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by the horns

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"Oh," Menolly says uncertainly, and draws away. They're both still lying on the soft blankets of Mirrim's bed, the thick winter coverings flung back untidily over the foot of the bed where Mirrim left them. They're both still naked.

Mirrim feels so strange, so open and wanton, to be naked like this in the middle of the day. Her body is still so hot and flushed and wet, humming with recent pleasure, even now that her connection with her fire lizard has faded. It is so hard not to just sink into that sweet warmth, that contentment.

But Menolly has withdrawn into the far corner, folded into herself, her knees bent and tucked into her body.

Mirrim feels her stomach sink.

Menolly's face is flushed red, and there are curling wisps of hair stuck to her forehead, the round curve of her cheek. Mirrim keeps her eyes fixed firmly on Menolly's face. Doesn't dare let herself look lower. At Menolly's bare shoulder, the freckled arch of her collarbone, the softer skin just below it where her tan starts to fade - no. No.

(But Mirrim can remember what the salt on Menolly's skin tasted like, when she kissed Menolly's breasts and belly and hip. She knows the exact silky softness against her fingers when she touched Menolly between her legs, and the soft noises she made, and the way she tasted - )

"I'm sorry," Mirrim blurts out, and immediately regrets it. At least she can't blush, right now - as hot as she feels, her face must be brilliant red already.

"I - " Menolly looks down at the floor, looking lost and upset. "I - no. No, it isn't your fault, Mirrim. You shouldn't have to apologise to me."

"No. No, I shouldn't have," Mirrim says, gruffly. The brilliant sparkling joy from earlier is gone as if it had never been. She feels flat and sad, as miserable as Menolly looks right now. She feels - lonely -

I am here! Path says in her mind, very indignantly. You are not alone, you should not be lonely! I am always here.

Oh, dear heart, Mirrim thinks despairingly, struggling to reassure her. No - I didn't mean it like that  -

Then what did you mean? Path thinks, and it is nothing more than an innocent, curious question from a dragon who is after all very young.

There is no reason for Mirrim to feel so flustered, so crossly defensive. No reason for her to close her mind immediately to Path, as best she can.

There is no logical reason for Mirrim to do so many of the things she does. She is so awkward - so irritable - so unpleasant - for no reason - of course Mirrim knows the things people say about her, of course she knows.

It's not as if people hide what they actually think of her. Not really. Not enough.

The more people say those things about her (quietly in corners, far away enough that Mirrim cannot quite hear everything, but still close enough for her to hear) - the more they talk about her, the more Mirrim she becomes.

She can't help it.

Even when she feels Path withdraw from her, confused and hurt.

Even when she can see Menolly looking at her, looking so worried at whatever emotions are passing across Mirrim's face.

I love you - I'll explain later - I can't talk now, I'm with Menolly - I'm sorry, I love you -

Path pulls away from her completely, grumpily, without responding.

Mirrim swallows hard, feeling tears prickle at the corner of her eyes. How can she explain to Path what she is feeling when it is so ridiculous, when she doesn't even understand why she is feeling this way, so bitterly disappointed that Menolly is pulling away from her -

That Menolly does not seem happy about what they have done -

Oh.

Oh.

Mirrim swallows again around the sudden lump in her throat. Suddenly she is conscious of the silence between them, the dreadful pause that is stretching on and on.

 "You should stay away from me when your queen is rising," Mirrim says, abruptly. "I know - I know it's hard when you have to do things you don't want to. So you shouldn't be near me. You should stay away from us."

 Menolly frowns, and now she looks cross, as well as upset.

"But I didn't," she begins, and then pauses. Her cheeks are growing pink again.

"I thought. I thought you wanted -"

"You thought I wanted what?" Mirrim says hoarsely, harshly. More embarrassed than she can remember being for years.

Menolly looks down. As she bends her head a shaft of the lamplight catches in her hair, bringing out the coppery red in it. Mirrim can't stop looking at her -

"When Beauty rose. It felt - I never thought I could feel like that, I never knew, and I. I - "

"It's like that sometimes," Mirrim says quickly, interrupting. Not wanting to hear the hurt she knows is coming. "When I'm with Path. We're so cross about everything, beforehand, and it feels so awful, but we can't do anything about it. We hate it. And then - well, then it's alright, because I'm with her and she's happy. I don't mind what we do, really. But it's. I wouldn't. If I wasn't with her, I wouldn't. And you don't have to - not like I have to. You should stay away from us."

Menolly frowns. "It's not really like that with fire lizards though, is it? I thought - when it's your dragon, I thought you had to, just like you say. But with Beauty it didn't feel like I had to. I thought - I wanted - "

She blushes, suddenly. Mirrim can see the colour deepening in her face.

"Menolly?" Mirrim says cautiously. It almost sounds like she's saying -

Menolly raises her head for the first time, eyes clear and bright.

"Mirrim," she says, and she sounds so certain. So brave. "Mirrim, if you didn't want to - then I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, and I'll stay away. But I wanted to. I knew what we were doing, really. I wanted to."

Mirrim's head jerks upwards. "Menolly," she says, hoarse.

If her friend can be brave, Mirrim can be brave.

"I wanted it too," she says, hearing the roughness in her own voice. "I could have stopped, I think. I think I knew what was happening before you did. But you looked so happy and - and - eager, and I wanted - "

"I don't think I knew what I wanted until now," Menolly says. Her little familiar smile is back, tilting up the corners of her mouth. "But I'm glad. I'm so glad. I still don't know how I can want this, how we can want this, but - I do. I do."

Mirrim can feel herself smiling now, too, so bright and so wide. "If you are a Harper," she says, slowly. "If you are a Harper, a clever handsome Harper come to visit the Weyr, then who would say a word when you took a Weyr girl to your bed...?"

Menolly suddenly grins, very bright. "And if you are a rider, a brave handsome rider, then who would say a word when you took a Holdbred girl to your bed...?"

"No-one," Mirrim says, and her smile is triumph. "No-one at all."