Gwen wrapped her fingers gently around Ally’s ribs and applied the lightest of pressure.
“Oww, yeah, that’s where she got me,” Ally said, flinching away from the touch.
“Good, that means I’m checking the right place,” Gwen said, feeling along the ribs carefully. “Can you breath in deeply?”
Ally did as directed and Gwen closed her eyes. In part that was to help her focus on how the rib bones were moving as Ally breathed and in part it was to avoid the distraction of watching Ally’s chest rise and fall.
“I’m not feeling anything obviously broken,” Gwen said. “How does breathing in deep feel.”
“It hurts a little, but more of an ache than a sharp pain,” Ally said. She breathed in again to confirm that.
“You’re going to have a hell of a bruise there, so it could just be the damaged soft tissue that you’re feeling,” Gwen said.
“Yeah, that sounds right,” Ally said. “I broke my ribs boxing once and this doesn’t feel anywhere near as bad as that.”
“You box?” Gwen asked.
“I used to,” Ally said. “My girlfriend at the time talked me out of it though.”
“At the time?”
“We broke up about six months later,” Ally said. “It wasn’t her fault though. I wasn’t paying anywhere near enough attention to her.”
“To busy with something else?” Gwen asked, taking her hands away from Ally’s ribs.
“No, that’s the weird thing,” Ally said. “We got together and it was great up until it just wasn’t. I think I wanted her to be someone else and she was close enough at first but the more I got to know her the more I saw that she wasn’t who I’d been imagining her to be.”
“Was it a bad breakup?” Gwen asked, looking away as Ally put her shirt back on.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a good one,” Ally said. “It wasn’t the worst though. We’re still friends, but I think it helped that her rebound girlfriend turned out to be a real gem. They’re just wonderful together.”
“How did it go for you?” Gwen asked.
“It was ok. It’s kind of stupid how broken up you can feel when it was your idea to end things, but time helps with that like it helps with everything else I guess.”
“How about now?” Gwen asked. “Are you seeing anyone now?”
“Seeing anyone?” Ally asked. “No, not seeing anyone, not sleeping with anyone, not even sexting. After Sam, I told myself I wanted to figure out what I was looking for before I messed up another relationship.”
“How’s that working out?” Gwen asked.
“About as well as any other excuse for staying single I guess,” Ally said a rumpled smile curving across her lips. “I feel like there a question you’re not asking me though.”
“I’m sorry,” Gwen said. “There is something, I’m just not good at expressing myself sometimes.”
“Well, I know we just met about an hour or two or four ago – I’ve kind of lost track of time – but we’re old friends too right?” Ally said. “I promise I won’t laugh at any question you ask, or look at you weird. I’ve gotten far too much of that. Anything you want to know, I’ll be happy to tell you.”
“It’s something Mava said,” Gwen said. “She reminded me of the time I, or Gwena I guess, turned away a suitor because I was already in love with someone else.”
“I think I remember that too,” Ally said.
“She also said it took nigh unto forever for me to work it out with the other person, and knowing me, Gwen, I can totally believe that was true.”
“I missed three different relationships in high school because I couldn’t see people were interested in me. Girl’s I had huge crushes on too!” Ally said. “So I feel your pain there. Believe me.”
“Do you remember the Battle of High Springs?” Gwen asked.
“When in the war was that?” Ally asked.
“Late but not at the end. We still had a fair amount of viable territory left, but the fighting had escalated to the point where we were permanently destroying each other’s settlements.”
“Was High Springs the battle where we had two divisions in place due to a clerical error?” Ally asked, her eyes flickering back and forth as she reached for the distant memories.
“Yeah, your troops and mine,” Gwen said. “It was supposed to be only one of us, with the other protecting Silver Bay,” Gwen said.
“Right. We were afraid they’d attack High Springs because it was poorly defended but Silver Bay was the more valuable target because we were ferrying troops into the Verdant valley from there.”
“It turned out they did attack High Springs and with both of our divisions there we scored a crushing victory. It bought us weeks to supply the region,” Gwen said.
“I remember that! It was fantastic! We celebrated that night…” Ally’s voice trailed off as more memories returned.
“Yes,” Gwen said quietly. “We did.”
“The springs,” Ally said, lost in the memory, “It was the first time we’d been together in months.”
“And the war had turned so much more dangerous,” Gwen said. “I was finally terrified enough of what could happen to you that I was able to overcome my fear of telling you how I felt.”
“You were the one,” Ally said. “Wow, a lot of things are starting to make sense.”
“That’s good because I feel just about as scared now as I felt back then,” Gwen said.
Ally turned and grabbed Gwen by both of her shoulders.
“I…wow…yeah, kind of at a loss for words too, but don’t be afraid. Please don’t be afraid,” Ally said.
“I wish it was that easy,” Gwen said. “But it feels like there’s a lot to be afraid of.”
“Not me, you don’t have to be afraid of me,” Ally said.
Gwen raised her hands and placed them on Ally’s shoulders.
“I’m not,” she said. “Not of you, at least. For you, yes. I just watched you get pile drived into a rock hard enough to hurt you through an Elite’s shield. That was scary before I remembered that you’d been the center of my life at one point.”
Ally bowed her head and sighed.
“Yeah, I can see that,” she said. “I’m thinking back to the Last Battle too and how terrified I was for you. I don’t even remember how we died then, and I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing.”
“Exactly,” Gwen said. “And then there’s the problem that I’m not the Gwena you knew. I remember pining for you, for Aloka. I remember trailing kisses down your arms, and spending the few nights that we had together so enwrapped in your embrace that I thought we’d never pull ourselves apart. But that was Gwena. All I have are her memories. I’ve never so much as kissed someone in this life.”
“You have no idea how much I want to change that,” Ally said.
“I know, but not here,” Gwen said. “I want it to be good, not rushed or desperate. I don’t want to ruin it by being terrible because I’m still struggling to take all of this in.”
Ally released Gwen’s shoulders, slowly and gently.
“You could never ruin it, or be terrible,” she said. “But you’re right. We shouldn’t rush it. I’m not the Aloka you remember either. If my past relationships in this life have taught me anything it’s that you need to see people for who they are before you can really say that you love them.”
Gwen let her trembling hands drop from Ally’s shoulders and sighed.
“I dreamed of you, I think,” Gwen said. “Only now I don’t know if they were dreams or more like pieces of memories trying to come back early.”
“That sounds right,” Ally said. “I had this image of the girl I loved in my head from when I was really little and I’d measure each girl I met up against that to see if she was the one I was looking for. Turns out you’re a hard standard to meet though.”
“Or Gwena was,” Gwen said. “She was a warrior, through and through. I’m studying to be a doctor.”
“I guess that’s something we can talk about once this whole crisis is over,” Ally said. “I don’t think I was looking for Gwena-the-Warrior, I think it was the deeper parts of her, the parts that are still in you.”
“Maybe they’re there, and maybe they’re forgotten, I think that’s the most scary part – I don’t know what I can promise to be yet,” Gwen said.
“Let me make that easier then,” Ally said. “I only want you to be honest. And I’ll pledge to be the same. I’m not going to try to be ‘more Aloka’ to win you over and I don’t need you to be the spitting image of “Gwena’. When we get the time, let’s plan to go on a proper date. Dinner, dancing, long drive on a country road, whatever you’d like.”
“That sounds like it could be fun,” Gwen said.
“We’ve waited a hundred thousand years according to Mava,” Ally said. “I don’t think we need to rush it at this point. Not if we want the chance to mean to each other what Aloka and Gwena meant to each other.”
“Thank you,” Gwen said.
“For what?” Ally asked,
“For taking this seriously. For taking me seriously,” Gwen said. “Part of me still wants to kiss you right now, but the rest is telling me that this is worth waiting for.”
“It’s a little easier for me I guess,” Ally said. “See if I start kissing you now, I won’t want to stop till we’re both drenched in a sweat, breathless and unable to walk, and now is not exactly the best time for that.”
“Later though? Maybe?” Gwen asked.
“If you still want to after you get to know me better, we are going to find some hot springs and show them what the definition of hot is,” Ally said, grinning wickedly.
“How she’s looking?” Mava asked, coming over to join them with Renata tagging along. They’d finished their impromptu planning session and were looking to move out at last.
“She’s looking fine,” Gwen said. “I don’t think it’ll be more than a bad bruise, and even that should heal up quickly if I remember the perks we get for being in the Elite.”
“Sadly we’re probably not going to have time for even our quick healing to patch Ally up completely,” Mava said.
“Where are we going?” Ally asked.
“To find our queen before the Throne of Night decides to get serious about wiping us out.”