After two rounds of spin the bottle, Laura had been the unlucky victim of a kiss from Will's friend Wilson ("Call me Kirsch. Don't want you getting me confused with Will, little hottie"). Danny had received a light kiss on the cheek from Will. Supposedly, they were playing the PG version of the game, but Laura wondered how many of the unwelcome guests in Carmilla's room were harboring more mature thoughts about where they hoped the game might go.
Laura, of course, had no interest in lunkheaded Kirsch, and his lips had definitely stayed on her face for a few seconds too long. Will's other friend, Danny, would be considered attractive by anyone who looked at her. Her hair was smooth and shiny and her eyes sparkled-but something about her made Laura squirm uncomfortably. She'd been awfully aggressive about having them join the game. She was also taking advantage of any opening to prod Carmilla.
Danny reached out to spin.
"Hope you get lucky," Will said, staring directly at Laura. She had a distinct sense that if Will were able to undress someone with only his eyes, he would do so at every opportunity.
The bottle stopped on Carmilla. Neither she nor Danny looked particularly pleased.
"Hard pass," Carmilla muttered.
"Fine with me," Danny said.
Will rubbed his hands together lasciviously. "No skips, no re-spins," he said. "Them's the rules, sis."
Danny ripped off the bandaid. She leaned across Laura's lap and barely brushed her lips against Carmilla's cheek. If Laura had to label the sideways look that Danny flashed her, she might go so far as to call it flirtatious.
Laura was flattered, but she hoped that her own lack of enthusiasm would be enough to clue Danny in to her disinterest. There was exactly one person in the room whom Laura wanted to kiss, and she wished on all of the stars in the sky that the bottle would oblige. She closed her eyes and spun.
Unfortunately, Laura wasn't an especially lucky person. When she opened her eyes, the bottle was pointing at none other than Danny.
With an awkward laugh, Laura turned to the tall-pale-and-ginger girl seated to her left. "Heyyy," she said, complete with finger guns.
Laura could feel Carmilla seething to her right. Clearly, Laura's tendency to go into adorkable overdrive under stress was not helping the situation.
"So, uh, you come here often?" Laura tried.
Danny laughed and leaned towards her.
Her cheek was strangely difficult to reach, and not because Laura was a few inches shorter than her even while seated. Danny hadn't turned her head, forcing Laura to scoot around if she was to avoid the vicinity of her lips. Laura tried to get as far from Danny's mouth as possible, eventually settling on the sharp edge of cheekbone back by her hairline. The peck lasted for less than a second, but that was two seconds too long as far as Laura was concerned.
With a tiny, joyless smile, Laura settled back into her seat and inched away from the girl she had just kissed towards the girl that she so wanted to.
"Hey, Drusilla, are you gonna take your turn or not?" Danny taunted Carmilla across the circle.
Carmilla cleared her throat. "Sorry," she started, "I just remembered I have to be anywhere but here."
In one swift motion, Carmilla was up and out of her room, leaving Laura with the party's unsavory host and company.
"Suppose it's your turn, Wilson," Carmilla's brother said dismissively.
As Kirsch's hand landed on the bottle, Laura bolted up to stand. Three pairs of eyes landed on her.
"I'm out of snacks," Laura said. She knew she wasn't a convincing liar, but she tried. "Don't wait up. You know how I am with mini pizzas." She fake-laughed as if she were sharing an in-joke with her closest friends.
None of them said anything. Will opened his mouth slightly, but before he could say anything, Laura broke in again.
"Bye!" She squeaked, hurrying out.
There was an infinitesimal chance that Carmilla had returned to the party downstairs, and Laura couldn't imagine that she would hide in her mother's room. She tried the door to the master bedroom just in case and found it locked. For a moment, she worried that Carmilla was on the other side and had deliberately shut her out, but it was much more likely that Professor Karnstein had locked the room long before the party had started. The bathroom was empty. That left one potential hiding spot on the top floor-Will's bedroom.
Laura's hunch was right. The door to Will's room had been closed when they came upstairs, but it was slightly open now. In Carmilla's own silent language, that was as much of an invitation as Laura dared to hope for.
She pushed the door open slowly to see a striking tableau: Carmilla, sitting in the windowsill of the dark room, staring up into the darker sky. Her raven hair seemed to emerge from the night itself, and her silvery skin could have been knit from moonlight.
"For the record," Laura said, standing still at the threshold, "I think you're definitely more of a Xander."
She didn't hear so much as feel the vibration of the quiet chuckle that was Carmilla's response to the joke.
Even with the lights off, the impersonality of the room was evident. There was nothing up on the walls that might indicate the likes and interests of its inhabitant. The bedsheets were a dark color, an extension of the Karnsteins' sharp, monochrome wardrobes. Carmilla's room, Laura realized, was a perfect mirror of Will's, save for a small bookshelf and a (particularly creepy) print of a panther skull with butterflies coming out of the eyes that Carmilla had stapled to her ceiling.
Carmilla had a unique ability to sit perfectly still and cut herself off from the world. Competing with the vast and endlessly mysterious night sky for her attention was a daunting challenge. Laura searched for something to say, but nothing stood out as essential. Why break such a beautiful, placid silence?
She closed the door soundlessly behind her and waded through the pile of winter clothing on the floor to stand by the edge of the bed.
"Those imbeciles haven't the faintest conception of boundaries," Carmilla grumbled.
"You could chase them out of your room," Laura suggested.
"I shouldn't have pushed you to stay."
Laura had a hunch that Carmilla was referring to something more than the spin the bottle game in her room, and she wanted to make sure that there was no ambiguity about her feelings. "I've never been a big fan of that game," Laura shrugged. Then she leapt. "You never get to kiss the one person you actually want to."
Carmilla's focus snapped away from the sky as her gaze landed on Laura.
"Stoner jock isn't really my type," Laura smiled.
Carmilla moved like a liquid shadow as she rose up off the windowsill. It was marvelous, her enticingly restrained movement. Part of Laura agonized over the physical distance that remained between them, but she was captivated by Carmilla's caution.
Suddenly, the slowness shattered and Carmilla was barely a breath away.
"Well?" Carmilla challenged. "Now's your chance, cupcake."
The low, husky timbre pulled Laura in. Along with the noise that Carmilla made when Laura's lips latched onto her neck, that magnetic voice was one of Laura's favorite sounds.
With one hand tangled in Carmilla's hair, Laura kissed her way up from the soft skin of Carmilla's neck up to her flawless jaw. Carmilla's hands found their way to Laura's face, and the gentle pressure of Carmilla's lips against her own lulled Laura into a heady haze.
She sat back on the bed and was surprised when Carmilla stayed standing. Laura watched, curiously enamored with the girl who was timidly towering over her and refusing to meet her eyes. She slipped her hand into Carmilla's, and Carmilla seemed to flinch at the contact. Slowly, Laura invited Carmilla back to her. When Carmilla finally looked up again, her burning stare made Laura feel as though the desperate flame in her stomach had exploded into a full-blown wildfire. She wouldn't tolerate having Carmilla this far from her for another second. With an insistent tug, she pulled Carmilla into her lap and nipped at Carmilla's lip with her teeth.
Carmilla's hands pressed on Laura's shoulders roughly, encouraging her to lie down. The sight of Carmilla on her knees straddling Laura's hips might have knocked Laura out right then if she wasn't to singularly focused on getting Carmilla's tongue back in her mouth.
"Come here," Laura breathed, her hands on the fitted waist of Carmilla's dress, coaxing her down on top of her. Carmilla's dark hair draped down, tickling Laura's cheek and inspiring laughter to bubble up in her chest. She grinned against Carmilla's mouth and wrapped her arms around her neck.
As far as Carmilla was concerned, this was, without question, the best New Year's party she had ever attended. She didn't care that she was wearing a once-hideous dress or that the stoner cohort had colonized her bedroom or that her house was infested with a gaggle of professors who cared more about tenure than teaching.
No, she couldn't care about any of that. Not while she was kissing Laura.
She'd been half-sure, when she'd stomped out in the middle of spin the bottle, that Laura would make up some excuse to leave the party, or, worse, stay and play the game with the ginger giant and the dashing disaster duo. But part of her was beginning to accept that Laura very much did reciprocate Carmilla's more-than-friendly feelings. She'd dared the sweetest, prettiest, chattiest girl at this party to kiss her. Carmilla had ended up on top of her, biting the smooth, tan skin just below her ear, eliciting obscene moans that wouldn't soon leave Carmilla's memory.
"Carm," Laura groaned.
Carmilla had to pause to process her body's reaction to the sound of her own name leaving Laura's lips. She was caught off guard by the wave of emotion that overcame her. It was, quite plainly, overwhelming, and it took all of her willpower to resist the profoundly powerful undertow and keep from saying something that she wasn't ready to admit out loud.
"Carmilla?" Laura repeated, sitting up. "Are you okay?"
"Yes," Carmilla whispered, as she crashed back into Laura. She kissed her hard, praying for Laura's tongue to help her force the words back into her throat.
"Is something wrong?" Laura asked, holding Carmilla back with a gentle hand on her cheek.
"Of course not." Nothing was wrong. That was the problem. Without Laura's lips on hers, Carmilla couldn't find a reason not to say what she wanted to. "I-"
And then the doorbell rang.
"And the longstanding tradition of Sapphicus interruptus continues," Carmilla muttered.
"You know, sometimes you really sound like an old-timey philosopher," Laura laughed. "You sure you're okay?"
Carmilla nodded, not trusting herself to speak a reply to the question. Instead, she kissed Laura again, softly.
Laura pulled back and rested her forehead against Carmilla's. "Happy almost New Year," she whispered.
The doorbell rang again, but Carmilla elected to ignore it. Whatever was going on downstairs was dramatically less interesting than the girl in her arms. Laura brought their lips together, quickly progressing to a more fevered pace that made Carmilla feel like she was being pulled underwater and somehow continuing to kiss Laura was the only way she could keep breathing. Carmilla was still seated in Laura's lap, her legs spread to straddle Laura's thighs, only a few layers of fabric between them. If Carmilla didn't feel Laura's hand up her skirt soon, she might drown entirely. For a moment, Carmilla sincerely considered ripping the mesh skirt off entirely and thoroughly ruining the already defaced dress in an effort to get closer to Laura.
"Is someone coming up the stairs?" Laura whispered.
Panic rushed through Carmilla's veins. Outside the door, a familiar voice sang out, "Carmilla, darling, are you going to give me a welcome home hug or am I going to have to bribe one out of our brother?"
"Mattie?" Carmilla called back. She glanced at Laura, who looked utterly bamboozled by the fact that somebody in the Karnstein household bothered to knock before entering someone else's room.
Carmilla got up from Laura's lap and landed on tingling feet. Before she stumbled, Laura caught her arm. They walked to the door quickly and Carmilla cracked it open. On the other side stood her older sister.
Mattie snatched Carmilla into her arms. "Carm!"
"Mattie! It's so good to see you," Carmilla said.
Laura knew by now that Carmilla wouldn't bother saying something so overtly sentimental if she didn't mean it. Mattie, with her radiant red dress and warm embraces, stood in stark contrast to the other members of Carmilla's family.
"And you must be Laura," Mattie said, releasing Carmilla and squeezing Laura tightly.
"I...yes," Laura said, surprised that Carmilla had apparently mentioned her.
"I've heard so much about you," Mattie said.
"You have?" Laura said. She was tempted to say that she'd never heard a thing about Carmilla's sister, but the dangerously sharp smile on Mattie's face reminded Laura a little too much of a hungry hyena.
Fortunately, Mattie lost interest in Laura quickly. Unfortunately, she turned to Carmilla.
"Now sis, I didn't fly all the way back from Morocco to be the only Karnstein at the party," Mattie started. "I can't imagine that hiding out in some dark room is more interesting than engaging with all of Maman's guests. Unless..." She looked back and forth between Laura and Carmilla as another terrifying grin spread across her face.
Carmilla crossed her arms and looked around like she was searching for something that had fallen on the floor. Laura could feel herself blushing and cursed herself for being a terrible liar.
"In Will's room? Oh, kitten, you are bad," Mattie said, slapping Carmilla lightly on the arm. "He deserves it, the little prick. I won't tell Mother, promise."
For some reason, Laura believed her. Carmilla seemed to relax, though, so maybe Mattie's word wasn't empty talk.
"Why didn't you tell me you were coming?" Carmilla asked.
"I wasn't. But I missed my baby sister far too much to go another six months without seeing you."
Mattie pinched both of Carmilla's cheeks, making her scrunch her nose in annoyance. "Why are you really here?" Carmilla pressed.
"Something about the university, I don't know. Mother got all moody and mysterious and insisted that I come home as soon as possible." Mattie fiddled with the skirt of Carmilla's dress. "Why don't you two de-crumple yourselves and we'll get back to the party? Maman's about to make her speech."
Carmilla was thankful that her sister interrupted when she did. If she and Laura had missed Mother's speech, there would have been consequences of the most unpleasant kind. The party had grown quiet despite the fact that there were twice as many people present as there had been a few hours earlier. Any minute now, Carmilla's mother would take up her position on the stairs and quite literally talk down to all of her guests.
Mattie had fetched them with enough time to spare so that they could make a final visit to the perpetually full buffet of tiny foods. Carmilla wondered how the catering company could possibly keep the table stocked while simultaneously remaining unseen.
Laura greedily grabbed as many portable treats as she could, and Carmilla couldn't help but smile at how cute she looked doing it.
"What? I don't want to waste it," Laura said when she caught Carmilla watching her.
"Whatever you say, cupcake," Carmilla replied, joining Laura and popping a raspberry from atop a little cake into her mouth.
"Those are the best ones," Laura said, following Carmilla's to the serving platter stacked with chocolate triangles. She grabbed the cake that Carmilla had left bare and outright moaned when she tasted it.
Carmilla was about to make a joke about hearing that same sound not too long ago when an authoritative clinking permeated the room. It was time for the speech.
"As many of you know," Professor Karnstein began, correctly assuming that everyone had already dropped their conversations and turned their attention to her, "my eldest daughter Matska is in the country for the first time in a year. She's been in Maghreb for several months now working with orphans."
Of course it's orphans, Carmilla thought. Orphans make for the best press photos.
"In fact," the professor continued, "Time will feature an entire piece on my daughter's commitment to her global community in next month's issue."
Impressed murmurs filled the room, and Mother graced her audience with her signature serpentine smile.
"William has been accepted to Saint Andrew's University in Scotland. He says he'll study filmmaking, but I trust he'll find his true calling," she said, addressing William directly. He laughed along with the rest of the crowd.
Carmilla knew she was next.
"And for anyone who might need a date to the Winter Formal, Carmilla's phone number is 555-6832."
The crowd's laughter flared. From his spot in the middle of the room, Will shouted, "Nice try, Mom."
Her mother laughed. "I'll say this for you, William. You speak your mind." Her gaze snapped to Carmilla. "Just like your mother." She looked back to Will. "I am so very proud of you all." She raised her glass and took a sip.
Carmilla's blood boiled. Her mother was trying to bait her, right here, in front of dozens of people, to speak up about her relationship with Laura. If she didn't she would be a coward. If she did, she would be no different from her brother and mother. The supreme hostess said so herself.
"This year had been difficult," Mother went on. "Those of us who have served Silas University for longer than our children have been alive," she paused to allow the crowd to laugh, "have seen some surprising changes. Divisions amongst the student body. Rifts between faculty. But we have remained strong through even the most challenging of times, which is why I feel so privileged to announce that we will be breaking ground on the Karnstein Faculty Center on January fifth."
The room burst into applause.
"Enjoy the rest of the party, everyone. And Happy New Year!"
And with that, the matron descends to rejoin the plebeians. Count on Mother to command a crowd by serving them sugarcoated shit and calling it a compliment.
Carmilla felt something poke her right arm.
"Hey," Laura said. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," Carmilla said. She couldn't seem to unclench her jaw, which probably made her lie a little less convincing.
Laura touched her arm, and the her touch started to cool Carmilla's temper. "Come outside with me."
Carmilla was more than happy to oblige.
They circled around the wraparound porch until they were at the back of the house.
"It's almost midnight," Laura giggled.
"Is it?" Carmilla teased.
"Guess I should make this fast." Laura reached out and took both of Carmilla's hands.
Carmilla stared at their hands, then looked up at Laura with a raised eyebrow. "What..?"
"Well, some crazy lady at a party gave me your number," Laura began, "and I was gonna wait and text you later, but I really don't wanna wait to ask if you've got a date to formal."
For a moment, Carmilla wasn't entirely sure that she had heard correctly.
"So?" Laura asked. "Go with me?"
The shy smile on her face melted Carmilla's heart into a puddle. "I think I'd like that very much."