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if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love

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  You have to take a helicopter to get out of Silas. It hadn’t exactly been on your radar at the time – attempting to avert the apocalypse and keep Carmilla alive had taken up most of your bandwidth – but said apocalypse had been causing havoc with international air travel. Also all other forms of travel. And the free movement of goods and trade, and pretty much anything that involved undefended humans going outside for any period of time.

 

  Be that as it might, your father had managed to bring in military assistance from outside, and when they’d finished evacuating the wounded, the last helicopter had had a few places left. You’d taken one look at your father’s face and tugged Carmilla aboard with the hand that had yet to let go of hers.

 

   There hadn’t been a space for him, but before you took off your father told you to stay hidden, to stay safe, and when things calmed down to come home. He kissed your forehead and let you go. Finally able to see that one way or another you were able to keep yourself safe – and if you didn’t, that perhaps that still didn’t mean you had made the wrong choice.

 

  Carmilla tried to press you into the last available helicopter seat, insisting she could hold onto the internal webbing, but you only laughed and bundled her into it, clipping the harness and straps over her to hold her down. She opened her mouth to protest and yawned instead, her eyes already half closing.

 

  “You don’t have super strength to rely on any more, and walking up campus was enough to exhaust you,” you tell her. You flex your bicep for her, smiling when despite her apparent exhaustion her eyes seem to flicker at the demonstration. “If one of us has to hold on in this death trap, it should be me.”

 

  “You literally died this morning,” she argues, and you roll your eyes.

 

  “And your heart started beating just as recently as mine, so let it go.”

 

  She frowns at that, looking down at where your hands have finally had to let go, and knotting her own hands together. Your heart aches, and you touch her cheek just as the shout goes up warning you of lift-off. You stumble into her, and she grabs your wrists to stabilise you, eyes flashing alarm.

 

  “You were saying?”

 

  You let go of her to make your way to the side of the helicopter, sitting down and grabbing hold of the webbing to help immobilise you. Carmilla’s eyes are already half closed again, exhausted, but they don’t leave you until she’s sure you’re settled, you’re stable, and you mouth I love you across the width of the helicopter.

 

#  #  #  

 

  The military drop you off in Germany. It isn’t exactly what you had in mind, but one of the soldiers tells you bluntly that they’re prioritising the wounded and these are the nearest hospitals, and you don’t protest.

 

  Carmilla snarls. “She is the wounded she had her heart –“ but you hush her hurriedly, and anyway she’s half inaudible with the way her face is pressed into the side of your neck. You ask instead where you are, and when the place name means nothing to you, where that is. The soldier tells you you’re a couple hours south of Munich, that they’re ferrying the wounded to one of the bigger towns outside of Munich since the city is having its own problems.

 

  He leaves, carrying one end of a stretcher, and you’re left agape. Exhausted, and thrown, and beginning to wonder if your Dad made the right decision leaving you on your own, because you’ve been knocked around in the helicopter for a few hours and you don’t know a person in Munich and tears are beginning to press at the edges of your eyes. You’d gotten faint getting up to leave the helicopter and Carm had tried to swoop to your side, but she’s slower than you’re both used to and you’d dropped to your knees before she’d gotten to you. It only took a moment to regain your blood pressure, but now your pants are wet and cold and your knees are skinned.

 

  You sniff, and Carm lifts her face from where it’s pressed against your collarbone.

 

  “Hey, hey, hey. Laura, Laura, Laura. It’s okay, you’re okay, we’re fine,” she says when she sees your reaction. “Shit’s weird all over, but it can’t possibly be worse than facing off against two Gods before breakfast. We can sort this out.”

 

  She’s right, but still you cling to her while a few hot tears leak down your face. Another helicopter is preparing to land, and the two of you will be in the way in a minute, and there’s people bustling about and still more people carrying stretches to waiting ambulances, but still you take a minute and cry. Carm snarls again when someone comes too close, and you press your own face into the hollow beneath her chin, feeling for the solidity of a newly present rhythmic thud and trying to breathe, and a time comes when you feel ready to move.

 

  Carmilla takes the lead this time, her grip firm on your hand. She at least got some sleep in the helicopter even as it rattled and rolled, the sheer strength of her post adrenalin collapse barely disturbed by the irregularity of the flight. She had jumped awake a handful of times, true, but each time she had calmed as soon as she scanned her surroundings and found your eyes.

 

  You don’t know yet what happened in the minutes that you were dead. A grey veil drapes through your memory, and you are hesitant to pull it aside, to discover any more than echoes of what had happened in that time. Carmilla clung to you afterward, like the last bastion of safety in a terrible world, and between the brightness of her eyes and the too-tight grip of her fingers, you think that you will never ask her.

 

  Now she guides you through crowds of people and away from main roads – away from what appears to be a group of harpies converging on the airport – and to a carpark on the edge of town. She frowns at the choices before sighing and stealing a four-wheel drive Toyota, and you feel like you should protest but frankly you died to save the world this morning and probably you’re okay on the morality spectrum for a while. Carmilla leans over to buckle your seatbelt for you, and you flail and point at hers until she sighs and buckles it too.

 

  It’s snowing as you leave town and you don’t realise how strange that is until Carmilla starts swearing at the poor conditions. Your eyes keep closing, and you’re losing time in strange half-sleeps and starts, but you think she’s heading south into the mountains, and of course the mountains are snowy – except that it’s early autumn and the ground should be dry.

 

  You blink your way awake, wanting to say something about that, only to find that the car is parked and Carmilla is nowhere to be seen. That gives you a jolt that leaves you trembling, your new heart beating too high in your throat, and you are shivering and looking for a weapon and evidence of Carmilla when a slamming door echoes at a distance and you see a flash of light and then there are feet crunching on fresh snow.

 

  The car door opens and your heart settles into a beat that you hope will one day feel familiar. Carmilla climbs into the car with an armful of winter clothing and a pack, and she starts before smiling when your immediate response is to reach for her.

 

  “Back in the land of the living, cutie?”

 

  You wince in unison, and she wrinkles her nose.

 

  But you want to move on, and so – “Where’d you go?” you ask.

 

  She tilts her head back to the building she’s just left. The lights are out – now that you stop to notice it, actually, all of the lights are out, streetlights and buildings alike – but with the reflected light from the snow you can just see enough to tell that she’s just left a hiking store of some description. Well – going by the collection in her arms, she’s just finished looting a hiking store.

 

  “I couldn’t get phone reception to check the forecast, but those clouds tell me it’s going to snow for days. Which is good where we’re going – no one else will be able to bother us – but you’re gonna need warmer clothes.”

 

  “ We’re gonna need warmer clothes,” you correct absently, then hesitate. “Where are we going, exactly?”

 

  She points back to the road, and then up. When you follow her fingertip you can see the base of a winding road leading into the mountains, two laned and narrow and lined on all sides by snow capped trees.

 

  “You didn’t get enough of wandering in the Austrian mountains last year?” you ask.

 

  She wrinkles her nose. “There will be no wandering. There’s – I know a cottage, in there. High up and off the main roads. Where we’ll be away from everything else, until…”

 

  Until everything settles, you finish silently. Until your heart stops beating so high in your throat, until Carmilla stops looking like she will faint any time she walks a hundred paces. Until moving does not make your chest hurt, and you are ready to let go of one another for more than minutes at a time. Until you are ready to come out and face what remains after you so narrowly averted the apocalypse.

 

  You nod, and she loads her stash into the backseat. She looks tired again, and you want to offer to drive, but your head is throbbing and the only thing keeping you awake is the way you are not touching her.

 

  You huff, and she looks over to you and then hastily back to the road.

 

  “What is it?”

 

  You prise a hand out from the blanket she has draped over you, and then, unable to get comfortable, put it back. You reach down and untie one of your shoelaces instead, slipping off your shoe to slide your foot over the seat and into her lap. She is soft and warm and the safest thing you know.

 

  “Sorry about my stinky feet,” you mutter, already half asleep, and she only laughs.

 

#  #  #  

 

  You drowse into awareness later and she has one hand on the wheel and one wrapped around your ankle, fingertips firm against the pulse in the top of your foot.

 

#  #  #  

 

  By the time she wakes you deliberately she looks no better than you, her sleep in the air more than cancelled out by the driving since. She is grey around the mouth and haggard in the eyes, her never-repaired ponytail more than half loose around her shoulders, but still she stops and helps stabilise you as you slide from the passenger side of the car.

 

  It’s a good thing that she does, as your feet once again try to slide out from under you as the world goes white. Well, more white. You have to stop and pant in her arms, trying to catch your breath between your light head and the sudden roar of emptiness from your stomach, and then when you try and stand up and take a step from her you have to clutch at the waistband of your pants which are newly loose and falling from your hips.

 

  You shoot Carmilla a dubious look – had she begun to undress you in your sleep? – but she doesn’t seem to notice, focussing her energies on gathering the supplies she had hoisted into the backseat.

 

  You think she must have stopped again when you were asleep, because there’s more than you remember; bags of food and candy and vitamins, others of bedding and even (you blush) what appears to be department store underwear and tights and shirts. She’s clearly planning to settle in for a while, and you try to be helpful, gathering a load of food and clothes in unsteady hands before you remember to look around at where you even are.

 

  The cottage is nestled into a depression in the mountainside; ancient seeming stone and a corrugated steel roof sloped steeply enough to throw off even the Austrian snows. You cock your head, questioning its existence, and follow Carmilla as she makes her stumbling way through the knee deep snow.

 

  When you get inside she’s paler than ever, and you begin to worry. There should be blood in her cheeks now, however it arrived there, and she doesn’t struggle when you find a low couch and ease her onto it.

 

  She sighs gratitude when you slip your fingers through her hair and into the neck of her shirt. It gapes open between the sides of her denim jacket, and you frown at its unremembered looseness. But her heart flutters beneath your fingertips, wonderful and comforting but horribly irregular, and you recall that she is no longer invulnerable but is subject to the demands of shock and stress and horror as much as you.

 

  “We need food,” you say, half to yourself – listing the things your father has drilled into you so many times. “Food, water, warmth, someplace dry to sleep…” He would be disappointed that it has taken you this long to recall this lesson.

 

  “Kitchen’s by the door… you’ll need to turn the gas on to use the stove, there was never much point in getting a main line put in… water should still be flowing from the tank but you’ll probably need to leave it running or…”

 

  Her eyes are half closed when she shares all this, and you smile, silencing her with a soft kiss.

 

  “I’m Canadian, Carm. I know what to do in a blizzard.”

 

  “Okay.”

 

  She snuggles into the back of the couch, and you expect her to fall asleep despite the chill of the air when you walk away, but instead she sighs and gathers herself, pressing herself to her feet in what you think she intended to be a more darting movement. She trails you to the kitchen and leans in the door as you turn on the gas and open cupboards, learning your way around. The water is still running despite the snow outside, and when you open the bags Carmilla has brought in the many benefits of canned soup become obvious.

 

  To her as well it would seem, based on the many cans she has obtained. You raise your eyebrows but don’t comment, only pull out two tins of a chunky vegetable mix and then a long expired sachet of dry beef stock from one of the cupboards.

 

   “All this time and I didn’t know you could cook,” Carmilla says dreamily, and you half smile.

 

  “Well, all summer living from the vending machines and even I’m hankering for something green,” you tell her. “Canned soup won’t be gourmet but it’s a step up from variations on chocolate everything.”

 

  “And beef stock? Did we save the beefcake from Xena only to eat him ourselves?”

 

  You roll your eyes. “It’ll add flavour and I suspect we both need the iron.”

 

  She frowns but doesn’t say anything else, only slips across the room to slide in behind you where you stand at the stove. You lean gratefully back into her, careful to hold your weight away but luxuriating in the heat beginning to generate between the two of you. Until today it had only ever risen from you, and you smile again when her hands automatically drop low on your stomach, her thumbs sliding easily into your pants over your hips. She hums deep in her throat and leans into you, draping herself over your back as you stir the soup for you both.

 

  “Do we really need that much soup?” she asks dubiously, and you suppress your laugh.

 

  “Well, we haven’t eaten all day and warm liquids are the best way to warm up, so…”

 

  She shrugs, and with you in her arms it’s awkward and yet neither of you care. “I suppose i’m not really.. au fait on portion sizes.”

 

  “Hmmm.”

 

  You hadn’t even thought of that, but it’s one more thing she’ll near to learn. Being human and having a heartbeat sounds simple, but it’s been three hundred years since she needed to cook a meal or so much as keep herself warm, and those things will take time. Leaving Austria and obtaining her ID, getting her onto some kind of government database that proves she’s a person… those things have all crossed your mind in the course of this very long day, but it’s beginning to feel like these most basic concepts might be the greater challenge for her. Invulnerability is a hard thing to lose.

 

 She shifts against you when you sigh, and her hands tighten around you.

 

 “All right, love?”

 

  The name is new, and you like it. You hold her closer. “I am now.”

 

#  #  #  

 

  She doesn’t finish her portion of the soup, even though you can hear her stomach growling from across the room. You don’t comment, because she tries but you can see the way the corners of her mouth turn up and she gags when she swallows. You think maybe you should have added more of the beef stock, but it’s too late now. It’ll take time, and anyway you just want to sleep.

 

  The bed is in the ceiling of the cottage, a loft space that holds all the warmth rising from below, and you’re grateful because you’re cold but neither of you have it in you to light a fire at the moment. The bed itself is huge, a cast iron behemoth that she doesn’t bother to put sheets onto before she crawls into its center, only making a nest of bedding she brings upstairs from the bags you had left at the front door.

 

  You stand at the foot of the bed and raise your eyebrows. You need to sleep, but that bed leaves you with questions, no matter how much you know – after today even if you hadn’t before – that the answers don’t matter.

 

  “Creampuff, just get in,” she mutters into a fold of blankets. “Stop worrying about it, I’ve never brought another girl here.”

 

  You blush to be so transparent, but you slip easily out of your pants and join her in the bed. She rolls over, and you gratefully accept her shoulder as your pillow, cuddling easily in and appreciating the way her breath condenses warmly into your ear.

 

  “You’re gonna… gonna have to stop... sleeping with the blanket over your face,” you mumble, and perhaps she grunts a laugh but you’re already asleep.

 

#  #  #  

 

  Exhaustion keeps you both unconscious through the first few hours. Your bodies are too tired to do anything but collapse into the mattress and each other, and if you dream you never remember it.

 

  But at hour three Carmilla starts to twitch where she has curled into the circle of your arms, and that low level vibration - so distinct from the too few mornings she woke you purring and content while you pretended to still be sleeping - stirs you into wakefulness even before you register the note of distress issuing from deep within her throat. You blink awake into the hazy grey of a whiteout, heart pounding into your mouth, and only succeed at gathering yourself when Carmilla’s next spasm sends her elbow into your ribs. Her whimper hurts you more.

 

  “Verlass mich nicht,” she mutters, eyes moving beneath her eyelids, and then again. “Verlass mich nicht, nicht verlassen…”

  

  You reach for her. You touch her hair and face and side, caress the arm knotted into the space between you. “Carmilla. Carm.”

 

  She jolts awake. “Ne me quitte pas!”

 

  “ Carm.”

 

  Her eyes are wild when they open, and she jerks away from you in the nest she has made of the bed. She is breathing hard, mouth open and curling with horror, and you do not want to touch her yet.

 

  “Carm. Carmilla. I’m here, we’re… somewhere in the Austrian mountains in a cottage you somehow know about. It’s Autumn, but it’s cold, and we’re in bed together here… it’s over, baby. It’s over.”

 

  You try to soothe her with your voice as much as your words, offering comfort the only way you feel able. And it seems to help: her shoulders begin to drop from where they have climbed too high and defensive, her fingers unclenching. You see it when her eyes regain their focus, when she remembers to stop baring her teeth.

 

  “Laura .”

 

  It’s all she says, but she comes close again, lies down enough to bury herself in you, and you hold her to you and stroke her hair and her back and her face while she sobs horribly into your shoulder and chokes, “She wouldn’t trade for you, she wouldn’t give you back.”

 

#  #  #  

 

  The temperature drops still further when dawn approaches, and you don’t want to get out of bed but you are too cold to take it anymore and Carmilla has begun shaking again even in her sleep. You press a kiss to her forehead and slide slowly from beneath her, bundling what you can of the blankets into a replacement before spreading the remainders over her. She mutters and complains but settles, and you watch her while you pull your pants back on before going downstairs.

 

  It’s even colder there, and you swear under your breath as you find the fireplace you’d been too tired to set up the night before. It’s a potbelly stove in the main room, and some wonderful person has left kindling and wood stashed inside the front door. You send them all the appreciative vibes you can muster as you build your tiny wooden teepee and set it alight with the third match after the first two break under your fingers. It throws off warmth immediately, and you clutch the waistband of your jeans and sit down before the fire to soak in it. You know you should go back up to Carmilla, share your body warmth until the heat has seeped into the walls of the cottage, but you also are grateful for the moment alone.

 

  Your hand slides unconsciously from your waist to your chest without your realising it, pressing down the lightweight fabric. Under your fingertips your heart seems unreasonably loud and resonant, unfamiliar. You shudder.

 

  It had been a bare few minutes of not being able to hear your own heartbeat, but it had taught you what you already knew: that your heartbeat had been present for every conscious moment of your entire life, defining your existence and presence and experience. Its absence was a terrifying lack, a wrongness felt in every cell of your body and echoed in Carmilla’s eyes.

 

  You do not think that memory will ever fade. It tells you that no matter that you walk and talk and breathe now, that you are upright and warm and in love; that startling absence of sound says that you died yesterday.

 

  You shudder again, and leave the fire to explore what little remains of the cottage.

 

  There is very little to it. The downstairs consists only of the main room you have seen already, the kitchenette you used last night, and a tiny bathroom off the back. You poke your head in there already expecting what you find: there is a toilet and sink but no shower or bath to be seen. Something that seems sensible given the remote location, and limited water running from the tank outside, but out of character for Carmilla, she of the endless showers.  You go in and do your business, and it is only after, when you’re washing your hands, that you see what was hidden behind the door before. A hip bath, stood on its end and propped up behind the door.

 

  You raise your eyebrows, and then you shrug, because what were you expecting?  Between the limited heavy wooden furniture and the books that line the walls of the loft, you have come to believe that this is not just somewhere Carmilla knows but perhaps a place that she owns. Possibly even the place she meant to bring you last Christmas, when you fled Silas on foot, but you never made it. And Carmilla is always a cataclysm, a kaleidoscope of antique sensibilities and manners and startlingly modern distastes. It does not surprise you in the slightest that she would hide away here without bothering to install electricity but would find a way to bathe. You stand on your tiptoes and unhook the bath where it hangs from the wall, adding a second hand to help lower it when the first begins to shake.

 

  Upstairs, feet hit the floorboards. “Laura?”

 

  You wince, you had meant to be back before she awoke. “Downstairs - just a sec!”

 

  Footsteps on the stairs confirm she has ignored you, and you open the bathroom door before carrying the bath into the main room with you. Carmilla is standing by the fire, and she looks less exhausted or distressed than in the night, but oh - were her cheekbones so sharp yesterday morning? You cannot remember, and yet she seems gaunt to you. You take the tub to her, manouvering easily among the minimal furniture in the room.

 

  “I didn’t want to leave you, but it was so cold…” you say, setting it down before you stand and turn to her. She smiles.

 

  “I could smell the fire, I wasn’t -- Laura !”

 

  It seems you stood too quickly, for as you turn to her the world spins on its axis and dumps you to your knees again, the room greying out. This time Carmilla catches you, but when your vision returns it brings you the visage of her horrified face, panicked as she grabs at your chest and yanks open the buttons of your shirt.

 

  You blink. “What --?”

 

  You don’t understand. Yes, you fainted, but she has seen you do that before; it does not seem enough cause for this terrified response. Can she be dreaming still, sleepwalking downstairs? It seems unlikely when you have already spoken.

 

  And then you look down and see there is blood smeared across your chest. Soaked through your bra, mostly dried but slick again where you had sweat in the night cuddled up to Carmilla’s warmth. A dark patch visible on the material of your shirt.

 

  Carmilla has her hands all over your chest already, trying to find its source. “Laura what have you done where does it hurt why didn’t you call me - where is it coming from - baby what have you done?”

 

  She is frantic in her pawing at you, trying to find your injury or an explanation. Pulling away the stained material of your bra and trying to find the wound with her fingertips. But there is nothing, and you close your fingers over hers to hold them still, drag them up until they press into the hollow beneath your collarbone and she can feel the heavy beat of your heart under your skin.

 

  “I don’t understand .” She is crying now, frightened and confused even as her fingers press solidly into you. “What have you done?”

 

  “It’s old. Not fresh blood,” you say, reasoning it out. “I’m okay, I’m - dizzy, at worst. I’m - it’s --” a conclusion comes to you and you falter. But Carmilla’s eyes are still full of alarm and so you go on. “It’s old blood. From - yesterday.”

 

   Yesterday . It does not begin to encapsulate all you mean by it, it is not weighty enough. But you will not say to Carmilla, it is a reminder of where my heart was ripped out, blood left behind from a theft meant to kill me. You cannot.

 

  She stares at you, eyes moving between your face and the gore smeared across your chest. Her jaw an exercise in tension.

 

   When she moves it is slowly, her hands sliding from your heart to take the shirt off your shoulders, letting it fall to the floor before she turns you around to unhook your bra, letting that too fall. You shiver in the still-cool air of the cottage, goosebumps rising over your skin. She traces the lines of your shoulder blades with her fingertips, thumbs trailing behind when her palms slide up to hold the curve of each of your shoulders. She has to nose your hair aside to find your neck, but still you feel her breath tease you when she places a single kiss on the lowest vertebra of your neck before turning you around.

 

  Her eyes are huge and vulnerable when they meet yours, her gaze sliding from your face and to your chest as she inspects you once more. You resist the urge to cover yourself with your hands, even as your skin again rises and pebbles under her eyes. But there is nothing she hasn’t seen, and nothing you won’t expose if it will take the bruised look from her face. You close your eyes as her fingers again trace your skin, inspecting every mote of it for damage, wounds, undiscovered injury. And then again you feel her breath, warm and moist as she comes closer and lowers her mouth to you, kissing the tops of your breasts before her tongue flicks out, slow and gentle, and licks up the blood that marks you.

 

  Your hands come up and cradle her to you. Holding back the hair she has still made no effort to tame, caressing the line of her neck and her ears and her eyebrows, the wonder of her jawline as it flexes and moves. You bite your lip; your response to her mouth on your skin is ingrained and you feel it when each of your nipples harden in response to the stimulus. Still you make no noise, for you think that probably this is sacred: it is not the first time she has licked your blood from your chest, but it will be the last.

 

#  #  #  

 

  Bathing becomes a priority after that, and a quirk that had not been immediately apparent becomes clear. After all, it’s one thing to not install hot water plumbing when you have the ability to set fire to things with your eyes, but in the absence of vampire skills… well, heating enough water takes a while, even when you’re using both the propane-tank stove and the potbelly fireplace in the living room.

 

   Carmilla installs you in front of the fire while you wait, unwilling to have you re-clothe in the shirt that is now stained over the heart. She brings you hot cocoa made with boiled water and no milk, and normally you’d complain but the excess of powder she’s added is enough to counteract the milk she forgot to get.

 

  More problematic is the discovery that she didn’t think to obtain a first aid kit, discovered when you’d made an ill-advised joke about placing a bandaid over your heart. Carmilla’s face had flashed at that, and you’d been sorry immediately, but the bath showed that some of the grazes on your knees were both dirty and comparatively deep. Although it wasn’t as if they’d gotten much attention once Carm had gotten into the act of bathing you.

 

  Sometimes you forget how little time the two of you have truly had together. You’ve known each over a year now, but you’ve only ever actually been together for a bare few months of that, and always it seemed under life-and-death conditions. With never enough time for each other, never enough time to express how you felt; never enough time to choose how to be in love. You know that you are, even if you’ve never found the time to exchange the words in equal passing: it doesn’t matter. You know that you love her; you know she loves more than the world and the stars, that she was willing to give them up for you.

 

  And yet you’ve never taken a bath together, and somehow - when Carmilla works a hand towel along the planes of your back, scrubs at your shoulders before exploring the crooks of your knees - that seems like an offensive lack. She’s delighted when she finds a ticklish spot you didn’t know you had in the hollow above your hip; your subsequent protests and writhing end with one of her leather-clad knees in the tub and half the water across the floor. You don’t care, even when you discover she has also forgotten to pack towels, and when she needs to fill the hip bath again so that she too can bathe. She wraps you in an ancient bathrobe, and you stand by the stove with your nose buried in her collarbone until neither of you can ignore the boiling water any longer.

 

  But she’s shy when you would help bathe her in exchange, and so when she has eased her clothes off and away you retreat upstairs. You make the bed for real this time and grant her privacy: ten minutes or so to come to turns with a body that has come back to life; hollowed and battered and lithe, less strong than she is used to, and possessed of breath and a heartbeat.

 

  You slide into the sheets of the bed you have made for you both and wait for her to be ready to come to you.

 

#  #  #

 

  You are dozing when she crawls onto the foot of the bed. It makes what follows start dreamily: her weight shifting the mattress beneath you, the slouching thump of her robe hitting the floor, the slow caress of her body sliding in next to you before she tugs the covers back.

 

  You half-protest that, the movement of the sheets letting cool air in to curl around you, but she shushes you immediately, her lips as much comfort as arousal when she kisses you quiet. Still, you chase them when she moves to pull away, rolling onto your back to follow her, and she laughs into your mouth before taking your bottom lip so very carefully between her teeth.

 

  That makes you moan in earnest, and your hands come up to grasp at her shoulders. They’re warm beneath your fingers, only slight dampness remaining from her bath, and for the first time you open your eyes.

 

  She has taken her time coming upstairs to you. Her hair is half dry where it tumbles over her shoulders, clearly finger combed and allowed to dry into soft, static wild curls, and when she leans in to kiss you again you taste cocoa and crackers on her breath. You smile, remembering she can’t cook, and her eyes are luminous and flickering with the reflected light of the downstairs fire when she watches you.

 

  “Come here,” you say, and with permission granted she slides a leg over your hips and straddles you in the bed, hands coming out to help you upright and against her.

 

  For whatever reason you’ve usually been the one who ends up in her lap; no indication of who’s usually on top - you are both surprisingly unwilling to give up leadership sometimes, and equally content to lay back and be left loose limbed and incoherent at others - but you find you like having her on top of you this way, nose pressed into the hollow of her collarbone and the glorious arch of her cheekbone above you. Her hips press down and into you, and her ribs flex beneath your palms when she reaches down to kiss you, first your mouth and then your nose and eyes, your temples, and then the line of your throat bleeding into your shoulder. Her fingers trace their own lines; teasing, reverent sketches that chase the line of your arms and hands, lifting blood and nerve endings to the surface on every inch of your caressed skin.

 

  It makes you shudder against her, goosebumps coming to life across your skin, and you begin to kiss across the expanse of her chest. Across the paleness of her throat and then down, her breathing an uneven rhythm under your lips and against your chin. You kiss the slopes of her breasts, and then lower, and she leaves off the intricate design her tongue is inscribing around the joint of your shoulder.

 

  When you take her nipple into your mouth her fingers tighten where they’ve come to circle each of your wrists, her thumbs pressing hard into the veins on the underside of each. You lick at her nipple, using the rough surface of your tongue to tease it into alertness, and her exhales come hot and heavy into the skin of your shoulder and settle damply into the weight of your hair. You slide your hands down from her sides to cup her ass instead, lifting her up and closer to you, and she sighs and brings her arms up to let her hands cradle your head against her. You switch sides, and she hooks her legs around your back, smearing heat into your stomach.

 

  Her head falls back at the friction, and you watch her as you suck again and harder at her nipple. She rocks again and her face ripples with pleasure, her mouth dropping open as she moans, and your fingers tighten on the curves of her ass to encourage her, rocking her weight against you again and again.

 

  “Laura,” she says. “Laura - unh - Laura, not - not like this.”

 

  You smile against her nipple, let it go. It drags against your cheek wetly when you say, “Okay.”

 

   You let her ease back lower into your lap, bringing up your feet underneath her to help support her weight. She leans in to press kisses across your face, her mouth tracing the edge of your hairline and her hands coming to wrap around your shoulders, gripping at the muscle there. You make sure to flex your deltoid when you let go of her ass to let your hand ghost over the curve of her sharp hipbone to skim lower and between her legs, and you feel her twitch when you begin to stroke her.

 

  She’s always gotten wet for you; that had never been a problem, no matter what other issues existed between you. But it’s a novelty to feel her this hot, and it brings something new to the surface in you, some new pressure of lust and possession and love that seems to surge when you press inside her for the first time, left handed because she likes the angles better.

 

  She cries out sharply, and you ease out to slick your fingers better and then thrust into her again, short and fast and intense, and dragging your fingers against the inside of her with each stroke. She writhes in your lap, and you hold her closer and press kisses against the expanse of her chest, unable to say which of you is more desperate. Your hips rocking together, mouths falling open and her hands gripping at you, pulling you close enough that your nipples brush repeatedly against her skin.

 

  “Laura,” she says. “Laura, Laura, Laura.”

 

  “I’m here.”

 

  She moans, and leans in to find your mouth with hers. But neither of you can kiss with any finesse, and so it’s just your lips and tongues and teeth pressing messily together, spit smearing across each other’s faces and forming strings in the moments you pull away. Carmilla breathes heavily into your mouth, and then she’s letting go of one of your shoulders to drop her hand to your wrist, working away between her legs.

 

  “Wait, wait. Baby - ohhh - just, wait.”

 

  You immediately slow and stop your movements. “What’s wrong?”

 

  It shouldn’t be possible, not when she’s dishevelled and wet and writhing in your arms, sweat damp and needy, but she actually manages to look a little embarrassed when she mumbles, “I don’t want to come yet.”

 

  You can’t stop the smile that spreads across your face one cheek at a time, ducking down instead to press it against the swell of her breast. “Okay,” you say, and flex your fingers inside her again. “Not yet.”

 

  You’re slower this time, exploring more than claiming. Tracing the lines of her body, inside and out; trying to learn the things that have changed, the things that have not. You can still fit three fingers into her easily, although the groan it makes her give is new, and it makes you move more slowly, seek out every contour. Every mote of her you can fill with your desire, your love, and you move against her with intent.

 

  Surely you would have found it anyway, but with that level of deliberation the change is obvious. You almost stop the first moment you feel the flutter against your fingertips, but Carmilla is rocking against you again. Instead you slow down again, make every stroke take seconds while you soak in the sensation, and when you are sure the tears leak from your eyes without any conscious thought.

 

  She is in your lap, wrapped in and around you, and you are buried as deep inside her as you can be, fingers pressed into her and face pressed against her breast, and you can feel her heart beat.

 

#  #  #

 

  You wake, warm but hungry, hours later. Carmilla is fast asleep on her back, head turned to the side and mouth open, and you are delighted to hear the faintest of snores issuing from her throat. You want to record it, but your stomach growls again, and you think it might interrupt even her deep sleep.

 

  Downstairs the fire has burnt low, but when you open the stove door the embers are still glowing hot. It’s the work of a moment to poke them apart and find new logs you can stack onto the hot coals, but when you’re maneuvering the second of them, something stringy catches at the tongs you are using, and when you pull at it a fragment of something comes bouncing out onto the floor. You dance away from it to protect your bare feet, and it’s only once you’ve closed the stove door again that you can stop and find the fallen thing.

 

  It’s a button. More accurately, half a button, most of it warped and melted away in the heat of the fire. It must have been caught under something, away from the heat of the flames, or not even this much would have survived. And it’s familiar.

 

 Your stomach grumbles again, and that makes it easier to walk away into the kitchenette, to ignore that your bloodied shirt from the day before is missing from the floorboards. Anyway, there’s the bag of new clothing that Carmilla has acquired you both in a pile by the kitchen, and they’re warm enough even if German sizes don’t seem to have much bearing on those you’re used to.

 

  Lunch is pasta, cooked in with the contents of another can of soup when you couldn’t find anything else to eat with it. And initially it sees like far too much food, a vast overestimate of your needs, but when you next look up you’ve almost finished the mess that you’ve eaten straight from the pot and there’s barely enough left for you to reasonably offer Carmilla. Even if she hadn’t done so well with food the day before. You wince, scraping the food into a clean bowl for her, and take it back up to the loft with a clean fork and spoon.

 

  Upstairs she is blearily awake, just beginning to scrape her hair out of her eyes. She smiles when she catches sight of you, but whatever smooth line she has planned entirely disintegrates under the force of the yawn she lets out.

 

  You drop the bowl onto the floor by her side of the bed in favour of crawling over her and back into the sheets, finding the warm spot left by her body. She grumbles when it forces her over a little and onto cooler sheets, but only until you settle against her.

 

  “I made food,” you say, and she nods.

 

  “I woke up when you were eating… I’m surprised there’s anything left for me.”

 

  You hide your face against her side. “Sorry. I was really crazy stupid hungry, and I don’t know why… it’s like every time I wake up my body is insisting I haven’t eaten in six weeks and it’s either find food or faint, and I think I’ve done my fair share of damseling this week…”

 

  Carmilla laughs, leaning out over the side of the bed to find the bowl. “I think I’ll manage. It’s not as hard to restart a heart as to build one anew.”

 

  "... What?”

 

  She turns and catches your eye where you’ve lifted up from pressing your face into her belly. “Mmmm?”

 

  She was so matter of fact in her declaration that you don’t know what to question first. You go for the most obvious.

 

  “Rebuild a heart?”

 

  She gapes at you.

 

  “Well, yeah,” she says. “You hadn’t worked it out?”

 

  You shake your head at her, slow and bewildered, and she puts her soup back down before rolling on top of you. With gentle hands, she takes off the shirt you’d put back on, slides your clean panties down your legs.

 

  “Look at yourself,” she says, and you do.

 

  You don’t understand at first, automatically interpreting the lines and hollows of your body as what you expect to see. Then she takes your arm and tries to pinch the soft fat over your tricep; tries, and can’t find anything to grip. She shows you again, pulling your skin tight over the sharp edge of your hipbone, and suddenly the image shifts and you see the way your bones are bare under your skin and muscle and your body fat has been eaten away.

 

  You flinch away in horror, trying to cover yourself in the mass of bedcovers, but she follows you.

 

  “Laura, I’m sorry, I thought you knew. That’s - it’s just how magic works, it’s always easier to build something out of something, and Inanna - she had to replace your heart. I guess it was easier for her this way, to have your body do some of the work.”

 

  Carmilla’s touch is soothing on your back and hips. You are grateful that she doesn’t reach out to more than that, you don’t think you can bear it right now.

 

   “That’s why I keep getting faint,” you say, and her hand stills in its stroking and then continues.

 

   “And why you’re cold,” she agrees. “Well. Colder than me.”

 

   You frown, rolling back to her, and she hides her relief.

 

  “But she brought you back to life too,” you argue, and she shrugs.

 

  “And I needed twelve new litres of blood, but that’s still not as hard as building a new heart , Laura. I’m tired and I’m not used to needing to breathe and eat, but it isn’t the same.”

 

  She tries to be casual, but still you feel it, the way she tenses on the word heart . And you want to be reassuring, but that’s a hurt it will take a long time to heal, and you are stuck on the technical details of your renewed life. Your father’s worried face when he’d sent you away, having to hold tight to the waistband of your pants. God, Carm bringing back vitamins, worrying about you in the helicopter. Each of the pieces slotting a little further into place.

 

  You blink them away, find Carmilla’s eyes again.  

 

  “Well, you should still eat that soup,” you say, and she rolls her eyes and leans from the bed to find it again.

 

#  #  #

 

  You think that rebuilding a heart must be hard work, because all your body seems to want to do now is sleep. You’ve been in the cottage a little over a day and you think you have spent less than two hours of it out of the bed. Your conscious energy spent solely on eating, bathing, and trying to text your Dad. There’s little signal this high up in the mountains, but still you think he must surely have left Silas by now, ready for the long walk out with Bob.

 

  Still. That constant state of drowsiness make it a lot easier to forget your self consciousness when you wake in the night and Carmilla’s eyes are half open, dreamy and fond upon you.

 

  When you make love it’s slow and warm and barely half awake, your hands sliding over each other’s bodies without your eyes ever opening all the way. You kiss at her chest and she bites into your shoulder, tender with love as your legs entwine and you move together.

 

  She kisses you afterwards, lazy and sweet, forgoing technique. Her exhales keep slipping from the corners of your mouth, and you don’t mind because she is learning to breathe again. She puts her head against your chest, her ear pressing to your heart, and you think you have never felt so safe.

 

#  #  #  

 

  Finally, you do make it downstairs. It has limited appeal, but a time comes when you wake to find that Carmilla has left the bed, and that while you’re still tired your brain seems to have had enough sleep at least for now. You kick back the sheets and loll for a time, but eventually your own immobility gets to you, and you go down to the other room.

 

  Carmilla is waiting for you in the downstairs room. It’s no surprise that she has a book in her lap, but she drops it when she sees you.

 

  “Cupcake,” she says, and she’s trying to be casual by not getting up but you see the way she eyes you.

 

  You tilt your head to the clothing stash. “Something in there you particularly picked out for me?”

 

  That gives her the excuse she needs and she crosses to you, touching your hip to slide by you and dig through the array.

 

  “I couldn’t find anything with teddybears or owls, but I thought stars might do?”

 

  She draws it out and you think she’s trying to be normal, to make fun of you. You suppress your smile. “I’ll manage,” you say, and you dress in what she gives you without bothering to turn away, clean underwear and a soft crop top, yoga pants and a thermal shirt covered in stars.

 

  Carmilla watches, and you hate the anxiety it betrays as she tracks your every movement. The conversation about your heart, well… it’s put her off, left her uneasy and uncomfortable, and you don’t entirely know what to do about it without asking questions you’ve promised you’ll find answers to elsewhere. For now, the only way to soothe her seems to be with your body, and so you find her hand and coax her back to the couch.

 

  She resists, though. “I made food, if you’re hungry again I can just grab it --”

 

  “It’s fine, Carm. Come here.”

 

  She pouts but sits, and you curl into her, rub your cheek along her shoulder the way she used to do for you. Kitten-claiming, you called it, and she smiles and lets you.

 

  “I was thinking about where we go from here,” you start, and she immediately interrupts.

 

  “Oh, was that what the noise was? I thought you were snoring, but all this time it’s been your brain overheating.”

 

  She’s snarking defensively, and you’re both used to that. But maybe, finally, it’s time to put these behaviours to bed.

 

  “Carm.” It’s all you say.

 

  “Fine,” she says, and it’s one word but it’s also her acquiescence. She simmers down, and you start again.

 

  “So I was thinking that, when we’re ready, and I’m not ready yet, we should try and find out what’s going on outside. I’m willing to trust we won’t have another apocalypse for a week or so, but then we should… we should find out what’s going on. There are still people we care about out there.”

 

  The raised eyebrow she gives you shares her opinion on that, but you don’t relent. “Yes, people we care about. I know you don’t care much about most of the students, but you and Laf had some kind of working relationship going on there for months, and don’t think I didn’t see you shake hands with my Dad.”

 

  She winces, wrinkling her nose. “I was kinda hoping you missed that,” she says, and you roll your eyes.

 

  “Maybe the first time, but you know the camera was rolling, right?”

 

  That gets her interested, eyes lighting up. “What, just that time, or…?”

 

  “ANYway,” you interject before she can ask about the existence of some extremely risque footage that you did not at all back-up before deleting from your computer’s hard drive. “Once we know where everyone is, and confirm that the world isn’t ending again yet, we could get out of here.”

 

  “When we’re ready?” she asks. “Where do you want to go? Because I know your monologue started with London and the world, but before we were talking Paris, and I don’t really know how that’s going to work out with this bonus winter weather…”

 

  You silence her with a thumb on her lips. Then you reconsider, and use your mouth.

 

  “As much as I love the sound of all of that,” you say when you pull back. “I was thinking we could start by staying with my Dad for a while.”

 

  Her eyebrows raise, but her response isn’t half as severe as you would have expected three months ago.

 

  “How’s Papa Hollis going to feel about that? Having me under his roof, corrupting his little girl?”

 

  She leers, but it’s half hearted, the question more truthful than you think she’d like to admit. And you sigh, and take her hand.

  “Honestly? Probably a lot better than he ever would have taken it before. Still not great, but we’ll manage, because he’ll want to have me home so badly.” You reach over, rearranging her hair where it falls into her eyes. “And anyway, he’s going to have to get used to it. You’re not going anywhere.”

 

  She raises her eyebrows, trying to look playful. “I’m not?”

 

  You snort, loud and inelegant. “Carm. We fought a death goddess together to save the world. You were ready to die for me, and I gave up my heart in part to save you. And you fished me out of death so we could both be here, alive, together. Do you really think we’re just going to go our separate ways after that, at some vague point in the future? I’m going to marry you.”

 

  She jolts at that, her mouth falling softly open, and you see the wonder in her eyes. You caress her cheekbone with your thumb, and let her pretend you don’t see the tear that drips over it. Her warm hand trembling in yours.

 

  “Three hundred years,” Carmilla says. “Three hundred sixteen years, and I think all my new experiences are because of you, Laura Eileen Hollis.”

 

  You lean in then, and you kiss that tear on her cheek. Not kissing it away, letting it stay, but feeling it hover and stretch between your mouth and her warm skin.

 

  “Then let’s have some together.”