitable pull away, the abandonment. Instead he kisses her all over, lips dragging across her chest and leaving lover’s spit in their wake. He rubs her spine, pulling her to him, and a hot, melting ball of pleasure drips in her pelvis.
Pelle holds her. And holds her. And holds her.