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A Time To Heal

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Vi pressed her back to the chimney. Carefully, she peered around the corner at the Enforcer standing less than two meters away. Rifle at the ready, he was looking down at the crowd. Oblivious. Rolling her eyes at his ineptitude, she took two quick steps toward the drain pipe at the roof’s edge, wrapped her hands around it, and slid silently down. When she reached the gravel of the alleyway below, she double checked the security of her hood before slipping into the crowd gathered for the Councilors’ funeral.

Maybe she was being too careful. Maybe she wasn’t. The Firelights hadn’t heard of a bounty on her head, but that didn’t mean one didn’t exist. Caitlyn was the only Piltovan left alive who knew she’d been in prison, but Vi wasn’t sure where she stood with Caitlyn right now.

Mindful of the snipers above, Vi skirted the periphery of the square, seeking out a place where she could remain inconspicuous while also gaining a view. She finally found it in the massive statue of some obnoxiously musclebound warrior near the southeast corner. Boosting herself onto the plinth, Vi crouched with her back to the barrel chest of his stone horse. From here, she had perfect line-of-sight to the raised dais. Five caskets stood in a row. Before them, an ornate podium awaited the eulogists of those who had died in Jinx’s attack.

Jinx. She had gone to ground, but that was hardly surprising. For the thousandth time since waking from an uneasy doze this morning, Vi wondered if her sister would use the opportunity presented by this funeral to terrorize Piltover further. Knuckles tightening at the thought, she wished for her gauntlets. Then, she scoffed. If Jinx dared to show her face today, Vi’s rage would burn far brighter than Hextech or Shimmer ever could.

The noise of the crowd grew suddenly louder, then subsided into murmuring. A figure strode to the podium. Jayce. A fresh surge of anger snarled Vi’s breath. How had he walked away from the carnage virtually unscathed? Whatever mysterious force had shielded him should have extended to Caitlyn’s mother. Why hadn’t it?

Apprehension filled her as he began to speak. Her gauntlets were safe, hidden with the Firelights, but she pulled her hood tighter, just in case he happened to look her way. When he first mentioned Jinx’s name, she winced—but as his speech continued, she realized he was actively resisting the narrative in which Jinx had acted on behalf of the undercity. Instead, he painted her in an almost sympathetic light, claiming that Piltover had failed her as a child, and that Silco had taken advantage of her trauma to twist her into a monster.

A spark of warmth flared beneath Vi’s breastbone. Only Caitlyn knew those details, which meant she had been the one to share them with Jayce. But why, when Jinx had been the one to kill her mother? Caitlyn was extraordinary, but no one could be that forgiving.

No. Not forgiving. What Jinx had done was unforgivable, and Jayce was saying as much now. Still, he continued to urge the crowd not to mistake Jinx’s actions as representative of the will of the whole. She had acted alone, as a rogue, not as a representative of the would-be nation of Zaun. A pang of gratitude seized Vi. Despite all the intervening death and horrors, Jayce hadn’t forgotten the children conscripted and corrupted by Silco. He cared about them enough not to want total war. And unless Vi was reading this all wrong, Caitlyn felt the same. That was something.

Vi forced herself to look past Jayce—to confront the casket draped with the flag of Clan Kiramman. She flashed back to the moment she’d met Caitlyn’s mother. For the first time in days, she almost smiled. As pretentious and condescending as the woman had been, Vi could respect being greeted by a pistol barrel. The Kirammans were no cowards.

Jayce sat down to applause. Someone else took his place: the first of the eulogists. Vi ignored them, focusing on the shadows, the alleyways. Nothing. More clapping ensued. Another speech, and then another. Vi tried to relax her hands. They wouldn’t keep from clenching.

Then, a familiar voice rang out across the square. “People of Piltover!”

Vi’s gaze snapped to the podium. Caitlyn wore an angular black jacket over a long black dress. Even from a distance, Vi could read the fatigue in her carriage. Vi’s heart stuttered, then raced. Longing and nausea twined together. She swallowed convulsively.

“My mother is dead,” Caitlyn said. Vi closed her eyes, wishing she could shutter her ears. But no—she deserved to hear this. “She died trying to broker a better future—a world in which we no longer turn a blind eye to the suffering in the undercity. A world in which the needs of the people there are met because they govern themselves. The price of this agreement was Jinx herself, and Silco was unwilling to pay it. Jinx has had her vengeance, and we must neither forget nor forgive what she did. But neither should we turn our backs on peace. Jinx must not be allowed to run free, but neither should the undercity’s plea for independence be abandoned.”

Only then did Vi realize Jayce’s speech had been written in concert with Caitlyn’s. They were bookends to this tragic day: the opening and closing of an argument. Jealousy twisted through her, a burning filament eclipsing the spark of hope. Jayce and Caitlyn’s relationship went back, way back, transcending more than a decade. What if, over the past few days, they had grown closer, brought together by tragedy? Such a pretty boy, such a striking woman. Surely, everyone assumed they belonged together.

Even as the thought burned through Vi’s mind, Caitlyn found her. Over the heads of the Piltovan nobility, their gazes locked. The world fell away. Vi felt Caitlyn’s touch on her face, felt her fingers brushing Caitlyn’s cheek. The longing returned to her—sharp, then aching. Guilt followed, sour in the back of her mouth.

Caitlyn’s words faltered, but only for a moment. She cleared her throat, then resumed speaking. Vi wondered how much the confidence and poise cost her, today of all days.

“I was once told that Piltover and Zaun are like oil and water.”

The words struck Vi with physical force. She rocked back, leaning hard against the stone behind her. She remembered the rain falling like tears, despair like a sucking wound in her chest. She remembered Caitlyn’s impassioned insistence that they should continue to try. At the time, Vi had dismissed her logic as naive and idealistic—the product of someone who had never known even an hour of true deprivation or suffering.

“I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Yes, we are different groups of people with different needs. And for far too long, Piltovans have been content to exploit Zaunites.”

A low murmur rose from the crowd. Vi made herself look away from Caitlyn to scan the throng. She was so exposed up there. Vulnerable. Vi’s jaw clenched, molars grinding.

“But for each of us to thrive, we must both work together. In my family’s garden, there is a grove of birch trees, healthy and strong. Among their roots thrives a species of speckled mushroom. Deep beneath the soil, their fungal threads wrap around the birch roots, consuming sugars produced by the tree’s exposure to light. In exchange, the mushrooms offer the trees valuable nutrients, enabling them to stand tall and reach for the sun.”

Caitlyn paused, allowing the words to sink in. When Vi returned her attention to the podium, she saw Caitlyn looking directly at her once again.

“Just so, Piltover and Zaun might work together in harmony, if we can see past our differences and heal the wounds we have inflicted upon each other. Symbiosis is the appropriate metaphor.” Caitlyn did look away, then, her gaze sweeping over the crowd. “My mother’s last act in this world was to cast a vote for Zaun’s autonomy. The Council’s decision was unanimous, and we must ensure their vision comes to pass. Just as we must stop anyone who would stand in the way of such a partnership.”

Vi flinched. Despite everything, she didn't want to believe Powder was beyond saving. Still, Vi couldn’t help but wish she would run. She wouldn’t, of course. Running was what Vi did. Hiding was Powder’s specialty. Hiding, and biding her time.

Caitlyn departed the podium to an applause that started slow but swelled and swelled, crescendoing into an ovation. As the noise swept over Vi, she allowed herself a sliver of hope that the possibility of peace hadn’t been completely extinguished.

Music began, marking the conclusion of the ceremony. Vi watched the families of the fallen Councilors converge on each of the caskets. She dropped down from the plinth, letting the currents of the crowd sweep her up.

Restless, Vi roamed the gleaming streets of Piltover for hours. Dusk fell; the city’s lamps were illuminated. She thought about returning to the Firelights, to the tiny room Ekko had found for her, with the thin cot on which she had slept fitfully these past few nights. Instead, her feet delineated tighter and tighter orbits of the Kiramman mansion, until its imposing facade was only the length of a courtyard away.

Vi stood in the shadows, looking up at Caitlyn’s window. A dim light shone through it. She knew she should walk away.

She couldn’t.

Clenching her teeth, she took a running start, then leapt for the second story sill. Quietly, she worked her way up the structure. When she reached Caitlyn’s window, she turned to look out over the city. From here, she had only an oblique view of the collapse, but that was enough to spur the memories.

She remembered the smoking carcass of the capitol building, the jagged spars of its remains pointing toward the sky like a cage of bones. She remembered catching a weeping Caitlyn around the waist, urging her to stay back. Of course, Caitlyn had struggled against her embrace, deaf to Vi’s logic about the heat and the noxious fumes in the ruins.

It’ll be just like home for me, Cait, Vi had said. And these will keep me safe. One gauntlet was dead weight on her arm, but the other sparked and steamed with purpose. She had gestured toward the miasma beyond. A crowd is forming. Protect them. I’ll find her. I swear.

Vi blinked hard against the memory of discovering Councilor Kiramman’s broken body half-buried beneath a thick steel beam. She had shifted it to the side, then gathered Caitlyn’s mother into her arms. Despite the gauntlets, the corpse felt heavy—burdened with the weight of Jinx’s violence. Vi remembered striding though the smoke, cradling the body as though it were still alive. She remembered sinking to her knees before Caitlyn and her father as they huddled at the periphery established by the Enforcers. Gently, she had relinquished her burden to their care. She could still hear Caitlyn’s wracking sobs and the agonized “No!” torn from her father.

Vi had watched them mourn, wanting nothing more than to shed the gauntlets and take Caitlyn into her arms. She imagined resting one hand against the small of Caitlyn’s back, bracing her against the sobs. But she didn’t belong with them. She was an unwelcome intruder in their lives, offering only pain. She had turned back to the wreckage, leaving them to their grief. There were more bodies to recover.

As the memories swept over her like waves, Vi’s throat constricted. Swallowing hard, she faced the window. She needed to know. She had come this far. To turn back now would be worse than ridiculous. With a sigh, she leaned in and pushed up the sash.

*

Caitlyn sat against the headboard, clutching her knees to her chest. A hour ago, her father had taken a sedative. She had crouched on the floor outside her parents’ suite until the sounds of his weeping faded into soft snores. Now, she stared into the corners of her bedroom. Disjointed thoughts fluttered erratically through her mind—some mundane, others as threatening as Jinx’s firelights.

Jinx.

Why had she done it? Why? The now-familiar pain transfixed her, even as the gears of her mind continued to churn. Had Jinx been acting on her own reconnaissance or paying homage to Silco’s wishes? Caitlyn felt a distant echo of the shock she had experienced when Jinx gunned him down. His final words to her had been both terrifying and strangely beautiful. Still, five agonizing days after the fact, all anyone had were questions.

When Caitlyn realized her hands had become fists, she unclenched them with an effort. She needed sleep. She’d had precious little of it recently, and now that the funeral was in the past, she could turn to the future. To hunting Jinx down.

Thoughts of Jinx led invariably to thoughts of Vi, and Caitlyn sucked in a deep breath at the sharp pain that knifed through her chest. While a part of her understood why Vi was keeping her distance in the wake of the attack, the rest of her cried out in protest. Caitlyn remembered the infinite gentleness of Vi’s touch on her cheek, the tenderness with which Vi had clasped her hand. Somehow, in such a brief span of time, Vi had become an indispensable part of her life—the only person who saw Caitlyn for who she truly was. Or, perhaps more accurately: for who she wanted to be.

When the window creaked open, Caitlyn reacted instinctively, reaching for the pistol on her nightstand. Heart pounding, she took aim as a hooded face appeared in the gap. The steadiness of her own grip was a welcome reassurance.

A stray breeze riffled the hair of the intruder. Pink hair. Vi.

There was a disconcerting openness in her face as they stared at each other over the barrel of the gun—grim acceptance of a terrible responsibility she didn’t have to shoulder alone. With a sigh, Caitlyn lowered the weapon. After a long pause, Vi pulled herself up the rest of the way, then dropped into the room. Despite her heavy boots, her landing was soft.

Caitlyn adjusted the blanket across her lap, suddenly and acutely aware of her flimsy camisole. She swallowed hard.

“Hi.”

The corners of Vi’s mouth twitched, though barely. “Hi.”

Caitlyn restored the gun’s safety, then put it on the nightstand. “I looked for you, afterward. Why didn’t you stay?”

Vi pushed the hair out of her eyes, squared her shoulders. “I didn’t know if you wanted me there.”

“I wanted you there.” Caitlyn looked at her own outstretched hand; realized she had instinctively reached for Vi. “I want you here.”

How can that be true?” The words sounded as though they had been torn from Vi by hooks. She was looking down at the floor, now, biting her lower lip so hard Caitlyn feared she might draw blood.

“Jinx did this, Vi. Not you.” Caitlyn watched Vi fingers twitch. “I meant what I said, before. It’s not your fault.”

“It is. You heard what she said.” Vi’s gaze was desperate, pleading for condemnation. “I made her.”

“Fine,” Caitlyn said sharply, pain besting her self-control. “But if you made her, then so did Piltover's violence against the undercity. And so did Silco. And so did Jinx herself. No one person bears the responsibility for what she has become. Just as all of us will have to work together to bring her down.”

A shudder ran through Vi. Caitlyn watched as she shook it off, wondering at the price of pretending the fracture beneath didn’t exist. Rolling her shoulders, Vi stared down at her hands. The wrappings were fresh, but Caitlyn knew all she could see on them was blood. When Vi looked up, her eyes were glistening.

“I know how it feels to lose a parent,” she said hoarsely. “I hate that I’m part of the reason that happened to you.”

Caitlyn’s heart, already broken, cracked anew. “Yours were killed by Enforcers.”

Vi shook her head sharply. “It’s not the same.”

“It’s close enough.” Caitlyn held out one hand. “I know we can’t forget where we came from. Nor should we. But we also shouldn’t let that define us. Not what we do, and not who we are to—to each other.”

Suddenly afraid she had said too much, Caitlyn held her breath. Vi sighed, then scrubbed one palm across her face. Empathy rose up in Caitlyn at the weariness of the gesture. Surely, they both deserved to rest?

“Come here,” she whispered. “Please.”

For one long, fraught moment, Vi remained still. Then, she obeyed, perching on the edge of the bed as though she might take flight at any moment.

“Take off your boots. And your jacket.”

Vi kicked off her shoes and shrugged out of the garment. Beneath it, she wore a black tank top that clung to her lean lines and curves. Caitlyn reached for the hand closest to her. She pulled that hand into her lap, then slowly began to unwind its wrapping. Lay down your weapons, Caitlyn wanted to say. You’re accustomed to fighting everyone. Let me be the exception. Vi glanced at her, then away. Her breaths came quick and ragged. When Caitlyn finished, she kissed the center of Vi’s palm, then placed the cloth on the nightstand next to her gun.

“Other hand,” she whispered.

Vi swallowed noisily, then shifted position to sit crosslegged on the bed facing Caitlyn. This time, as Caitlyn’s fingers began the unwinding, Vi watched her work. The intensity of her stare was like a caress. It thawed a part of Caitlyn that had been frozen since she had seen Vi emerge from the wreckage of the capitol building carrying the body of her mother.

This time, when Caitlyn kissed Vi’s palm, Vi curled her fingers to cup Caitlyn’s face. The relief that followed was swift and overpowering, disarming her defenses. As Caitlyn leaned into the touch, she was suddenly and precariously close to tears. When her breath caught in a near-sob, Vi moved closer, pressing their foreheads together.

“Your speech was brilliant,” she murmured. “Out there, you had to be strong. I get it.” Vi’s thumb touched one corner of her mouth. “In here, you don’t.”

The words sank into Caitlyn like rain on a desert. In the flash flood that followed, tears streamed down her cheeks. Vi gathered her close, tucking Caitlyn’s face against her neck as she stroked her hair slowly, rhythmically. The sudden reversal was dizzying, and Caitlyn struggled against it, grasping for control. Sorrow and exhaustion battered at her defenses.

“Don't try to fight the waves, Cait,” Vi murmured. “They'll knock you down. Duck under and let them roll by.”

Vi’s words were soothing, her arms gentle, her body warm. Here, Caitlyn knew in a burst of startling clarity, she would be safe. With a sharp gasp, she gave herself up to the grief.

*

When Caitlyn’s sobs finally quieted, Vi reached for one corner of the sheet. Carefully, she wiped the tears from Caitlyn’s face. Her cheeks were mottled, her eyes red and puffy. Vi wanted to touch her lips to the angry skin, to soothe it with kisses. She fought down the urge.

“You need to rest,” she whispered. With one arm, she repositioned the nearest pillows, then switched off the lamp. “Lie back, okay?”

She pulled the covers up to Caitlyn’s chin, stared down into bleary eyes. As gently as she could, she trailed two fingers along her jaw line. When Caitlyn’s eyes fluttered shut, Vi’s heart thumped painfully. She wanted so much to follow her into sleep. She was even reasonably certain Caitlyn wanted that, too. But neither the death of Councilor Kiramman, nor Caitlyn’s inspirational words earlier today had changed the fact that Vi didn’t belong here. Silent as a shadow, she slipped off the bed.

“No. Don’t go.” Caitlyn’s voice was a hoarse, croaking whisper. Her arm was raised, open palm extended. “Please. Stay.”

Vi weighed her options. Staying was foolish. She already cared too much. Jinx had almost killed Caitlyn, and the closer they became, the more serious the danger. But then she remembered Jayce’s words—You’ll never make it alone—and how true they had been. Caitlyn knew the risks now. She had witnessed firsthand what Jinx was capable of, and she was asking anyway. In the midst of all the guilt, all the grief, all the pain, Vi felt herself wanting to reach back.

Vi kicked off her pants and slid beneath the covers. The mattress was the softest thing she had ever rested on. She reached up to adjust her pillow and found more than one. Under the sheets, Caitlyn’s fingers linked with hers.

“It’s what you want?” Her words were slurred with fatigue.

Vi turned her head. Shadows played across Caitlyn’s features. Her eyes gleamed in the light of the street lamps that filtered through the window. Helpless to resist, Vi raised her free hand to push a stray lock of hair behind Caitlyn’s ear. Every little touch was more and more addictive. Vi thought of the beggars deep in the Lanes, desperate for even a drop of Shimmer. No. With an effort, she pushed the image from her mind. Caitlyn wasn’t cruel.

“It’s what I want. Rest now, okay?”

Caitlyn nodded. This time, her eyes remained closed, and her breaths grew deep and even. But her fingers never slackened—as if, even in sleep, she feared Vi might disappear.

 

Caitlyn was screaming. Fear sluiced down Vi’s spine as she tried to pinpoint the direction of the sound. She shouted Caitlyn’s name and began to run. As she passed an alleyway, an unseen fist caught her in the cheek, knocking her to the ground.

 

Vi woke to the taste of blood in her mouth. For one terrible moment, she had no idea where she was. Her skin registered softness and warmth, but her other senses screamed danger.

“No!” The voice was Caitlyn’s, strangely muffled.

As awareness flooded back, Vi’s surroundings sharpened. Caitlyn was curled in a ball next to her in the bed, shaking. Her arms were thrown over her head, shielding herself from imagined blows. When Vi touched her shoulder, Caitlyn flailed, one elbow barely missing Vi’s cheek.

Vi hauled herself up. She whispered Caitlyn’s name, then said it louder. Caitlyn only continued to mumble and whimper in the throes of the nightmare. Vi fumbled for the lamp, but its light had no effect. When a broken, fearful whine emerged from Caitlyn’s mouth, Vi took a deep breath, then wrapped her arms around Caitlyn, pinning her hands to her sides. As Caitlyn struggled in her grasp, Vi put her mouth close to one ear.

“Cait. It’s a dream. It’s not real.”

Caitlyn went rigid in her arms, then slumped, shivering. “V-Vi?”

“Hey. You’re okay. All right? You’re okay.” Even as she spoke the words, Vi knew they were a lie. No matter what horrors Caitlyn had been fighting in her dream, she was waking into a reality in which her mother was dead and her government in chaos.

When Vi loosened her grip, Caitlyn turned in the circle of her arms. Her eyes were wet and a little wild. Instinctively, Vi pulled her close again—not restraining this time, but in a true embrace—and Caitlyn clung to her with equal force. Vi stroked one hand up and down the length of Caitlyn’s back, keeping her own breaths deep and even. As the remaining tension ebbed from Caitlyn’s body, her trembling slowed, then stopped. Finally, she raised her head. Strands of hair clung to her forehead, matted down by sweat. Vi freed them with gentle flicks of her fingertips, wondering what Caitlyn saw in her face.

“I’m… sorry.” Given the intimacy of their embrace, her tone was oddly formal.

Vi shook her head. “Don’t apologize for a nightmare.”

Suddenly, Caitlyn frowned, attention drawn to Vi’s mouth. “Your lip is bleeding! Did I—”

Vi raised the back of her hand to her lips. It came away streaked with a rust-colored stain. She shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”

Caitlyn rolled her eyes. “I’ll get a cloth.”

Before Vi could tell her not to bother, she was gone. Vi thought she understood what was happening. In the wake of the weeping and the nightmare, Caitlyn needed to act—to take control of herself, even in a small way. She moved efficiently around the room, returning quickly with a damp rag. Vi watched as she climbed back onto the bed, the movement baring a sliver of skin between her shift and underwear.

Caitlyn knelt between Vi’s legs, grasped her chin. With her other hand, she dabbed gently at the sore spot, near the left corner of Vi’s mouth. As she leaned close, her subtle scent enclosed Vi like an embrace. There was a hint of roses in it—Vi could recognize that much. The other fragrances were unknown to her, but bright and alive in their presentation.

Vi stared at the buttery soft skin of Caitlyn’s neck, mere inches away. She curled her fingers in the sheets, gripping tightly.

“Want to talk about the nightmare?” she forced herself to ask.

Caitlyn froze. “No.” Then, she continued her gentle dabbing.

Something in her manner made Vi’s stomach twist. “It was about Jinx, wasn’t it?”

Caitlyn sat back on her heels. “Why is that something you want to know?”

The right words came to Vi from her memory. “This only works if we can trust each other.”

Caitlyn sighed, looked away. “Yes. It was about Jinx. I was her captive.”

Vi remembered the whimpers, the way Caitlyn had covered her head with her arms. “Torturer” was probably closer to what Jinx had been in the dream.

“Do you want me to go?”

“What?” Caitlyn dropped the rag, cupped Vi’s face in both hands. Her gaze was searching, almost desperate. “No.” Then, punctuating the word, Caitlyn leaned forward and kissed her.

Caitlyn’s lips were soft and warm, avoiding the place where she had broken Vi’s skin. Caitlyn: her liberator, her advocate, her... partner. As the word entered her mind, it rang with truth. Vi didn’t believe in fate, and yet there was an inevitability to this moment—a profound intimacy that sparked terror and exhilaration. This was nothing like the brief dalliances she’d had as a teenager or the alliances made of necessity in Stillwater. This meant something, and she wanted it, in all its layered depths, with a desperation that was also a weakness. But this was Caitlyn, and Caitlyn had always stood by her—even when she was weak. Especially then.

Caitlyn’s mouth sipped at hers, drinking her in with delicate pressure. As their lips slid and caught and pressed, Vi banished her apprehensions and gave herself up to the gentleness. She let the kiss sink into her skin, her bones, warming her from the inside out. She had been cold for so long. So, so long.

“Vi,” Caitlyn murmured against her mouth, fingertips stroking her cheeks.

The sound of her name, the physical buzz of it, sent sparks skittering beneath Vi’s skin. As desire roared to life, so too did her protective instincts. Caitlyn had endured terrible loss. She was exhausted and grieving and afraid. With an effort, Vi held herself in place, quiescent, the fingers of one hand lightly sifting through the long strands of Caitlyn’s hair. The other she kept braced on the bed, maintaining restraint.

Then, Caitlyn pressed closer. The sensation of her tongue tracing the seam of Vi’s lips was like a bolt of lighting, forking through Vi's body. Both hands flew to Caitlyn’s hips, needing more contact. When her palms encountered hot skin, she gasped.

Caitlyn breathed her name again, and Vi took the invitation to dip inside, tongue tracing the contours of Caitlyn’s mouth. Sweet—so sweet. Vi managed to stay still at first, simply cupping Caitlyn’s waist, wanting not to frighten her. But as their tongues brushed and tangled, Vi groaned, instinctively skimming her hands up, thumbs cresting the peaks of Caitlyn’s ribs before dipping into the troughs. When Caitlyn shivered beneath the touch, Vi froze, clarity returning. She eased away, forcing her hands back to the covers.

“I’m sor—”

Caitlyn stopped the apology with another kiss, clumsy in its ferocity. A thought seared through Vi’s mind—that perhaps Caitlyn had never before kissed someone with such hunger. The kiss grew deeper, harder, wetter. Caitlyn’s fingers were firm against her face, holding her in place. Her tongue plunged and harrowed. Vi absorbed her intensity and gave it back again, advancing and retreating in an exchange that began as a skirmish and grew into a dance.

Finally, Caitlyn released her, sitting back on her heels. Her breaths were short and sharp, her eyes wide. Then, before Vi could ask what she wanted, she grasped the hem of her camisole and lifted it up over her head. Her skin, tanner than Vi's, was unmarred by scars, unadorned by anything but a blush spreading down her throat and across her sternum. The curves of her breasts were tantalizing, their nipples large and dark. Vi wanted to taste them.

Caitlyn took Vi’s right hand—the first one she had unwrapped, the first one she had kissed. Slowly, she raised it, then brought it to the place between her breasts. As Vi’s palm made contact, she felt the beat of Caitlyn’s heart, swift but steady. Caitlyn’s fingertips lightly stroked the perpetually abraded skin of her knuckles, then withdrew. Vi looked from her hand to Caitlyn. Without breaking their gaze, she slid her fingers down, then eased them beneath the curve of Caitlyn’s breast. When Caitlyn sighed at the contact, Vi grew bolder, stroking her thumb up and across, briefly grazing her nipple. All the while, she watched and catalogued each reaction: the way Caitlyn’s breath stuttered, the way her eyes flared with a sudden brilliance.

“Good?” she asked, hearing the hoarseness in her own voice.

“Good.” Caitlyn licked her lips. “But…”

Vi felt a tug on her tank top, looked down to see Caitlyn’s fingers dipping beneath. When they skimmed across her skin, she exhaled sharply. Every cell in her body cried out for Caitlyn’s touch, and yet beneath that need, fear raised its head, tasting her desire like a serpent tasting air.

No. Vi spoke the word in her mind. Go back to where you came from. You don’t belong here.

“Yes?” Caitlyn’s voice, asking for permission. Asking.

Vi nodded, and then Caitlyn was pushing the fabric up, up, and Vi was raising her arms. Free of the shirt, she lowered her hands to her sides, watching as Caitlyn bit her lower lip, studying her. Slowly, Caitlyn leaned forward, pressing her palms to Vi’s stomach. Her touch was cool against Vi’s burning skin. She held Vi’s gaze as she moved up—slowly, so slowly. The solicitude in her touch was like nothing Vi had ever experienced. It was almost too much to bear, and yet Vi miraculously found herself craving more. In its presence, the fear slunk back into its cave, temporarily defeated.

When Caitlyn’s hands finally cupped her breasts, Vi felt the fine tremor in her fingers. They were tentative yet curious, and as they explored her skin, Vi heard her own breathing grow louder, more labored.

“Vi,” Caitlyn whispered, awe saturating her voice. “You… you’re exquisite.”

Exquisite. Vi had been called many things by many people. She was absolutely certain that no one had ever even once thought to call her exquisite.

The word was galvanizing. She surged forward to press their foreheads together, her hands on Caitlyn’s shoulders.

“Let me touch you. Please.”

“Yes,” Caitlyn whispered, and then Vi was easing her back and down, pulling a pillow into place beneath her head. Vi’s gaze traveled from the dark hair fanned out across the pale sheet, to the smooth curves of her breasts, along the plain of her abdomen. With a quick, decisive movement, Caitlyn pulled off her underwear. Vi’s mouth went dry as her back arched, as the movement revealed a hint of gleaming rose between her legs.

Naked, Caitlyn clutched at the sheets. Her breaths were erratic, and she was staring up at Vi, desire and trepidation mingling in her expression. A fresh wave of protectiveness broke in Vi, its wake rippling through her.

“Nothing will happen that you don’t want,” she promised.

Caitlyn made a small sound in the back of her throat. She released her grip on the bedclothes and raised her arms, cupping Vi’s nape in her hands and pulling her down.

“I’ve thought of this,” Caitlyn said, fingers caressing the short hairs of Vi’s undercut. “These past few days, whenever everything became unbearable. I imagined us. Together. And… it helped.”

Vi stared down at her, knowing her face must register her own incredulity. Despite everything, thoughts of her had brought Caitlyn comfort in her grief? The revelation struck deep, cracking ice. For a decade, she had been truly alone, able to trust only herself. Now, there was Caitlyn—Caitlyn, with her lofty ideals and her compassion and her stubborn insistence that the world could be better. Caitlyn, who had saved her in more than one way already—who was saving her again now. Vi’s heart was pounding, but steadily. Tomorrow would bring more pain—that much was certain. But here, now, she could offer the comfort Caitlyn needed.

“I’m glad it helped,” she whispered. “I’ll make you feel so good. Promise.”

“I trust you.”

Vi wanted to deserve that trust—to make herself worthy of it. Slowly, she eased one leg between Caitlyn’s, silently urging hers apart. Then, she dipped her head, initiating a slow, thorough kiss. She poured everything into it: the deep ache of her longing; her fierce need to protect; the leaping flames of her desire. As the kiss went on and on, Vi began to move, pressing rhythmically. The apex of Caitlyn’s thighs was hot against her thigh, and as they rocked together, wetness smeared against her skin. She pulled back, watching as Caitlyn’s eyes glazed and her jaw slackened. Bowing her head again, Vi shifted her kisses to the delicious expanse of Caitlyn’s neck, tracing the line of her collarbone.

Caitlyn’s hands clutched at her shoulders, fingertips digging in. The touch begged for more. Rolling onto her side, Vi returned her hand to the place over Caitlyn’s heart. Then, holding Caitlyn’s gaze, Vi slowly ran her palm along the center line of her body. As she neared the patch of dark hair, Caitlyn’s eyelids fluttered. Her thighs twitched, falling open further. The invitation made Vi’s heart clench. Carefully, so carefully, she cupped Caitlyn’s sex in her palm, watching as the brilliant blue irises became only the thinnest of rings around her pupils.

“Okay?”

“Vi, please.” The words trembled.

Vi eased her free arm beneath Caitlyn’s neck to hold her closer. Then, she pressed down lightly, fingers slipping into the maze. She explored slowly, sending her fingers questing over every soft fold and firm ridge. When Vi found what she’d been seeking, Caitlyn gasped, head lolling back against Vi’s biceps. Vi bent to kiss her, but Caitlyn’s mouth was clumsy, distracted. Vi kept the pressure of her fingers light as she learned Caitlyn’s body—the way her muscles tensed as Vi circled her clitoris, the extra sensitive place just beneath. As she touched her, Vi watched the way Caitlyn’s head tossed against the pillow, mussing the fan of her hair; watched Caitlyn’s fingers curl in the sheets as the pleasure mounted.

Vi moved her fingers lower, tracing the opening of Caitlyn’s body, dragging them through the moisture there. She brought her mouth to Caitlyn’s nearest nipple, sucking lightly.

“You’ve done this before,” Caitlyn gasped.

“Not like this,” Vi muttered, lips brushing her aureole with the words.

She could have been referring to the canopied bed or the luxurious sheets caressing her skin. She wasn’t. None of her adolescent fumblings held so much as the faintest candle to this moment—to the silk of Caitlyn’s skin and the soft sounds she made as Vi mouthed at the curves of her breast, tongue flickering in harmony with the gentle strokes of her fingers. When the other, darker memories tried to rise, Vi savagely forced them down. No. What had happened in the depths of Stillwater had no place here.

“Vi?” Caitlyn's touch on her face was tentative. “Are you all right?”

Only then did Vi realize she had gone still, paralyzed by the sudden battle in her mind. Chagrined, she leaned up to brush a kiss across Caitlyn’s lips.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

Caitlyn tugged at her hair, gentle but insistent. “Don’t you dare apologize. Do you want to stop?”

The gentle question, the lack of reproach in Caitlyn’s voice, made Vi’s throat tighten. She blinked hard, shook her head. Piercing need followed in the wake of the emotion—the need to tip Caitlyn over into pleasure. The knowledge that this was her first time only sharpened Vi’s urgency.

“I want to be inside you.”

Caitlyn swallowed hard. Her hands trembled against Vi’s scalp. “I want that, too.”

Holding Caitlyn’s gaze, Vi swirled her fingers again, coating them. She traced the curves of Caitlyn’s entrance, pressing lightly. When Caitlyn moaned, Vi slid slowly, so slowly, inside. Caitlyn was hot and tight, and Vi worked her fingertip in gentle circles, coaxing her open—just a little more, just enough to send her finger sliding deep. She watched Caitlyn’s eyes shift in and out of focus as she eased out, then pushed again. Beautiful. The most beautiful sight she’d ever seen.

Caitlyn moaned, louder this time. Her own fingers scrabbled at the back of Vi’s neck. Vi shifted the angle of her hand slightly, brought her thumb against the underside of Vi’s clitoris. When Caitlyn cried out, hips jerking up off the bed, Vi knew she was close. The certainty filled her with anticipation. She stared down at Caitlyn as she touched her, wanting to imprint this moment on her mind forever: the wet heat of Caitlyn’s body clutching her, the way she bit her lower lip as her head thrashed against the pillow, the beads of sweat rising at her hairline.

Vi pushed just a little harder, rubbed just a little faster. The tendons in Caitlyn’s neck stood out in sharp relief as she threw her head back—and then she was crying out softly and shuddering in Vi’s arms, clamping down hard around her finger. Her eyes flashed open, and their expression was filled with wonder. Vi kissed her own name from Caitlyn’s lips, sent her tongue searching after it. Caitlyn shivered again, aftershocks rippling through her, and Vi held her close until they subsided. They stayed like that for a long time, Vi’s face pressed to the curve of Caitlyn’s neck, Caitlyn’s palm cupping her nape.

Finally, Vi propped herself up on one elbow. Caitlyn smiled up at her, and for once, there was no sadness in it. Vi felt her own mouth curve. She kissed the very tip of Caitlyn’s nose, just because she could.

“I’m going to come out now, okay?”

At Caitlyn’s nod, Vi withdrew her finger carefully, attentive to any signs of discomfort. But Caitlyn only sighed in what seemed like regret, then pulled her back down. With a gentle push, she rolled Vi onto her back, then slid on top of her. As their bellies slid together, breasts brushing, Vi’s desire reignited. She wanted to bring Caitlyn over again—to kiss the places she had touched, to taste the sweetness of her. And, she realized with a shock, she wanted Caitlyn’s curious hands to explore her further. Fear prickled around the edges of her mind at the thought, but it gained no traction, remaining only a low, distant hum.

Caitlyn’s hands were in her hair. She kissed Vi’s chin, then her jaw. Vi focused on the incredible softness of their breasts pressing together, on the silky heat of Caitlyn’s abdomen against hers. She could feel herself getting wetter. But as the wanting grew sharper, so did the fear. Vi pulled a long, deep breath into her lungs.

No, she told it. No. You don’t get to control me.

“Vi.” Caitlyn was staring into her eyes the way she sighted down her rifle, focused and intent. “I want to touch you, too.”

*

Caitlyn had no practice expressing this kind of desire, yet the words fell from her lips easily. Their truth urged her into action. Wanting nothing more than to give Vi the same, blinding ecstasy she had been given, Caitlyn caressed the side of her face, the column of her throat. Slowly, she let her hand travel lower, fingers brushing across the swell of Vi’s breast, curving to cup it in her palm. The softness stunned her anew.

Vi’s nipples were smaller than hers, a rosy pink only a few shades darker than her hair. Caitlyn ran her thumb across the nearest one with the lightest touch she could manage, thrilling at Vi’s sharp intake of breath. The peak tightened, the dusky skin around it pebbling. Caitlyn lowered her head, kissing the nipple gently. When she closed her lips around it, Vi’s hips jerked. A sweet, sharp power sang through her. Vi’s life had been defined by loss and pain and grief, but she, Caitlyn, could bring her pleasure now.

Thrilling at the prospect, Caitlyn returned her palm to Vi’s hot skin, skimming across the rippled tautness of her stomach, seeking out the sensitive places that would—

When Vi suddenly trapped her hand, Caitlyn froze. She looked up into stormy eyes, glazed not in pleasure, but with fear. A cold pit opened in Caitlyn’s chest, sucking up all the warmth of her anticipation. Guilt filled the void, swirling. What had she done?

“Cait,” Vi whispered. “I—I can’t.” She swallowed hard. "Thought I could. It’s not you, I swear. I’m… I’m sorry.”

In the maelstrom of Caitlyn’s emotions, one thought rang clear as a bell: that the next choice she made might be the most important decision of her life. Vi had turned her face away. Her breathing was unsteady. When Caitlyn eased onto her side, Vi flinched—presumably at what she construed as her withdrawal. Caitlyn thought furiously. Her mind churned with possibilities and probabilities: that someone—or more likely, several someones—had hurt Vi once, more than once, many times. White hot rage gripped her, terrible in its intensity, needing to erupt in a conflagration. For several precarious heartbeats, she was caught in its thrall. But Vi didn’t need her anger. No—Vi needed to be able to trust her. At the realization, tenderness flooded through Caitlyn, smothering the flames until they were only a banked coal. Slumbering.

“I'd like to touch your face. And… and your hair. May I?”

Hesitation. Then, a shallow nod.

Caitlyn stroked her fingers through the feathery strands of Vi’s hair, combing them back from her face, massaging her scalp. Slowly, gradually, Vi’s breathing changed, evening out. Only then did Caitlyn dare to touch her bare skin. She stroked above Vi’s brows with one fingertip, then down along the bridge of her nose, until she traced the smudged skin beneath one eye. She hasn’t been sleeping well, Caitlyn thought. Then, she wondered if Vi had ever had a truly peaceful night’s sleep in her entire life.

“Feels good,” Vi murmured. Finally, her eyes opened. They gleamed in the light. “I’m—”

Caitlyn shifted her finger to Vi’s lips. “No. I’m the one who needs to apologize to you. I told you I wanted to touch you. I didn’t ask.”

Vi kissed her finger. “I wanted you to. Until…” Her eyes slammed shut again, and this time, tears appeared at their corners.

Caitlyn touched her lips to the nearest droplet. When Vi exhaled shakily, Caitlyn leaned over to kiss the other tear away. Vi’s arms came around her then, and there was a desperation in the embrace that made Caitlyn cling back just as hard. They curled into each other, Caitlyn’s head coming to rest in the space between Vi’s shoulder and neck, legs intertwined. They lay that way for a long time, Caitlyn periodically brushing her lips across Vi’s skin. When her brain reached toward thoughts of vengeance, Caitlyn forced it into the meditative practices she had learned in her marksmanship lessons. Deep, slow breaths. A calm, focused mind. There would be a time to plan and a time to act. Now was not that time. Now was the time for healing.

“I don’t want to be broken,” Vi finally whispered into her hair.

Caitlyn raised her head to find Vi staring at her, eyes like bruises. “You are not broken,” she said vehemently.

Vi sighed and gave her a crooked half-smile that spoke volumes. “You should stay away from me, Cait. One of these days, I’ll fall to pieces and end up like… like her.

Her voice was so tired, the words filled with defeat. For a heartbeat, Caitlyn despaired. Then, that hot banked coal shivered inside her chest, filling her with fire. She sat up.

“No, I will not stay away from you. You’re strong, Vi. Stronger than you know. So incredibly strong.” Epiphany flashed like a shooting star. “And I can prove it.”

Slowly, so that Vi could stop her if she needed to, Caitlyn leaned down. She kissed the scar bisecting Vi’s eyebrow, then moved to the one on her upper lip, tasting its groove delicately. Then, she pulled back, surveying. There was a small, raised line beneath Vi’s clavicle and another along one of her biceps. Caitlyn kissed each in turn, running her lips along them with all the tenderness that ached in her heart.

She looked up. Vi’s eyes were damp again, and the expression they held was a plea. “Is this all right?” she asked quietly. “I don’t want this to hurt you.”

“You’re not hurting me,” Vi whispered.

“May I keep going?”

Vi nodded.

She found them all, in time: myriad tiny scars along Vi’s forearms; the burn pockmarks on one shoulder; the long, wicked scar on Vi’s side where Sevika had stabbed her. There was a scar just above one hipbone, and so many more along her legs. Caitlyn kissed each of them carefully, taking her time. Under her ministrations, Vi’s muscles relaxed, then filled with a new kind of tension as desire returned to her. Caitlyn could tell the difference now, and it was a knowledge she welcomed.

“You’ve been wounded many times,” she said, “but each time, you’ve healed. And you will again. I promise.”

“Cait,” Vi gasped, and pulled her close, kissing her fiercely. “I want you.” And she reached for Caitlyn’s hand, pushing it down.

But Caitlyn resisted, sensing it was too soon. “Shh, not yet. There’s no hurry.” Even as she spoke the words, she hoped they were true. Somewhere, far below them, Jinx was plotting.

Vi blinked up at her, confusion and even a little hurt spilling into her expression. Still, as she remembered what had happened earlier, Caitlyn’s conviction remained firm. Yes, Vi did want her, but this wasn’t the way—not tonight, with those terrible memories so close to the surface. When an idea insinuated itself, she reached for it. She slipped her hand out from under Vi’s, resting her palm on those darkened knuckles.

“Touch yourself. Show me—show me what makes you feel good.”

Vi swallowed hard. “Really? That’s… what you want?”

Caitlyn brushed a fleeting kiss across her lips. “You are what I want. When I do touch you—some day, when we’re both ready—this will help me get it right.” She kissed Vi again, more firmly this time, then whispered please against her lips.

Vi held her gaze, nodded. Slipping out from beneath Caitlyn’s palm, her hand descended. At the first brush of her own fingers, she hissed quietly. Slowly, Caitlyn moved down in the bed, just far enough to see. She rested one hand on Vi’s nearest leg just above the knee, connecting them in a way she hoped wouldn’t feel threatening. When Vi moaned and closed her eyes, tears pricked Caitlyn’s eyes at the show of trust. She dashed them away, focusing in on the movements of Vi’s fingers. Beneath Caitlyn’s hand, her muscles trembled. Her next moan held a note of frustration.

“You’re safe, Vi,” Caitlyn murmured. “You’re here with me, and you’re safe. You can let go. I want to see you.”

When Vi’s eyes flew open, Caitlyn was looking back at her. With a hoarse shout, Vi tumbled over the edge, body convulsing in the throes of her release. Caitlyn’s heart felt as though it were beating its way out of her chest, but she kept perfectly still until Vi’s body finally quieted. Breathing heavily, Vi reached for her, pulling her close, peppering kisses across her face.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

I’m falling in love, Caitlyn realized. And then: No. The falling’s over and done with.

Later, after they had dozed a little, Vi lay on her stomach, head pillowed on her arms while Caitlyn knelt at her side, tracing her tattoos with a light touch. Whenever her fingertips found a scar, she bent to kiss it. She found herself wishing, foolishly, that they could stay in her bed forever.

“Where have you been sleeping?” she finally dared to ask.

“With the Firelights.”

“But you’ll stay here for the rest of the night?”

“Okay.”

“And… maybe some other nights?”

Vi rolled over, muscles rippling. If only she could see herself through my eyes, Caitlyn thought. Strong on the surface, and so much stronger below it.

“That’s what you want?” Vi asked.

“Yes.” The word burned in Caitlyn’s mouth like a promise. “You?”

Vi nodded. She looked to the window, then back again. “What about everything out there? And… her? Is that going to come between us?”

Caitlyn cupped Vi’s face, smoothed both thumbs across her cheekbones. “No. Because we won’t let it. Symbiosis, remember?”

“Symbiosis.” Vi sealed the pledge with a kiss. Then, she reached for the sheets.

As the covers settled around them, Caitlyn urged Vi onto her side, curling her own body against Vi’s contours. Horrors would surely find them, and some they would have to seek out themselves. But never again would either of them be alone.

Caitlyn pressed a soft kiss to Vi’s nape. This time, when she slept, no dreams disturbed her.