Juliana waits nervously on the doorstep of Valentina’s house, so much grander than anywhere she’s ever lived. She’s half expecting somebody to come throw her off the premises at any moment given how out of place she is, and she looks around, taking in all the extravagant landscaping. Her eyes are automatically drawn to the vibrant flower bushes lining the property, something about them calling her attention, and she turns away from the door to ponder them properly.
They’re beautiful, colourful and bright, and she distractedly brushes her fingers across the inside of her left wrist, the place where her soulmark is hidden by her bracelets. The small flower mark twines along her skin and seems just on the verge of blooming, but it’s closed. It’s always been closed.
She’s never figured out which type of flower it is, as much as she’s tried. None of her research had unearthed any answers, leaving her frustrated on more than one occasion, but there aren’t enough details in the mark to distinguish it. But she has to imagine it’s something like these flowers, something intricate and pretty and nice. She hopes so, anyways. She hopes her mark will someday shift into something more impressive than a tiny nondescript flower.
Folding her left arm across her stomach, she brings her right hand up to worry at her thumbnail and then stops herself when she realizes what she’s doing, shaking her head firmly. Instead, she crosses her arm over the first, and that’s when the door opens.
She spins around, greeting the woman at the door with what she hopes is an appropriately casual smile, and after introductions follows her inside. The house is even more impressive from here, and Juliana marvels at the front room until she hears footsteps approaching.
“Hi!” she greets as soon as Valentina rounds the corner, feeling something tug at her heart as a rush of excitement shows at the sight of her, and it’s so welcoming that she even forgets to feel embarrassed.
“Hey!” Valentina beams in response, and Juliana feels a tug again, something drawing her towards Valentina just like it had felt the first time she’d passed her on the street.
She remembers staring at her the other day, remembers her dumb remark about admiring her clothes to her mother, remembers the way the sun had been glinting off her hair.
She also remembers her distraught face and the heartbreaking way she had been curled into herself, and she remembers feeling.
Something had drawn her forwards then, except it hadn’t really been forwards – it had been towards her, towards this girl she’d never met, towards something bigger, something…
Juliana blinks hard and flexes her left hand, drawing herself out of the memory and coming back to the present. Her soulmark is tingling, and she pulls her arm closer to her body. She really ought to change her bracelets for new ones if the loose threads keep itching like this.
Valentina comes over to give her a hug, and she steadfastly ignores the tickle against her wrist as she hugs back.
“You know what? Let’s go swimming!” Valentina suggests excitedly after Juliana has stained her new shirt during lunch. Juliana blinks at her in surprise from where she’s wiping at the material, not having been expecting to hear anything remotely near those words.
“I – I don’t have a swimsuit,” she gets out, and Valentina smiles at her in a way that seems almost shy.
“It’s okay, I can lend you one,” she assures her, voice casual but shoulders pulled in awkwardly. She rambles a little bit, gesturing animatedly, and Juliana wants nothing more than to agree with her.
“Val,” she tries one last time, swallowing and setting down her napkin. She resists the urge to scratch her wrist yet again, wondering why it’s itching so badly all of a sudden.
“I can’t swim.”
Valentina laughs, but there isn’t a single trace of judgment in the sound, not a hint of derision. “Are you serious? That’s totally fine! It’s even better, I can teach you,” she smiles earnestly, blowing through Juliana’s protests and reservations like they’re nothing. Honestly, as Juliana is quickly learning, they may as well be nothing where she’s concerned.
“The pool’s right there, and it’s very nice,” she continues, waving in the direction of the window, “It’s huge, and heated too. Really, it’s okay, I promise!”
“…Okay,” Juliana gives in, nodding and unable to hold back her smile in the face of Valentina’s enthusiasm.
“Great!” she reaches out to give her wrist a quick squeeze before rushing off to fetch them bathing suits and towels, and Juliana’s heart flips in her chest. “Be right back!”
As soon as she’s out of sight, Juliana hunches over and rubs at her tingling wrist, squinting at the spot Valentina’s hand had just been as if she can see through her bracelets. Coincidentally, it’s also the exact spot where her soulmark is.
This is getting to be very distracting.
Valentina is right, of course – the pool is amazing. It’s clear and calm and inviting, and Juliana takes it in with wide eyes, trying not to let her awe show. Valentina drops the towels onto a deck chair and slides into the water with no hesitation, turning around to grin up at Juliana and hold out her hand, and Juliana notes with relief that she’s standing easily, water barely coming up to her waist.
“You coming?” she asks when Juliana doesn’t follow immediately, gesturing for her to get in with her other hand, and Juliana blinks again.
“Yeah, yes.” She shakes her head once before nodding again and awkwardly stepping to the side of the pool, sitting down and lowering one leg at a time to dangle them in the water. Valentina laughs warmly, raising a hand to scratch absentmindedly behind her ear as she watches her, and she keeps the other hand extended for her to take. “Right,” Juliana takes a deep breath before accepting it and pushing herself in, “Here I go.”
She gasps at the cold feeling of the water washing over her legs, letting out an embarrassing squeak, and she hears Valentina’s musical laugh again as she squeezes her hand. Smiling self–consciously, she runs her fingers over the top of the water, only looking up when Valentina makes an excited sound.
Valentina is smiling again, a happy little thing as she watches her, and when she meets Juliana’s eyes she beckons her over, pushing herself backwards through the water until she’s more or less in the middle of the pool. Juliana follows instinctively, not wanting to be too far away from her, and she giggles down at the distorted view of her feet as they move through the water.
“Alright, teacher,” Juliana grins when she’s standing in front of her, “What’s first?”
“First?” Valentina scrunches her eyebrows together, snapping her eyes up to meet Juliana’s from wherever they had been listing off to, “Oh, yes! Well, first,” she tilts her head playfully and lowers herself until the water is covering her shoulders, “Dunking.”
“Dunking?” Juliana raises an eyebrow and wraps her arms around herself, feeling chilled, “Why – ”
Before she can get the question out, Valentina has giggled and taken a breath, plunging her head underwater before resurfacing with the widest grin on her face.
“You’ve got to get your hair wet first!” she shakes her head, strands of hair flinging water at Juliana, and Juliana recoils with a laugh and watches as she then uses both hands to flip it away from her face, lingering again with her hands behind her ears.
Juliana half-shrugs and flicks a bit of water at her before following her lead, submerging herself completely. She only lasts a moment before she pops back up with a gasp, wrapping her arms around her waist as she blinks water out of her face, and Valentina doubles over laughing.
“It’s okay, you get used to it!” she tells her, coming closer to put her hands on her shoulders, “The longer you stay in, it’ll get better, really!”
Juliana shivers and gives Valentina a halfhearted smirk. “I’m taking your word for it here, so you better not be making it up.”
“Promise, promise,” she smiles warmly, rubbing her hands down Juliana’s arms before drawing her closer and murmuring, “Now come on.”
“Oh?” Juliana doesn’t resist, moving along easily, but she doesn’t know what to do with herself when Valentina pulls them both down until the water is around their shoulders and wraps her arm low around Juliana’s back.
She looks down in confusion before glancing back at her for some kind of cue of how to proceed, and Valentina smiles at her again.
“You have to take your feet off the floor,” she laughs, reaching out to tug lightly at Juliana’s ponytail, “It’s not swimming unless you’re floating, at the very least.”
“Well then, show me how to float,” she shoots back, lips curving up in another grin, “You said you’d teach me, so get to it.”
Valentina thinks about it, pushing her hair away from her face again in a motion that leaves Juliana’s mouth dry, and then she puts her hand behind Juliana’s head, resting it on the back of her neck.
“You’re going to take your feet off the floor, and I’ll hold you, and then you’ll learn how to float on your back.”
Juliana nods determinedly, forcing her focus away from the curve of Valentina’s jaw to the task at hand, and then throws her arms around Valentina before even attempting to lift her feet off the floor, needing something stable to hang on to.
She blushes as soon as she does it, starting to pull back, but Valentina looks unreasonably pleased, making a reassuring humming sound.
“Okay, I’ve got you, just… hang on to me and lift up your feet.”
Taking a deep breath, Juliana does what she says and then gasps, and she feels more than hears the other girl let out an affectionate huff. Valentina gathers Juliana up properly in her arms and pulls her close, staying crouched so that they keep themselves in the water and aren’t too exposed to the air, and Juliana quiets, hesitantly bringing her right hand up to hold on to her shoulder. Her left hand flounders uselessly in the water, and she instinctively puts it on the exposed skin of Valentina’s back and tightens her hold around her.
Their faces are close together now, much closer than they’ve been all day, and Juliana doesn’t quite know what she’s supposed to do with this. Though she hasn’t had very many friends in her life, she knows that what she’s feeling has to go a little deeper with Valentina.
“You okay?” Valentina murmurs right next to her ear, and Juliana nods jerkily, not ready for the feeling of her breath or the sound of her voice so close. She’s hyperaware of every point of contact between their bodies, and Valentina is certainly not making this any easier for her.
“Okay, I’m going to hold you up,” Valentina reassures her, little giggles breaking up the words, and Juliana feels herself smiling in response. She feels Valentina’s hand resting on the back of her neck, soft skin pressing against hers, and only her knowledge that she will thoroughly embarrass herself if Valentina lets her go is keeping her from drifting.
“You need to let go,” Valentina laughs, and Juliana giggles in response, pressing her chin against Valentina’s shoulder.
“No, what? Wait – ”
Laughing again, Juliana lets her eyes flutter closed as the feeling in her chest continues to bloom and spread.
“I won’t let go of you,” Valentina promises, “Relax, it’s okay.”
“But what do I do? Do I stretch out, or – ”
“Take a deep breath,” Valentina tells her, raising her eyebrows and then inhaling exaggeratedly and giving her a pointed look, “Like that, and hold it.”
Juliana copies her, letting her eyes close again because it’s easier than trying to keep her composure and float and look at Valentina all at the same time, and Valentina cups the back of her head reassuringly, still supporting her neck before she guides her back down to the water.
Her fingers brush just a little too far to the side of her waist, and Juliana twitches, instinctively trying to move upright again when the motion of her laugh makes her feel like she’s dipping too far into the water.
“No, you’re doing really well, just stay like that!” Valentina encourages, guiding her back down, and Juliana takes another deep breath.
“Okay,” she nods, feeling only slightly ridiculous as she listens to the sound of the water splashing and what she swears must be Valentina’s heartbeat, “Like this?”
“Hmm,” Valentina hums, and even this close to her Juliana can barely hear it. “Do you trust me?” she asks delicately, and that’s what gives Juliana the composure to finally settle enough that she can let go of her, nodding and shakily spreading her arms out to her sides. Valentina’s hand shifts against the flat of her back, but as promised, she doesn’t let go.
They both keep giggling, and Juliana feels light and buoyant in a way that has nothing to do with being in water.
“You’re floating,” Valentina tells her softly, and Juliana’s smile widens as she feels her muscles slowly start to relax. Sure enough, even though it’s Valentina’s hands holding her up, she can feel her legs afloat on the water. She relaxes even farther, keeping her eyes closed, and then her wrist itches again.
It’s a different feeling this time, more like a thrumming than a tingling, but it’s still causing the same sort of fluttering feeling in her chest and stomach. And once again, she realizes it’s centered on her soulmark.
Her eyes open, and she strains up to see her wrist over Valentina’s shoulder, her left arm hurriedly wrapped around the other girl’s back once more. Her bracelets are wet, but they’re still in place covering her mark, and Juliana exhales in relief, accidentally sinking deep enough that water covers half her face and leaves her sputtering.
Valentina quickly pulls her up again, one hand still supporting her neck but her other arm curling around her shoulders to keep her head up until she regains her breath, and though her eyes are dancing with amusement, she’s watching her with a mix of affection and something Juliana can’t read shining on her face.
Valentina has a couple strands of hair caught on her lip, and the strap of her bathing suit has been twisted around… and she’s breathtaking. Obviously she had been breathtaking before, but now she’s breathtaking
Juliana looks at Valentina with wide eyes, wet hair sticking to the back of her neck and making her shiver, and her mind starts to whirl, trying to make sense of what can’t possibly be true.
…Could it be true?
That’s when they’re interrupted by someone calling Valentina’s name, and Juliana startles again, mentally pushing the issue aside and resolving to figure it all out later.
But her soulmark doesn’t quiet.