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“You can’t understand my plight,” Elle said.  “You’re in Engineering, Vivian, and red is absolutely your color.”

Elle gave out genuine, enthusiastic praise more than anyone Vivian had ever met.  It was why she was one of Starfleet’s most prized captains—all smiles and sharply-honed arguments and sunshiney optimism, she could sit across a negotiation table from any leader in the Federation and charm them into cooperation.  She was like this with everybody, Vivian had to remind herself.  Elle noticed how she looked because Elle noticed people—and fashion—period.

“Every day,” Elle continued, “we boldly go out to face strange new corners of the galaxy, and you look your best, and what do I look like?  A blonde satsuma.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“In civilian clothes, I am a force to be reckoned with.  I can even make the dress uniforms work.  But this—”  Elle moved her hand up and down incredulously, indicating the soft, command gold fabric of her standard Starfleet gear.  “I look pasty.  And orange.  At the same time.  Something has got to be done about this.”

“You say that after every shore leave.”

“Because shore leave reminds me that I’m capable of so much more than this.  –No, no, don’t move your hands yet.  You have to let the polish dry.  At least one of us should look good.”  She leaned down and blew softly against Vivian’s fingertips.

Vivian’s only real opinion about Elle’s clothes was that there should be less of them.  But that couldn’t exactly be the Chief Engineer’s official stance.

“What I need is to draw on Jim Kirk’s precedent,” Elle said decisively.  “He somehow got Starfleet to sign off on a wraparound tunic in a non-regulation color.  He’s an inspiration to every person who ever struggled with this absurd, dictatorial color palette.”  She leaned back on her sofa.  She usually wore stockings on duty, but she always took them off before her nights with Vivian, when the two of them would drink replicated smoothies and talk over the latest business of the Enterprise.  Her peach-colored skin was bare now, her knee silky, her thighs casually parted.  Every so often Vivian used to wonder why Starfleet hadn’t totally cancelled the miniskirt option—and then she’d met Elle.

“Can we table the Starfleet dress code for just a second?” Vivian said.

“Ugh, yes.  If we must.  And if you keep your hands still for another two minutes so you don’t ruin all my hard work.”

Vivian smiled.  “Absolutely.”

“Then I’ll save the lament for another night.  What’s up?”

“You shouldn’t go on the away mission to Pyrus III.  Respectfully.”

“I love away missions.”

“Pyrus III could be dangerous.”

“Which is exactly why I don’t want to ask my crew to go without me.  They shouldn’t have to do anything I’m not willing to do myself.”  She sipped her smoothie.  “If I have a bad feeling about something, I want to be in the thick of it, not in orbit twenty kilometers up wondering what I’m missing when the comms short out.”

Vivian sighed.  There was no way she was ever going to out-argue Elle’s devotion to her crew.  Engineering couldn’t break the laws of physics; Vivian couldn’t break the laws of Elle.

At least she knew she’d be going with her.  She could keep an eye on things.

She said, “Can I move my hands now?”  She knew Elle would take it as the concession it was.

“It hasn’t even remotely been two minutes.”  Elle blew on her fingers again.  “But yes.  Carefully.  We should see about getting you a yeoman, and then they could do your nails whenever you wanted and you wouldn’t have to wait for me to be free.  Paulette would do them for you if you asked.”  Her expression was unusually still, and her gaze was still down on Vivian’s hands.

Vivian had always thought her hands were ugly.  Her fingers were shorter than the average engineer’s, her knuckles always reddened from residual solvent; her family, who’d worked on the engines of every Starfleet flagship immemorial, didn’t like her fingers, and strangers, who didn’t know the red knuckles were an engineering point of pride, didn’t like the discoloration.  The first time she’d really liked her hands had been when Warner had put that engagement ring on her finger.

The first time she’d really liked herself was when she’d taken it off and given it back to him.

And then Elle had done her nails for the first time, and Vivian had looked down at them the next day, already chipped from the work she’d been doing deep in a Jeffries tube, and she’d felt like herself: pretty and busy and unfortunately head over heels in love with Elle Woods.

She said, “I don’t need them done that often,” and fought the urge to curl her fingers up reflexively, like Paulette would come bustling in and take over if Vivian didn’t hide her hands fast enough.  She tried to shrug, keeping her voice light like it didn’t matter.  “They’ll be ruined in about an hour anyway, and you know it.  Besides, I like it when you do my nails.”

Elle looked up, her eyes—very bright—meeting Vivian’s.  “Actually, I do too.  And you don’t ruin them.  The chipped look is very in for engineers.  Andi f that goes out of fashion, I’ve got a bottle of Vulcan polish that’s super resistant to wear and tear.”

“Vulcan has a beauty industry?”

“Of course.  You wouldn’t expect anything less from a culture whose eyebrow game is so consistently on point.”

They went on drinking their smoothies—Vivian obediently handling hers carefully so she didn’t mess up her still-drying nails—and chatting, their conversation wandering effortlessly from the rumor that Admiral Stromwell was thinking of retirement to the latest glittery Starfleet pendant Elle had bought for Bruiser’s collar to the refinements Vivian had been making to the Enterprise’s warp drive.  And the whole time, Vivian thought about how as much as Elle complained that her uniform made her look tragically jaundiced, Vivian just thought it made her look even more priceless.  Golden hair, golden skin, golden dress—every inch of her glowing and perfectly in tune, like she’d never been meant for anything else.

And at the end of their night, Vivian went back to her own quarters.  Alone.  As always.

She lay down on her bunk and traced engine schematics on the insides of her eyelids and tried—but only half-heartedly—to not be in love with her best friend, who was also her captain.

No luck.

***

Their orders were to evaluate Pyrus III for potential admission into the Federation.  Most of the time, those visits were a cakewalk—basically worlds who had already been professionally, diplomatically courted through the rocky getting-to-know-you process and even had a kind of twilight membership in the Federation for decades.  Starfleet then sent out a Constitution-class ship in its full glory along a path already smoothed-out by dozens of lawyers and ambassadors.  They got the contracts signed, stayed for whatever local celebrations there were, and were off again the next morning.  Harmless.  Usually a terrific time to work on new equations for decreasing transporter power loads.

But Pyrus III was different.  It was on the far border of explored space, so remote that communications with it had always been spotty and text-only; David had already stammered through a lengthy explanation of how their cultural prep wouldn’t be up to snuff.  And even more importantly, it was governed by a constitutional monarchy.  The old king had been staunchly opposed to any dealings with the Federation; his daughter, now a seventeen-year-old queen, was more amenable, but she’d only held power for a month.  The situation was still in flux, and a lot of the former king’s supporters were still grumbling.  The smart thing, in Vivian’s opinion, was to wait.

But Admiral Callahan had decided that the vast dilithium reserves on Pyrus III meant immediately securing the planet would be make for another perfect news item that could run with his name splashed all over it.  Never mind that Elle would be the one doing all the work.

They were going to be beaming down onto a world they barely understood and into a political situation they couldn’t hope to have a handle on.  Great.

It wasn’t the kind of away mission Vivian would have normally gone on, but she’d basically bludgeoned Commander Wexler into pointing out that Vivian could maybe use the chance to offer Pyrus III a little help boosting their communication tech.

That she also had the technical expertise necessary to improvise a bomb and blast their way out of the palace, if necessary, went unspoken.  But Vivian was definitely keeping it in mind.

They assembled on the transport pads—Elle, Vivian, and the three most intimidating security officers on the ship.  Elle didn’t look like someone who’d been up late the night before, sipping her raspberry-plomeek smoothie and wrinkling her nose at the latest requisition forms.  And she didn’t look like someone who was worried.  But that didn’t mean anything.  Elle’s makeup could artfully conceal a case of Andorian blood-blisters—Vivian had no hope at all of seeing whether or not she was on edge.

Until Elle smiled at her and her teeth caught a little against her lower lip, a gesture Vivian hadn’t seen from her since their Academy days.  “Ready, Vivian?”

“Ready, Captain,” Vivian said, emphasizing the title just enough to remind Elle of how far they’d come.

Elle’s smile turned into a grin.  “Energize!”

Vivian felt the odd vertigo of her body coming apart and then the reverberation of it all coming back together again.  She was standing in front of an enormous mirror-fronted palace.  The pathway leading to it was paved with glossy stones that were sapphire blue.

“I think we’re in Oz,” she said under her breath.

“I would totally have killed for those ruby slippers,” Elle said.  “Though I’ll grant you that the one thing Starfleet gets right uniform-wise are the boots.  Okay, people, we’re walking.”

She strode up the sapphire path.  Vivian followed closely behind her and tried valiantly not to watch the way the hem of Elle’s golden miniskirt twitched back against her thighs.

One thing was for sure: she couldn’t argue with the grandeur of the Pyrian palace.  Maybe with its taste, but…

The enormous mirrored doors swung open to admit them.

“Hi!” Elle said cheerfully.  “I’m Captain Elle Woods of the USS Enterprise, here to formally welcome you into the Federation.  This is my Chief of Engineering, Lieutenant Commander Vivian Kensington, and my security team, Lieutenant Chegal and Ensign T’Prir.”

The Pyrian guard was short, broad-shouldered, and lavender, with skin that hung in loose, heavy, elephantine folds around his neck and eyes.

He was also completely naked.

“You are expected,” he said in a thin, creaky voice.  Thank God the universal translator had been fed enough of their language that it wasn’t having any trouble.  “Welcome, Starfleet officers.”

“That is so nice of you,” Elle said.

“I will take you to Queen Laetis.”

Vivian would have been a lot more comfortable with less nudity, obviously—she was from Connecticut, they wore clothes in Connecticut—but what really made her uneasy was the palace’s echoing silence.  They passed by plenty of Pyrians with at least three kinds of genitalia freely on display, but they were all tight clusters of whispers that died down as the Enterprise’s crew passed by.  With all the mirrors, it was like being in a funhouse of covert gossip, figments of the worst days at the Academy bouncing back at them.  There goes Vivian Kensington, did you hear that her fiancé’s ex-girlfriend showed up on campus?  Yeah, this blonde knockout—total airhead, the first thing she asked in orientation was what accessories we could have, but it’s not like she needs to be smart, is it?  And I heard she and Warner dated for years.  Poor Vivian.

Well, they were out of their insular, hyper-judgmental Academy days, thankfully, and she knew that however much the gossip had hurt her, it had been ten times worse for Elle.  The point was that Vivian knew what it was like to have people suddenly shut up as you passed by.  Add in all the mirrors, and it was a perfect recipe to make anyone feel self-conscious.  She hoped their security wasn’t getting jumpy.

She wanted to know what it was the Pyrians were whispering about.

The guard escorted them into a receiving room heavily draped in lemon-colored satin and waved for them to sit and await the queen.

“More yellow,” Elle said.  “But at least it’s not orange.  And the stitching on these pillows is really impeccable.”

“Captain,” T’Prir said, “the mood here does not appear to be one of excitement.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Elle agreed.  “We should all be on our toes.  Keep your communicators ready in case you need to beam up.”

Fuck.  Vivian took her by the elbow and led her into the corner, keeping her voice low.  “You mean in case we need to beam up.”

Elle shook her head, her artfully arranged hair bouncing in its half-twist.  “Like hell am I giving Callahan a chance to say he’s cleaning up after our mess.  I’m not leaving this planet until Pyrus III is a full member of the Federation and Queen Laetis is my BFF.”

“I don’t know what you’ll have to talk about,” Vivian said dryly.  “They obviously don’t have any fashion.”

“I know, right?  What a waste of a gorgeous skin tone.”  She sounded genuinely saddened by it.

Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, and Elle Woods had a beauty pitch even for the combinations who looked like saggy purple basset hounds.

The doors at the other end of the room opened, and the Queen of Pyrus III entered.

And immediately burst into tears.

“I am unprepared to deal with this situation,” T’Prir said, sounding as close to panicked as a Vulcan tended to get.

Chegal just shrugged, a hell if I know expression on his face.

Elle swept forward.  “It’s all right, Your Majesty.  You go ahead and let it all out.  We’re not your subjects, right?  So there’s zero reason for you to worry about looking regal.”

“Everything’s going so wrong,” the queen said in a miserable squeak.  “I’d been corresponding with Admiral Callahan, and he made the Federation sound like everything we could possibly want, but as soon as I made the announcement, all my father’s old advisors started grumbling, and now everyone’s whispering, and people say my uncle might claim the throne—I wanted to wait—”

Vivian was going to find some high-tech, untraceable way to kick Callahan in the balls for all this.  Of course he’d smooth-talked this girl into rushing her first major royal decision.  Any hope of Pyrus III easing into the Federation was going to go up in smoke if the formalized agreement was met with riots and a goddamn coup.

“It’s fine,” Elle said firmly.  “Go ahead and sit down.  You don’t have to do anything right now.”

“You must think I’m so silly.”

“I would never!  I’m a Delta Nu—trust me, we know how to let our emotions fly when the occasion calls for it.”

“Delta Nu?” the queen said, sniffing.  “Is that your species?”

“No, that’s my sorority—a group on my planet of women who all agreed to call each other sisters and give each other support, totally and unequivocally.  I can’t even tell you the number of times one of my sisters found me just completely dissolved in tears.  This kind of thing happens to everybody, and all that matters is that you make sure it only happens around people you trust.  And you can trust us.”  She reached into her equipment bag—she’d redesigned it to look uncannily like a purse—and produced a soft, squishy package of pink, lotioned tissues.  “Here.”

The queen wiped her eyes and blew her nose.

“Your Majesty,” Elle said, “do you want to join the Federation?”

The queen’s mouth shook a little, but she steadied it.  “Yes.  I always have.  I want Pyrus III to be part of a bigger universe.”

“We can give you that,” Elle said calmly.  “But you don’t have to do it right now.  If you want, you can tell your people that you just called us here to discuss possibly entering the Federation, and we just got confused.  That happens, things get lost in translation.”

“But you came all this way—”

“We’re Starfleet.  We’re supposed to be going back and forth across the galaxy.  Don’t worry about us.”

The queen studied Elle, as if trying to see whether or not Elle could possibly be serious.  Then she turned to one of the mirrored walls—what she saw there seemed to put her right back on the verge of tears.  “And now I look hideous!”

“Oh, please, it’s nothing a little makeup magic can’t fix,” Elle said.  “Here, let’s see what we’re working with.”

Vivian wondered what she would have thought if, on her first day at Starfleet Academy, someone had told her that one day she’d be watching in awestruck admiration as Captain Elle Woods gave an alien queen a makeover.

“Okay,” Elle said, positioning them both in front of one of the mirrors.  If she was overwhelmed at the task of beautifying a woman whose beauty standards couldn’t have been more different, she didn’t show it.  “What do you think your best features are?”

“My eyes?”

“Your eyes are stunning,” Elle said warmly, and the queen straightened up a little.  “I’m picking up on some little smudges of eyeliner here, right?  Silver?  Have you ever tried black?  I’m just going to put on a little and you can tell me what you think.”

Elle worked through half her makeup kit, using it judiciously, and by then the queen seemed much calmer and more self-assured, and she sent for her own cosmetics case, which was, to Elle’s obvious delight, big enough that it needed two guards to lug it in.  Then things really got started, as the queen explained how she’d always felt self-conscious about her small neck flap and Elle worked out how to use some goop (Vivian had no idea what else to call it) to accentuate the droopiness there.  Then it turned out that sixteen generations ago—the Pyrians had a shockingly long cultural memory—there’d been another young queen, and she had worn a headdress to signify that her people would always weigh on her mind.  So then that headdress had to be alluded to in a complicated turban-wrap Elle improvised partly from—of course—her gold command dress.

“I had a bet she’d wind up losing another one,” Chegal said, satisfied.  “T’Prir, you owe me fifty credits.”

“It is illogical to dispose of so many functional garments,” T’Prir grumbled.

Vivian’s mouth was too dry for her to say anything.  She could follow Elle’s chain of reasoning—clearly the Pyrians didn’t have any taboos against nudity, so it wouldn’t matter for her to strip down to her underwear.  And the crew in most cases was inured to a certain amount of casual nudity.  The galaxy had way too many weird spores and alien rituals for anyone to keep their modesty intact for very long.

But this was Elle, and nothing about her had ever felt casual to Vivian.

And Elle was standing there in nothing but black stockings, rose-pink underwear, and a honey-colored bra trimmed with creamy lace.  She’d used one of her hair ties to fashion the queen’s headdress, so her golden-blonde hair now tumbled freely down her shoulders.  Maybe Chegal and T’Prir could look at her like that and stay unaffected, but Vivian couldn’t.  Not even close.  She tried to fight the warmth rising in her cheeks.

“There,” Elle said, capping something that looked like a lipstick crossed with a tiny hairdryer.  “Turn around, Your Majesty, and let me know what you think.”

The queen turned slowly to face her reflection.  A wide smile spread across her face.  “I can’t even believe it.”

“You look wonderful.  It’s a total power look.”

“I feel so much better.”  There was a kind of soft wonderment in the queen’s squeaky voice.

“Of course.  I know when I’m upset, there’s nothing like a mani-pedi or a glamour makeover to get me to feel better.  You just have to pamper your outside into looking the way you want to feel, and half the time your mental state will just come along for the ride.  It’s basic beauty psychology.”

The queen squared her shoulders.  “I want Pyrus III to join the Federation.  And there’s no point in waiting since that’s what I’ve already decided.  Everyone has known for years that that was my plan—if they haven’t come around on the idea, they won’t do it just because I give them another year.  And it would be better to do it now and show my uncle that I’m in control than vacillate and let him think that my fear of him will control me.”

“You’re sure, Your Majesty?” Elle said.  There was a sudden shiny opacity to her eyes that Vivian knew very well—it was the look Elle got whenever she was doing rapid-fire political maneuvering in her head, tracking how whatever she was doing now would spiral out in the next hour, the next week, the next year, the next century, tallying who it would affect and how.

The queen nodded.  Confidence was radiating out of her now.  Vivian didn’t know how long it would last, but as she listened to Elle do a quick run-through of both Federation policies and beauty maintenance, she started feeling optimistic.

“Your Majesty,” she said.  “I’d like a chance to look at your communications center, if I could, or the console you were using to talk to the Admiral.  I think I can enhance your range and the strength of whatever signal’s getting through.  You’d be able to transfer video and audio then.”

Elle flashed Vivian a wholehearted smile, as if Vivian had just thought of this now and they hadn’t already discussed it a dozen times.

She could never get over what it felt like to be the center—however briefly—of Elle’s attention.

The queen said, “That would be most kind of you, Lt. Commander Kensington.”

“Not at all, Your Majesty,” Vivian said, a plan already coming together in her mind.  “I may need your attention for some… authorizations.  Just for a few minutes, after we conclude all the ceremonies.”

Elle knitted her brows in Vivian’s direction: What are you planning?

Vivian put on her best look of haughty innocence: Nothing at all, Captain, I can’t believe you would even ask me that question.

Elle patted the queen’s headdress, making sure every fold of it would stay intact, and said, “Then I’m ready when you are, Your Majesty,” and as she filed out behind the queen, she turned her head, her breath warm and close on Vivian’s jawline, and murmured, “Whatever it is, good luck.”  A few glossy strands of her hair brushed Vivian’s shoulder, gold over red.

Vivian stayed back just a few paces after that, trying to get her breathing even again.

***

The Pyrians seemed enamored of this suddenly confident, vibrant version of their young queen; Vivian even spotted several of them looking at her with frank personal admiration.  Her headdress, with its simultaneous rueful acknowledgment of her youth and firm claim to her place in their planet’s history, was a particular hit, and Vivian suspected that if they came back to Pyrus III within the next year, they’d find yellow headdresses had become all the rage.  It was the very definition of a fashion statement.  Leave it to Elle.

With public opinion suddenly turned in her favor, the queen’s friendly, self-assured vibe stayed in place, and as she made her impassioned speech about desiring Pyrus III to take its place in the bright, shining worlds of the galaxy, more and more people in the crowd began to nod.  Someone pointed out the uncle to Vivian—he was definitely not nodding.  In fact, he looked distinctly sullen.  Good.

The Federation pledges were duly signed and witnessed, and the Pyrians popped the champagne—or their equivalent of it, a blood-colored liquid that tasted like melted butter.

And after the ceremonies were done, Vivian got her private audience with the queen.

***

“So,” Elle said that night, when she and Vivian were unwinding in her quarters, “are you going to tell me what you did?”

“I’m sure you’ll find out sooner or later,” Vivian said.  “I can’t believe you were stuck in your underwear for hours.”

Elle shrugged.  “I once had to spend an entire all-night Delta Nu charity dance-a-thon in a coconut bikini, so believe me, I’ve had worse.  And that was on Earth, where people actually care if you’re half-naked.  Compared to that, this was a complete cakewalk.”

“And it let you get rid of another dress.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny that played a role in my reasoning,” Elle said loftily.  “I would never—”

The comm light on her desk flashed.  “Captain,” Serena said from the bridge, “I’ve got Admiral Stromwell wanting to be patched in.”

“Go ahead,” Elle said, scooting over on the couch until she was perfectly aligned with the vid-screen as the connection shimmered into focus.  She lit up.  “Professor Stromwell!”

“It’s been a few years since I’ve taught you, Captain Woods,” Stromwell said, with a rich ripple of amusement in her voice.  “I’d think you could remember you’re not a student anymore.  But then, you must be feeling a certain rush of nostalgia for your Academy.  I have to congratulate you on the success of your venture on Pyrus III.  Callahan is livid, of course.”

“They’re signed and sealed as full members in the Federation.  And I’m sure he’s already telling reporters how it was his expertise that got the job done.  Leaving out, for the record, how he bullied that poor girl.”

“You’re right about the credit and right, naturally, about what he’s omitting to discuss, but of course that’s not what I mean.”  Stromwell’s expression was so wry and indulgent that it was hard to believe she was the same woman who’d reduced half her students to tears.  “How did you do it?”

“How did I do what?”

Vivian cleared her throat, but Stromwell explained before she could.  “How in the world did you get the queen of Pyrus III to personally bargain with the Federation to change the Starfleet dress code?”

Elle made a little noise like an aborted squeak.  “She didn’t.”

“You really mean you didn’t know?”

“She really didn’t,” Vivian said, leaning into the screen’s range.  “I’m sorry, Admiral.”

“Ah,” Stromwell said.  “Ms. Kensington.  That does explain rather a lot.  Well, I think Callahan might be even more irate now that the cadet he treated like his own personal yeoman has rewritten regulations.  Though—I suppose there’s no reason why he has to know.”

“The queen was extremely enthusiastic about the idea,” Vivian said.  “Captain Woods went above and beyond the call of duty today, and no one else in Starfleet could have done what she did.  And fashion is highly important to the Pyrians.”

“It was my understanding that they didn’t wear clothes.”

“No, they don’t, but they have whole schools devoted to something called conceptual hairstyling, and their cosmetics industry is a cross-gender market phenomenon.  There’s a reason their palace is composed almost entirely of mirrors—they place a premium on physical expression.”  If she’d spent a third of her private audience actually boosting Pyrus III’s communications and another third explaining exactly what Elle would so appreciate the queen requesting, she’d spent the last third learning every relevant fact she could to make it even remotely plausible that the Pyrians would actually give a damn about the wardrobe options available to Starfleet captains.  “The queen just wanted to express her profound appreciation for the fact that her first in-person contact with the Federation was with someone who had such a strong understanding of her planet’s values.”

“I’d dial that down one or two notches if you ever have to speak to the press about this,” Stromwell said.  “And two or three more if you wind up getting a stern note from someone else in Command.  But I’ll admit—off-the-record—that I’m impressed.  You’re all officially ordered to report to the nearest friendly planet for a celebratory week’s shore leave.  Regardless of whether or not it has adequate shopping, Ms. Woods.”  She clicked off.

Elle turned to Vivian.  “Am I on glue, or did Professor Stromwell just say something about the dress code being changed?”

Vivian couldn’t help the way her lips twitched upwards.  “The queen’s first official vid-call with the Federation may have included a request—that may have casually mentioned dilithium trade deal terms—for all Starfleet captains to be allowed variations in uniform so long as they include Starfleet insignia and don’t overlap with any existing color-coding.”  She coughed a little.  “They thought it was a surprisingly specific favor to ask, but the agreement is already in the works.”

She had a sudden armful of Elle.

“Vivian, you are a goddess among first officers.”

Elle’s hair and skin smelled delicate and tart, like California oranges; it was only after she let go that Vivian could catch the last lingering notes of her perfume, the deeper, muskier scent that partly seemed to just be the fragrance of Elle’s own body.

Elle vanished into the bedroom part of her quarters and came out a minute later in a hot pink dress Vivian had seen her wear on shore leave before.  She rolled the hem up a little.  “Okay, picture this with the usual miniskirt cut, and then the captain’s braids here and the insignia here.”  She dropped the hem, letting the dress fall back down to cover a few more inches of her thighs.  “That looks so much better, right?”

Vivian said, “I think I’d like how you looked no matter what you were wearing,” and before she even heard what she actually said, she heard the sort of throb in her voice and knew she’d said too much.  She closed her eyes.

Warm, soft, perfectly manicured fingers suddenly touched hers.  She looked.

Elle was back sitting beside her now, her pink sleeve overlapping with Vivian’s red like some sort of fabric valentine.  “Really?”

Vivian paid attention now to her fingernails, the same ones Elle, despite her captaincy, despite all the demands on her time, had been painting for her at least every week since they’d first shipped off.  Hope seemed to expand inside her chest.  She said, “Absolutely.”

And Elle kissed her.

Her mouth was warm and satin-glossy; her lips tasted like like raspberries.  She slid her hands into Vivian’s hair, strong, self-assured fingers tugging at her, pulling Vivian closer to her—not that Vivian needed to be pulled.  She wanted to breathe Elle in.

Elle leaned back just enough to say, right against her mouth, “I was seriously losing my mind looking at you day in and day out in those engineering reds.  And touching your hands all the time—”  She illustrated her point by moving Vivian’s touch to the V-neck of her dress.  “I can’t believe you ridded me of that gold monstrosity.  That’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for me.”

“Good,” Vivian said.  She pushed her hand down further, her callused fingers stunned at the softness of Elle’s skin.

There was a playful spark in Elle’s eyes even as she thrust her breasts forward into Vivian’s hand.  “God, Vivian, today must have been so hard on you, having to deal with me walking around in nothing but my bra and those stockings and those little barely-there panties—”

Fashion—in terms of clothes—very shortly ceased being relevant to the conversation.  But an hour later, they both looked like hapless victims of Pyrian conceptual hairstyling, and Vivian was admiring the way the shape of Elle’s mouth was stamped in pink all over her body.  The engineering-red marks her fingers had left on Elle’s thighs were also, she thought, very stylish.