It’s one of those rare nights where it’s only the two of them in the room – well, of course Pâté and Sashimi are in the room, so it’s technically the four of them, but Pâté and Sashimi are otherwise occupied (in their sex dungeon) – and Laudna is unlacing her shoes, nudging her broken toes back into place, when she hears Imogen say: “So, dating.”
Laudna’s heart attempts to leap, realizes it can’t do that anymore, and instead just sort of wobbles. Cleverly, she says: “What?”
“Dating,” Imogen says, and Laudna turns around to see her: Imogen, sitting on the other end of the bed, her back turned. She is unbuttoning her vest, wriggling out of it in the way that Laudna has seen her do a thousand times. The curve of her spine looks anxious, but then again Imogen’s spine always looks anxious. Much like the rest of Imogen’s skeleton, it has a nervous temperament.
“Like—” Imogen waves a hand vaguely around. “Dusk asked you on a date, right?”
At Laudna’s hysterical chirp, Imogen turns around; the corner of her mouth is dented, her brow is furrowed. It’s that aw, Laudna face. “We’re gonna talk about that whole Dusk…thing later, okay?”
“I mean, it wasn’t really a thing, it was like, I don’t know, Orym says she asked him out too! It—”
Laudna closes her mouth. Her teeth tremble.
Softly, Imogen says: “You wanted to go on a date with them, right? Before…”
“I don’t really know if I—” But the look on Imogen’s face. A cousin, maybe, to the aw, Laudna face – and a sister to the expression Laudna feels her own face making over and over again. When they’re in line to buy fruit, or trying to splash through a muddy street, or figuring out how to share their one bedroll: please, gods, I just want things to be easy for you.
And she wants things to be easy for Imogen, too. So Laudna swallows and says: “I don’t know. Sort of, I suppose. I wasn’t really – Imogen, our friendship is much more important to me than some…floozy? Floozy feels bad. Is floozy anything, do you think?”
“Probably not.” But Imogen is smiling, her eyes all wrinkled up at the corners. “And I know. I feel the same, Laudna, you know I do.” She reaches across the bed, finds Laudna’s hand, squeezes it. Her hand is always so soft, so dry, so warm. There are red angry lines where her glove has pinched; Laudna smooths them away with her thumb.
“But it made me realize,” Imogen says, “that – that there’s definitely gonna be someone else who comes along and realizes how special you are. And y’all are gonna start – I don’t know. Courtin’? No, honey, don’t rip any more of your hair out.” Her hand swoops up, snatches Laudna’s hand out of the air before it can worry at her scalp. Earnestly, passionately, Imogen says: “And you deserve it, Laudna. You deserve to be loved. However you want to be loved.”
“I am loved,” Laudna says. “You love me, don’t you?”
Then they both talk at the same time:
“Of course I do.”
“Sorry, that was manipulative, I didn’t mean – oh, that’s very—”
“It wasn’t manipulative, I’ll say it whene—”
“Sorry, sorry, you were talking—”
“Wait, Laudna, what were—”
And Imogen is laughing, her skin flushed warm and vibrantly alive. “Sorry,” she says. “Sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry—”
“We gotta stop doin’ this. All I wanted to say is that I – I don’t want you to be scared, I guess, if – you know – I don’t know, I’m gettin’ all mixed up, I just thought, maybe if you tried it out with me first, it wouldn’t be so scary? For you? When it actually happens?”
The flush lingers on Imogen’s face. Now Laudna’s pretty sure that it’s a blush, but she doesn’t remember enough about bloodflow to confirm it. “It’s stupid,” Imogen mumbles. “I don’t know why I thought—”
“Nothing you think is stupid,” Laudna says. “You’re very smart. You want to practice dating?” She thinks about this for a moment and then gasps. “Imogen. Are you going to start dating? Do you – have you asked them? Did they say yes already? What are you going to wear?”
Imogen makes a strangled sound, shakes her head so fast that her hair goes everywhere. “No,” she says, “I didn’t ask…them. Yet. ‘cause, you know. I haven’t really, um, I haven’t…” Her face is absolutely tomato-red. She’s pretty when she blushes. “I just,” she says, “I haven’t, ugh, I haven’t kissed anybody yet! So! Do you want to!”
“Sure!” Laudna says.
“I mean, it makes sense,” Laudna says, twirling a strand of hair around one finger. (Imogen is still holding her other hand.) “I’m definitely not up-to-date on my…certifications. And I don’t want you to meet some incredible person and then have them go ‘uh, bleh, you don’t even know how to kiss, we’re getting divorced’, and then I have to kill them for you, and you know I hate killing people, D gets so—”
“I know,” Imogen says, smiling helplessly. “I know! Yeah, I figured it. Uh. Made sense. Strategically.”
“You’re a brilliant tactician, Imogen.”
“Thanks.” The word is small, tucked just in the corner of her mouth. “So…um…now?”
“Tonight? You need sleep, Imogen.”
“I’ll get sleep,” Imogen says.
“Okay, it’s just that, I don’t want you to be trepidatious about sleeping, because of all that moon shit—”
Imogen kisses her.
It’s sort of like a headbutt, if Imogen headbutted with her jaw instead of her skull. Her mouth slams right into Laudna’s mouth. It’s warm. Imogen’s mouth, that is. The skin of her lips is cracked. Has she been getting enough water? Marquet is so hot, much hotter than Whitestone – even in the summers, Whitestone was always so cold – oh, shit, is Laudna supposed to be doing something? Apparently not, because Imogen is leaning back again. Her expression is one of pure bafflement.
“Sorry!” Laudna says, “I was distracted. Have you been drinking water?”
Imogen sputters, laughs. Such a beautiful sound. “That’s what you were thinking about?”
“Hydration is important!”
“I mean, I guess, but—” Imogen scoots back, rummages in the pile of her harnesses and boots and backpack until she uncovers her canteen and is able to take a big swig. She makes a face at Laudna. “It’s hot.”
“I can try—”
“Laudna, if your hand gets frozen onto my canteen again, I’m gonna lose my dang mind.” Imogen screws the lid on the canteen, throws it back into the pile. “So. How, um. The kiss, I mean…how was that? Do you think?”
Laudna considers. “Pretty shit.”
“Great,” Imogen says with a faint tinge of hysteria.
“Oh, no, it was totally my bad. I wasn’t expecting it and I didn’t know – should I have been moving my mouth?”
“I was trying to figure that out! Should I be moving my mouth? Are we both – sheesh, Laudna, I’m really glad I’m doing this with you.” And her soft eyes. And her smiling mouth. “It feels like – we’re working together. You know?”
“Like building a shelf.”
“Just like building a shelf, Laudna,” Imogen breathes, and she reaches up and cradles Laudna’s face gently in her palm. Imogen is nibbling on her lower lip, rolling it between her teeth. Oh, Laudna thinks, that’s where my mouth is going to be, and her heart does another attempt at a beat.
“Is this okay?” Imogen whispers.
It feels so fucking urgent, so unspeakably important to let Imogen know that this touch is okay. “Yes!” Laudna says, and the sound rips out of her as a shriek. “Should I…”
She mirrors Imogen’s gesture. Imogen’s skin is always so soft. She doesn’t moisturize or anything. Not that Laudna moisturizes, besides, well – the natural substances that certainly create some sort of moisture on her face. Imogen is touching it: her face. It must be cold, a little wet; Laudna’s rattling heart has pumped just a bit of black ooze through her pores.
“Okay?” Laudna says.
“Sorry about the ooze.”
“I keep tellin’ you,” Imogen says, “I don’t mind,” and she gently kisses Laudna again.
It’s better this time. Laudna may finally be understanding what this whole kissing thing is about – it’s just like holding Imogen’s hand, or tucking her hair behind her ear, or having Imogen’s head resting on her shoulder. Just – more of that. A different version of that. The love that she feels for Imogen surges through every dead vein, every unmoving muscle, every inch of gray skin. Laudna is only a conduit for that love. She kisses it into Imogen; she does her best to learn this brand-new language, just so she can say I love you. I love you, I love you.
Imogen is holding Laudna’s face with both hands, now, leaning closer – closer – the fabric of her dress just barely brushing against Laudna’s chest – and Laudna moves on instinct, finds the place on Imogen’s lip where she had bitten down. Laudna also bites down. The noise Imogen makes licks up the base of Laudna’s spine like a memory of flame. The sound is so sudden, so urgent, that Laudna falls backwards – she almost tumbles off the bed, barely catches herself, springs back into sitting.
“Did I hurt you?” she says breathlessly.
“What?” Imogen says. She’s breathing very heavily; her pupils are huge. “What? No, I – no, you definitely didn’t hurt me. That was, that was really good. Mind if I try?”
“Of course,” Laudna says, and she rolls up her metaphorical sleeves and gets back to work. Kissing Imogen. Which isn’t work, obviously – not that Laudna has ever had a job, really, so maybe it does feel like this – fizzing and effervescent, soft and warm. She feels the edge of Imogen’s teeth finding her lip, nibbling on it; it isn’t the same as when Laudna bites her own lip, it isn’t a sharp anxious sting. It’s something entirely new. All of this is something entirely new, spectacularly beautiful. Now that she has it, she doesn’t want to give it back.
She pulls Imogen closer, kisses her, curls a hand around Imogen’s thigh, kisses her, brushes a thumb against that soft skin between Imogen’s neck and jaw. Kisses her. Loves her. It seems like Imogen’s enjoying herself just as much as Laudna is: she’s gotten clumsy, her hands fumbling around Laudna’s back. Her mouth open. Her warm body closer, closer—
And then she leans too far, and Laudna topples backwards. Thankfully, it’s onto the bed this time; she is on her back, and Imogen is leaning over her. The light haloes her, draws dawn colors from her hair.
“Sorry,” Imogen gasps, and she smiles. The shy flash of her teeth.
“Don’t be sorry,” Laudna says. “This is – Imogen, this was a very good idea.”
“D’you think so?” Imogen says. “I was thinking that, but I didn’t want to—”
“No, no, I told you,” Laudna says. “You’re brilliant, your ideas are spectacular. This one was really top-notch. Are we going to…”
“I mean,” Imogen mumbles, “maybe we should – you know – just so we know we’ve got it locked in.”
“Definitely,” Laudna says. “For sure.” And – holy shit – Imogen leans in closer, and softly kisses Laudna’s jaw.
“Sorry,” Imogen breathes against the skin. “I wanted to—”
“No, great idea.” Really great idea. “I think it’s like jazz.”
“Hm?” Imogen is kissing Laudna’s neck now, soft brushes of her lips against Laudna’s cold skin.
“I mean, it’s like – you know—” She doesn’t know. She can’t think about anything. She says Imogen’s name, but it drifts out of her mouth like a soft wind. It feels so good in her mouth, so she says it again: “Imogen.”
“I’m here, darlin’.” Imogen shifts the neckline of Laudna’s blouse slightly, kisses the network of bones there like she has been starving for them her whole life. Is that what dating is? When you’re starving for somebody? When you want to eat them alive, but can’t bear the thought of even a little piece of them being lost?
“Imogen?” Laudna says again, the word wavering out of her mouth.
“You’ll let me try this next, right? I want to – you’re a natural, I’m sure I’m going to. Mm! Need practice.”
“Mhm,” Imogen says, kissing her way back up Laudna’s throat. “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll help you.”
“I don’t want to—” Imogen is biting playfully at Laudna’s carotid, which wipes Laudna’s mind as clean as a chalkboard. She barely manages to find the ragged edges of her thought, grab onto them: “I don’t want to delay your, your plans.”
“You aren’t,” Imogen says. “Promise.” Nuzzling at Laudna’s jaw.
“What if it takes me years? To figure all this out?”
“You come first,” Imogen says (her lips are so soft against Laudna’s skin). “The rest of the world’ll understand.”
“Because we’re a team,” Laudna says, and Imogen rises up like the sun: eclipsing the whole rest of the world, filling up Laudna’s vision ‘til she’s blind to everything else.
“Always,” Imogen says, and she leans close so she can gently press her forehead against Laudna’s. “Until the world ends, baby.”
“And after,” Laudna says. “As someone who survived the end of her world, I have to say, there is an after to it.”
“And after,” Imogen says, “promise,” and she leans close and kisses Laudna again.