Nat and Ludi made a store run, and brought chocolate bars for everyone. Most of the group ate theirs pretty quickly, not taking his advice to portion it out because "who knows when they'd get more?"
But Ludi hung on to hers, just taking a single square for a taste. Sara thought that was quite admirable, and the kind of thing she should be doing, but even she had given in to the craving. It was such a taste of normalcy after days of living like nomads, that she just couldn't help scarfing it all. It was almost that time of the month (and wasn't it embarrassing to have to ask Nat if he'd pick up supplies.)
Marigold bet Ludi didn't like Hershey bars that much anyway. She seemed more the carob and dried pineapple sort, and could probably be finagled into giving Marigold the rest of the bar, later.
The trek to their next lookout was long, and growing increasingly hotter. Everyone began stripping off the layers that had been necessary to wear when they started out early that morning.
Sara tried not to look too intently as Marigold unselfconsciously peeled her blouse off, and tied a bandana around her chest instead, baring her shoulders, and a vast expanse of midriff. She wished she could be that free. She wasn't supposed to notice such things. And she certainly didn't notice the way Ludi's plain white tank top molded itself around her lush curves, or the way the summer heat made her glow.
She was absolutely not thinking about it when Marigold slowed down a bit and gestured her over. "She's very beautiful, isn't she?"
Sara didn't know how to respond. "I guess so."
"If I were you, I would tell her how you feel."
"What are you talking about?" Surely Marigold couldn't know.
Marigold sighed and shook her head. "It's obvious you're attracted to her, which I completely understand. I think you should tell her."
"No, I can't do that. It's not right. I'm not… that isn't something I do." She could only imagine her father's reaction if she'd come home with a girlfriend. Not that she had a home to come home to, but she really didn't want to think about that part of things.
"You probably never did anything they told you not to."
"That isn't exactly true." She'd made that one mistake, and she was paying for it now, big time.
"I bet it is, or nearly so. And look where it got you? The same place we are." Marigold indicated the rest of the group, spread out resting against various rocks and trees.
Luckily, Sara thought, they were far enough away for their conversation to be private. ""I don't - I don't deserve this," she said miserably. She didn't quite know what she deserved: to be punished for that one incidence of cheating - one black mark against a lifetime of good citizenship, or to finally be happy? "You're right; I've always done what they told me. Even the thing I did that got me here. I only did it because I thought if I wasn't perfect, they wouldn't be able to forgive me. Turns out I was right."
"Well, if that isn't a sign that you should live a little, I don't know what is." Marigold threw up her hands dramatically, never one for small gestures when a bold one would do.
"It's just… I've never… well, hardly ever, thought of myself that way." She could almost hear the quotes around the words. "Have you ever…"
"I don't like to label myself, or limit myself, either." This made sense from someone who only went by "Marigold."
"So you've been with a girl?" Actually, when she thought of it, Sara couldn't imagine a type of person Marigold wouldn't have been with. Oddly, it didn't make her feel nearly as judgmental as she might have only a week ago. Maybe she was maturing.
"Not seriously so much, no, but my friend Odetta and I used to mess around." Marigold looked sad at that, making Sara a little envious. There was really no one back home she was close enough to miss that way. She was too busy being the perfect daughter to let herself form bonds that strong. "Anyway, I think you should go talk to Ludi. I think she'd be cool about it." She jogged off to go see what Coke was up to.
They trekked on a while longer, and Sara thought about what Marigold had said. Ludi had fallen into step beside her, but Sara still didn't say anything. She couldn't help smiling at her, though. Ludi seemed oddly content, looking around at everything like she was seeing something Sara couldn't.
Nat called another rest stop - probably at Coke and Marigold's urging, Sara thought - and Ludi plopped herself down on a nearby boulder. "Come on, Sara, there's room for two."
Sara sat down next to her, letting the sun and Ludi's proximity soak into her tired muscles. Ludi pulled some sunscreen out of her backpack and began smoothing it down her legs. "You could use some, too. Here, lean over and let me get your back." Sara obeyed. It was difficult not to react too strongly. Ludi's hands were soft and strong, and she put a little pressure into her work.
"That feels really good." Sara closed her eyes for a moment and gathered her courage. "Do you want me to?"
Ludi smiled, and handed her the bottle. Then she pulled her tank top up and lay back down on her stomach. Sara could just see the swell of her breasts under her folded arms, and it was all she could do not to shake when she touched Ludi's lithe back and shoulders. Still, she tried to do a good job, and thought she must have succeeded when Ludi rewarded her with appreciative little sighs.
When they were done, Ludi stretched and sat up. She reached into her backpack again and pulled out the rest of the chocolate bar. "It's pretty well melted now, but do you want to share?" She stuck a finger into the warm brown goo, and licked it off. The things that motion made Sara want to do, she didn't dare voice. Instead she took a finger-full herself, grinning back at Ludi as Ludi looked at her. A something passed between them.
"You know," Sara said, "There's something I've been wondering. Even though we've been going through all this - horror, I don't know - you don't seem affected the same way the rest of us are. I mean I know you're upset, but you're so calm, you almost seem happy."
'It's weird, I know. But I just don't get the feeling that this is it for us. It's like there's a really good life in store for me, and I just have to get through this to find it. A really good life for us.."
"I sure hope you're right. I'd like to believe that, too."
Ludi's expression was serious, considering. " Look around us. I mean sure, people are trying to kill us, and that sucks, but look at this amazing glade we've found. I never knew there were so many shades of green. Look at those pink and yellow wildflowers. It's special, and it's like it was put there just for us. Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in."
A moment later, when Sara pressed her hand to the side of Ludi's sunlit face, and kissed her, she said, "I know exactly what you mean."