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Beth is sitting on the couch like she crawled into her trailer to die there. Slack with fatigue of the heart as well as the body, full of the hard unyielding shapes of betrayal and heartbreak and hopelessness. It’s an ugly mix to look at: soft skin strung over sharp bones and not fitting quite right anymore. Veera can feel her own insides twisting to reflect those same contorted pains in sympathy. She’s been there. She is there, often. She chances a quick look at Beth’s eyes as she stares into space, and they’re simultaneously hollow and bursting-full. Full of anguish that’s ready to spill over into tears, then drain away and leave her empty, empty.

Tea. She scrapes inside the bottle of crystallized concentrate with a measuring spoon and meticulously smooths off the excess powder with a steady finger. Tips it into a drinking glass. Glances through the blinds at the dusk falling outside. Fills the glass with water, counting up the milliliters. She doesn’t much care for the stuff beyond the sugars and electrolytes it provides. But Beth needs them. Who knows how many tears she’s shed already today, and how many more will fight their way out of her before the clock strikes midnight. Besides: giving someone tea means you care about them. That you wish you could make it better, but all you have is tea. But you would if you could. Didn’t she read that somewhere, once? Didn’t she? Maybe it was just a story. But she thinks Beth will understand what she means anyway. (Beth tries. She does. She cares about her. And Veera cares about Beth. It’s a terrible idea, but she does. She does.)

She walks over to the couch, stepping lightly. This is a time for soft deer-steps in the forest, a time for standing still together while the hunters pass in the night. If they’re still and silent enough, they won’t be found.

She’s handing the glass to Beth before she’s thought of anything to say while she does it, so she rattles off an itemized list of its exact contents. Veera flushes slightly, but Beth doesn’t notice. She listlessly takes the glass and stares into it as into a well, then sets it aside. Veera’s heart sinks a little. She’s not helping.

Maybe she’s been too hard on Beth. How many nights did she cry herself to sleep, before - - and after? No one should ever be in a position like theirs. And yet: here they are. They have to survive. They have to. She can’t let them die. Every new death sharpens the old ones twofold. If she were a scarecrow filled with straw, those knives would have torn Veera to nothing but rags long ago.

The first tear trails its way down Beth’s cheek. She’s hurting. Veera wants to make it stop, but the only thing that will make it stop for good is the thing that’s making her cry in the first place. They need to know more if they’re going to get a step ahead of the ringmasters of this hellish circus. And Beth is in a unique position to chase their quarry. That is, if she can keep it from tearing her apart. If Veera can hold her together, when sometimes she can hardly hold herself in one piece.

She can hear Beth’s breath coming shaky now, as the tears sink from her eyes down into her chest. Part of her says let her be, it will pass, she needs to grow stronger, I can’t always be there. Some days I’m too terrified to even get out of bed in case there’s something outside the window. Another part says this is exactly what you look like when you feel like you’re dying. That part would do anything in her power to help, but she doesn’t know what. She doesn’t know to help this kind of hurt, only how to feel it. Only how to need.

What would Niki do? she thinks to herself. Niki had a way with people that Veera has never had. Niki always knew.

Niki would reach out. Niki would put a gentle-gentle hand on her shoulder, wait for her not to pull away, and then wrap her in a hug so tight it held her brain still for a few seconds, the pressure immobilizing her racing thoughts. The memory of each of the scant handful of embraces she was given before Niki was - (gone) is graven into the curve of Veera’s arms, invisible. Niki was so good and so kind, and to Veera of all people.

Veera bites both her lips between her teeth, feeling her own long-dry tears trying to return. Beth has leaned her head back against the couch and is letting the waters leak from the corners of her eyes.

Veera tentatively lifts her hand. Just do it. Reach out. Go. Don’t be afraid. Show her you care before -

She hesitantly extends her arm, as if reaching into a roaring open fireplace. But Beth isn’t a fire; she won’t burn her. She’s water: a deep dark well of her own tears poisoned with fear and pain. The light touch of Veera’s fingers on her wrist, though the uncertainty of it feels like a swarm of bees hovering just above Veera’s skin, makes hardly a ripple. Beth glances down at her hand, but then merely returns to staring at the ceiling. A second tear trail etches its way down her temple.

Veera gently grasps the bones of Beth’s wrist beneath the wool of her coat-sleeve. They’re small and fine, like hers. Beth’s arm tenses a little under the pressure - but maybe that’s just because her tears are becoming a silent river, outlined by the dim lamplight.

Beth is right. This is all their life can be, until (unless - if only) they can tear apart the cages of this experiment until they’re nothing but piles of scrap metal that will never hold them again. But in moments like this, the impossibility of the task feels like the relentless surge of undertow holding them captive and floundering in the sea.

She can feel the vibrations of Beth’s burgeoning sobs through the couch cushions now, and Beth is turning away in a vain attempt to hide the contortion of her so-familiar face.

Veera’s heart aches. She feels that, too. “Beth - ” don’t turn away, I’m trying, I have so little to give but I’ll give it to you, I know I said we have to do things alone but I’m here, I won’t let this thing swallow you, too, I can’t lose you, too -

She lifts her hand shakily from Beth’s wrist, afraid to be bitten by the torment writhing under Beth’s skin, afraid that an unwelcome touch is as bad as a bite, but she’s hurting, hurting, the same way I’m hurting, just reach out, just reach out

- lays it lightly on Beth’s shoulder, and Beth leans into the touch as if unable to help herself. So Veera reaches for her other shoulder and pulls her into her arms, a full-sized living breathing creature with moving head and limbs falling weeping against her own body. Veera’s arms arc around Beth’s torso, her hand curling gently in Beth’s sleek hair and cradling her head against her chest, heart tapping pat-pat-pat under her ribs, muttering am I doing this right? am I doing this right? as Beth’s sobs shake the two of them like flotsam in the surf.

Veera curls her knees up onto the sagging couch, the better to wrap herself around Beth. Her spine is one long exaggerated curve, an awning, a shelter. A hollowed-out and long-abandoned cave with something echoing inside. “Shhh, it’s okay,” she whispers, because it seems like the right thing to do. Beth clings to her enfolding arms and sobs harder.

After an unknowable amount of time, Beth’s breathing slows into small lapping waves instead of heaving tides. But Veera is still shaking. This is too intense. Too much. Too much. Feeling Beth’s pain is bringing all of her own back to the surface. She’s overspent herself, and gladly, but the exertion is still going to exact its price from her.

Beth notices her trembling. “Oh, MK, I’m sorry,” she whispers. A few more tears squeeze out of her eyes as she looks up at her. “God, you must think I’m so stupid, you must feel like this all the time -”

Veera shakes her head sharply. “Glad,” she says curtly, barely managing to spit the lone word out. She hopes Beth can fill in the rest enough to understand. I’m glad I can do this for you, glad you can still cry, glad you trust me even though I’ve torn the world out from under you, glad you’re still feeling, glad you’re alive. I’m sorry I’ve brought you here. I’m sorry it hurts. I’m sorry. Veera doesn’t realize she herself is crying until she notices her own teardrops gleaming in Beth’s hair. 

It’s been so long since she’s cried. Beth heaves that shaky sigh that signals the end of a round of tears, but Veera’s own is only beginning. She tries to stop it, tries to hold it in, but her wrapped-up-tight pain is shaking its way loose of its bonds, shaking her into pieces.

Beth slips out of her crumbling embrace, inverts it - suddenly Beth’s arms are the ones around shoulders, hands pressing gently on the incurling roundness of her upper arms. Beth lays her head against the crook of her neck, and the weight of it is so, so soothing. It braces her, holds her down from writhing out of her own skin.

“It’s okay. MK - Mika, Mika, it’s okay,” she says, and neither of them believe it, but the words soften the air around them where it’s torn with echoed and impending sobs. For the first time in - years, it must be - Veera lets the grief pour out of her, spilling ugly onto the floor of her tiny trailer. She’s always trying to forget how heavy it is, but it is, it is, and Beth is holding it for just a moment, reminding her that she still exists beneath its weight by murmuring her name. In all these years, after all her endless aliases, this nickname that Beth’s given to her is the only one that feels like it could be a second home. But maybe it’s just the way that Beth’s softest-leather voice says it, and makes her feel safe, even when she’s not (she never is).

Human touch is such a strange and intense thing, Veera thinks, as she sits there pressed against Beth. As always, with every touch of every thing, she’s hyperaware of each point of contact: the crinkle of Beth’s wool-wrapped arm against her back; Beth’s hands compressing her triceps through the thin softness of her long sleeves; the fine, live-grass rustling of Beth’s straight-dark hair against the irregular contours of Veera’s cheek. There have been so few people in her life she has trusted enough to let this sort of terrifying closeness happen. But now it has, and it is precious, and it is something that can be lost. She is excruciatingly aware of this fact, but still she lets her body lean further into Beth’s embrace.

This is how we survive, she thinks bleakly. One day, the nightmare will end. And then, maybe, we’ll live.