Aubrey swatted absently at her bare arms. Her aesthetic was worth every bite, but that didn’t mean she could make peace with the persistent bugs. Summer brought with it an ideal breeding climate for mosquitoes, with humidity that clung like brambles to the backs of innocent people and heat that filled throats enough to suffocate.
“I’m being eaten alive, Dani,” Aubrey moaned. “How come you aren’t being bitten?”
Dani shrugged, a curl of her hair falling forward off her shoulder. “I guess they don’t like the taste of Sylvan blood. They’re better off not getting a taste.”
Aubrey reasoned she imagined the flash of sharp teeth in Dani’s smile, but even if the visage were real, Aubrey didn’t mind. There was a bit of danger in Dani, coupled with her devastatingly adorable looks; in many ways, Aubrey was helpless and a bit of a disaster.
“I’m sure you taste just fine,” Aubrey blurted into the silence. “Your blood. To the mosquitoes. Or other interested parties.”
Dani drew her lip in to bite down on it, containing a laugh. She nodded in appreciation. “Thank you, Aubrey; that’s very kind.”
As they continued their hike, Aubrey kicked at the stray stones littering the trail, perhaps a bit too roughly. Dani was the kind one, going out of her way to humor Aubrey’s odd requests—from “I wanna learn how to build a shed” to “Let’s go find some crayfish,” Aubrey always had something prepared to drag Dani away. She wasn’t skilled at hiding her intentions, either, given Aubrey’s tendency to stutter and blush at the mere sight of the Sylvan. And each time Dani agreed, Aubrey silently berated herself for not spending more time on her ideas.
Mushroom hunting again? It was like she couldn’t even bother being original .
Lifting her face, Aubrey realized that Dani had scaled the trail to its next peak; with her back to Aubrey, Dani appeared divine, silhouetted by summer sunlight, and Aubrey tripped, narrowly grabbing a branch for support.
At the sound of Aubrey’s boots scraping against rock, Dani turned, those dazzling eyes widened with concern. “Are you alright?”
“Fine, fine, perfect, yes,” Aubrey muttered, jogging up the rest of the way. When she saw Dani watching her, Aubrey flexed instinctively. “See? Right as rain.”
Dani covered her mouth with a hand and laughed. “Clearly.”
Ignoring her own embarrassment, Aubrey raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Think we’re getting close?”
Dani pursed her lips. “Barclay said it shouldn’t be too far from the stream, but we crossed that an hour ago. Maybe we took a wrong turn?”
Pressing a hand against her chest, Aubrey forced herself to remain rational. “Maybe.”
As though sensing her distress, Dani braced a hand on Aubrey’s shoulder, squeezing through the denim. “I’m not sure what exactly has you excited about Kepler’s frog population, but I’m in it with you. We’ve come too far to give up.”
Aubrey internally cringed at the reminder; did she even seem interested in frogs? How she pulled off this ruse, she wasn’t sure. A knot of guilt nestled in her stomach at the thought that she’d been misleading Dani all this time, but she dismissed it.
With a bright grin, Aubrey turned toward the sun, basking in its warmth. “I think we should head this way.”
“Did you remember something?”
“Nope, just a hunch.”
Dani smiled. “I trust it. You’ve got good instincts.”
“Let’s hope so!” In her naturally enthusiastic fashion, Aubrey began her perpendicular trek, scanning the mountainside. They were far from the peaks, but from this vantage point the town of Kepler appeared smaller than ever, faint lights glinting in the distance. It was humbling. She wondered if Dani felt the same way.
As Aubrey led the way, she raised branches so that Dani wouldn’t hit her head and made a show of avoiding dips in the earth. She did so without intention, moving on impulse, and the unexpected reward of Dani’s appreciation was enough to compel her to continue.
But soon, the silence between them grew heavy. Aubrey, nearly bursting, spared a glance back at Dani who kept pace easily, eyes trained ahead. When Dani saw Aubrey turn, she tilted her head inquisitively but smiled nonetheless.
“So, vampire, huh?” Aubrey blurted.
Dani’s features shifted bemusedly. “I suppose. That’s the closest approximation in your world.”
“Have you ever… met a werewolf?”
“Of course. I was friends with a whole pack back in Sylvain,” Dani said. “Does your world have a fascination with vampires and werewolves?”
Aubrey blanched, standing still to address Dani directly. “Well, no, I mean. There’s a lot of overlap?”
“So a whole pack, huh?”
Dani nodded. “They were nice, a bit rowdy at times, but their bakery was divine.”
Aubrey opened her mouth to make an instinctive remark— You don’t usually see werewolf bakers, am I right? —but silenced herself before uttering the first syllable. She was working on limiting her ignorance in regards to the Sylvan way of life, in spite of the knowledge gap.
Instead, she caught herself igniting sparks between her fingers, then settled for pressing her thumb and forefinger together as a sort of self-censorship. “You read much?”
“Not that much,” Dani said, her tone betraying her surprise. “There are a few books in the Lodge’s lobby that I’ve skimmed.”
“Have you read Twilight?”
Dani’s lips quivered, not as though she were about to cry but rather she was trying very hard not to laugh. “No,” she said, one hand falling to press against her stomach, “I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, yeah, me either.”
“My understanding is that those vampires are… silly,” Dani said. “I can almost guarantee they aren’t an accurate representation.”
Aubrey nodded. “Like, you’re pretty, but you don’t sparkle.”
In a rare moment of expression, Dani flushed. “Thank you.”
“And, uh, the Twilight vamps have this weird sort of rivalry with the werewolves, and there’s a guy who falls in love with a baby, which is super weird, and there’s a whole vampire council in Italy, for some reason—”
“You seem very knowledgeable about these books, Aubrey.”
Her mouth fell agape, all words dead on her tongue. She tried to swallow but found her mouth painfully dry. Ashamed, she hung her head. “Okay, okay, I lied. I read them. A while ago. And I didn’t totally hate them. But I respect you and your heritage and you are nothing like those vampires because I guess you technically aren’t a vampire at all and—”
Dani’s eyebrows had risen high into her hair, but the fondness on her face was enough to calm Aubrey down. If anything, it seemed that Dani was amused, not offended, by her antics.
Dipping into a deep, unnecessary bow, Aubrey said, “I apologize on behalf of humanity for misrepresenting you and Sylvans in general. You’re a great, uh… person? And I like spending time with you, and I’m sure if more people knew you like I do, they’d feel the same way.”
“I don’t think you have the kind of authority to apologize for your entire world,” Dani quipped, poking Aubrey’s nose. “But I appreciate it.”
With an extended sigh of relief, Aubrey planted her hands on her hips and looked out to the horizon. She hadn’t said all that she’d wanted to, but it was a start. “Glad I got that off my chest. Been holding onto that for a while.”
“Your obsession with mediocre vampire novels?”
Aubrey averted her eyes. “Yeah. That’s it.”
Dani moved closer and linked her arm with Aubrey’s, easing into the motion. “It’s getting late. It’ll be dark soon. What should we do?”
Though her brain felt as though it had temporarily short-circuited, Aubrey managed a reply. “I was thinking we might, uh, reschedule. And if you wanted to, maybe, go burn a few bad vampire books or watch a really bad movie version and make fun of it, that might be nice?”
With a smile that warmed like Aubrey’s flames, Dani nodded. “Why not both?”
Aubrey dared to draw Dani’s arm closer and hesitantly reached for her hand. When Dani eagerly laced her fingers with hers, Aubrey felt heat surge from her other hand, and she clenched her fist to contain it. “Yeah,” she said, hoping her heart wouldn’t leap from her lips. “Sounds good.”
As they began their descent, Aubrey found she couldn’t keep herself focused on any one thought. Her eyes followed the trails of birds and falling leaves, and she caught single lines of lyrics from songs she’d forgotten, the notes repeating on endless loops. All the while, she struggled to maintain a proper grip on Dani’s hand, fearful of squeezing too tightly and harming her, but also afraid of letting her go.
“We can hunt for frogs another day,” Dani spoke reassuringly into the silence, and Aubrey nearly jumped, startled by the interjection.
Instead, she laughed sheepishly, skimming her free hand along the shaved part of her head. “Actually, I’m really not… that invested in frogs,” she confessed. “Or, uh, mushrooms, for that matter.”
Dani laughed. “I thought that might be the case.”
Blinking, Aubrey stopped moving, and Dani caught herself with ease. Staring wide-eyed, Aubrey blurted, “But you still came.”
“Yeah,” Dani said. “I did.”
Aubrey took a robotic step forward, and when she felt a slight resistance in Dani’s hand, she turned, prepared to release. But Dani simply tugged her backward, just a step, and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “So you don’t get the wrong idea,” she said lightly, then breezed past.
Dazed, Aubrey trailed behind, mesmerized by the way Dani’s pale hair bounced with each footstep. “Um,” she said, forcing herself to catch up. “I guess it… goes without saying but, I like you?”
Dani shook her head, accustomed by now to Aubrey’s tendencies, her obliviousness and charm. “It goes without saying,” she said, “but the feeling is mutual.”
She squeezed Aubrey’s hand for confirmation, and Aubrey was grateful for the physical sensation, much like a pinch proving that an experience is not quite a dream.
“Cool,” Aubrey said, fully aware of the heat spreading from her fingers to her face. “Let’s go burn some books.”