The glaring neon signs and sterile fluorescent lights of the downtown bar are a little much for [[you->you]], at this hour. A [[grad student->amery]] is roaring drunk behind you, showing portions of himself that you're pretty sure he's going to be issuing apologies for in the morning, when he calls out of work. [[His boyfriend->dev]]-- the designated driver of the pair-- is trying to get the boy's shirt to quit riding up his stomach.
[[You're really not sure what you expected.->intro 2]]K██████. You're a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. [[Nobody important.->intro 1]]A slight twenty-something. He was really quite polite, before they started putting drinks in him.
But then, that's true of most people, [[you think.->intro 1]]Another twenty-something. He has thick, curly black hair and kind eyes. He strikes you as somehow older than he actually is, but it might be the beard. (Or you're just mistaking sobriety for maturity.)
You're pretty sure you've seen him before, but you can't place where. You meet enough people in your line of work, it's hard to [[keep all the faces straight in your head.->intro 1]]A coven of conbio majors, city park rangers, and NGO volunteers bustles around your booth. They'd organized the conservation workday earlier today, down at [[the confluence.->the confluence]] One of the local breweries got in on the action and pitched in to put on an afterparty.
<i>That</i> got folks' attention.
You helped corral the herd of volunteers earlier that morning, but you didn't intend to stick around and watch them get shitfaced. [[Not at first, anyway.->intro 3]]The confluence of the Salt, Gila, and Agua Fria rivers. Tres Rios. It's where you decided to give up on being a volcanologist and instead study water, as a small girl.
Nowadays, [[you only make it out there as a diplomatic gesture.->intro 2]]“God.” There comes a throaty voice from your right. It's dry, but not unpleasant dry; [[Dry like a smooth stone in a wash.->intro 4]] “They're like my nephews.”You let out a conversational "Hm," and regard [[her->her]] with a sidelong glance. The woman is-- of all things-- stacking her silverware up [[like a house of cards.->intro 6]]If you didn't know better, and merely glanced at her from across the room, Valarie might pass for another twenty-something year old. She's short and stocky, with a boyish fauxhawk and a garish, saguaro-print buttondown tucked halfway into her cargo shorts.
But you do know better. You're sitting shoulder to shoulder in a cramped booth, maybe 3 inches apart. The harsh fluorescents cast a stark shadow over the crow's feet and laughlines in Val's face, and outline the hard muscle in her arms. She fiddles with the agate pendant looped around her neck, her calloused, rough-worn knuckles dancing over it.
You realize you're staring. [[You swallow, and look away.->intro 5]]And then there's [[Dr. Valarie Hathaway.->intro 5]]You study the bottom of your cup with [[mild disinterest.->intro 1]]Val takes a swig from her drink. She'd dumped the contents of a cocktail into a cup of french soda, earlier-- You try not to think about what that would do to a woman's blood sugar levels. She leans back into the booth, and rests her arm over the crown of it. “You got any kids like that in your life, [[K?->K]]”“Not really,” You say.
“Aw,” Val cracks a wide smile at you, in a way that always seems to remind you just why they call those creases 'laughlines.' “Pity that. There'd be some cute kids in your family.”
You don't know what to say to that, so you smile politely and deflect. [[“How's Catalina doing?”->intro 8]]<i>You're gonna call me that, too,</i> you think. You suppose you should have expected her to take a shine to it. Valarie is the sort of woman who has a nickname for everybody. But something about the way she says it [[makes your stomach roil.->intro 7]]Valarie's eyes light up. “Good! Good. She's going through it, what with the divorce and all that. But she doesn't hate me, so I think that's a good sign.”
“That's good,” You say. “She's a [[nice kid.->kid]] Really takes after you.”
“Hah!” Val takes another swig of her drink. “God, no, have you looked at me lately? She's got her old woman in the bag. Amazes me, sometimes.”
You blink at her. “You're a good aunt.”
But Valarie looks away. [[“I guess.”->intro 9]]You mean it. You've only met Catalina a few times, but you can't help but admire Val's relationship with the kid. She takes after her aunt in all the right ways-- Brilliant curiosity, a sense of natural wonder, and scathingly funny, but sensitive and empathetic, too.
You kind of wish you had an aunt like Val, growing up. But, then, you rather prefer [[being colleagues->intro 8]], too.The dull thrum of the bar fills out the silence between you. The young man's boyfriend seems to finally have him under control-- until the boy gets a case of the giggles and starts carding his fingers through the man's beard amorously.
[[You avert your eyes.->intro 10]]“... Thank you,” Val says, suddenly. “Sorry. Didn't mean to be a downer there! Hah.”
“You're not [[a downer->downer]],” You say. “I don't know what I'd do with myself in your situation.”
“Probably what you're doing right now,” Val indicates your drink.
[[“This is water.”->intro 11]]You wonder, briefly, what she must think of [[<i>you</i>->intro 10]] if she considers herself a downer.“... Oh!” Valarie is the type to develop a light dusting of pink across her nose and cheeks when she drinks, coloring her tawny skin a deep copper. She covers her face and laughs. “That's right! [[You don't drink.”->intro 12]]The bar roars on in the absence of Valarie's voice. You fiddle with your cup. Valarie still isn't looking at you, and now you can't shake the feeling that you spoke out of turn. <i>You've never been married,</i> you think. <i>What do you know? She's probably [[three drinks away from breaking down->intro 13]], asshole.</i>“... Hey, K?” Valarie looks up at you. Her brown eyes are startlingly lucid, through her soda-cocktail concoction.
[[“Yes?”->intro 14]]The woman seems to roll a thought around in her head for a bit. “I'm gonna get some fresh air. [[You wanna take this outside?”->intro 15]] You feel yourself [[nod.->intro end]]<center><h1>[[<div class="visually-hidden">Dusk </div>◆->outro 1]]</h1></center>The man's boyfriend sends Val off with a two-finger salute and [[a thumbs up->thumbs up]], when she asks if he can handle the other man [[on his own.->outro 2]]You weren't aware they knew eachother. Not much of a surprise, in retrospect. [[Val knows everyone.->outro 1]]You didn't realize just how difficult it was for you to hear in the bar, until you make it outside. The chaotic thrum gives way to the intermittent thunder of traffic, making its way downtown. It's late April, but the night is still a little crisp and cool against your skin. This is the last chance you have to savor the weather, before evenings become oppressively muggy in the city.
Val leads the way, finding her place on a concrete stairwell that leads down to the street. She sits down on one of the steps. [[You join her.->outro 3]]“<i>Much</i> better,” Val says. “I couldn't hear myself think in there.”
“Really?” You're taken aback. That seemed like Valarie's element, somehow-- or, at least, something the woman could handle with exceptional tact.
You struggle to salvage the conversation. “I mean-- I couldn't, either, but you looked like you were [[having a good time.”->outro 4]]Val grins, and scrunches her nose up. [[She elbows you playfully.->outro 5]] “Pfft. Only 'cause you and the boys were there. Everyone thinks I'm the party aunt, but honestly? I hate shit like this.”A little noise escapes your throat. You touch the place where Val's elbow connected with your side [[tenderly.->outro 6]]Valarie recoils. “Oh, shit, sorry.”
“No, no, I don't care.” You stay the woman with a hand, and search for something to say. “I, uh... I hate shit like this, too.”
The drink must be softening Valarie, because she's staring at you, now. Not with intent-- just studying you with those deep, dark, intelligent eyes of hers.
You rub your neck, and [[look away.->outro 7]]“This is, uh, gonna be a weird question. Just say <i>'Val, you're making this weird,'</i> if you want me to stop.” Valarie licks her lips, and folds her arms over her knees. “But have you ever had [[someone in your life->outro 8]], K?”“... No?” You [[think->think]] about that. [["Why?"->outro 9]]There was an engineer in graduate school, your highschool sweetheart, and a handful of flings in between, but it'd been years since you thought about any of them. They've all since settled down, anyway. Your presence in their lives would just... [[<i>make it weird.</i>->outro 8]]“Nothin', just,” Valarie shrugs. “I'm kind of surprised, is all. You're a good-lookin' girl and you're really smart and cool and funny.”
“... You think I'm funny?”
“I think you're a <i>riot</i>.” Valarie scrunches her nose up at you with a shit-eating grin that only alcohol could create. “Look-- guys don't appreciate [[your sense of humor->humor]], but [[I do."->outro 10]]Val keeps gazing at you, and now it's too late for you to avert your eyes without <i>making it weird.</i> But those brown eyes are at once too soft and too sharp for you to handle. You bite the inside of your cheek and glance away.
[[“Likewise,”->outro 11]] You say, quietly.You don't know what to say to that. Nobody has ever called your humor for what it is, letalone described you as-- of all things-- a [[<i>riot.</i>->outro 9]]“Hm?” Val props her chin up on her hands, and tilts her head at you.
“I think you're a very intelligent and kind woman,” You say. Your cheeks prickle, just saying that. “And an amazing aunt.”
“... Ough, okay. [[That's enough,”->outro 12]] Val mutters.Your heart drops out of your chest-- for a moment, the dip in Val's voice is pins and needles on your skin, screaming rejection. But when you look over at the woman, she's crumpled over herself, cradling her stomach. “Fries and cocktail don't mix. Did you know that? I didn't.”
<i>“Are you okay?”</i> You instinctively crowd over her. You hover a hand over her back, just ghosting the crown of her strong shoulders. [[“Let me get you some wate--”->outro 13]][[Your voice dies in your throat.->outro 14]]Val's lips are soft and plaintive on yours. The woman is kissing you-- [[chastely, deeply->outro 15]]-- her hot breath leaving your cheek prickling in the cool spring air.You let out a horrible, guttural noise that you'll take to the grave. Val just purrs, and sets a hand on your shoulder as she leans in to deepen the kiss. Val's mouth doesn't taste like alcohol. It's not even sugary-sweet, with the taste of vanilla soda, but sweet like honey, like skin.
“You tricked me,” You say, against Val's mouth. The woman just <i>“Mhmm's,”</i> and traces the inline seam of your labcoat to your collar, before [[applying herself in force to you.->outro 16]]“Wait--” You pull away from the woman weakly. Val makes a little noise of protest against your lips, but relents.
“Wait, [[Dr. Hathaway--”->outro 17]][[<i>“Val.”</i>->outro 18]]“You're--” You blink down at the woman, dazedly. She's climbed halfway into your lap, and from the look on her face, doesn't plan to leave any time soon. But Val softens, and her gaze drops to the floor, suddenly finding the concrete stairwell to be very interesting indeed. A twinge of shame clouds out those soft brown eyes.
[[“You're drunk,”->outro 19]] you say, breathlessly.“Hah!” Like that, the apology is gone from Val's face. She's looking up at you with a wide grin. “Like hell I am.”
You just blink at her.
“Oh, hon.” Val pats your shoulder, almost paternally. “Trust me, something's talking, but [[it ain't the alcohol.->outro 20]] How much do you think I'd <i>really</i> drink at a work function.”“I just--” You stammer, “I just don't want you to do [[something you'll regret->outro 21]] later.”“Being married to The Perfect Man for 10 years because I didn't have my ring of keys moment until I was like, 39? I regret <i>that.”</i> Val lays her head against your shoulder. “I am not going to regret this.”
You don't know what to say to that. You absentmindedly rest your hand on the small of Val's back to support her. [[Val leans into it appreciatively.->outro 22]]The two of you sit like that for a long while-- Val studying your face, while you [[mark the time->memory 1]] by the steady rise and fall of the woman's chest.You think back to the idle hours spent [[watching the woman->memory 2]] gesture emphatically in front of a presentation slide.You think about how she'd single your face out of the crowd, and how you wrote it off as a nervous tic. You were often [[the only other woman->memory 3]] in the room-- Unapproachable though you were, she must have preferred using you as a wall to stare at over those with louder mouths and more scrutinizing eyes.You think about how, if anybody else had done something so cavalier, you might have frowned at them. You think about how she might have taken that, if you did, and the thought makes you shudder. You're not sure if you ever intimidated her-- She was always in her element when she was at a podium. For the sake of your ego and for the sake of your heart, you're content [[not to find out.->memory 4]]You think back to all the times you found yourself wandering through the crowd, struggling to think of a question, a remark-- something to <i>say</i> to her. But they were always too simple, you thought. The woman could elegantly distill millions of years of geological history in the Salt River Valley into a 30-minute spiel, and the only thing you could think of is <i>“I'd never heard anybody compare the Basin and Range province to [[stretch marks->stretch marks]], before.”</i>
[[Patronizing.->memory 5]]You hadn't. You have no idea why that, of all things, was what struck you. But that's what they are, aren't they? A swelling mantle stretches the lithosphere thin. All those cracks and crevices erode into narrow ridges and gentle valleys. Those aren't "marching caterpillars," or stripes – Those are [[stretch marks.->memory 4]]You think about how she started finding <i>you</i>, instead. You were flattered, and terrified, but mostly confused. But you liked the way she talked about the earth-- like [[talking->talking]] about a dear friend, or a family member, or a lover. That's not remarkable in and of itself; many of your coworkers talk that way. You don't know why it's special when it comes out of her mouth. Maybe she's not talking in metaphor. Maybe she genuinely considers herself married to her work. Maybe she's just [[articulate.->memory 6]]
You liked the way she [[talked->memory 5]] about other things, too. Sci fi. Animal husbandry. Cryptids. Ghosts. Folklore. And her niece-- <i>God</i>, you loved the way she talked about her niece. At every turn, she asked you about your personal life. At every turn, you clammed up. Not because she intimidated you-- not even because you were guarded around her-- but because you didn't know what to say. There was [[you->you 2]], there was [[the river->the river]], there was [[the BLM->the blm]], and that was it. You didn't understand how she could find that fascinating. [[But she did.->memory 7]]
[[Boring.->memory 6]][[Not boring.->memory 6]] But you were certain she'd get tired of it someday. It's both of your jobs, after all.[[A yawnfest.->memory 6]]You think about how that woman is the same woman sitting in your lap, right now. About how she's looking at you not like you set the sun and stars in the sky, but like a wash waiting for floodwater. Expectant. As if to say, <i>“Oh, It's you again. [[I've been looking for you.”->outro 23]]</i>[[“Are you gonna regret this?”->outro 24]] Val asks, pulling you out of your thoughts.[[“No.”->outro 25]] You say.“That's good,” Is all Val says. She idly brushes the collar of your labcoat flat, and shoots you an impish smirk. “The night's young, and I can be an embarrassment enough for the two of us, anyway.”
You snort. You can't see that, somehow; Val's [[confidence->outro 26]] is too infectious.“Where...” Your voice comes out more softly than you'd like. [[“Where do you want to go from here?”->outro 27]]Val is quiet for a long time, folding your collar back and forth between her thumb.
“I think... [[I'd like to take this back to your place,”->outro 28]] she says, very quietly.
[[You think you'd like that, too.->outro 29]]<center><h1>[[<div class="visually-hidden">Night </div>◆->night 1]]</h1></center>[[You don't know what went wrong.->night 2]][[You->you 3]] were in her lap again, a little less clothed, a little more sober, but yourself all the same.Your name is Val, and you [[can't move.->night 3]]When you touched her, it was like touching a hot pan-- her body locked up, her grip on the cusp of your hip tightened, you could feel the air get caught in her lungs beneath your chest.
“K?” You recoil. She does, too. You're caught between the impulse to stroke her cheek and disentangle yourself from her arms entirely.
She covers her mouth. She tries to, many times, but [[she can't speak.->night 4]]“Are you okay?” You search her face for answers. Her cheeks rise against the wrinkles under her eyes, creasing them with anguish. Her brow is knit together hard, and, you think, she must barely hear you over the roar of the blood vessels in her clenched jaw.
Against your better judgment, you move to comfort her-- touch her-- but her body turns to stone under your hands. Your blood is ice. Your stomach roils. [[You pull yourself out of her lap and onto her bed.->night 5]]At that, K seems to resuscitate. She pulls her knees up to her chest, trembling. You can barely breathe. There's [[copper in your mouth->night 6]] where the taste of her lips was; your fingers, your skin, everywhere you touched her is pins and needles.“Im--” She lets out a choked noise. [[“I'm sorry.”->night 7]]You want to say [[“It's okay,”->night 8]] but all that comes out is a painful croak.<center><h1>[[<div class="visually-hidden">Dawn </div>◆->dawn 1]]</h1></center>The morning is early and grey when you leave. [[K sees you off.->dawn 2]]You look up at her, and it occurs to you this might be the last time you can do that. You think you might cry if you [[say anything]]. You think you might call out and go home and scream and wail into your pillow until your lungs are raw and you lose your voice. You think you might delete her number from your phone and pick [[someone else's face]] to look at when they make you speak at functions. You think you might throw yourself into Tempe Town Lake and [[let the river take you]]. You think it might be [[better this way.->dawn 3]] (What would you say? [[What <i>could</i> you say?->dawn 2]])([[There isn't anyone else->dawn 2]], and you know this. You think you might just skip every function that K attends for the rest of your career.)(You always wanted a [[water burial->dawn 2]], anyway.)But K gazes at you, and there's something much worse behind that hollow-eyed look. She leans in, and your heart wrenches-- you naively think [[she might kiss you.->dawn 4]]She hugs you. Hard. You don't know if that's [[better or worse.->dawn 5]][[“It was you,”->dawn 6]] you say into her chest, without thinking.K holds you there for a moment, before letting you go. She looks down at you, a little bleary-eyed, a little sadly, through her exhaustion. [[“What?”->dawn 7]]“[[You->end]] were my ring of keys moment.”<center>