The fury writhing under Ellie’s skin slowed down to a stop as soon as she returned to Marietta’s home. No one had been at her house to receive her capital “W” Wrath, and yes, the capital “O” Overdramatics were entirely appropriate for this situation. How could her mother sign her up for an evening of painted-on smiles, forced merriment, and gag-worthy small talk without telling her first? Where was the warning?
Where was the simple common courtesy, or better yet, the simple common sense? Her and her cousin Wilhelm didn’t go together. He was a “too” person. Too helpful, too advice-giving, too eager to hold doors open, and too willing to do anything his parents asked of him. Snap your fingers and he comes running; Golden boy Wilhelm was born to outshine Ellie in every aspect.
Seeing Shreya leap up to meet her (all smiles and tingly excitement) muted all thoughts of Wilhelm from her mind. No use ruining their limited time together fretting over the dinner party yet-to-come. She’d save that slice of misery for later.
“I come bearing gifts!” Ellie announced, a rolled-up blanket tucked under her arm and two bags gripped in her hands. If it weren’t for those, the first thing she would’ve done was bring Shreya into her arms. “Brought you a bread and spread platter thing, a bunch of toiletries, and that Cavalier book you like, so you never have to get bored when I’m gone. Oh, hey, Marietta, do y’mind setting her blanket up in your place?”
“I would love to,” Marietta said, reaching out to to take it. “I know the perfect place for it.”
Shreya beat her to grabbing it. She pulled it out from Ellie, and bundled it up. “It is fine. I will set it when it is time.”
“Okay! How’s being roommates so far? No one’s fighting over the mirror yet, are they?”
“She’s been a lovely guest thus far,” Marietta said, hand placed over her heart. Ellie wouldn’t have expected anything less from Shreya. “We’re in the process of getting to know one another, but I can tell we’re shaping up to be fast friends.”
Ellie beamed. “That’s great! A certain somebody here—not gonna name names—was worried you wouldn’t like this arrangement. Glad it’s working out for you.”
“I did not want to impose,” Shreya clarified, “and if you think I am then you should tell Ellie.”
“Goodness no, the last thing you are is an imposition.” Marietta dismissed her statement with a wave of her hand. “Ellie, we can store those bags in my house. It wouldn’t be good to place them in the dirt where the ants can get to them.”
“Great idea. I already ate, but you guys can have lunch together later if you aren’t hungry. You guys sharing food together would be cute!”
Shreya took the bags out of Ellie’s hands so fast that she dropped the blanket. “We will eat now. We are hungry.”
“Starving, huh?” Ellie asked. “Sorry, I ran into Zinnia and got caught up with talking to her. I should’ve rushed right over here.”
“It is fine. We can sit on that.” Shreya put the bags down, then uncurled the blanket. She smoothed out the wrinkles in the fabric before taking Ellie’s hand and helping her take a seat.
“You have quite the dutiful lady, Ellie. You sure know how to choose women who dote on you,” Marietta commented as she sat down. “What is your secret?”
“She’s not my lady,” Ellie said, maybe a little too fast judging by the way Shreya fidgeted at that response. “I mean, she’s… She’s Shreya, and there’s no secret behind finding girls like her. You talk to them and you check and see if they could be remotely interested in you. And if they aren’t, that’s okay.”
“Ah, I’m sorry for assuming that you belong to one another. It wasn’t my intention to offend you. I suppose being together would be a difficult prospect, given your differences in lifestyles.” Marietta sure was pulling out all the highfalutin stops today.
Ellie glanced at Shreya, looking at her to say something, either in argument or agreement. The other girl just kept messing with one of the strings dangling from her hat, her gaze down-turned towards her lap. An uncomfortable reaction, if anything, but one that Ellie had trouble parsing. Was Shreya scared to drive a stake in this and make it into a real, committed thing? Was she worried their feelings didn’t match up the same way? The prior day should’ve dispelled those doubts.
“We’re just doing our own thing.” Ellie went for the safest reply she could give, one that hopefully wouldn’t sound bad or offensive in any way. She checked on Shreya for any changes in expression as she spoke, in the same way someone might ease their steps over cracked ice. “Yeah, we’ve got some lifestyle differences, but that’s not a terrible thing.”
“It’ll certainly make things harder. Like things go together,” Marietta said. “For instance, animal and animal; Stockbrunn person and Stockbrunn person, but not—”
“Eat,” Shreya interjected. “We need to eat.” She dragged the bread bag over and started laying out everything from it. The waitress had individually wrapped the leftovers in paper, string-tied closed. Rather than take her time to undo it, Shreya tore through it. A torrent of crumbs rained down.
Ellie sucked in the inside of her cheek. “Hey now. What’s with you saying that, Marietta? I think we can judge how hards things are just fine by ourselves.”
Marietta shook her head. “What I was going to say before I was interrupted was that I think it’s beautiful you can overcome those challenges. It takes strength to do that, and you both have it. Isn’t that something to be celebrated?”
Shreya muttered something under her breath.
“What was that?” Ellie asked her.
“Nothing,” Shreya said.
“Well,” Ellie said, addressing Marietta. “Thank you for saying that. Shreya’s more than worth the hard stuff.”
“Ellie is, too,” Shreya tacked on.
“Did you know you smile when you say each other’s names? It’s nauseatingly adorable,” Marietta said. She took a remnant of dark bread from off the blanket and shoved it into her mouth.
“Yes, we do, because we like each other,” Shreya said. She reached over and clasped Ellie’s hand. “We are like things, and your words can not change us.”
If it weren’t for her squeezing her hand, Shreya’s words would’ve stupefied her. How did Shreya say quote-worthy stuff like that, like it was no problem whatsoever? She used her free hand to hide the pink-tinged embarrassment flaring on her face.
“Y-yeah,” Ellie added. “We’re great!” She didn’t sound nearly as grand, but she made up for it with an enthusiastic delivery.
“Wonderful,” Marietta said in a tone that told Ellie she wasn’t particularly moved. “I wish you many fortunes. You’re the kind of couple that could change this town as we know it. That’s powerful.”
Her phrasing was strange—kind of bitingly sarcastic-seeming—but Ellie found herself agreeing with the sentiment. Marietta had a tendency to confuse words and sprinkle in things that sounded mostly right, but weren’t. In adding so much padding, she sometimes came off unintentionally wicked. Ellie blamed it on the environment Marietta was reared in.
Figuring that what she last said was yet another example of her accidental toe-stepping, Ellie said, “I know, right? Thanks.”
The conversation stalled after that. Ellie filled the silence the best way she knew how: babbling about anything that entered her head without thinking too hard about it. Make eye contact with a tree? Talk about bark formations. Discover a hole in the blanket? Make idle talk about a childhood story that never happened.
She was good at killing the quiet. Marietta was good at one-upping her tales. And Shreya was good at listening and making her heart skip beats whenever she so much as smiled in her direction.
Marietta excused herself once the bread was gone and the tubs of cheese, jam, and what-nots were emptied. She retired to her shack-of-a-home, that tiny space that Ellie wished Zinnia would’ve listened to her expansion requests about. Several extra square footage would’ve made it more bearable for two to stay in.
Ellie brushed the crumbs they left behind off of the blanket.
“Probably should’ve brought more napkins,” Ellie said. “Sorry about that. I’ll have to bring you another set of covers when I get back. Come to think of it, I think I went and forgot your pillow. Great.” She needed to get into the habit of making lists.
“We need to talk.”
There are certain sentences in the Casternian language that hold the power to rob people of their oxygen. They consist of words as sharp as arrows, as strong as the highest winds. They were capable of ripping the floor away. ‘We need to talk’ was one of those all-powerful lines, up there with the worst of them.
“…About what?” Ellie managed to wheeze out.
“Your friend hates me,” Shreya said.
“Oh, okay,” Ellie said. “You know you almost gave me a heart attack there. ‘We need to talk’ is never a good way to start off a conversation. Try not to do that.”
“Is that all you will say? I said your friend hates me.”
“She’s not the best at talking nicely. She can sound like a jerk, but that’s just because she doesn’t have the same kind of manners as the rest of us. It’s how she grew up.”
“She wants me away.” Shreya corrected herself, “to go away. She does not want me here.”
“You’ll get used to the way she talks. She doesn’t mean anything bad by it,” Ellie replied. “Think of this as another Sunflower type of situation. The two of you will warm up to one another and things will be fine.”
“I do not think so…”
“You haven’t spent a lot of time around animals, have you? They don’t have the same level of consideration we do.”
“What does that mean?”
“Just don’t take what she says to heart and you’ll be fine. What’s she been saying to you, anyway? It can’t be anything that awful.”
Shreya sighed. “It is nothing. Forget it. It is her attitude that upsets me.”
“I can tell her to lighten up,” she said.
“No. I…am being sensitized. No, sensitive.” Shreya rubbed her forehead. Her eyes kept going elsewhere. Something behind where Ellie was sitting. Ellie turned to look, but all she could see was Marietta’s house, the door open a slight crack to let in fresh air. Nothing out of the ordinary.
“Is something wrong? You’re acting kind of funny,” Ellie said.
“I do not like her hearing us. We need secrecy.” Shreya dragged over the other bag Ellie brought. “What are toiletries?”
“Soap, shampoo, tooth powder; things like that. Hygiene supplies, basically. The toothbrush is brand new, but the hair comb’s mine. And I packed a jar of rinsing water in case there’s any girls around you wanna hurry up and brush your teeth for. I brushed and flossed, so I’m perfectly ready for that…you know, just in case.”
“Just in case,” Shreya echoed her. She took out the squat tooth powder jar, the toothbrush, and the water. Shreya unscrewed the jar’s lid. “It is good to be ready.”
“Isn’t it? Because you really never know who you’ll run into.”
“This much is fine?” Shreya tipped a bit of the powder into the lid.
“A little more, and then add a quarter of a cap’s worth of water. You want to mix it so it gets all pasty and sticky. It looks nasty and tastes pretty bitter because of the charcoal, but, um…scrub fast and you’re on the road to victory.”
Shreya made the mixture, frowning at its gray-black goopiness. “Yeah.” She scooped her brush into it and got to cleaning. Deciding to give her some privacy, Ellie turned around to stare at Marietta’s house. She heard Shreya laugh around the toothbrush in her mouth. After a few minutes, there was the sound of Shreya swishing water, spitting it (ew), and then gargling more of it. Ellie covered her ears and sang to herself to block it out.
Once she was done, Shreya used a spare napkin to wipe the excess from her teeth. “Ours is better.”
“Is it? Bring me some.”
“Yours tastes strange. Maybe I can make you some,” Shreya said. “What was that song? The words were funny.”
“It was the ‘gargling sounds nasty and a pretty girl doing it doesn’t make it sound any less nasty’ song. Doesn’t it gross you out?”
“I have never thought about it. You should lay down. The blanket is soft.”
“What happened to you wanting privacy?” Despite the protest, she did as instructed, her vision filled with the clouds and sky until Shreya moved over her. She had her hands and knees on either side of her. If Shreya wasn’t holding herself up like that, she would’ve been straddling Ellie’s waist and that sparked a mess of emotions in the heiress.
“It is her problem if she wants to spy.” She reached back to bring her cape forwards on her shoulders, the fur curtaining her. “Perhaps she will learn I am serious about you.”
“Ah, is this because of what she said earlier? She meant nothing bad by it. You heard what she said. She’s supportive.”
“She wants to break us.”
“I think you’re blowing everything out of proportion. It’s not like she told us anything we didn’t know already. Hell, I had a big talk with Zinnia today about pretty much the same thing.”
“You were talking about me?” Shreya asked. “Why?”
“Because you’re constantly on my mind, that’s why. I don’t get what’s so shocking about that.”
“What did you say?”
Ellie stopped to think. “I said that you’re the best thing I’ve got going in my life right now. I wanted her to know why I was so happy.”
“Is that all?” Shreya shifted so she could cup Ellie’s cheek in her hand.
“And I was thinking of how selfish I’ve been. I talk about myself all the time when what I should be doing is listening more to you.”
“Hm? We talk the same amount.”
“Don’t you think you know more about me than I know about you? Like…do you have a book about your history I could read?”
“No, we do not have books like that,” Shreya said.
“How about a storybook, something like the one I got you?”
“You would not be able to read it.”
“We do not have books, sorry.”
“Okay, that’s a downright lie. If you didn’t have books, how would you know what one is?”
“That was a joke. We do have books.”
“Are they bound and printed with a printing press? Do you know what a printing press is? I wouldn’t think you’d have machines like that, but, I don’t know, I didn’t think you guys had toothpaste either and apparently you do.”
A smirk formed on Shreya’s face. “You talk a lot when you are nervous. Am I making you nervous?”
“Only ’cause you’re almost sitting on me. So, um, are your books all handwritten or are they ink stamped or something else? Stencils?”
“Why do you care about our books?”
“‘Cause you like reading and obviously care about your books. I wanna see one.”
“I do not think I can take one without someone seeing.”
“Can you try? I got you two. C’mon, it shouldn’t be that much of a problem,” Ellie said.
“I can get you something else.”
“How about some artwork? I could hang it up in my room and it’ll be like I’ve got a part of you with me every time I go to sleep.”
“Are you being silly? It must be something small. Let me have time to think.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t being that serious. Zinnia’s got this friend that makes weird art, though, so I could probably get away with pretending I bought it from her,” Ellie said. “Ooh, you know what would be cute? What if we started writing letters to each other, like a special diary?”
“We do not need a diary when we are here together, silly.”
“For when we’re apart. Please? Couple diaries are so fun.”
“Casternian is difficult for me to write. I am not good with word spelling,” Shreya said. “Will this be your first diary?”
“Second.” The first had no doubt been burned with the rest of Freesia’s belongings. “I would never make fun of your ‘word spelling,’ don’t worry. Never worry about anything like that. You’re, like, really good at Casternian and you’ve gotten so much better at it since we first met. Is that normal for people where you’re from, being good at the language and all that?”
“It depends on how hard they try. The Elders say it is important so we are taught from a young age, but many do not care for it. I make the effort to learn.”
“You got a motive behind that or what?”
“I think that knowing Casternian can help me understand things I do not understand. I would be left in the dark about many things if I did not know it. Knowledge is important.”
“What are you trying to understand, something philosophical?”
“What’s there not to understand about Stockbrunn? I don’t think our town’s especially strange or unusual. You’re the ones who are harder to understand… Maybe I should start learning your language so I can start understanding some things I don’t understand. Sometimes things don’t feel like they add up the way they should, like you’re a woodsdweller but you’re not a woodsdweller.”
Ellie bit her lip to keep from saying more. The chill she felt from Shreya’s eyes conflicted with the warmth her body gave off. It was like someone hit the cold water tap in the middle of a hot bath.
“Do you think I am not who I say I am?” Shreya asked.
“Of course you are who you say you are.” Ellie became acutely aware of how vulnerable she was in this position. Her heart rate kicked up. “Who else could you be? I just meant that you’re nothing like the woodsdwellers I know of. Getting to know you has been…enlightening.”
Her expression softened, the temperature between them normalizing. “Enlightening, yes, I agree on that with you, too.”
“You should roll over,” Ellie said.
“I do not roll over.”
“Did you forget I’ve had extensive self-defense training? I know how to pull an arm out of a socket in 47 different ways, and that’s not even counting the illegal ways of doing so,” Ellie said with a grin. “If you don’t roll over then I’ll flip you myself, unless you plan on doing something that’ll make me wanna stay.”
“You can not be serious.”
“Totally am! And I know 86 ways to dislocate a hip. Want me to show you?”
Shreya laughed. “How about no?”
“Then, sorry, you’re about to be flipped. Prepare yourself.” Ellie leaned up, bringing herself up on her elbows.
“I know something that will stop you.” Shreya met Ellie in a kiss, their lips softly embracing.
Although this wasn’t supposed to be part of her information gathering plan, Ellie couldn’t help but include it. Her resolve was only so strong. Ellie parted her mouth more and closed it around Shreya’s bottom lip. She gave it a playful suck and a gentle tug, pleased to hear a contented noise escape Shreya in response.
As soon as Ellie let go, Shreya pressed forward. Ellie laid back, accepting Shreya’s weight on her. Her cape fell over them like a secondary blanket. Normally, she would’ve fought against being pinned so easily, but each kiss smothered her resistance. Ellie gave Shreya the lead, a role she played to the tune of Ellie quivering beneath her.
Noticing her shaking, Shreya rose up. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she breathed out. “Show me where I can touch you.”
Timed with a kiss deep enough to swallow Ellie’s sound of approval, Shreya used Ellie as the model. Sides, stomach rubbing. A tentative brush above that that made Ellie jump into her touch. Wanting Shreya to feel the same, Ellie didn’t waste time in repeating the feather light movements on her. She would’ve smiled at the way Shreya rocked against her if her mouth hadn’t been occupied.
Shreya broke off to whisper in her ear. Ellie took that moment to tame her breathing. All she understood was her name, caught up in a serene string of syllables. Figuring it was something good based on pleasant tone alone, she squeezed the sides of Shreya’s waist in thanks, reciprocation, and mutual appreciation.
“What are you doing?!” screeched a voice that wasn’t Shreya’s.
They tore off of each other, Shreya rolling to the side. Ellie sat up, her awareness of their surroundings painfully returning. Nothing like a splash of reality and burning shame. She covered her face with her hands, unable to face the animal glaring them down.
“Talking,” Ellie heard Shreya say.
Marietta’s nostrils flared. “You’re going at it like wolves right in front of my house, that’s what you’re doing.”
If Marietta’s presence hadn’t sobered Ellie up enough, that did the trick. “Don’t say shit like that,” Ellie said. She fixed her hair, pulling some bread crumbs out of it. “Sorry, I thought you were taking a nap or something.”
“How could I sleep through that? Next time find a cave,” Marietta said.
Shreya’s head hung low. Getting caught must’ve embarrassed her something awful. What happened to her not caring if Marietta happened to hear them? She was as withdrawn as she had been earlier when they were eating the bread and spread sampler. She let out a meek “okay.”
“I, um…crap, I forgot to tell you guys that I won’t be around for dinner. Silly me being forgetful. My mom’s forcing us to have this family dinner thing. I need to get dressed and ready for it,” Ellie said. She was still wearing yesterday’s clothes. “I know I promised we’d eat together tonight, Shreya, and I’m really sorry about that. I didn’t know she made plans for us. I can’t get out of them.”
“It is okay,” Shreya quietly said. “Your family needs you.”
“I’ve got a surprise for you when I get back. You’re going to love it.”
“That surprise better not be what I think it is, and it better not happen anywhere near here. This is sacred land,” Marietta said.
“We said we were sorry,” Ellie said, “anyway, I’ve got to go and help get everything ready. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Things were too awkward for a direct goodbye kiss, so she kissed her first two fingers and pressed them against Shreya’s cheek. “Bye!”
“Goodbye,” Shreya said, holding her face where she’d been touched.
“Don’t forget to bring us the dinner leftovers,” Marietta warned her.
“I won’t!” Ellie got up, waved at them for lack of knowing what else to do, and started walking in the direction of town.
I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe we did that.
I’m in trouble.
A/N: The second part of the chapter containing the voting results will come out some time later this week! I didn’t want to delay this any longer, so I decided to split it up. Good news is that I’m going to be starting a new medication tomorrow, but since I don’t know how I’ll react to it I can’t give any dates on Part 2 other than saying it’ll be this week.
Thanks for your patience. You can subscribe to our mailing list to be alerted as to when Part 2 will be up. Got any burning questions you want to ask anonymously? Send them over to the blog. Got a dollar to spare in August so you can see behind-the-scenes content? Click here.
Can anyone teach me the 47+ ways of pulling an arm out of its socket and the 86 ways to dislocate a hip? I need to know for…………..research. 🙂