A paladin stands alone in a familiar room. Dark wood and candlelight. A rock song from before she was born in the speakers. Two old men in the corner by the bar. The fireplace in the snug in the other corner. The shelves behind the bar. Each with bottles waiting to be used. Each with a mirror behind it.
Everything is just as she remembers.
Somewhere behind a radiator is a coaster she dropped on her first night she worked here with her sister. Sixteen years, a few months, some days.
A paladin sees herself in a mirror. Fractured through rows of glass and liquid, sparkling with reflections of candle flames. She knows it is she. Knows the mirrors and the bottles and the room around her.
Safe. Warm. Home.
She is right there, looking back at herself, but will her sister know? She has changed so much. Some shows. A lot is hidden. But her sister will know. Surely. She will be happy to see her.
Her sister will be so surprised.
A paladin smiles. She keeps a giggle in, but a smile pulls at her cheek so hard it almost hurts, and she is a paladin no more.
A young woman is giddy with excitement. Bounces almost. She has got the best surprise for her sister. The best. It is going to be awesome, and she just cannot wait to see the look on her face.
– – –
The door behind the bar opened and a woman stepped into the room. Paivi. Her sister.
It was really her – right there. For real.
Toini swallowed, and her mouth went dry.
She raised her hand, blushed, and wiggled her fingers. A nervous, dainty little wave – like she hadn’t waved since she was a teenager and her big sister had to come pick her up after the police took her in for being underage and drunk off her face.
“Hi. It’s me.”
Stupid. After so long, and that’s all she could think to say. Stupid.
The song on the speakers ended.
Paivi stared at her.
Toini swallowed. She lowered her hand, and her face grew even redder. “Uhm… Paivi?”
Her sister spun around, ran back through the door, and slammed it shut behind her.
She stared at the door. That had been her, hadn’t it?
A single glass fell off its shelf.
The two old men in the corner turned to look at her.
And then the door flew open and Paivi burst out and slammed her fists into the counter. “Where have you been?” she screamed. “Where?”
Eyes wide, nostrils flaring.
Toini shrank back. She hunched up her shoulders and ducked her head. This wasn’t how it was meant to go.
Squirming, she glanced up at her sister, into a face deformed by anger, into eyes burning with rage. A woman in pain.
Cold and festering. Underneath the rage – hidden away behind walls of strength and pride. So much pain.
Fear. Sorrow. Loneliness.
“I…” Toini swallowed. She hadn’t known. Hadn’t realized. She could have done something. “I’m sorry.”
It was all her fault.
Paivi stared at her. Chest heaving, breath ragged.
“You’re sorry.” With a sneer she pushed away from the counter, spat on the floor, and walked off towards the swinging half-door at the end of the bar.
Everything was wrong. This wasn’t what she’d wanted. This wasn’t what she’d thought.
And then Paivi was right there, and her big sister wrapped her arms around her and cried.
– – –
Two sisters. Close together. One with her arms around the other. One stiff. Rigid.
A little sister does not move. She keeps her arms down. Her eyes open.
A big sister is wracked by tears.
It is good and it is bad. Right and wrong. It is a whirlwind of emotions at war with one another, and a young woman is scared.
And behind the thoughts and questions, in the chaos of her mind, where everything is different, a little sister hides, and a young woman goes away.
It is all her fault.
A paladin moves. Lifts her arms and hugs her sister back. Leans her head against a shoulder. Is an anvil of support.
A paladin closes her eyes.
– – –
Eventually, at long last, her sister’s shoulders stopped shaking. The crying died down, and Paivi released her grip around her and pulled away.
Toini lowered her hands and tried to smile. “Hi.”
“Hi.” Paivi rubbed at her eyes with back of her hand, wiping her tears away, and then she let out a little laugh and a smile twinkled in her eye. “Hi.”
“Uhm…” Toini’s smile grew wider, and her cheeks grew warm.
Paivi reached out with both hands and grabbed her by the shoulders. “It’s you. It’s really you.”
“Yes.” She swallowed. “It’s me.”
“But, where have you been? What happened?”
Paivi’s smile faded, and the words came faster. Louder. “I thought… They said… Why didn’t you say anything?” Her face grew tense, and tears rose in the corners of her eyes. “They said you died!”
Toini lowered her gaze. Pretended to study the tattoos on her sister’s arm. “It’s complicated…” It was. It really was.
Blushing, she raised her hand and coughed into her fist. “And… Uhm… I’ve been busy…”
“Busy?” Paivi stared at her. “You’ve been busy?”
“Yes…” She swallowed. Perhaps that hadn’t been the right thing to say. “I’m sorry.”
“You died.” Paivi clenched her teeth, and her grip on Toini’s shoulders tightened. “You left me to think you dead for ten stupid years because you were too busy to call a single stupid time?”
Toini swallowed. Definitely not the right thing to say. She looked up and met her sister’s eyes. Cold as frozen steel. This was her responsibility. It was her fault, and she would live with it and face the consequences. Come what may – she would accept it.
Then she nodded.
Paivi jerked away, and her body tensed. Her nostrils flared. Her breath came ragged, and her eyes filled with fire.
– – –
A paladin’s world spins. She floats. Flies. The silence is absolute and the world keeps on spinning.
Dark wood and candles. Glass and burning eyes. She falls. Turns. A paladin explodes in pain and her faces crashes into the floor.