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Shattered into Ash

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The church was packed. Too many people standing too close. Cora felt her skin crawling with it, sweat trickling down her back.

The things she did for her sister.

Next to her, pushed into her side, Laura hunched down, staring up at the pastor with a vacant expression.

Laura’s ex-husband used to frequent this church, so Cora wasn’t sure why she decided they had to be here.

Easter Service was not the time to be grieving or whatever it was Laura was doing, Cora thought. So many people seeking absolution for sins that shouldn’t count. Perhaps that was what Laura wanted to do: ask for forgiveness for kissing her cute coworker last Monday.

The pastor ceded to the choir, and Cora took notice.

She loved singing, and nothing was more ethereal than a large group of people singing accompanied by nothing more than their voices.

They were led by a woman, gorgeous in a wrap-around royal blue dress and a matching headband to tame her curled red locks.

The pastor began droning again, and Cora amused herself by watching the choir leader as she listened to the sermon.

The choir sang a few more times before the service ended, and each time the woman stood up, Cora swooned a little more. Love was a funny thing and it didn’t care who it struck or where.

Afterward, Cora joined her sister downstairs for a feast of sorts. People exchanged sweet breads and gossip while they visited before hurrying off to parts unknown. Cora surreptitiously checked her phone for the time while Laura pressed close to the pastor, staring wide-eyed as the woman dispensed advice and blessings in the same breath.

Apparently, Laura’s cute coworker had competition.

Speaking of, the choir leader waltzed through the crowd, people parting as she danced among them, grace personified, kisses rained down on every upturned cheek as she passed.

Cora stepped into her path, a sticky bun held aloft, a smile pasted to her lips. The choir leader blinked at her before shaking her head impatiently.

“Hi,” Cora said, offering the bun, which was declined with a slight inclination of the head. “I’m Cora. I thought you sang very well.”

“Of course I did,” the woman said. “I always sing well. Which you would know, Cora, if you came to more than the Easter service.”

Cora flushed. “This is not my usual church,” she said, unsure why exactly she was defending herself. This was the first time she’d stepped foot in a church since before Thanksgiving last year. “This is my sister’s church. I was just here today to support her.” Laura plucked the bun from Cora’s hand, biting into it with relish.

“Hi,” she said through a mouthful of pastry. “I’m Laura. Natalie was just telling me how you’re going to be graduating this year. It must be nice to be done with school finally.” There was a wistful quality to her voice.

“Lydia,” the woman introduced herself, abstaining from shaking Laura’s hand. “And yes, it is nice to be done with the first phase of my schooling. After a short break, I plan to seek my masters in mathematics.”

“I’m graduating this year too,” Cora blurted. “Science, double major in chemistry and biology.”

Lydia’s eyebrows raised and she nodded approvingly. “Both wonderful subjects. I’d love to hear more about them. Drinks tonight?”

The pastor clapped a hand onto Lydia’s shoulder, squeezing affectionately. “Lydia dear, please don’t hit on the congregation.”

“I’m not,” Lydia said, shrugging the hand off. “It’s rare to find another woman in the STEM field in a church. I’d like to not waste the opportunity to study her brain.”

“Can you not do it at Easter service?” the pastor asked.

Lydia huffed, turning on her heel. “Fine.” She handed Cora a card. “If you want to meet up later, call me.”

Laura led Cora out, her grip bruising on her elbow.

“I can’t believe you,” she hissed, shoving Cora at their car.

“Believe what?” Cora asked. She tucked Lydia’s card into her pocket and climbed into the passenger seat. Laura slid behind the wheel, shaking her head.

“You’re insufferable. I can’t take you anywhere. First, you hook up with a couple, and now you’re going after the pastor’s daughter. Can’t you keep your legs crossed?”

“Excuse me?” Cora glared at Laura. “I’m in a polyamorous relationship, but that doesn’t make me a slut.” Belatedly, she added, “And I’m not ‘going after the pastor’s daughter.’”

“Oh yes you are,” Laura accused. “I saw that look you gave her. Beauty and brains. That’s your weakness.”

“I can appreciate beauty, okay?” Cora snapped. “That doesn’t mean that I’m going to abandon my relationship just because she wants to meet later for drinks. Ever heard of a platonic relationship?”

“You don’t do ‘platonic’ relationships. If that were true, you wouldn’t be screwing two people.”

Cora seethed, wishing she had the power to set her sister on fire with just her gaze for the insults she’d delivered. Not one more minute could she spend in her presence.

“Fuck you.” At the next light, Cora jumped out. When Laura tried to protest, Cora said, “You have two days to get out of my apartment. Until you apologize to me, we’re done.”

She stomped away without looking back.

Her anger carried her all the way to the station fifteen blocks away. While she sat on the train, studying Lydia’s card, her anger grew all over again, and by the time she reached her brother’s apartment, she was ready to find Laura and strangle her.

“Well hello to you too,” Stiles commented dryly as she passed him without a word.

Derek was in the kitchen piping icing over a cupcake. He slapped away her hand when she tried to grab it.

“Wait,” he said, shaking some rainbow sprinkles over it. “Okay, now you can have it.” He looked up, concern drawing his brows low. “What’s wrong?”

“Laura,” Cora said. She settled onto a chair and began licking at the frosting. “She accused me of being a slut just because I have a boyfriend and a girlfriend. And she thought I was hitting on this really cool woman at her church.”

Derek and Stiles exchanged a look before the oven timer distracted Derek.

Stiles leaned across the table next to Cora, swiping an undecorated cupcake. He peeled the wrapper off, breaking it into bites while he nudged her with his shoulder.

She finally snapped, demanding, “What?”

“Nothing,” Stiles replied, calmly licking his fingers. “Just, when you mentioned Boyd and Erica and this new lady, you got the look on your face.”

“What look?”

Derek hip-checked Stiles, slapping his hand away from another cupcake. “You can wait,” he told him. “Besides, I need you to mash the potatoes.” To Cora he said, “You get this look on your face when you’re in love or at least interested. Obviously, it’s not as pronounced with this new woman from the church, but Stiles is right that it appears similar to your affection for your partners.”

Cora pulled out Lydia’s card, passing it to Derek. “Do you know her?”

“Stiles, isn’t she your TA for your Differential Geometry class?”

Stiles took the card, barely glancing at it before handing it back. “Yep,” he said, wandering away.

“She goes to Laura’s church,” Derek said, “and Laura insulted you because of it?”

“Lydia said she wanted to meet up later to talk about my majors.”

“That’s fantastic,” Stiles called from where he’d draped himself over the couch. “Lydia Martin is hard to impress. She does everything. Everything. The only person more perfect in this world is Derek. Because he cooks.”

Derek flipped Stiles off but returned to potatoes, using a hand mixer to whip them into a fluffy mess. Cora reached for a taste and pulled back a stinging hand.

“You can wait too,” her brother told her. “Anyway, do you want advice on what to do with Laura?”

“Cut her,” Stiles called.

“Your opinion is unasked for,” Derek retorted.

“No,” Cora said. “I already took care of it. She has two days to get out of my apartment. If she trashes the place, like I think she’s going to, joke’s on her since I moved most of my stuff into storage or with Boyd and Erica.”

“Well, how about we just get through this dinner,” Derek suggested. “Then we can go chew out Laura.” He sighed. “I’m sorry. I really thought she was changing.”

“Her bisexuality doesn’t change the fact that she’s a bitch,” Stiles said. “It’s like with any type of person, straight, gay, bi, poly, you have your goody-goods and you have your baddie-bads.”

“And what are you, Stiles?” Cora asked.

“I’m a goody-bad,” he said winking at her.

“Go, wash up,” Derek told her. “You too, Stiles. The food will be ready soon.”

As Stiles passed her on his way to the bathroom, he knocked against her shoulder. “Whatever happens,” he said, honestly, “Derek and I will support you. Even if we have to visit you in prison for sororicide.”

Cora knocked him back. “I’m not going to kill Laura, no matter how I think she deserves it. I’m not going to prison for that. That’d be too easy and expected.”

“Make sure you have a good alibi.”


 

Of course Derek made too much food. He always did. Stiles didn’t seem to have the same problems with Easter as he did with Thanksgiving (his rants were legendary, and Cora had consoled her brother many times over the fact that Stiles hated holidays in general and Thanksgiving in particular).

With Malia and Heather honeymooning, there were less mouths and yet Derek had made way too much.

“Leftovers,” Stiles told each guest as they left. “Take what you want. Whatever’s left, Derek and I are going to box up and take down to the shelter.”

Surprisingly, no one took any leftovers, and many offered to help carry the remnants down to the shelter.

Cora declined because she was tired and half-asleep on the couch.

All at once, she found herself alone, the last of the guests departing and Stiles and Derek carting down a box for the shelter three blocks from their apartment.

She waited for a few minutes, but when no one immediately returned, she pulled out Lydia’s card, studying the text again.

Maybe Derek and Laura were right. Maybe she was attracted to Lydia. Maybe she did want to see what going on a date with her would be like.

She still wanted Boyd and Erica too.

It felt wrong to want Lydia when she already had two amazing partners.

Talking with Lydia could help, right?

Cora pulled out her phone, punching in Lydia’s number. At the last second, she set the phone down.

What was she doing? Was she going to meet Lydia to discuss their majors or was she going to see if they’d be compatible?

Whatever it was she was going to do, she needed to talk it over with her partners first.

Cora scribbled a note for her brother to let him know where she was, and then she took the train to Boyd and Erica’s apartment.

“Cora,” Erica said when she let herself in. “I thought you were spending today with your family?”

“I was, but I wanted to see you too.”

Guilt squirmed in her stomach, twisting and turning until she thought she might be sick from it. She’d spent the whole ride in trying to convince herself that she only wanted another friend in Lydia.

She did want a friend, but she also wanted to see Lydia spread out, quaking with pleasure, to hear the noises she would make under Cora’s tongue.

She wanted to know if Lydia was like Erica: loud and moving unless she was on the precipice of an orgasm.

She wanted to know if Lydia knew how to pleasure a woman like Boyd could with his mouth and fingers.

She wanted to add another body to their bedroom, to their lives.

Cora wanted Lydia.

“I think we need to talk,” Cora said.

“Let’s sit down,” Boyd said. “What’s wrong?”

Cora explained about meeting Lydia at church, about the invitation to meet up later. She bit her tongue until she tasted blood, and then almost too quiet to hear, she admitted what she wanted.

Cora wanted to cry when Erica excused herself, her face pale, eyes wide with disbelief and hurt.

Boyd sat still for a long moment, and Cora waited, watching him out of the corner of her eye.

This was a mistake. She should have just kept her mouth shut, should have torn up Lydia’s card and thrown it away. She should have been happy with what she had and not acted like the slut Laura called her.

“Are you okay for a minute here?” Boyd asked. “I want to check on Erica. Please don’t just disappear.”

“I’ll be here,” Cora whispered. Boyd reached out like he wanted to pat her arm but pulled away before he made contact.

As he joined Erica in the bedroom, Cora pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around her knees. She sniffled, wiping away the tears that dripped down her face. She didn’t deserve the right to cry. She wasn’t the one being hurt right now.

It didn’t matter that it felt like she’d been flayed open, left for vultures to pick at her innards. She was the one who had wielded the knife, severing their bonds with a swift cut. She was the one killing their relationship.

Boyd returned, Erica in tow. They both sat, Erica on the far side of Boyd while he carefully settled so that his leg didn’t touch hers.

“What’s going to happen now?” Cora asked.

“Only you know what’s in your heart,” Boyd said. He turned to face her. “Listen, Erica and I, we’ve been together for a long time. We know each other’s limits. We still love you, that won’t change.”

“But you don’t want another person here,” Cora guessed.

“We’re just not ready for that,” Erica said. “We’re not going to stop you.”

“But we’re through.” Cora’s heart skipped a beat in her chest. This wasn’t at all what she wanted.

Erica and Boyd exchanged a sorrowful glance.

“Yes,” Erica finally said after a silence that left no question of where they stood.

“Just because we’re not ready for another person in our midst, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t seek what your heart desires,” Boyd added. He embraced Cora, but it felt wrong, he was too big or she was too small. She didn’t fit like she did yesterday. “You deserve to find out if this could be the one.”

Selfishly, Cora didn’t want to have to choose. She hugged Boyd as hard as she could, trying to hold on for just a little longer, trying to fit again. When Erica joined, Cora clamped a hand around her, pulling her close.

“I’m sorry I ruined us,” she whispered.

“You didn’t,” Boyd said. “I wouldn’t trade the last three months for anything.”

“Live a little,” Erica added. “We’ll be here if you need us.”

They pulled away, the warmth sucked from the dead husk that was now Cora’s body. She wasn’t being cast out, but she knew when she left she wouldn’t be able to return.

“What about my things?”

“I’ll bring them by your place later. You can take whatever you need now.”

Thirty minutes later, Cora stood on the sidewalk downstairs, a borrowed duffle bag slung over her shoulder. Boyd had offered to drive her to her apartment, but she hadn’t wanted to admit that she couldn’t go back there, so now she was standing outside, wrapped tightly in her coat as the wind, a gentle breeze comparatively, blew right through her, chilling her as much as the final hug had.

Cora called Derek. He answered on the third ring, and all she could say was, “I fucked up.”

~ Fin ~