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Author Note: This is a direct sequel to my story “Taste & Hold,” which I recommend you read before proceeding (but you do you). As before, there are returning characters from my other works—most notably, Rachel (Rachel’s Lifehack). I hope you enjoy, and, as always, all feedback welcome: your comments help me do better in the future!
Taste & Release
Things were really good, for about six months.
Then we graduated. Graduation wasn’t bad. Getting our degrees wasn’t bad. But suddenly everyone had lives, and all those lives were in different places.
Vivian moved into a condo in Long Oak with her guitarist boyfriend Barry and a subby demi dude called RC. They all had jobs in tech and, apparently, lots of threesomes.
Fumine stayed in Georgeville, studying for her Masters in education. She had a live-in boyfriend, now, which was a head-scratcher, because she was a lesbian. (She insisted that things were still, somehow, sapphic.)
Rachel moved to Springlet with her college roommate Evelyn. She was working in banking, or accounting, or bank accounting. Account-banking, maybe.
Deedoss, defying all expectations, went to Flowerday, where she spent her days sunning, swimming, golfing, and being Donathan Eclipse’s favorite mistress. None of us were particularly comfortable with that—we were all pretty firmly opposed to the proto-fascist President—but then Dee told us how much hard cash Eclipse was giving her and we had to concede that sex work was work and she was well within her rights to take evil dick for what was effectively a seven-figure salary. “Get that bag, I guess,” Vivian wrote in the chat. “Hope it doesn’t blow up in your face.”
Louise—my girlfriend, for a heady semester—did what she had always planned to do and moved home. Home meaning Cauldron. The city of lights. The city of love. The capital of the Republic of Freedom. Five thousand, six hundred and fifty-two miles from where I ended up:
Lady Solitude. My hometown. Shitty little beach community in West Angels, southern Stewardland. Tourist traps, expensive boutiques, game studios, and terrible traffic. Riot was hiring there, and my family home was there, so I moved back. Of course I thought about staying in or around Georgeville, where I’d met my best friends, where at least one of them still lived.
More often I thought of following Louise, starting a new life in Cauldron. But I didn’t speak the language, and anyway no amount of Duolingo was going to change the fact that Louise had never asked me if I wanted to come.
When we graduated, that was that.
“My lease ends on the 15th,” she’d said. “I got my tickets to fly out on the 13th. We’ve got one week left, amour, let’s enjoy it.”
Easier said than done. I tried to enjoy it, but it was like trying to enjoy a threshold as the door was closing. We were never going to try to make things work long-distance, but the plan had always been to stay together until she left. We didn’t make it through that last week. One night in a fit of longing I begged her to stay, and she laughed me off, and then I took offense at her attitude, and she just kept scoffing, and I cried, and she got defensive, and then we fought. It was a bad fight. It ended with me in my pjs at a bus stop at 2 a.m., face a mess, waiting for Vivian to rescue me and the box of overnight things I’d been keeping at Louise’s.
“Not bad, for your first real relationship,” Vivian had said, the next morning, trying to put things in perspective.
I think she was trying to help, but the perspective wasn’t pretty.
I was twenty-two years old. My sexuality was itinerant, and Louise was the only person I’d ever really wanted to be with. Now she was gone—gone and, worse, mad.
“It’s not fair to you,” Vivian murmured, holding me while I cried, “but you only really get good at breakups by breaking up. It gets easier…”
I don’t remember anything else she told me. None of it mattered. Would it take me another twenty-two years to find that spark again?
Eventually things were okay. They weren’t good, but they were okay. Months passed. Stewardland’s summertime fire season grabbed everyone’s attention. The Gullet of Hell opened up north, in Paradise, which was a first. It was a disaster for the folks there, but for me it was a welcome distraction. It meant that our group chat was about air quality and utility diabolists and climate politics instead of being about our careers and relationships.
Between the fires, the demands of my job, and some minor family drama, I didn’t have the time or energy to want another relationship. I grieved my one and only romance and carried on.
Then, in October, Deedoss broached a topic that chilled me.
“We should get together,” she wrote in the group chat. “It’s almost been a year since our Grizzly trip, and, I dunno, I miss you girls.”
Vivian, Fumine, and Rachel were quick to agree. We needed regular reunions, istanbul travesti now that we were split up across three provinces and two countries. We were best friends, right? Louise agreed as well, which surprised me. I’m not sure it was justified, but I imagined her still angry. Well. I couldn’t let myself be the sole hold-out, so I said yes as well.
Dee decided that since Louise had seen the Provinces but none of us had seen the Republic of Freedom, it only made sense for us to meet in Cauldron. Besides, she continued, she’d always wanted to see Our Lady of Cauldron and the Louvre—and we could all go on the President’s dime. A free trip to the “capital of the world” seemed hard to pass up in our little group chat, and over the next few days we all made plans to take time off in late November.
A nagging anxiety dogged me throughout October. The timing of this reunion—on the anniversary of our messy Airbnb stay and the sex game that had led to me and Louise hooking up—had me uneasy. And then the cancellations started coming in. First, Fumine said she had to work through Thanksgiving on a research project that had gotten away from her. Then Vivian tapped out: it was crunch time at work, and her time off had been revoked. Finally Deedoss herself, the architect of all these plans, sent her apologies. She was afraid, she said, that Eclipse would cut her off if she left his compound in Flowerday.
“You’ll find other, more palatable sugar daddies,” Rachel had tried to tell her.
Dee wouldn’t be moved. “But you should still go!”
Rachel called me, after that.
“Shirb,” she said, “we’ve already got the tickets, and I could use a vacation. D’you wanna just go?”
I guess I took too long to reply, because Rachel continued talking.
“I know it’s weird between you and Louise right now, but honestly, we don’t even have to see her. I think the assumption’s that the trip’s off. And I bet she’s busy, anyway. You and me, a week in Cauldron. What do you say?”
What could I say? I missed Rachel, and in many ways a week with just her in Cauldron sounded better to me than if all six of us were getting together. I still didn’t know how I would ever face Louise. The relief in my neck and shoulders was immediate, so I said yes.
The best flights to Cauldron were out of Angels, so Rachel took a Greyhound out to meet me in Lady Solitude. She smiled at me as she got off the bus, and I ran into her arms. I don’t think I realized I was crying until she pulled back and wiped my tears with her fingers.
“You’re gonna mess up your face,” she said softly.
“What face?” I asked.
Left to my own devices in Lady Solitude, I’d fallen fully into my beach dude look. I wore tank tops and board shorts everywhere, and the only thing I put on my face to go outside was sunscreen. My hair was sun-bleached. My skin was tanned, rugged from the sea breeze. I was wearing faded braided wristbands and checkered Vans in vaporwave colors.
“Your adorable fucking face,” Rachel said, pinching my cheeks.
I squirmed, but not enough to get away from her. Her touch felt so good. Ah, fuck. I was crying again. She hugged me tight, pulling my face to her shoulder, and I hugged her back, and I smelled her. She smelled like the Southwest, somehow, like sun and red rocks and mild peppers and the Milky Way at night.
“Easy there,” she said, patting my head. “Keep huffing at my bosom and you’ll give a girl the wrong idea.”
I didn’t want Rachel. I’d never wanted Rachel. But I was so lonely, and so sad, and it was so easy to say—
“Are there wrong ideas?”
“It’s gonna be that kind of trip, huh.” Rachel held me at arms’ length, some calculation taking place behind her green eyes. I got to take in her appearance, finally. She was dressed for road comfort, in a loose-fitting dress and sandals. It was a plain, utilitarian look, not unlike mine—only she was still beautiful, with her thick brown hair in a messy bun and her big boobs and that amazing smile. “Well, you know me. We can play it by ear.”
We had one night in Lady Solitude together before our flight the next morning. I took her to my favorite fish and chips stand, and then we did a walking tour of Lady Solitude’s art galleries. Finally we returned to my place, where my mom and dad immediately began fussing over Rachel.
I hadn’t brought a friend home since middle school, probably, and Rachel got the royal treatment. They insisted she take my father’s nice chair in the living room and plied her with snacks and desserts in exchange for stories about our time together in college. Then they brought out photo albums and showed Rachel my baby pictures. When my dad started to snore on the couch, my mom excused herself and returned from the basement with a bunch of towels and spare toiletries for Rachel.
“I did pack everything I need,” Rachel said.
“Nonsense,” said my mother, whatever that meant. “Now istanbul travestileri you girls be good, okay? Be sure to get a full night’s sleep before your flight.”
I must have asked a question with my face, because my mom said, “or… wait. Oh. Oh.” And Rachel started laughing. The pieces clicked together, the doting, the pampering, the photo albums.
“We’re just friends, mom,” I said, flushing.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” she said, clearly as embarrassed as I was. “I just thought—with the way you dress these days, you look like such a—”
“A lesbian?” Rachel prodded.
“RACHEL!” I cried, but my mom was nodding. “Mom, there isn’t a way lesbians look.”
She seemed surprised by that, and kept opening and closing her mouth.
“But you are a lesbian,” Rachel teased.
“Yeah, but—” I had never technically said it to my parents before. I hadn’t mentioned Louise—maybe because I knew, on some level, it wasn’t going to last. And I’d never revealed my struggles with my sexuality to anyone, at least intentionally, though I think my five best friends had figured out I was some kind of ace (demi? gray?) before I had.
“Just not with me,” Rachel said to my mom. “Yet.” And then she waggled her eyebrows.
My mom just pulled me into a teary-eyed hug. “Oh honey, I’m so proud of you,” she said. I hugged her back gamely, all the while making faces at Rachel, who seemed deeply amused by the whole thing. I couldn’t believe that this was my coming out moment, but I supposed it could have been worse.
At least my mom was proud of me. I wouldn’t have really expected less, but some of my friends—like Fumine, unfortunately—had had shockingly bad experiences coming out to their folks. I think a kid learns as much about their parent when they come out as the parent learns about their kid. Maybe more. On the grand scale of things, I was happy to suffer a moment of embarrassment in exchange for my mom being proud of me.
After a too-long hug and many more words of encouragement, my mom let me go and turned to Rachel. “Oh my, I guess I had better get the guest room ready.”
“Seriously, there’s no need for all this fuss. We can share a bed.”
It wasn’t so easy to dismiss my mom—she was still intent on serving Rachel with her utmost, despite understanding that she was not my girlfriend—but eventually we convinced her to take my dad to bed and let us handle things ourselves.
“Even if we wanted to fuck,” Rachel laughed, once we were tucking ourselves in to my childhood bed, “I think I’m much too tired after all that.”
“Sorry my mom’s a lot,” I said.
“I think it’s adorable,” Rachel said. “And I can see where you get your goodness.”
I gulped. Why did I gulp? Was it because the kindest, easiest girl I knew was lying inches away from me, praising me? I thanked my lucky stars that she couldn’t see my face in the dark. I couldn’t reply with my heart in my throat, so I said nothing, and a few moments of silence passed.
“Shirb.” Rachel’s voice was gentle, friendly, inviting without being demanding. “You know my M.O., right?
Yeah I knew her M.O.. Half of Georgeville knew her M.O.. Fuck when there’s no reason not to.
I managed a choked “mhm.”
“Well,” she said, “door’s open.”
I wasn’t sexually aroused. I think. The idea of fucking Rachel didn’t ignite my lust. But it sure did something to my heart. I wondered how many sad, lonely people had walked through that door just because it was open, just because Rachel was all-accepting? I considered being with her, holding her skin-to-skin. Maybe there would be pleasure, maybe not. It would probably feel nice either way, I thought. I felt myself getting dizzy.
“We’ve got an early flight,” I said.
We were out the door before my parents were up, which I counted as a small blessing. I didn’t need any more questions or hints about my relationship with Rachel, who didn’t do relationships in the first place. I had enough doubts and angst all on my own, thank you very much. We caught a Lyft to Angels International, made it through security, and grabbed a McDonald’s breakfast at the terminal.
“So Dee booked us a whole apartment on the Seine,” Rachel said, while we waited to board. “Think it’ll feel weird, having all that space to ourselves?”
“I think it’ll be great,” I giggled. “No parents breathing down my neck, no coworkers… just us and Cauldron.”
Rachel smiled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were excited for our trip!”
“Bitch,” I started, then just laughed, and she laughed.
“I missed you,” she said, after a moment. “I miss everyone. Like yeah, I’ve got Evvie, and I can fuck her boyfriend Dan whenever I want, but I feel pretty unmoored in Springlet.”
“You feel unmoored,” I snorted. “Think of poor Dee all alone down in Flowerday.”
“Hey, she’s the definition of moored,” Rachel pointed out. “Literally can’t travesti istanbul leave.”
“Yeah, that’s… that’s weird, right?”
“I’m worried about her, Rach.”
“We all are,” Rachel said. “But what good does that do? She’s made her bed. And hey, out of all of us, maybe she’ll actually be able to buy a house someday.”
“Unless it all comes crashing down.” I thought of the ignominious ends met by so many Eclipse allies and partners. The guy was facing impeachment, too.
“Everything comes crashing down at some point.” Rachel stared off into the middle distance. “You ever think about the environment?”
“Rachel, I live by the ocean. Of course I think about the environment.”
She blinked. “Fuck, I’m on it again. Evvie says I need to lighten up. I get such bad shoulder tension when I think about the future.”
Without giving it too much thought, I started making little circles over her trapezius.
“MMm, fuck, Shirb, that’s. Wow.” She hummed as I rubbed, and bit her lip when we got the boarding call. “More of that later, please?”
“I could use some myself,” I admitted. “Maybe we can come to an arrangement.”
“I love arrangements.”
We gathered our carry-on items and proceeded to find our seats. Dee, awash in Eclipse money, hadn’t had the presence of mind to cancel Vivian’s or Fumine’s tickets, so me and Rachel had two empty seats between us. At first we buckled ourselves into our assigned seats, but, after a moment of skin-prickling anxiety, I swapped things around and moved next to Rachel. She raised the arm rest and pulled me to her.
“You smell good,” she said, her nose buried in my hair.
I frowned. “I smell like salt air and sweat.”
“You smell like Shirby.”
“Huff the top of a girl’s head too much and she’ll get the wrong idea,” I said, trying to mirror Rachel’s joke from the day before.
Somehow I was sure it was a joke, despite the very naked proposition last night. This was just Rachel being Rachel. Being easy, and slutty, and funny about it. And I was copying her, despite the fact that I was… hard? Tough? Difficult? Whatever the opposite of easy was. What if I did it wrong? What if I missed the mark on levity and ended up at comical—or worse, sultry?
“I don’t do wrong ideas,” Rachel said pretty firmly, and I think my face probably went crimson. I thought about trying but didn’t wiggle out of her arms.
“Fasten your seat belts and put your arm rests down for takeoff,” a flight attendant told us, and we snapped to attention, quickly sorting ourselves out.
“Those are some deep sighs,” Rachel said when we’d begun taxiing.
“Really?” I asked.
I hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t noticed much of anything except a smoldering acceptance of Rachel’s touch. Rachel had always been touchy—our whole friend group had been, really. And Rachel had always been the dictionary definition of DTF. Somehow, though, throughout our four years of friendship, I had never read her touch as anything but platonic. I’d never gotten a hint of flirtation or invitation from her.
There was that time she licked your pussy, Shirby.
But that was just a game!
And then Louise laid the groundwork for a threesome…
Which never materialized, because Louise was joking, and anyway oh god why are you thinking of Louise right now can you stop?
For her part, Rachel had become pensive as my brain battled itself.
“Was it always like this?” she asked. “It’s only been five months…”
I met her gaze. “Five months?”
“Since we split up after graduation.”
“I guess it’s not that strange.”
Rachel tapped her fingers on the armrest. The plane was starting to gather speed to take off.
“Before Louise,” she said, and then she pursed her lips. “Shirb, you know I’ll just say shit until you tell me you’re uncomfortable, right?”
I wasn’t not uncomfortable, but I didn’t want her to stop talking. I nodded.
“Right. Well, before Louise, you never seemed to need anything.”
“I needed help with my papers,” I said. “And help cleaning my apartment, and—”
“You know what I mean.”
“Oh. Not really?”
“You never wanted anyone, Shirby. I have a pretty overdeveloped sense for these things. You were happy to be the odd one out when I talked my conquests, when V talked about her boyfriend, yada yada. You didn’t feel like you were missing something.”
“Do I feel like I’m missing something now?”
“Big time.” Rachel fumbled with a loose bit of netting from the seat in front of her. Was she nervous? Was that possible? “And yeah, relationships change people. So I’m just… I dunno, thinking out loud. Noticing the changes. Without Louise, you’re… what’s the right word…”
I put a hand on hers. “Needy?”
She flipped her hand under mine so that our palms were touching and slowly interlaced our fingers.
“I was going to say horny.”
“I don’t feel horny,” I said.
“I think we might have different ideas of what constitutes ‘horny,'” Rachel said, bringing my hand to her lips and brushing the tanned skin of my wrist. I shuddered. “It’s not always about sopping pussies, or making out, or what you do with your fingers.”
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