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It was strange, returning to their room after the final battle. LaFontaine still mostly felt like no time had passed since that fateful day of the parasite-ation, but it was clear (from the ropes still attached to the headboard and the insane level of Perry-cleanliness) that time had indeed marched on.

Oh, right. Perry. The whole passage-of-time thing meant that it felt like just yesterday that they’d taken a stand about their name. A stand that Perry had still not acknowledged. (But she’d taken care of them while they were brain-sucked.) (But she’d literally just used the S-word five minutes ago, when they hugged goodnight.)

LaF checked the fridge – Perry'd filled it with baked goods and soups, but had also 'cleaned' the fascinating strain of blue mold that they’d been cultivating in the crisper.

LaF grabbed a brownie and went over to the desk, booting up their desktop computer. Their laptop was still in 307, and they didn’t want to disturb Laura after such a traumatic evening (or Betty, for that matter). As soon as the Windows logo cleared, JPArmitage.jar ran on startup.

That was unexpected; LaF had just been told about what the Dean had done. But now a foggy memory came back – they had a copy of him on their desktop, for their investigations on split consciousnesses. (A glance down at their lab notebook clarified further: initial observation had shown that the two JPs functioned as one mind when connected to the Aethernet, and, when disconnected, responded nearly identically to given questions and stimuli. The next test was going to be reconnecting the subjects to observe how he reconciled the memories.)

JP: Welcome back, friend LaFontaine! Tell me, why have I been turned off for so long? Is this more experimentation?

“Heeey, buddy. Welcome back yourself."

JP: I have been right here! You are the one who has left the premises.

LaF did not really feel like explaining, so they pulled up a browser and directed it to Laura’s journalism project page. “Luckily, we can just go to the tape.”

Together, they watched every vlog since LaF’s last pre-parasite memory. It was heartbreaking to watch Perry freak out about their disappearance; it was astonishing to watch their own mind dissolve in a matter of minutes. They felt like a voyeur watching Laura falling for her now-dead(er) roommate and were incredibly creeped out to watch her being possessed by the evil being they’d all just vanquished. (For science, LaF noted that while JP showed appropriate emoticon empathy throughout, he remained unresponsive at the annihilation of his flash drive twin.)

Once they caught up, LaF took to wistfully replaying seconds 30-45 of the video that Danny had just posted (until “I missed you, weirdo” was burned into their brain). After a few rewatches, they followed Perry’s eyeline, and noticed they were still wearing Perry’s ridiculous cat shirt. They began to strip, and with the shirt around their head they didn’t hear the door opening.

“LaFontaine, honey? I couldn’t sleep so I made us some tea... oh!” Perry had burst in, clearly not expecting to find her friend in just a binder. (LaF had long believed that the locks at Silas were cursed never to work – they’d installed a deadbolt from home freshman year that somehow rusted off by the next morning; further experimentation was determined to be too expensive at the time.) LaF awkwardly pulled the shirt back down around their torso.

JP: This must be Perry, about whom I have heard much. Welcome, friend of friends! I have returned triumphant from the great “recycle bin” in the sky!

Perry squinted at the screen. (LaF was glad JP had thought to minimize the video.) “Is that your… computer friend? I thought the Dean…”

LaF shrugged. “Turns out I backed him up.”

“What is he... saying?”

“Come say hi for yourself. He can’t exactly bite.” Still self-conscious about the shirtless moment, LaF flopped back onto their bed.

Perry cautiously approached the desk and set down her tea tray (LaF recognized Bubbe Perry’s wedding porcelain, which was usually saved for special occasions). With her most determined look, she waved at the monitor. “Hello, Mr. Armitage, it’s nice to meet? you.”

JP: Hello, Ms. Perry! It is wonderful to meet you as well! I must give you my sincerest thanks, as without your assiduous care my dearest friend LaFontaine would have surely perished!

“You’re quite welcome, of course,” Perry responded automatically, seemingly distracted. “I didn’t realize you two were so, well, close.”

JP: LaFontaine rescued me from the library; I had thought myself to be trapped for eternity. For that they have my eternal gratitude, my assistance in their quests, and my ‘ear,’ as long as I am connected to an audio input device :)

Perry turned to address LaFontaine. “Why does he keep talking like there’s more than one of you?”

LaFontaine froze – of course this would come out right now. What better time to introduce something entirely new to their inflexible biffle than three hours after the most stressful experience of their lives? Luckily, they didn’t have to work up the nerve to talk, as Perry had turned back to see JP’s explanation.

JP: LaFontaine has requested I use the pronoun “they” as a singular neuter, in place of the traditional gendered pronouns. Your plurality confusion is a common one! My research tells me that other genderqueer/nonbinary individuals choose to use invented pronouns such as “zie” or “xe” or “thon,” but I will continue to use “they” until instructed otherwise.

“What is he talking about, ‘genderqueer’ individuals?”

JP: Oh dear, have I made a permissions error?

LaF sat back up on the bed. “This really isn’t how or when I wanted to tell you this, Per. Can we put a pin in it until we’ve slept off the hardcore-hangover?”

JP continued typing, but neither human was watching the screen.

“No we cannot, Suz — La-Fon-taine! I’ve been worried sick about you for weeks, and I thought we could maybe have a tea party, you know? Like we used to, as little girls? But you’re hiding out here, doing secret queer stuff with your robot friend!”

“It’s not ‘secret queer stuff,’ it’s my real life. And he’s not a robot. But he is my friend – because he listens, and he doesn’t judge. Unlike some people.”

“Well! I’m certainly not going to listen to you when you’re acting out like this.” And with that, Perry swept away, Bubbe's tea service forgotten.

LaF sighed and slumped back onto the bed. JP was probably still talking, but they didn’t want to hear it, not then.

*

It was two days later and LaF still hadn’t cleared things up with to Perry. They’d interacted since — Perry couldn’t let her fanciest dishes remain dirty for more than 12 hours, and then it took both of them to persuade poor miserable Laura to eat something — but neither had acknowledged the revelation, or the tension itself.

JP had apologized profusely to LaF for the outing; in his time amongst the data, he had forgotten that not all information wants to be free. In penance, he had taken the liberty of compiling and sending to Perry an enormous bibliography of resources about genderqueer identities. She had not acknowledged that, either; they didn’t even know if she’d opened it.

In the meantime, they’d turned their attention to more pressing matters; namely, what was up with the random but increasingly frequent cross-campus earthquakey tremors? Even with JP’s near-infinite resources, their research had hit a dead end until they had some hard data.

The geology department was suspiciously unwilling to part with a seismometer. Every professor, postdoc, and receptionist had said in the exact same tone of voice that the tremors were “absolutely nothing to worry about,” which naturally had LaF much more worried.

Luckily, while their heart belonged to biology, they weren’t too shabby with a soldering iron. JP had found blueprints online so they could make their own, and LaF had assembled every electronic in their room (and, surreptitiously, several from Laura and Perry’s) to cannibalize parts. (After taking stock, LaF realized they still needed some more copper coiling and a pricey microprocessor. They’d have to sneak out and “borrow” some from the engineering department. Petty larceny could always be forgiven if it was for a good and/or scientific cause, right?)

During all this, of course, LaFontaine still had finals. They’d just gotten out of a surprisingly easy neuroethology exam and were psyched to get back to their extracurricular experiments, but when they opened the door, they saw that Perry was in their chair. The computer monitor was off, but the tower was still on.

“Hey there, Per-bear.” (The rhyming greeting was a real winner back in elementary school.)

Perry turned around slowly, revealing that she was flushed nearly to the color of her hair. “Don’t you ‘Per-bear’ me, young lady — man — you. I have been reading those gender things all night. I should’ve been sleeping, or at least studying, but I was trying to understand what you needed — and then you go behind my back and use my things with HIM!”

LaF’s relief at hearing that Perry had been reading up was short lived when faced with her obvious fury. “I don’t know what you’re talking about?”

Perry stood up and began to pace the room, brandishing her back massager (which LaF had figured would be useful for its motor and power supply). “This is my personal, private property, and I do not give you permission to borrow it for your experiments. Especially not,” and here she dropped to a whisper, “sexual ones!”

With that she stormed out the door. Immediately, she whirled back (blushing even harder), grabbed a dirty t-shirt off the floor (wincing a bit at the grime), and wrapped the massager in it.

LaF was very confused. They turned the monitor back on and saw that JP had been spamming exclamation points into the void. “Dude! Chill. You’re back on.”

JP: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!oh thank goodness! It appears that, though you have confessed to me that it is her on whom you crush, Lola Perry has arrived at the mistaken conclusion that you and I are courting!

“Kinda got that. How the hell did she jump to that conclusion?”

JP: My research tells me that the personal massager you borrowed is often used “off-label” for purposes of sexual gratification.

LaF sat down in shock. “Perry owns a vibrator?”

JP: It is possible that she believes we were exploring a new field called “teledildonics”...

JP continued babbling, but LaFontaine was still processing the images in their head. They’d always assumed that, when they and Perry inevitably got together (and it’s gotta still be inevitable, dammit), LaF would be the confident one, and Perry would at long last learn to unwind in their loving embrace. And it turns out Perry’s perfectly ordinary massager, the same kind that saved their life every month come cramps-time (oh god their MOM had owned one of these), was actually…

LaF was startled out of their (sexual) reverie by the absurdly loud French rap bursting out of the computer. They looked over at the screen and saw JP had opened up iTunes, presumably to get their attention. They pressed mute immediately. “Shhh – someone might go to Perry with a noise complaint and make this even worse.”

JP: But hark! It seems that she is jealous of our supposed relationship. Perhaps if we play into this ruse, it will inspire her to finally acknowledge her feelings for you – I recall this scenario playing out in many of the novels I consumed in my library days.

“Operation Jealousy? A little rom-com, dontcha think?”

JP: It may be comical, but it will end in romance; seems apropos from my perspective.

LaF could not believe they were seriously considering this idea. “How would we date – pretend to date, anyway? You’re on a computer, and dating kinda involves going places and touching.”

JP: I’ve been compiling research on robotics ever since the term was coined - we’ll just have to build me a hand to hold ;)

LaF rolled their eyes. “Fine, let’s try it. But save the flirting for when she can see it, bub.”

***

For the thousandth time that evening, Laura refreshed Facebook. All previous attempts had failed to distract her from her grief for even a moment; everyone was complaining about finals or wondering about the aftershocks, both of which just compounded her guilt. But it seemed thousand and first time was the charm, as she now had an unexpected friend request from one JP Armitage.

It did not appear to be a prank; his friending note said that he’d been saved to LaF’s desktop. Somewhere under the all-pervasive numbness she knew that she was happy, or at least relieved, that he’d survived (but it didn’t seem to drown out her worst instincts muttering why him and not Carm).

So far, JP had 7 friends, 3 mutual (LaFontaine, Perry, and some guy from her journalism class who worked part time at the library front desk). His profile picture was the fuzzy 1874 yearbook scan that served as his regular avatar. His cover photo was of LaFontaine hugging their laptop, on which JP had typed an insane number of of kissy face emojis. His first status was “The ‘bae’ is teaching me about social networks. Also, slang!” They couldn’t be… apparently they could, because when she clicked over to his personal details it was right there in the pixels: “In a Relationship with S Lafontaine.”

Laura’s first thought was why didn’t LaF tell me?, but in truth she knew she had been too mired in her own grief to be emotionally available for her friends. (The last time she had seen LaFontaine, they had actually tried the “airplane coming in for a landing” game to feed her soup.)

Her second thought was puzzlement at the whole ghost-in-the-machine vibe, but she supposed Silas had shown her weirder. It was honestly harder, at this point, to envision anyone finding happiness at all than to accept that they might do so by kinda dating Ghostwriter.

Mindlessly, Laura continued her Internet cycle. No new email, no new tweets… but the next tab confronted her with a reminder that she wasn’t the only person mired in tragedy and angst.

You see, gentle viewers (she had to stop narrating; her only ‘viewer’ was a fitfully sleeping Betty), about two days after move in, Laura had gained a seemingly random Tumblr follower. She’d followed back, as was her habit back before her journalistic infamy made that simply impossible, and found that the blog in question consisted almost entirely of pedantic corrections on other people’s crafting posts and recipes, with an obligatory smattering of adorable kittens.

Laura had never actually asked Perry if it was her, but now she was totally sure. The three latest posts: a scathing takedown of some poor newbie’s knitting technique; the printer smashing scene from Office Space; and, most notably, a reblog of Laura’s own latest music post (with “just a silhouette” & “lifeless face that you’ll soon forget” bolded and underlined).

Well, Laura wasn’t nearly ready to try for sleep. Clearly, the universe needed her to pay off the being-there-for-her-friend debt by anonymously gifting her other friend a sad mix tape. (She knew from the past semester that Perry’s music taste ran mostly to hip-hop and show tunes; time for a wider selection of the acoustics of heartache.)

By the time Laura was satisfied with her 8tracks playlist, the sun had risen. In the course of her curation she had cried out some catharsis of her own, and was finally  exhausted enough to pass out. (As she drew the curtains to prepare the room for sleep, she couldn’t help but notice that she had stayed up till Carmilla’s usual bedtime.)

***

It was a curious shift in perspective for JP to be back in the library. Imprecise: JP was at the library. LaF and Perry were studying for their final exams in awkward but situationally appropriate silence; JP was on LaF's laptop. If deemed necessary, he could connect a drive containing his consciousness to a terminal, and only then would he be back in the library.

LaFontaine was assiduous in their studies; he was conducting his own affairs. He had created an electronic mailing address, and from it had solicited advice from several fanatic fictional authors regarding Operation: Jealousy. (He had fibbed in his correspondence, describing the falsified affair as "long distance," to prevent suggestions involving the body he lacked.) His latest respondent had suggested that a share of humor meant only for the pair of them would be certain to inspire a feeling of exclusion in a third party.

JP: LaF, my advisors have suggested an "inside joke." Perhaps we can deploy one at present, as it is rare that Perry remains in our shared presence for long?

LaF: k tell me a joke

LaF: but it has to be funny cause she knows my laugh

JP: Make LaF laugh - Challenge: accepted! SEARCH: best science jokes

It was surprisingly difficult to determine what might tickle LaF's fancy. He’d copypasted nearly two score of the finest witticisms known to Google to receive only rolled eyes and half-smiles. Eventually, despairing, he pasted in an incomprehensible gag that had nonetheless appeared in multiple collections.

JP: Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium Sodium BATMAN

LaF seemed bemused as each sodium appeared in the textbox, but when the ‘punchline’ arrived they (at long last) burst out in a hearty chuckle. Gratifying! (He set up a subroutine to find more information on this droll and salty man of the bat.)

They had succeeded in attracting Perry's attention, as well. To feign that he’d shared in the jocularity, he spammed a field of positively boffo emotion icons.

"What could possibly be so funny about your homuncular anatomy review?”

"Sorry, Per, JP just made a joke.”

Perry filled his webcam’s field of vision. Despite her clear irritation, her curls were magnificent from this angle. “I expect better from you. As a former resident, you should know that the library is for quiet studying, not jokes and… flirting.”

JP: Our apologies, madame. LaFontaine’s comeliness makes it nigh impossible to cease in pitching woo, but their studies should of course take first priority.

Perry’s face contorted into several expressions seemingly simultaneously (though when isolated frame by frame, it seemed the sequence was: chagrin, longing, turmoil, ire). JP had 80% confidence that his blandishments had induced the desired response.

“Well, it’s completely inappropriate library behavior, and I will not be associated with it.” Perry left his vantage point.

JP: I believe that was successful!

LaF: she switched tables and is glaring at us

LaF: I think she’s alphabetizing her index cards

LaF: she’s sad, this sucks

JP had believed that was rather the point, but ascertained from their expression that they would not wish to hear his opinion at that time.

***

Kirsch had missed a lot of classes and stuff when he was bro-napped. He’d basically been living in the engineering department to catch up. (It was easier to sleep there, too – his XBox reminded him of Will and his bed still reminded him of SJ.)

It had only been 75 minutes into this nap cycle when he was woken up by a loud crashing noise from the workroom. He tensed up, grabbed his always-nearby baseball bat with his good arm, and went to confront the intruder.

“Little-nerd-parasite-bro?” It was LaFontaine, his fellow third-string member of the sacrifice crew.

“Kirsch? Hey, there, you! I didn’t expect anyone to be here at this hour.”

“Doc Babbage gave me the key cause I’m his research assistant, plus I gotta make up time on my final project. Not like time-travelling make up time though – that stuff’s for the theory dweebs.” Kirsch could tell LaF was surprised about his major, but he got that a lot – he was no good with words mostly, but engineering just, like, clicked or whatever.

“Hail, fellow scientist!?” (It wasn’t a question he didn’t think, but they kinda made it sound like it was by accident.) “Uh, wanna tell me more about your project?”

It was a sick project and he totally did (he was gonna figure out a way to light up the whole the Zeta house just by lifting weights), but he could tell the question was almost definitely a trick. “Sure, after you tell me why you’re breaking and entering – not cool, bio babe. I know there’s no Dean right now but I’m pretty sure Dr. B is badass enough to get you expelled all on his own.”

“Fine: I’m kind of, um, dating a ghost? He’s trapped in a computer, so we’re trying to build him a body. I’m here to maybe start working on a hand. So we can touch each other. Because we are dating.”

“Gotta say, I kinda thought you were wifed up with your Floor Don.” LaF tried to hide the sad puppy face, but he totally recognized that look. “Dang, she totally friendzoned you huh? That’s rough, buddy.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.” They paused a moment for brooding, then abruptly added, “But I am very happy now. Because of JP. As we are involved, romantic-styles.”

“Good for you, bro. Best way to get over someone is to get under someone new.”

“Not quite up to the under; like I said, still kinda working on the whole hand holding thing.”

“Taking it slow. I can dig it. But, the thing is, like, replicating human musculature and stuff is one of the hardest problems out there right now? So, like, you’re not gonna build your own Buffybot anytime soon.”

LaF didn’t seem as disappointed as Kirsch was worried they would. “That’s too bad. Guess I’ll just get out of your hair, and leave this building entirely.”

Kirsch hadn’t finished. “Nah, hold up, nerdlet! See, I totally have blueprints from an old class that could help your boy. It’s a prototype for a 5-pronged gripper, which is kinda like a hand. It’s all metal, though, and it’s only got two settings: weak as hell or strong like a Zeta. ”

“Geez, Kirsch. That’s actually really nice. Can we plug JP into a computer, so you guys can discuss his options?”

It turns out the ghostman was a total bro. He actually wasn’t that into the proto-hand (guess they were okay taking it super-duper slow), but he went totally nutso for Kirsch’s notes from last year’s user interface design seminar. Before he knew it they’d sketched out the basics of a JP smartphone app.

LaFonbraniac wandered off for a while, but when they came back they were antsy to leave. Japes and him were in the zone, though, so Kirsch set LaF up with a stash of beer pong balls and some flash powder from Professor Whiteley’s office (she always had the frosh make cherry bombs at their first lab, to ‘spark’ their interest in science).

Many hours later, they left. LaF was insisting upon food and sleep; JP, who didn’t need either, escorted his datemate home per the bro code. Kirsch was was super tired and hungry too, but mostly, he felt like an invisible spotter had lifted an imaginary weight off his shoulders.

Kirsch was gonna go back to the Zeta house and get a real night’s sleep. And as soon as he finished school stuff, he’d make time to chill with with some of the guys; how could he forget that quality time with a good bro was the best medicine? (He’d bring the cherry bombs – no use letting perfectly good pyrotechnics go to waste.)

***

It was the first time since the Lustig that Danny felt up to her resuming her running routine, and she really needed the release. Exercise had been Danny’s only coping mechanism for you still totally have feelings for your kind-of-ex. It was totally unfair that she’d been out of commision for the first few days of now she’s deep in mourning for the twice-dead vampire for whom she kind-of-dumped you. (Sure, she’d gone to bat for Laura’s GPA, but it felt like a hollow gesture in light of Carmilla’s noble sacrifice.)

Danny still wasn’t at 100%, so she started out easy with her short route (a 5 kilometre loop through the woods out past the Summer Society house). About 2km in, Danny spotted a familiar swoop of orange hair through the trees, mucking about in an off-trail clearing. She slowed to a walk, made her way into the rough, and took out her earphones. “LaFontaine?”

They turned around. “Oh, hey. You.” LaFontaine seemed more prepped for Star Trek than a forest trek; they were wearing a Bluetooth headset and carrying a complex-looking jerry-rigged electronic device.

Danny wouldn’t call them friends, but she couldn’t help her concern for their safety. “What the hell are you doing all the way out here?”

“We’re investigating the tremors around campus. We expected to find better debris patterns out here where there are usually fewer uncontrolled variables stomping around.”

Danny rolled her eyes at the dig. “Where is this we? Is Laura here?” She couldn’t help the unasked-for protectiveness; if LaFontaine had lost track of Laura in the unsafe-even-for Silas backwoods, she’d have the whole SumSoc searching in seconds.

“Nah, L’s not really past the whole curled into a ball in bed phase of grief yet. We meant me and JP.” The Bluetooth crackled, and they wearily corrected “JP and I.”

“Ah, Casper the the allegedly friendly ghost. You really are a fountain of fantastic ideas, like wandering around out here with an incorporeal being that you met in the godforsaken library.”

“I think the Dean trying to murder him is proof enough that he was totally our side. Plus, he’s my, um, boyfriend now, so you could at least pretend to play nice, yeah?”

Danny could honestly say she had never expected LaFontaine, of all people, to have a boyfriend. She was ashamed that she’d internalized such heteronormativity. Homonormativity? Stereotypical assumptions, at any rate. But more importantly: “I thought you and Perry…?”

Their expression darkened. “As you so often do, you thought wrong.”

“Ouch! Sore subject, huh?” Danny could relate. She’d just been chasing a runner’s high to numb the angst of her own similarly sensitive situation.

LaFontaine was quiet for a long moment, fiddling with their equipment. Danny almost thought they were going to open up and commiserate, but then: “It’s fine. This thing with JP is happening now and it’s… awesome.”

It was clearly neither fine nor awesome; the fib was uncharacteristic for a self-proclaimed truth-speaker. “Ch’yeah, okay. That grimace makes you look pleased as punch.”

LaF sighed, then cupped their hand over their earpiece. “Look, Gigantor... if you see Perry, can you just tell her we seemed lovey-dovey?”

Aha. Danny got it. Well, she didn’t get it (subterfuge was just not her style), but she’d understood what they meant. She could see that the semi-admission was a difficult overture of civility, so she winked conspiratorially. “Will do! You two enjoy your romantic stroll through the debris. And stay alert – we’re not alone out here.” As she started back to the trail, but she couldn’t help adding “Later, toaster-frakker!”

As she jogged off, she could faintly hear them say in a reassuring tone “It’s okay, pal, I know you’re not a robot.”

***

Of course Carmilla’s grand sacrificial gesture of love had not worked as well as intended. After all, the reports of her death had been exaggerated, and she’d even got the girl (as her tingling lips constantly reminded her); karma would dictate that the ‘final battle’ turn out to be a mere vanguard.

Shortly after the alarm klaxons interrupted their efforts towards ‘posterity,’ she and Laura had reluctantly parted to address the latest Silas crisis. Total evacuation was imminent; the matronly floor Don was preparing to shepherd them all away in her minivan.

As the rest of their party packed, Carmilla and JP (her fellow resurrectee) were dispatched to the library for last minute cross-referencing. It was much easier to infiltrate the building now that she could openly do so a la Panthera. (A plurality of the haunted literature bore a fondness for cats, thanks to the hypnotic purrs of a first edition T.S. Eliot.)

At the appropriate sub-basement, she shifted back into a form with opposable thumbs to plug the records clerk into his preferred terminal.

JP: Thanks for the lift! SEARCH: ancient sumer X-REF lophiiformes X-REF earthquakes

Carmilla turned away from the screen, intending to pass the time with a book; alas, all she could find were outdated encyclopaedias. (She might have actually referenced some of these exact editions during a previous stint at Silas.)

Taking it as a sign, she turned her attention back to the screen. Windows opened and closed. Photos of a yellowed scroll appeared and immediately were minimized. JP appeared to be uploading his findings directly to the Aethernet. (As entertainment, it was not particularly compelling.)

Carmilla felt a breeze (usually not an indoors thing, but hey, library) and was reminded that she had not bothered to glamour up clothes while shifting. If JP hadn’t commented, he was probably flying blind. “Hey, floppy disk, can you even hear me without a camera?”

JP: Indeed! Many terminals on the library network are equipped with hidden microphones for student surveillance.

Of course Maman had been listening in on the library. Carmilla did not want to think about her Mother. For a distraction, she stooped to gossiping. “So. You and the gingersnap. How does that work, exactly?”

JP: We are courting and it is enjoyable.

“I gathered that. But isn’t your incorporeality kind of a drag? Isn’t it unfair to the human, stuck lacking comforts you simply cannot provide?”

JP: Methinks the lady doth project too much.

“Touché.” Carmilla’s thoughts had, indeed, drifted to her cupcake-based insecurities. “You, however, are avoiding the question: what do you do for dates?”

JP: Why, we talk, about everything and anything. Brother Kirsch has generously ported me to a phone application, with audio.

Interesting; the pea-brain puppy had some sense after all. Just not when it came to choice of ‘bros.’ (Carmilla had not wasted a moment mourning William; the loathsome lickspittle had spent the entirety of their acquaintance needling her to exasperation and taking entirely too much glee in their most predatory nature.)

JP: Now I that can accompany them on excursions out of doors, we go to the laboratory and commissary and even the cinema!

JP: Oh, and, LaFontaine has shown me the Netflix. While I can process the written word exponentially faster than videotaped material, I find that observing at the speed of reality reminds me of my embodied youth.

Carmilla had never considered JP’s processing speeds; it opened up a host of compelling existential questions Hobbes could never have imagined. “Well, that all sounds delightful – for you. What’s in it for red?”

JP: … … … I’m afraid rather I don’t know?? I am simply flattered by their affections!

Carmilla’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not buying the modest act. I’m not sure how, but I can smell your fear; I think you’re lying.”

JP: This goes against the user agreement, but I feel I might burst, so I shall “spill”: we are falsifying our affections to provoke envy in Lola Perry!

“Because that’s exactly what this crowd needs, artificially induced adolescent dramatics. Truly, an A+ plan.” She made sure to pile the sarcasm thick enough that even a not sentient computer could recognize it.

JP: I am :( that you disapprove, but please do not tell anyone else, especially Perry. I did not wish to violate LaFontaine’s trust—

“Relax, you overgrown abacus, I’m not going to out you. But it’s childish. And ridiculous.”

After a moment, it was clear that neither of them were going to continue the conversation. “How much longer do you think you’ll need in the catalog?”

JP: Time to download completion estimated at 27 minutes. 26. 28. 23. 29…

With a disgusted sigh, Carmilla sunk to the floor. The linoleum was cold against her bare skin, so she shifted and grew until she had the appropriate anatomy for a catnap.

***

It had been a very long day. Perry had arranged for a re-resurrection and romantic reunion. She’d packed her life – and those of LaFontaine, the aforementioned inamoratas, and three recently traumatized young ladies – into her minivan. And, she had driven 400 km with absolutely no itinerary (except to skedaddle). All thanks to a terrifying monstrosity that caused the earth itself to quake. (Because those things are part of her life now.)

Now she was to spend the night in a small hotel room with LaFontaine and the laptop (which they had set up at the desk the instant they arrived). Perry and LaFontaine hadn’t really talked since the fight all those weeks ago. First LaF was missing, then they were back and brain-sucked, and then, out of nowhere, they were dating. It was the first time either of them had been in a formal romantic relationship, and Perry felt bad that they hadn’t given LaF a chance to gush to their best friend about it.

In some ways, the rift was worse than all the supernatural nonsense she’d endured. If she wanted to get back to normal, she would have to bite the bullet, and so she’d prepared. “LaFontaine. I owe you an apology.”

LaF turned around in the hotel desk chair, looking apprehensive. “I know you’re tired from driving; we don’t have to do this right now.”

“Yes, actually, I do, because I’ve been rehearsing it the whole drive and I’m going to forget something. Hush.”

LaFontaine made an appropriately conciliatory “zipping it” gesture.

“First: I am sorry that I keep calling you, you know, that name. Change is hard for me, but I’m supposed to be your best friend, so I’m going to keep trying.”

“I accept,” LaF muttered. They still seemed wary, but their eyes were gentler.

Perry pressed onwards. “Also. I’m sorry I’ve been so rattled by your, um, boyfriend. Even though he’s a… a ghost,” she couldn’t help but shudder a little, “he seems like he was – is – a good man. And if he makes you happy—”

“Nope. Cannot hear this.” LaF stood up and seemed to steel themself. “Look, Per: JP and I? Aren’t actually dating.”

Perry instantly forgot the rest of her speech. “Excuse me?”

LaF seemed slightly frightened by the abrupt tone change, but answered nonetheless. “Well, you jumped to insane conclusions about the, um, massager? So we decided to try playing along. But I never thought you’d actually buy it.”

And with that, Perry’s embarrassing relief transformed into righteous indignation at being deceived. “Why wouldn’t I buy it? I had no reason at all to think you would lie to me.”

“Yeah, lying’s the worst. I hated it, and I’m so, so sorry.” LaFontaine had stood up, grabbed her hand, and adopted a tragic hangdog expression; Perry was tempted to forgive without further questions, until they continued. “But I figured that, you know, you knew.”

“That I knew what, exactly?”

“Lola Ruth Perry, how could you not know? I’ve been in love with you for the past decade. And? I know you feel it too.”

Perry had not known. Not quite. Well, she had envisioned herself marrying LaFontaine ever since kindergarten (only to be told she should hold out for a nice Jewish boy). As they aged, her idle fantasies became active cravings, and Perry’s anxieties about societal judgement crystallized. She’d long ago vowed to believe it was just a one-sided quixotic whim (that, if acted upon, could ruin the very best thing in her life). Now that defense mechanism was shattered.

Perry did not remember removing her hand or sitting down on the bed; LaFontaine had kept their distance, but still seemed to be looming over her as they speechified. “I didn’t want to start anything before I figured out my gender stuff, but once it was out, I realized I was tired of pining while the Perry-in-denial process wrapped up. Then you were, you know, confused, and JP thought maybe if we played along it would help you realize —”

Perry latched onto the first thing in she heard that wasn’t completely overwhelming. “Oh, JP thought? If your flashdrive told you to jump off a bridge —”

“Per! That is so not the point. I just told you something huge. I know you can’t, like, say it back right away, but I really need to know that you heard me.”

Perry couldn’t look LaFontaine in the eyes. She knew what she would see – hope, fear, but mostly that damned tenderness. She’d never realized how much she counted on being able to turn around at any point and see that reassuring gaze until these last few weeks when it was gone. What if this didn’t work out, and then they went away, for good this time? “I have to go. For a drive. To clear my head.”

Still without looking, she knew LaF’s face had fell. “Right. At least take a bear spray?”

But Perry was already out the door; panic did not leave time to fish through luggage. She walked as fast as she could away from the room, trying not to think about anything except taking deep breaths as she made her way down to the parking lot.

Thus preoccupied, she was very much startled when she heard a voice. “Where’s the fire, Ms. Frizzle?” Carmilla was lurking in the shadows, illuminated only by her cigarette.

“My goodness! What are you doing out here? Where is Laura?”

Carmilla stepped into the light, and Perry could see an echo of that warm soft LaF expression in her eyes. “Safely asleep. I’m headed to those woods to hunt, after this… indulgence.”

“Right. Hunting for blood. Because you’re a vampire.” Perry was surprised at how easily that concept came to her lips; then again, she had seen one disintegrate beneath her stake just a week ago. “I suppose I can skip the ‘those things give you cancer’ lecture.”

“Please do.” Carmilla took the opportunity to blow a lackadaisical series of smoke rings. “So, what brings you out here with us creatures of the night?”

“It’s LaFontaine,” Perry said, wincing at the yearning that had crept into her angry voice.

Carmilla arched an eyebrow; Perry wasn’t sure what that meant, but darn it if she didn’t need someone at whom to vent.

“They’ve been lying to me, and hiding things for years! Big things—the kind of things you should talk to your best friend about. Gender dysphoria! Romantic feelings.” (Perry ignored the fact that they had mutually concealed the torches they carried.) “And then, all of this, all at once! I just want things to go back to normal.”

“Hate to tell you this, but I think you left normal behind when you enrolled at Silas.”

Perry laughed bitterly. “It was LaFontaine who convinced me to apply here with them, you know. All the paranormal activity has been… troublesome, but I was managing. Then the arguing, and the kidnapping, and the brain parasites…”

Carmilla had the decency to look guilty about that, but Perry was on a roll. “I truly thought I’d lost her – them, lost them – and I was caring for their shell and whittling stakes and fighting demons! And now we’re running from even more monsters. This is no time for all of these feelings!”

She felt as though her outburst was echoing through the entire empty parking lot. After a moment – long enough for Perry’s breathing to even out – Carmilla spoke.

“Okay, listen. I’m not one for this puerile rah-rah crap, but you caught me on a very good day. So, here goes.” Carmilla took a shaky drag off her cigarette. When she continued, her voice was even rougher than usual.  “Last week, when I died? Centuries flashed before my eyes. And my sole regret? Was not getting a chance to kiss her. I relived years of torturous interment; I was haunted by the faces of every girl I’d lured to her doom. But I wouldn’t’ve changed a moment, because all of it led me to her.”

Perry was struck how by young and human the ancient creature seemed. Carmilla was immortal and eternal, but opening herself to these feelings had made her utterly vulnerable. “It’s not that simple—”

“Kinda is, neatnik. Life is short, especially for you humans. Right now, we’re on the run from an aggravated demi-god. Even if we weren’t, you’re so fragile; a car crash, a heart attack…” Carmilla abruptly threw her cigarette on the ground and stomped it out. “And that is all the heartfelt I can bear.” She awkwardly patted Perry on the shoulder, and told her to, “go get ‘em, tiger” before disappearing into a puff of acrid black smoke.

Perry chose to ignore Carmilla’s disregard for the laws of physics to address that of the laws of man. She’d seen a trash can just inside the hotel door – there was absolutely no excuse for littering. After she threw out the cigarette butt, Perry found herself heading back up the stairs, reflecting on the unexpected and impromptu pep talk all the while.

Upon reaching their room, she saw LaFontaine moping at the desk. Their laptop was open and JP was chattering away. Even knowing it was misplaced, Perry couldn’t help but acknowledge that it was, indeed, jealousy flaring up in her stomach – and that she never wanted to feel it again.

“Hey, you’re back fast—” but LaF was cut off, as Perry had grabbed them by the vest collar and pulled them up into a kiss.

And yes, it was a little awkward – their lips were chapped; Perry was the one who’d always reminded them of things like proper hydration – but it was also exactly right. LaF smelled the same as they always had, and they flung themself into the kiss with the same enthusiasm as they did a new hypothesis. There was no way this feeling could ruin anything, and even if it could, it might be worth it. It was here, in the secure embrace of her beloved best friend, that Perry for the first time felt unequivocally safe.