Chapter 1: Vinyl & Ink
Lydia/Talia + cats, anchors
There was no way I could avoid referencing King Princess' "Make My Bed" album for this pairing.
"I can taste your lipstick; I can wake up next to you..."
Hazy and dim, Lydia's bedroom smelled of candle smoke, roses, and the faintest tang of sweat. Her perfect half-moon French tips slowly traced down the skin of Talia's ribcage as it filled rhythmically with each breath, steady and relaxed. The head of the anchor began just under Talia's breast; Lydia traced it, scraping her nail gently over the intricate black shading.
"Why the anchor?" she asked.
Talia gazed up from her pillow with heavy-lidded eyes. "It was my first tattoo. It made sense at the time."
Lydia dragged two fingers down the shank, feeling ribs give way to the soft valley of Talia's waist. "I can't believe this doesn't tickle."
"Would have been hard to get a tattoo there if it did."
The song ended, and the record whirred silently for a moment before transitioning to the next track. Talia hummed quietly to the lyrics.
"You're so rich, bet you bought yourself a diamond chain..."
The slower, lighter song sleepily diffused into the late-night sounds of the city. Lydia rolled onto her side, hoping that Talia would either spoon her or ask about her own tattoo. Sure enough, she felt fingertips at her spine in seconds.
"Meow," Talia said, the lazy smile plain in her voice.
Lydia stretched, not unlike a cat herself. "Pet me and I'll purr."
"Why a cat?"
"I'm a Leo."
"Oh. Of course."
Talia reached forward and pawed at Lydia's chest, her palms stroking over the little red bruises she'd left half an hour earlier. Lydia yawned. "It doesn't have to be that deep."
"I can't stop judging everything you do, but I can't get enough of you."
Chapter 2: Cool Vampire Aunt Recreates Scene from Twilight
Mel&Te'ijal + thrills
Te'ijal hoisted Mel's knees up to her hips, her firm grip certainly bruising Mel's long-suffering joints even through the thick fabric of their cargo pants. Mel caught a shoulderblade to the ribs and lost their breath for a second, interrupting their protest.
"There is no time to go around the platoon," Te'ijal explained, striding forward in a shockingly graceful crouch. Mel's chin bumped into her ear.
"Oh. It has been too long since I traveled with anyone other than my husband." Te'ijal kept her face forward as she stepped through the undergrowth. "There are vampires in the gorge ahead."
"Hold on, spider monkey!"
Mel's yelp was muffled in Te'ijal's hair as the vampire leaped to the tree ahead. She clung to the bark with one hand and both feet, scaling it like a scampering lizard, and before Mel could process, they were in the air again, branches rushing past and creaking in Te'ijal's wake. The ground dropped suddenly beneath them, and Mel gaped in terror at the path far below, crawling with velvet-cloaked soldiers. One of them glanced up just as Te'ijal disappeared around the far side of a tree. Mel slipped just an inch to the right and found their cheek flush against a deposit of fresh, smelly sap.
Te'ijal pounced once more and landed easily on her toes on the other side of the gorge. Mel's breath caught in their stomach on impact. Te'ijal sprinted a few more yards through the sparse undergrowth before slowing at last.
"You are not so heavy," she commented. "I can carry you until we reach the--"
"Put. Me. Down."
Chapter 3: Extravagance
Elini/Lydia, fire + dresses
Lydia twirled, enjoying the sensation of her ample petticoats swishing a second behind. "I think we should go shopping," she commented.
Elini leaned her elbow against the vanity in Lydia's boudoir. "I am still not accustomed to mainland fashion. All of these layers."
"You get cold." Lydia glanced coquettishly over her shoulder at Elini.
"The last time we fucked, it took ten minutes just to remove your outfit," Elini pointed out. "I thought I would get bored before we even began."
Lydia leaned in to kiss the curve of Elini's ear. "And did you?"
"You are never boring."
With a flounce and a giggle, Lydia dropped herself into Elini's lap. "It pays off to be a tease."
Tugging at one of Lydia's pigtails, Elini replied, "I'd half a mind to use a little magic and simply burn the circus tent off your body, corset and all."
Lydia flushed. She recalled a time years ago in combat with some folk she didn't remember fondly, to say the least, when her admittedly impractical skirts began to smolder for one reason or another, and an impertinent little boot had stamped at her hem--stamped!--while its wearer made some uncouth noise about ballgowns on the battlefield. She'd had to discard the dress immediately afterward. But now, with Elini's hand trailing down her collarbone to toy with the laces at her bust, a little fire didn't sound like such a terrible thing.
"I've heard the empress of Veldarah never wears a dress more than once," Lydia said.
Elini nibbled at Lydia's neck, the spaces between the fingers of her free hand sparking with impish magic. "Maybe she has the right idea."
Chapter 4: Dinner and Diatribes
Gavin/Nicolas, cooking contest
There was flour in Gavin's hair.
This wasn't Nicolas' problem. Ava had told the two of them whoever made her the best supper would get to sleep in the cabin tonight, and Nicolas couldn't quite believe he'd accepted the challenge, but Gavin had first despite definitely not needing anything fancier than a hammock belowdecks, and Nicolas' back did hurt, damn it. Rope was not meant to support a resting human body!
So Nicolas had stalked to the galley and snatched away the cook's apron before Gavin could get there--not that Gavin would have taken the apron if he was the only one cooking, just that he certainly would have claimed it only to keep Nicolas from having it, the smug bastard--and promptly realized he had no idea how to fillet a fish. All the fresh produce they had left was sitting on his cutting board, and he was very, very slowly slicing vegetables, coming to terms with the fact the first thing he'd ever cook would be a Goddess-damned ratatouille like he was some serf woman with a babe at his tit. And Gavin, of course, was making a souffle. Not that Nicolas did, of course, but did Gavin even know how to make a souffle?
Surely not. There was flour in his hair.
Nicolas couldn't keep himself from glancing over at that flour every few seconds. It was no concern of his, but the chalky mess simply degraded Gavin's coppery red hair, and did no favors for his skin, either. White was never Gavin's color.
"What?" Heat flashed through Nicolas' face at the sudden acknowledgement, snapping him back out of his imagination.
"Why do I smell blood?"
Nicolas was caught off-guard as Gavin's narrowed green eyes flicked in his direction. "Smell--?"
His finger felt wet. He looked down at the hand fidgeting with his knife.
Chapter 5: Lost in the Woods
Definitely not based on personal experience
"Ew." Sweat dripped from Rye's armpit down to soak through his shirt, and he shivered despite the heat. "I always forget how humid it gets out here."
"We're stopping home to take a shower before dinner." Peter fanned himself with his baseball cap.
"I won't argue with that."
Rye pressed his hand to the trunk of a tree to steady himself as he stepped over a massive root in the uphill trail. The narrow dirt path wound through the sunny forest, lush with the bright greens of late spring. Layers on layers of undergrowth and uneven ridges staggered the landscape. The intrepid pair were far up the side of the hill--or so they assumed.
"No offense, but next time we go for a hike, I am finding a map first," said Peter, a little breathless. "I thought the Hermit's Cave was right near the beginning of the trail."
Rye grunted as he hauled himself up the steep path, feeling his thigh stretch. "I swear we're almost there."
As he rounded a sharp bend, Rye could finally see the stone shelter built into the ground at the top of the trail. He sighed with relief and willed his legs to take him the last several yards.
Pausing several feet from the entrance, Rye and Peter peered inside. Only a few inches of dusty stone floor were visible; beyond that, the cave was pitch black.
"Found it," said Rye, faking smugness between heavy breaths.
Peter wiped his forehead. "So this is where all those monks hid during the battle for the hill? It must go pretty deep."
"Unless it collapsed in the last couple centuries," Rye pointed out. "Dare you to find out."
"Hah! Um." With a nervous laugh, Peter scratched his head. He fell silent, and the two hikers listened to the bending boughs and chirping birds of the forest.
Faintly, so faintly he knew it had to be his ears playing tricks on him, Rye heard the sound of a pebble clattering on stone.
"Okay!" Rye backed away. "Well! That's the cave. It's nice and downhill from here. Come on."
Peter glanced at him. "We spent two hours trying to find this spot and you're done already?"
"Look, man, I'm not trying to get Blair Witched."
"Oh my god. Don't say it like that. Fine--let's get back to the main trail. It's down this way?"
Chapter 6: With Clouds Between Their Knees
They/them Lydia because I love myself!
Lydia's heart hammered in their breast. Nothing was wrong; the view was lovely, with the late evening valley vista glowing golden below the cliffs of Thais and the infinitely more stunning girl standing beside them, a constellation of pale freckles dusting her dark skin and her lilac hair glinting silver in the direct light--but this was a year of firsts for Lydia, and in their experience, firsts never got easier, no matter how many they'd had.
"I-if we're going to do this, just--just do it now, please," Lydia requested, the false confidence leaking badly from their voice with each successive word til they were drained to a whisper.
Stella gripped their hand. "We don't have to, you know. You can always say 'never mind.'"
"I know I've been up there before." Lydia swallowed. "Just because I wasn't conscious doesn't mean it didn't happen."
"Okay. Can I hear you say 'yes, please take me flying' one more time?"
"Yes. Please take me flying."
Stella cupped Lydia's cheek with the gentlest of hands before giving them a firmly reassuring kiss. It took a little effort to gather Lydia into a bridal carry, but she managed, her arm finding its way to a comfortable spot under Lydia's knees. She crouched slightly, and her brilliant, iridescent wings unfolded behind her.
In seconds, Stella's slippered feet left the cliffside.
Lydia clutched anxiously at the fabric at the back of Stella's neck, staring directly at her face with wide eyes as if looking away would send them tumbling to the valley below. Stella gazed calmly ahead, glancing down at Lydia now and again with a small but deepening smile.
Something weighed at the edge of Lydia's eyelash. They blinked as Stella drifted downward, and the tiniest flecks of water splashed out into the open air, glittering in the waning sunlight.
Chapter 7: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
"Trick or treat!"
Taking care not to smack the wall with her sunflower-petal-and-wire fairy wings, the Windshire housewife opened her front door. Boyle and Yemite fixed her with matching grins, one three feet lower and a fair deal sharper than the other. Charming as the devil in her little red tutu, Yemite held out a hollowed pumpkin, already brimming with sweets.
The housewife blinked a few times--surely this tyke's costume tail hadn't just swished on its own? And what an odd costume it was; she certainly wouldn't let her daughter wear anything to make her look like she was concealing... a figure. But who was she to pass judgment on a child enjoying the annual spoils of Halloween? With a smile, she dropped a taffy into Yemite's pumpkin.
"Thank you!" chirped Yemite. She twirled for show before bounding off the doorstep.
Close behind her, Boyle chuckled. "Suckers. Is there anyone left in this town we haven't scammed tonight?"
"I don't think so!" Yemite wriggled, constrained by the tight leotard. Though it was the widest size they could find on such short notice, it wasn't constructed to be comfortable for someone as buxom as her. "I want to take this off."
"Whoa. Could you at least wait til we're out of sight? You'll give up the whole jig."
"No one has ever complained about seeing me naked!"
Boyle snorted. "You got me there."
As they took the road west out of town, the festive hubbub faded to a hush behind them. An owl hooted among the rustling leaves. With a flex of her wings, Yemite burst the seam at her back, destroying the tutu.
"Better!" she sighed. "Let's go relax after all that hard work."
"Fang's keeping my throne warm for us."
"Good! You can feed me candy while I sit in your lap."
Boyle eyed her as she stripped a shred of red fabric from her sizable derriere. "Will you call me Master?"
"Well... fine." Faking indignant resignation, Boyle huffed. "But I'm eating the pumpkin brownie. The whole thing."
Yemite smiled. "But you'll leave crumbs for me to lick up."
"If Fang doesn't get 'em first."
Chapter 8: Not as Think as You Drunk I Am
John/Marge, "drunk as fuck", mutually oblivious flirtation
Same 'verse as the lakehouse AU.
Shrieks of laughter rang through the twilit forest. The campfire blazed within the confines of its metal grate, warming the flushed skin of eight college students, each at a more questionable level of sobriety than the last (save for Galahad, who fished an empty bottle from Elini's drooping hand and packed it into the recycling bag Dameon had insisted they bring). John and Marge, easily the drunkest of the cohort, each had their own canvas chair, but Marge's legs were draped across John's lap and his beer bottle was perched against her thigh.
"Okay, but that Peter guy is, like, at least a six," said Lars before self-consciously laughing his way back into his plastic cup.
Marge cackled. "That little twig? I could use him for kindling!"
"Hey, listen." John took a swig, the bottom of his bottle smacking back down onto Marge's leg. "He gets at least a couple bonus points for being a redhead."
"You and redheads," scoffed Marge.
"Oh, I'm uncomfortable with this," muttered Dameon.
"What?" said John, ignoring Dameon to address Marge. "I mean, you're a redhead! You know, in the right light!"
Rhen rubbed the bridge of her nose. "You are so colorblind."
"Peter, he's all right. His sister? You seen her? Hair's almost as curly as yours--" John leaned in to tug at Marge's locks, and she swatted him away "--and I'd call her a seven, minimum."
"Oh, but she's got no hips," said Marge with a little belch. "What are you gonna do with a girl with no hips?"
"Who said I was gonna do anything?"
Rhen and Lars exchanged a glance, Lars' eyebrows spiking past his bangs.
Elini gestured off to the edge of the campsite where Te'ijal was catching fireflies midair and letting them go. "Te'ijal is a redhead."
"Natural redheads," John and Marge replied in alarmingly perfect sync.
"But like, Marge." John shifted in his seat. "With you, it's like, a subtle red. You know? Like a sorta coppery... bronze-y... like, it's shiny."
Marge bit the rim of her bottle before taking another swig. "So how would you rate me?"
"Does he want to leave this forest alive?" joked Rhen, attempting to douse the spark before things got any weirder.
"Ten, obviously," slurred John.
Chapter 9: We Got a Live One
Lars & Marge, squirrels
Harrowed breath wheezed through Lars' tomato-red nose. Marge pressed the back of her hand to his cheek--still hot as the dickens, it would seem, and sweaty to boot. She sighed heavily and slapped the wet washcloth down on his forehead; a few droplets splattered against her pillow, which she would need to wash thoroughly once the kid was well enough to sleep anywhere other than her inn.
A gentle clattering against the roof suggested it had begun to rain. Odd; the sky was clear not two hours ago.
Lars' voice was nearly too hoarse to comprehend. "Feel like crap."
"Don't spend all night awake on deck next time you get back on that skudder," Marge admonished. "I'd think you had a death wish."
A shuddering cough ripped through Lars' chest. He turned his head away from her as he hacked through the goop in his esophagus for a minute. Marge stayed where she was.
"How'm I s'posed to sleep like this?" he mumbled.
Lars looked back at her, apprehension in his brow. "Count... squirrels."
Marge shrugged. "Helps me trail off most nights. Just picture them skittering on by." As if on cue, the pattering against the roof grew a little louder, almost frenzied. Hopefully no thunder would keep the boy awake.
Shutting his eyes, Lars exhaled slowly and wet his lips. "Okay... squirrels."
"Big, red ones. Like this big." Marge held her hands a foot apart, and Lars opened his eyes to look with a faint smile and a little sniff of laughter.
He drifted off slowly, eyelids fluttering open and shut for a while, occasionally murmuring the ghost of a number, Marge sitting by his side the entire time. An unexpected gale whistled through a window which Marge was surprised to find slightly ajar. She got up to shut it.
"That squirrel's smaller than the others," Lars muttered, trailing off into a gentle snore.
Pitter, patter, scratch.
Marge looked up at the ceiling. With an exasperated huff and a glare that could cut bone, she stormed to the cupboard to fetch her longest broom.
Chapter 10: Classic Rock
Mel & John, radio
It was a Saturday afternoon in the early summer, hot but not oppressively so. With thick gardening gloves protecting the ever-present peeling skin around his fingernails, John wedged his trowel into the soil beneath an unseemly little shrub. The bright voice of Roger Daltrey thrummed from the boom box baking on the sunlit asphalt of the driveway, appropriately declaring, "I am man who reveals all he digs."
With a little leverage, John heaved the shrub up by its roots. Just over the music, the rustle of leaves, and a distant neighbor's humming lawnmower, he could hear a familiar car approaching around the corner. A dull grey Ford Taurus turned onto John's street at a steady pace.
John looked up from his work with a smile and a wave. From behind the wheel, Mel waved back as they pulled into the driveway.
"Ain't it funny how we all seem to look--CRUNCH."
John's smile fell. He leaned to peer around his cypress tree.
Mel rolled down the passenger's side window. "Did I hit something?"
"Uh... yeah." John wiped his forehead in mild shock. "My radio."
"Oh, crap." Mel put the car in park and hopped out to inspect the damage. John joined them, crouching to peer at the offending tire. Music drifted from the open car window, guitars and drums piquing John's interest.
"Hey, I just had that station on."
"Want me to turn it up and leave the car running?"
John shrugged. "Might as well. I was gonna make you turn around and buy me a new radio. My kid's listening to Quadrophenia, huh?"
Mel cranked the volume dial and grabbed a grocery bag from the backseat. "Uh huh."
"Glad to know I've imbued you with good taste." John patted Mel on the back as they headed for the front door, smearing their shirt with tiny clumps of soil.
Chapter 11: Dancing Away the Dark
The streets were packed, bursting with color, streamers and confetti glittering in the sunshine of early June. Dameon hadn't been in a crowd that noisy since the Carly Rae Jepsen concert he'd attended in Miami over spring break, nor had he been in such close proximity to so many fellow queers. Wearing nothing but a pair of blue, purple, and magenta swim trunks, the proximity was close indeed, as enthusiastic festival attendees of all genders made a point of brushing against his bare pecs whenever possible.
A flutter of fabric caught his eye. It wasn't uncommon to spot someone wearing a flag around their shoulders, but this particular guy sported his bisexual regalia with asymmetrical elegance, framing a half-unzipped black motorcycle jacket. The guy took in a good eyeful of Dameon and threw him a rakish wink.
Twenty minutes and two shots later, Dameon found himself in a wide alleyway between two bars, having left Nic and Mel behind at a street vendor to debate the nutritional value of flavored lube. Some dance beat blared from inside one bar, and a throng of men in their war paint exchanged body heat, stomping feet and gyrating hips in the shadow of the buildings. There he was again, looking like a greaser with his hair slicked back, the zipper meandering ever further down his abdomen, commanding attention at the center of the crowd. He nodded Dameon over with a wolfish grin.
Four beats later, Dameon was in the center of the floor. Four beats more, and the guy had whipped the flag off his shoulders and wrapped it behind Dameon's ass, drawing him close. Dameon was as far away from his cares as he'd ever been, grinding on this guy who matched his colors to the hoots and whistles of three dozen strangers he never needed to see again. No expectations. The man smelled a lot like Axe body spray and a little like dog.
Dameon stayed a while longer.
Chapter 12: Light Magic
Very light sort of mutual masochism thing in the beginning. Compliant with whatever universe you want but obviously I am thinking about the halcyon years after Rhenegade season 3 when they're blissfully married co-druids haha I'm not crying you're crying
Unclouded sunlight glinted off the edge of the ritual knife as Lars brought it down against Dameon's bare, bronzed chest. Dameon grunted as the blade sliced through layers of skin like ripe fruit, fresh red gushing forth. Quickly, Lars set aside the knife, but let the wound develop for a moment, his eyes locked with Dameon's while he waited.
Lars raised a hand to the cut and pulled at the aura of pain, sucking away the injury, drawing the fatigue of Dameon's veins into himself. He exhaled hard the second the cut had sealed, no scar left to be seen, and touched his fingers to Dameon's chest. As invigorated as Lars was exhausted, Dameon's hand met Lars' and he pressed in for a kiss, which was tenderly received.
Lars let himself lean back against the slope of the grassy field, far out in the empty hills of Aveyond, to be kissed again and again until his accelerating heart took over for his drained reserve of mana. His fingers wove between Dameon's.
"I don't think I'll have much left to teach you soon," Dameon told him between kisses.
"Then you're running out of excuses," Lars said, his tongue halted just behind his lower lip. "I'll be teaching you how to summon weevils before you know it."
"Shh." Entwining his legs with Lars', Dameon nuzzled his way down the pulse at Lars' throat. "You know, someday we'll be out there on the battlefield again, and you'll have to heal Galahad for me, and like on instinct, you'll get the biggest throbbing--"
"Shut up, or I swear to...!"
Laughing, Lars pushed Dameon down beside him, their lips never more than an inch apart. Grass tickled their noses as they kissed. There they would remain for hours more, until they returned to the temple for dinner, then curled up to sleep in one another's arms, then woke up together to practice, practice, practice all over again.
Chapter 13: Modern Conveniences
Galahad & Boyle, menu
"Thank you for calling West Sedona Credit Union. Your call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes. Be sure to download the app for convenient mobile deposits and more. How may we help you today?"
"I would like--"
"For checking, please press 1. For savings, please press 2..."
Galahad frowned. Gone were the days, it would seem, when one could rely on one's human neighbors to answer one's telephone calls.
"One," he said. "Er, that is--"
Squinting at his cordless landline phone, Galahad pressed the "1" button.
"You have selected checking. Okay. For your checking history, please press 1. To search by check number, please press 2. To request an email with your account information, please press 3. To go back, please press 9."
Galahad's lips thinned. None of those options were relevant to him. He pressed "9" and tapped his fingers against the countertop.
"...for savings, please press 2. For loans, please press 3. For retirement accounts, please press 4. To transfer funds, please press 5. To change your personal identification number, please press 6. To report a lost or stolen ATM card, please press 7. To hear these options again, please press 9."
"I--I wish to report--" Galahad rubbed his forehead. "None of these... seven may be the closest. Rather--" He pressed "7".
"Lost or stolen ATM card. Okay. Please enter the account number associated with the lost or stolen card, then press the pound key."
"There is no--!" Galahad ground his teeth. He snatched his printed bank statement from the counter and copied the account number digit by digit for the phone robot.
"Okay. Is this the account for Gullad Teyomus? Press 1, or say 'yes'--"
"May I speak with your human managerial counterpart?!" barked Galahad.
"Sorry, I didn't get that. Is this the account for--"
"It looks like we're having some trouble verifying your account. Please hold while I connect you to a service agent."
The sound which next emanated from the receiver could only have been made by the unholy offspring of a piano and a dial-up modem. Galahad held the phone a foot from his ear, flinching at the volume of the cursed elevator music.
"Y-y-yello. TeleTits adult operating service. Just kidding, this is West Sedona Credit Union. My name is Boyle. How can I help you today?"
"Ah." Clearing his throat, Galahad brought the phone back to his ear. "Hello. I am calling to report fraudulent charges on my checking account."
"Sure, sure thing." The man on the other end of the line sounded bored out of his mind, but at least his disposition was sunny enough--and he was human. "What's the account number?"
"I just gave that to the phone."
Boyle hesitated. "You... right. Now I need you to give it to me."
"For what reason did I input the number but a minute ago?" Irritation crept back into Galahad's voice.
"Sir, with all due respect, it's no wonder you've got fraudulent charges on your account if you give your account information to any robot who asks. Now, if I'm going to help you today, I'll need your account number."
"How do I know this is not a scam?"
"Did you call the phone number on the back of your credit card?"
"Then you're probably on the right track."
Galahad glared at the phone cradle as if Boyle could see him. "I wish to speak to your manager."
"Oh, her. I'll connect you to Ingrid. Just so you know, she's going to ask you for the exact same thing. Let me ask you one more quick question just to get things ready for ya."
"One question," Galahad grumbled.
"Is your refrigerator running?"
Chapter 14: Making Up for Lost Time
Rhen & Devin, snails
Elden was still chilly in late April as the frostiest treetops thawed in the coastal fog, but the wildlife, accustomed to the cycle of the forest, had emerged from hibernation weeks past. The chickens of Gubbin's farm broke the steady morning quiet with untroubled clucks over breakfast, while the prize cow slept on her feet. Even after two decades, Devin knew it like home.
Rhen, however, did not. Nestled in a river basin, Elden felt strange to a girl from the mountaintops of the Western Isle--not flat, per se, but low, as if she were crawling with her knees on the ground. She was, in fact, as was Devin; both crouched in the dirt near the stone well, each staring down at the freshwater snails in their hands.
"Mine's a bit bigger," commented Rhen.
"But how's his temperament?"
Devin never smiled much, but Rhen had learned to hear it in his low voice, a softness that belied what she finally understood to be affection. She glanced at Devin and was unsurprised to see him studying her, as well.
"You and Talia used to do this?" she asked.
"All the time," he replied. "Until I became an apprentice."
"Show me how it's done, then."
"Count us down."
Rhen paused. There was something about this moment in the quiet morning, neither she nor Devin pressed by any agenda other than to be where they were, that she had to remind herself to stop and savor. The last year of her life had been so fast, so deliberate.
"Three... two... one... go."
Devin and Rhen uncupped their hands, allowing their snails to slide free between the shallow lines drawn in the dirt. At their leisure, the creatures moseyed forth.
Rhen frowned. "Oh--mine's veering off the track already..."
Devin handed her a leaf. "You've got to herd them a little. Use this."
Biting her tongue in concentration, Rhen blocked the snail's path with the leaf, urging it back into its lane. Devin's snail pulled ahead millimeter by millimeter until breaching the finish line.
Rhen laughed. "Darn it."
"Don't be too hard on yourself," said Devin. "You're up against a seasoned snail jockey of many years."
Chapter 15: Mixtape
Do you remember being an emo 12 year old kid and finding the one other emo 12 year old kid who liked the same music as you? Because--
Summer camp, that most liminal of spaces, bred two types of camper: those who slept in on Saturdays until ten minutes before breakfast, and those who awoke at seven a.m. to delight in their own quiet smallness under the brightening sky. Iya was the latter. Normally, she loved the opportunity to wander alone in the chilly dew, but she'd made a friend that summer and quickly learned that he, too, was of the second type.
Dampening the hems of her Cookie Monster pajama bottoms, Iya cut through the sparkling green soccer field to the log bench just past the treeline, where she knew Lars was sitting with his iPod and maybe a book. There he was in his black hoodie--no book this morning. He sat towards one side of the bench as if he'd hoped someone would come.
He removed an earbud as she approached to join him. "Morning."
Iya yawned. "Morning! What are you listening to?"
"The Used, but the song's almost over. I have it on shuffle."
"Mine's out of charge and all the other girls in my cabin are hogging the outlets." Iya pouted, tossing her pale bangs from her face only for them to slip down and cover her eye again.
"Unplug their crap." Lars shrugged nonchalantly, but he was smiling. He offered her his dangling earbud. "New song."
Iya tucked her hair behind her right ear and accepted the cord. An instant later, the heavy guitar riffs and rumbling drums began, opening for a song she didn't know.
"Who's this?" she asked.
"Saosin. You know them?" Iya shook her head, dislodging her bangs again. "Oh, you're gonna like this."
Lars shut his eyes for a few seconds. His shoulders were slouched, and he bobbed his head to the intro. With his silky hair shading his ever-serious expression, Iya thought he looked like he could be a moody bassist. As her face warmed, she felt herself smile self-consciously.
The lyrics began--"So tell me, is it right"--and Lars opened his eyes.
"Wait," said Lars, surprising Iya; she knew he hated interrupting a song. To her shock, he removed his other earbud and handed it to her. "It's SO good; you gotta use both."
Iya took the other earbud and let the dark, rolling rhythm of the song draw her in, surrounding her in stereo. She stared down at the grass, entranced by the sound, but she felt Lars press just half an inch closer and she noticed him staring right at her, watching her reaction to the music. The heat exploded awkwardly into fireworks behind her cheeks. She was suddenly aware of the subtle way she nodded her head, the way her heel tapped, the way her breath felt in her chest.
He was right. She liked the song.
Chapter 16: A Nose by Any Other Name Would Still Smell
John "tries writing a poem (briefly go through his thought process)"
"Cup... cup... uh... sup?"
John sat hunched over his desk, cheek pressed hard into one hand, his index finger flicking the lobe of his ear back and forth. He sighed heavily.
College was starting to feel like a huge waste of time. Not money, though; at least not yet, as long as he was able to keep his scholarship--which meant not tanking his gen ed classes. Which meant passing two English classes. Which meant writing a fucking poem about some common object in his dorm room.
John clicked his tongue. "This cup, ceramic, sitting here with me..." Okay. It was even in iambic pentameter. He could work with that. He tippity-tapped the first line on his laptop's keyboard.
Then immediately backspaced it. "Sitting here with me?" Jesus.
Maybe, he reasoned, if he did everything in his power to avoid the word "cup," he could force himself to write something a little more creative. "Mug" wouldn't do it, either. He clicked his tongue again and spoke as he typed. "This... vessel, filled with... coffee... no. Filled with... liquid of the morn...ing? Morn. Liquid of the morn."
John snorted. Yeah, no. That was gross.
"A vessel which I fill with darkest roast." Boom. "Ghost... coast... toast... from which I sip while eating buttered toast." All right! He was on a roll.
Five minutes of fruitless thought later, John realized there was in fact very little to say about the average mug. He contemplated pretending like he kept a vase of flowers on his desk. No; the professor would see right through that. He contemplated adjourning to the campus green to steal some flowers to put inside his mug. No--campus security sure did love their flowers.
"Now empty as this weary poet's head... the vessel waits for... soap and wash instead." That made no sense! But, then, poetry never made sense. Unless it did? John had never heard anyone speak like a poem, but what if there was some secret grammatical convention that was simply understood by poets which he could violate with the phrase "waits for soap and wash"? Should he start over?
"SO I'LL TELL YOU WHAT I WANT, WHAT I REALLY REALLY WANT--"
Great. The young ladies next door were settling in to "study" for the night. John's forehead sunk behind his palms. Spicy the girls may have been, but conducive to creative thought, they were not.
With another sigh, John stood from his desk chair and grabbed the mug. As long as he was consigned to writing about his ceramics, they might as well offer him something a little more mind-numbing than yesterday morning's coffee grounds.