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Anything Hurts Less Than the Quiet

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Used to give each other world, every bit, I used to be the one you'd come to when it'd all go to shit, now I'm left here in the dust with the taste of broken trust...

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They’d set up camp. Laura hated it because it meant they were acknowledging that this was happening, that this was the way their life was now. There was a sense of permanence in stacking up all the food and organizing a research area with the antiquated computers and picking spots to claim with blankets and pillows around a lamp pretending to be a campfire. But it also brought a sense of normalcy Laura craved, she could create a routine out of this, she could have familiarity in the dark.

Laf had taken a sleeping bag and a single pillow off to the side closest to the stacks of books. Laura claimed a spot close to the light with two blankets and a pillow of her own. Carmilla was a few yards away from them both, no blankets or pillows each night as she curled up in on herself and slept with her back to them, facing the wall. Even in the basement she was, of course, still Carmilla with littered wrappers from food and used blood bags the library dropped for her every few days. She slept often and disappeared into the rows of books when she wasn’t. She answered when spoken to and occasionally initiated conversation, but mainly she kept to herself.

It wasn’t out of contempt, she looked nothing but contemplative when Laura caught her stare and looked back at her like she couldn’t bear to burden her with whatever fog was hovering in her head. And Laura, for a few fleeting moments out of the day, craved the days when she would be the only one allowed to know what was happening inside Carmilla’s head. Now it was like she was stranger all over again.

“Have you tried talking to her at all?” she asked Laf one day over a stack of books on Babylonian mythology.

“Why the hell would I do that?”

“Well, I just—She seems kind of down and I think maybe talking might help whatever she’s hung up on,” Laura said.

“And I would be a better choice than her ex-girlfriend because?”

“Oh come on,” Laura said. “I’m public enemy number 1 at this point in the altruistic department.”

That sounds like a cop out,” they said.

Laura groaned and dropped her book spine first onto the stack below, heavy and poignant. She could feel Laf’s eyeroll and stare as she pretended to read and went over the same sentence about Hammurabi’s Law three times.

“You’re worried about her then talk, if you don’t want to do it then oh well. I like her, don’t get me wrong, but we’re not chummy,” they said. “Besides she’s no broodier than usual to me.”

“Well, she is to me.”

“Then do something about it vampire expert, or stop complaining and read,” they said.

Laura let out more sounds of frustration and spent the rest of the day wanting to claw her eyes out rather than read one more chapter but Laf was restless. Laura wondered how she would feel in their position, if it was Carmilla missing. And she remembered the nights she spent alone in the dark believing her gone forever. She hadn’t even wanted to muster up the energy to research, she’d wanted to lay on her floor and cry. So she had to hand it to Laf, they were a far better friend than she’d ever been. Maybe Carmilla was right, she was selfish even in her most despairing moments.

She rubbed her eyes and tried some more into the night before they called it quits. Carmilla was just waking up from her hovel to the side. While they’d been together she’d try to sync her sleeping schedule with Laura or at least fake it long enough to let Laura fall asleep holding her before she pranced around into the night and slipped back in by sunrise. Now she had no reason, no one to hold while she slept, so she spent their waking hours in her own dreams and did who knows what while they slept.

And it had given Laura a front row seat to mumbles and shakes as nightmares of coffins and her mother woke her up in the middle of the night. She was helpless to do anything but watch and then pretend to be reading when Carmilla woke, scared, and then angry, and talked off before they heard sounds of knocked over furniture and things hitting stone walls. Occasionally, Laura was brave enough to place a hand to her forehead and hush her like she’d done so many months ago on cold winter nights and they were alone.

And Laura watched her sleep, watched the creases in her forehead and echo of lungs as her chest rose and fell, forgetting in sleep that it was centuries past use. She used to sprawl out across the bed and now she was mimicking a ball as best she could, tucked in and small. During the times their paths crossed, Laura might watch her onyx eyes in the candlelight and the way she always bit one corner of her lip while reading and barely blinked.

She thought about how she had almost lost all of that. And then she realized, quite plainly, one morning over a breakfast of Little Debbies:

“I’m in love with Carmilla.”

Laf kept chewing on their brownie, frowning perhaps at how unlike Perry’s the prepackaged, iced version was before they looked up and swallowed.

“What?” they said, noticing Laura’s desperate eyes.

“Did you hear me?”

“Yeah, was I supposed to comment or?”

Laura sighed.

“Why am I always the last to know everything.”

“Hard to see what’s right in front of us, even harder to see what’s inside you. Trust me, I devoted an entire major to trying.”

Laura frowned.

“And how do you deal with it?”

“I ask why. You take apart a frog or a cow brain and you say why is this there? I’ve never seen it before but it must be important.”

“Asking why sounds—awful.”

Laf laughed at that and nodded.

“Probably is sometimes. But if you ever want to be anything to her again, you have to start somewhere.”

So one afternoon (according to an old wrist watch they’d found) Laura waited patiently as Carmilla slept. LaFontaine had rolled their eyes and groaned, walking about with a stack of books saying they didn’t want to be apart of creeping on her in her sleep, let alone the conversation that would follow. But Laura sat quietly, keeping an eye on every one of Carmilla’s nosy outbursts or groans as dreams ebbed. Around 6pm she started rolling over more violently until she flopped onto her back and sat up.

Laura lowered her eyes, open book on her lap, trying not to seem obvious.

“Can I help you?” Carmilla yawned before blindly reaching out for her cup of blood.

“Oh! I didn’t notice you there,” she said, closing the book a little too loudly.

“Nice try. I could feel your eyes on me well into my 5th dream, what is it?” she said.

She didn’t sound angrier than usual or even sad, maybe this whole thing was a mistaken entirely. Maybe she should just find a way to backpedal right out of it and call the entire thing a day, let her feelings fester the rest of her life and die an old, grumpy woman surrounding by cookies that could never feel the void left in her—

Okay no. She should probably just go for it.

“I—I actually did want to talk to you, if that’s okay?” Laura said.

“Laura Hollis asking permission?” Carmilla chuckled, eyes dark over the lip of her cup.

“I think I’ve learned asking permission is a vital part of communicating with you,” Laura said, darker than she meant to and Carmilla popped up an eyebrow.

“It’s one of those talks,” she said.

Laura sighed and stood up. She stuck out a hand, open and flat, an offer. Carmilla eyed it, swiveled her eyes up to Laura and then back down to the hand again. Eventually she took one large gulp, wiped her mouth on her sleeve, and placed her calloused hand into the softer one and pulled.

The last time their hands had met was in desperation, when Carmilla was the only thing on earth tethering Laura to reality. She’d wanted to cry then, in fear, and guilt, and even happiness to be able to hold that hand. It was calmer now as Carmilla rose to eye level and held on only a moment longer before letting go. She stepped back and gestured for Laura to walk.

“How—um, how are you? How are you doing?”

“I can feel the awkward practically steaming those veins cutie, ask away. I’m an open book.”

“You’re not, that’s the problem.”

Carmilla slowed her walk and turned her head. Her hands went in her pockets.

“Were you wanting a daily report? Because I think I left my dream journal back at the house.”

“You can do this without being mean.”

“I’m not sure what you’re asking me for here, buttercup.”

“I’m not asking for anything—“

“Well, that is a first.”

“Hey.”

Laura had stopped walking with a stop of her right foot and Carmilla realized it after two more steps forward. She turned around and sighed, looking at Laura like someone might look at a 5 year old demanding to go in a Build-A-Bear. And if Laura’s blood wasn’t steaming before, it certainly was now.

“Laf talks to me a lot about what’s going in their head with Perry. And you let me kind of unload on you a few days ago after I—we—after the thing happened,” she said, setting her jaw as best she could. “I just want to make sure you’re okay too. You’re quiet and go off on your own all the time, so I just wanted to ask.”

“Are you trying to put me on the couch? You forgot the rope and duct tape, remember?” she said.

“So you are mad at me.”

Carmilla let out a sigh surprisingly deep for the lack of air she was really expelling. She shook her head and pursed her lips.

“Darling, after everything that happened, if I was mad at you, you’d be a red stain on the floor,” she said.

And then she turned and walked away, very much on her heel, and without warning. Laura had to shake her head and roll up her sleeves before she gathered herself up enough again to go jogging after her.

“Hey, we can talk—“

“Or we can let it be. Things are fine—“

“Things are awkward—“

“Is abating awkwardness really your top priority?”

“It is if you’re sad or hurting and have no one to go to.”

Carmilla stared her then like the cover of a book. She was reading something between the lines in Laura’s eyes and wrinkled forehead. If she found anything, she made no show of it us as she turned away with the same stone face and walked evenly farther down into the stacks.

Laura didn’t hear a word from Carmilla for two days.

----

It was ultimately the library that forced them to talk again. Carmilla had been hoarding books in the art history section when Laura had tripped over a tile that certainly had not been there two seconds ago and was sent tumbling into the expressionism stack. Next thing they knew they were locked in between four shelves that had moved in like a cage.

By the first hour one of the flood lamps Carmilla had been using to read from was now sitting in the middle of the floor between them, flickering every now and again like it might be a real campfire. Carmilla was nose deep in a book in German and Laura had to focus on one of her socks to keep from staring at her for too long.

“So. This sucks,” Laura said.

“That is does,” Carmilla said, eyes still on the page.

“It’s like we’re in time out or something,” she said.

“Hmm.”

It was more than they talked in 36 hours and yet it made Laura ache. They’d once stayed up until near dawn, holding each other and giggling as Carmilla spoke to her in German and French and told her stories about running free around Europe. She’d paint constellations for her on the ceiling of their tent or the canopy of their bed or the tiles of a diner.

And now it was impossible to get whole sentences out.

She remembered those early hours after Carmilla’s would-be execution, how Carmilla hadn’t left her side, brought her piles of food, and poked and poked until she spoke. And when they did, she’d let it all out and gripped Carmilla like the only buoy for miles. They’d been more honest with each other in those moments than they’d been in two semesters. How could they get back to that?

“Carm, do you remember that night we kissed over that dumb Egyptian chess game?”

Well, that was one way to get to the point.

Carmilla’s eyes stayed on the page but she’d seen them widen, for a brief moment and her fingers stiffen as the leather groaned in response. Her rearranged her grip and took a long blink.

“Yes,” she said.

It wasn’t often that Carmilla Karnstein could be reduced to monosyllabic responses and Laura had to smile at that just a little bit.

“Well…that hole’s kind of still there,” Laura said, swallowing. “And I’m not asking you to do anything about that. But if you’re hurting too, it might be nice to not be alone about it?”

The book was slowly lowering but Carmilla’s eyes remained apprehensively averted from Laura’s. The white caps of her knuckles were calming.

“And it occurred to me a while ago,” she continued before she could stop herself. “That I’d been so scared of telling you I was sorry or worried that it wouldn’t enough…that I never actually said it to you.”

Carmilla looked up at that, her face softer than Laura had seen it since the night in question. The book closed quietly and Carmilla finally lifted her eyes up and coal met honey somewhere in the middle, not unlike their once-joined hands.

“I’m so sorry.”

Carmilla slumped back, leaning against one of the bookshelves. She seemed to decide it was safer to stare at her hands than Laura because she lost her eyes again in the dark.

“I know you were the one who ended things, but the break up was my fault.”

She did look up at that. Laura gave her a weak smile and a shrug to match her burning cheeks. She could feel tears forming and she blinked and blinked but that only hastened them. One dropped free and left a guilty trail in its wake.

“I don’t know up from down anymore,” she whispered. “Right and wrong and good and evil don’t mean a thing to me. And feeling guilty or not guilty for Vordenberg is just—numb.”

She took a pause to let out a sob or two. She wondered if she’d imagined the twitch from across the room as Carmilla perhaps debated offering her arms and shoulders again.

“And I have these nightmares about it, about choosing differently, about losing you or not losing you. About killing him myself or worse,” she said. “But in every version of it, you’re always right there. And you take my hand just like you did and you drag me out.”

Carmilla was scooting closer now, her face coming into the light like breaking the surface of a pool. She was calm, even for the sharp shadows across her features in the dim light.

“And I told you once that wasn’t enough but Past Laura is such an idiot.”

Carmilla smiled at that and Laura gave a watery laugh.

“Even if everything was total crap—and it was—you’re standing right next to me. It’s like some kind of magic trick and you’re always right there. And that’s enough.”

There was silence after that, cut through only by Laura’s sniffles and mumbled apologies. She wiped the underside of her nose on her sleeve and bit at her chapped lips. Carmilla was now regarding the floodlight like the fire it might have been in another universe. It was something like this that made Laura wish they could find a roof because Carmilla always thought best under the stars, she was always happiest there.

“You are a fucking hurricane, Laura Hollis,” she said, finally.

Laura was taken aback and tried to regain herself. Her swallow was painful as she told herself she wasn’t going to cry, that whatever anger Carmilla had was her right.

“But I’m always in the eye. Everything around me is getting torn to pieces and somehow I’m safe,” she said.

“Except for arrows and brainwashed Zetas,” Laura mumbled.

“Sometimes I get hit,” Carmilla shrugged. “But I’m letting it happen, just letting everything get blown to pieces.”

“Is there a point here? Because—“

“And that makes me just as guilty for things falling apart,” she said.

She took a pause, letting it sit out between them like a memo Laura was meant to consider.

“I was so worried about not being everything you wanted, and in the end it turns out I’m not,” Carmilla said and for the first time Laura heard the twinge of a break in her voice. If Carmilla cried she wouldn’t be able to take it. “And I was afraid you’d leave for someone better or nicer and I did whatever you asked, bent over backwards to make myself into anything to keep you.

“And I should have been honest before I got so angry, or things go so out of hand. So no, cupcake, it’s still a partnership to the end. We were both to blame for that one, you’re not alone in that either.”

Laura felt more tears escape without her consent. The warmth on her cheeks was not comforting in the slightest as she watched tired eyes look up and it occurred to her just how old Carmilla was. What did it mean then if she could bring her to her knees? Maybe she was a hurricane after all, bursting into Carmilla’s centuries and uprooting everything, stripping her of mother, sister, and brother all. Carmilla was something ancient on the Earth and in the span of two semesters Laura had managed to dismantle her, strip her bare, and force some humanity back insider her. And it had caused so much pain.

“How can you forgive me?” Laura whispered.

“Because you’re my match.”

Carmilla was shrugging and looking down again. Laura knit her brows together but Carmilla didn’t seem inclined to share the rest of that thought as she played with the zippers on her boots.

She loves me.

God how could she stand to love her? After everything that happened and everything Laura stole from her, how could she possibly still love her?

“You lost your best friend,” Laura struggled out. “And there hasn’t been a night since it happened that I hadn’t wished I could go back and trade me for her.”

“Don’t say that.”

“But you’d be happy right now, you’d have someone.”

“I’d never be happy again if you died.”

Carmilla had said it quietly. And Laura let her sobs out in free fall, in the safety of the book enclosure. Her hands and sleeves became drenched fast as she worked to brush away tears or catch them and they kept coming. Shuffling from across the room, and suddenly Carmilla was next to her. And without invitation, Laura dropped onto her shoulder and stopped fighting.

And they stayed like that for ages. Carmilla next to her, still as a statue but soft as Laura remembered as she cried into her shoulder and gripped tight to her leather jacket. In the back of every sob Laura asked why, why why? Why was Carmilla still here? Why was comforting her sister’s murderer? How did she possibly still love her?

“Do you know what I used to say to myself when I was still all romantic about my years locked up in that coffin?” Carmilla said softly.

Laura sniffled in response.

“I used to remind myself that even though it was dark where I was, the sun was up somewhere else,” she said.

Carmilla pulled out from under Laura’s head and forced her to look up with a tilt of her chin.

“I know we lost a lot kid. And I know you got burned because it’s hard when the bad guys aren’t showing their horns,” Carmilla smiled sadly. “But, maybe we stick close to each other this time around, if nothing else.”

“I think that could definitely be enough.”

And then the library relented, moving back the bookshelves and opening them a way home. But neither of them moved. Laura knew kissing or telling her those three words would ruin everything all over again. She’d been selfish once and gotten burned for it, so she stayed quiet and followed Carmilla back home.

That night, Carmilla managed to lay herself down, not far from Laura's bedtime, a bit closer. Inches were more than enough right now, and Laura fell asleep with a smile.