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naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons

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         It’s not like you planned this. Actually, you more or less planned the exact opposite of this, but you’re getting used to rude interruptions. You kind of have to, living somewhere like Silas. But nevertheless, this is not at all what you expected when Maman sent you back. You expected another routine sacrifice, luring beautiful naïve girls to a hungry light and then maybe disappearing into some darkwave art scene in Denmark for six years. You didn’t expect to get attached to some highstrung journalism student with a day-of-the-week bear spray. But hey, even the best laid plans, right?

         She hasn’t said anything yet, which is really stressing you out, because like—okay. You’re 334 years old, yeah, but you’re still an 18-year-old girl. One that is currently very nervous and very exposed.

         “Look, cutie, it’s really nothing—I was going to toss it anyway. It’s been deadweight for the past three hundred-odd years,” and you try not to cringe at your choice of words. She looks at you, then, so softly.

         “Carm…” and it’s all whispered and you’re kind of afraid to breathe in case it all blows away. You shrug, try to work the apathy, avoid her eyes.

         “Seriously, cupcake, it’s nothing, it’s just some old knick-knack I thought might look nice on you or whatever, so just—stop looking at me.” Your hands can only go so deep into your leather pants pockets, so you’re running out of places to tuck your body away, and she’s still looking at you.

         Gently, her hands cradling the silver chain like petals, she says, “It’s not nothing, Carm. It’s beautiful, I—thank you,” and she breathes, slowly, before trying again. “Yeah—I just—thank you,” and her eyes are very earnest and you feel a beat in your chest that you thought died when you did. So you shrug again, push your hair back, say, “whatever, sweetheart, I just thought you might like a necklace from me that wouldn’t possess you, so. There you go. Possession-free.”

         Laura rolls her eyes, but unclasps the necklace and holds it out to you anyway. You take it gently, try not to touch her fingers, hold your breath. She turns around, pulls her hair off her neck, and you’re pretty sure you hear her mutter something like “useless asshole vampire” but you can’t be sure. You’re trying not to touch her skin because there is blood on your hands, always, but the clasp is so tiny and delicate, and you’re worried that it—like all delicate things—won’t leave a mark, will shatter gracefully and in silence, so you allow your fingers to brush the nape of her neck and focus very hard on the little loop. Her breath stutters, briefly, so you softly pull her hair back over her shoulder and step back.

         “Cool. That looks great. You look great—I mean, in the necklace. You know, the…yeah. The necklace looks nice.” Something has happened to your brain-mouth connector. You should leave. But, “I’m not saying you don’t look nice, because you do; I’m just saying the necklace looks nice, too…it…yes. This is working.” Your palms are kind of fluttering so you shove them in your pockets and roll your eyes, tacking on a “creampuff” for good measure.

         Unfortunately, Laura has been witness to this whole embarrassing word salad parade, and she’s smiling that soft crooked smile at you, and you don’t really know what to do with your whole body, so you roll your shoulders, scratch your throat, huff a breath through your nose.

         “Carmilla,” she says, so you look at her, and you try to look indifferent and suave, but her smile is crooked, and that overlapping tooth is peeking out, and the freckle on her lip is crinkling. You can feel your whole face soften, your shoulders spread. Laura breathes a laugh, says, “Okay, so barring whatever just happened with your mouth there, you are very hard to read, and broody, and really actually super intimidating. I never know what you’re thinking, and also most of the time I don’t know what I’m thinking, and it’s been twisted into this whole big thing that I didn’t think I understood. But I like you. A lot. And I’m pretty sure you like me back. And I want to tell you this very clearly, because we are very dense, I think, sometimes. So. Carmilla Karnstein, you useless asshole vampire. I like you and I think you’re really pretty and I want to hold your hand all the time.” Laura finishes, squaring her shoulders and smiling this ridiculous proud smile that has your palms tingling again. “Oh, and yes, I do look great,” she adds with a goofy grin, and you can’t help it. You laugh.

         You cover your mouth immediately, your eyes widening. Laura squees and hops a bit, her tiny fists clenching. “You laughed!! Oh my god. I am almost certain that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you laugh, not including that sick chuckle you have when things take a turn for the terrifying. This is exciting! Carmilla!”

         Dropping your hand, you roll your eyes—hard—and step forward, grabbing her tiny clenched fists. “Cupcake,” you drawl, holding onto that last shred of casual mysterious vampire chic you have, “first of all, you’re very cute and I like you too. Whatever. Don’t make a big deal out of it.” She nudges you with an exaggerated pout, made much less effective by the smile tugging at her lips. “Second of all, I don’t have a ‘sick chuckle,’ I have a vampiric expression of schadenfreud.”

         As you talk, you watch her struggle to meet your eyes, but she keeps staring at your mouth. This is a good sign. It makes your tummy tight. Her eyelashes flutter when you finger the pendant your real mother gave you when you turned sixteen, a Saint Michael pendant, now dangling from Laura’s neck. A tug and she looks at your eyes again, curious (always so curious) so you gently tug again and her lips quirk.

         “What, Carm, use your wor—” but hers are swallowed by your lips and you hold your breath until you feel her give, and then, by some miracle, she’s kissing you back. Three hundred and thirty four years, and for only the second time you feel a thump in your chest, and it rattles off your ribs, and you think Laura can feel it, too, because she gasps and her hands are in your hair and she’s kissing you harder.

         You gave up on miracles on a cold night in 1698, when you lay eviscerated and scared on a ballroom floor. You gave up on penance when you drowned in a coffin under the earth for seventy years, broken and healing all wrong, crooked. You gave up on so many things, quietly, without more than a tremble down your spine, for centuries. But now, you can feel her heartbeat against your sternum, and if you press your fingers to her spine, you can feel all the roses laid quietly, holiness seeping from the ridges. You think of penance, and for the first time in a very long time, you believe in the blood running from your palms and staining the porcelain, you believe in the scar tissue and the sutures and all the different ways your bones have been broken. And you taste forgiveness. And this is so, so delicate, but you can already feel it carving a home in your quiet chest. And you smile, cracked and healing, into her mouth.