Ann mostly thought about it in the dark, when no one could see her face. She was especially self-conscious about it. Her mother often quipped that Ann’s face mirrored her thoughts more plainly than a book, and all of her words were twice as loud when they both left her lips and played on her eyebrows. She urged Ann to be more like her friend, who remained withdrawn even when it was just the two of them.
“Catherine is perfect,” her mother gushed whenever she could. “You should aim to be more like her.”
Ann agreed. Probably too enthusiastically.
Catherine was beautiful, in a classic way. Her high cheekbones, full lips, and exquisitely styled hair inspired Ann to draw whenever she sat before a blank page. She longed to act on that inspiration. However, it would be strange to draw a portrait when all of her other subjects were landscapes, flowers, and bugs. Even worse, what if the likeness was poor, and it offended her?
In the dark, Ann’s mind traced the full curve of her lips. Ann filled in the lines with baby pink and a glimmer of softness. She touched her own lip, wondering if Catherine’s felt the same.
Ann didn’t know what was wrong with her. Her idle mind thought only of girls. At the forefront of her mind there was Catherine, with her gentle, coy smiles and perfect fashion. Ann wanted to look like her, but, oh, how she wanted to kiss her, too. The thrill of touching her was for art only—she touched leaves before dabbing greens and yellows on the canvas, and felt the warm sun on her face before adding light to her landscapes. It made sense to want to touch the sharp, full planes of a human face to capture it fully.
And then there were those she hardly knew, strangers that came, unbidden, in her dreams. Dashing Ser Lister, whose masculine swagger excited Ann when she knew she should be revolted. Ser Lister was her father’s newest addition to the kingsguard, and the only one of them that wasn’t a crusty old man. Each of the women filled her thoughts: Catherine’s curls and playful shyness, Ser Lister’s strong, perfect hands and dangerous smile—Ann yearned for them. She wanted to be both so badly, perfect in their own, separate ways, and ways which she always felt short, caught between.
Catherine tossed and turned beside Ann in the bed. The sheets rustled, growing louder with her frustration. Finally, she huffed.
“What’s wrong?” Ann whispered.
The dark was so immediate, she wondered that it didn’t whisk the words away from her mouth, like snuffing a candle out. She hated the inner rooms of the castle. With no windows to let in starlight and thick, heavy doors blocking the flicker of torches in the hallways, they felt like prisons.
“I can’t sleep,” Catherine admitted, her voice scratchy with exhaustion.
“Why?” Ann said. She tried her best to not sound completely awake.
“Oh, this castle. It’s still new to me, I—that’s why I asked you to sleep in my room tonight,” she admitted, embarrassed.
Ann’s brother began courting Catherine last spring. If they married, that would make them some kind of family, she supposed. Her stomach churned with both excitement and dread at the thought. Ann was related to everyone: dukes and lordlings with meaningless titles all claimed a connection to the royal bloodlines, and that made them happy. And loyal. The Rawsons were a powerful family. Ann’s friendship with Catherine wasn’t a powerful enough bond to sustain their loyalty. There needed to be a greater connection, preferably one that supplied heirs for the throne.
Ann knew why, yet her gut churned at the thought of Catherine and her brother touching hands, kissing, sleeping next to each other. Ann wanted that with her instead. She was Catherine's friend since childhood. She had always admired her beauty, listened to her murmur at length about what she learned in her classes, and brushed away her fears. Ann loved her brother, and thought he was kind and sweet, but knew he didn't care for Catherine as much as she did.
Catherine continued, “The b-boys have been s-saying there are spirits. It’s silly. But sometimes, in the dark, I think—I mean, I wonder if it’s true. Then I get scared. I haven’t seen anything.”
“Oh, Catherine. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Ser Lister—my father’s new knight—is stationed at the end of the corridor tonight. She’ll keep us safe,” Ann said.
Ann’s thoughts drifted to what the knight looked like beneath her armor. Arms and back knotted with muscle and sore from standing guard during the wee hours of the night. Ann dreamt of charming her, playing with her fingertips, and leaned into her pillow pretending it was Anne’s chest as she held her close—
“Ugh,” Catherine scoffed. Though Ann couldn’t see her, she knew Catherine rolled her eyes and curled her lip. “I don’t like her. Too arrogant. Knights are supposed to be, I don't know, romantic. She’s always showing off.”
“Father seems to think she takes it seriously enough,” Ann pressed.
“You just think she’s attractive,” Catherine teased. “I see the way you blush when she says something—ugh. Annoying.”
“I don’t! It wouldn’t matter if I did. I’m a child, and she’s—” Ann searched for the word, and, failing, sputtered, “—not. And she’s a kingsguard.”
Catherine agreed, “Yes, those things are true. But that’s not what I asked—you’re still attracted to her. You always talk about how you don't like knights, but you stop talking in the middle of what you're saying just to watch her pass by, like you like her.”
“I do not, ” Ann said, pushing her shoulder.
Catherine pushed back. They giggled, wrestling in her dark, a mess of hands, hair, and legs. Catherine collapsed beside her. She rested her head on Ann’s shoulder and trapped her arm under her body.
“Are you still scared?” Ann asked, breathless.
“No!” she sputtered, giggling. “But being close to you is nice.”
Ann’s heart pounded more fiercely than the clock ticked. Catherine still smelled of her bath, like a lick of floral perfume and fresh soap. Stray wisps of her hair tickled Ann’s lips and cheek. Her single, overwhelming thought was of how close Catherine’s lips were to hers, and if she only needed to tilt her head to fulfill her fantasy.
Ann was painfully aware of Catherine’s shirt riding up her back. Her fingertips rested on a sliver of smooth, warm skin. Catherine was softer than anything she’d touched before. She longed to touch more of her. She ached to slip both of her hands under the light cotton shirt, trace the gentle curve of her spine, grip the planes of her shoulder blades, and press her friend close.
“Mmm, that feels nice,” Catherine hummed into her neck.
Ann realized with horror that her hands started to brush the shape of Catherine’s exposed skin, her fingertips tracing lines that dipped and rose with the curve of her body. Trembling, she lay her hand flat on Catherine’s back and teased the hem of her shirt. Catherine sucked in a breath.
She said, “That really feels good, Ann. I have an itch, right in the middle of my back. Could you…?”
Ann stopped herself from saying, “ Gods , yes.”
Ann smoothed Catherine’s back under her shirt. Catherine was soft and perfect, the delicate planes of her body more gentle and lovely than the most expensive velvet. She circled a dimple on the back of Catherine’s shoulder with a finger. She swallowed to stifle a groan building at the tip of her tongue.
Ann realized too late that Catherine meant to scratch above the fabric, but instead of remarking on the mistake, her friend let out a deep sigh into her shoulder.
“Hmm?” Ann said, and turned her head.
Their lips touched. Catherine’s mouth was as warm as the first touch of sunlight and as light as a feather. Ann held her breath, concentrating all her willpower into not moving her lips, in case it was an accident. She held her breath.
“Sorry,” Catherine murmured.
But Catherine didn’t pull away. Her lips brushed Ann’s when she spoke. The movement was too much. Ann cupped Catherine’s cheek in her hand, and her friend leaned in at her suggestion. Their bodies pressed together, impossibly close. Catherine rested her hand on Ann’s waist. Ann kissed her.
They melted into each other. Catherine’s lips and tongue wet her mouth and her hot, panting breaths moistened Ann’s cheek. Ann buried her hands in Catherine’s lovely, impeccable curls and held her close. Catherine groaned in surprise.
“Touch me, Cath,” Ann whispered.
Ann gasped when Catherine’s hand gripped the inside of her thigh. Ann’s arousal wet her underclothes, clinging the light fabric to her thighs and to her swollen clit. She nearly screamed when Cath traced a finger lightly over the length of her clit, a radiating sensation building and flourishing through her body. Catherine laughed into their kiss.
“You’re so sensitive, Ann,” she teased.
“Please don’t stop,” Ann begged.
Ann had never been touched before. She always imagined what it might be like, but never expected this. She struggled to give Catherine control, yet melted and purred with each gentle ministration. They mostly kissed, the sensation so new and their hunger so fierce that it almost felt like nothing could fully satiate it. Catherine's curls tickled her cheek. Their mouths were wet and slippery, and once or twice, their teeth clashed. They giggled at themselves.
Yet the ache between Ann’s legs could only be satisfied by strong hands. A firm, bulging bicep, a muscled shoulder marred by years of battles. Gripping the folds of Catherine’s nightgown, Ann fabricated those things in her mind while her friend rubbed her swollen clit with light, clumsy strokes. Behind her closed eyes, Ser Lister smiled at her. A warm mouth bit her delicate flesh. She could only imagine Ser Lister’s teeth scraping her throat.
The word left her lips before she could stop it.
“Oh, Anne…” she sighed.
Words aren’t the kind of thing one can take back once they slip. The kissing and nipping stopped, and Catherine withdrew her hand from between Ann’s legs like she’d been burned.
“What?” Catherine said.
The dark allowed Ann to exchange Catherine’s lovely, vibrant femininity for Ser Lister’s arrogant demeanor. Catherine was too gentle to be a knight. Ann’s stomach sank with shame.
Knights were stupid, ridiculous, and glorified. They were arrogant when they should be humble, violent when they should do everything in their power to avoid conflict, and valued the titles bestowed to them by men and not gods. She hated their inflated sense of self-importance. Yet, there was something in Ser Lister’s smile, something in her strength, that persisted despite her dislike. Ann didn't want to like her. She didn't want to dream of her, yet the word slipped from her mouth despite it.
“Sorry,” Ann said immediately. “I just—I meant to say—”
“No. It’s fine,” Catherine said, though it clearly wasn’t. “Let’s just pretend this never happened. It was weird. I’m—I’m about to be betrothed. To your brother . This shouldn’t have—no one can ever know.”
“Right,” Ann said.
Ann crept into the cold, stiff sheets, still flushing from embarrassment. Catherine shoved a pillow under the covers between them, and lay with her back turned.
The universe caved in on itself. The small prison of a castle room had all the air sucked out. Ann struggled to breathe, gasping air from the darkness like it only had so much to give. She felt like she was dying. She was dying. And through the darkness, Catherine snored, finally asleep beside her. She was dying, and no one knew, not the lovely girl beside her on the bed, or strong Ser Lister in the hallway, who hardly knew that she existed.