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Until the Water Runs Clear

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The water hitting Melanie’s hair brought another pungent cloud of bleach vapor swirling into the air. Georgie wrinkled her nose and sat back on her heels on the bath mat.

“Ugh! That’s foul! I thought I was used to it. How often do you have to touch up your roots, again?”

“Once a month or so. If it’s such a trial for you, I can go back to Andy next time.”

There was a little half smile on Melanie’s face and Georgie was not a jealous person. She and Sasha and Melanie wouldn't work together as well as they did if any of them had been. But Georgie, by nature, was probably the least jealous. She wasn’t jealous now, not exactly. She was...perhaps a bit provoked, but only because Melanie had been going out of her way to provoke her lately.

“Georgie, get in here and spoon me! Don’t make me go all the way back to Andy’s for a snuggle…”

“Georgie, check this out! Melacaine’s up to fifteen stories on AO3. What kind of incredible, sexy energy are we putting out lately? Melonia’s leading, but there’s still only one ‘E.’”

“What sort of marriage is it when a gay guy and a lesbian are soulmates, again? Was it a Boston marriage?”

“You’re probably thinking of a lavender marriage,” Sasha had said helpfully. “Though lavender marriages were typically literal marriages meant to afford both partners a greater measure of social freedom under the cover of heterosexual matrimony.”

And Georgie had wanted to shake them both, but had sat where she was and ignored their talk, stroking the Admiral with a careful control and single-minded attention he quickly got sick of.

Yes, the provocation was getting to her.

Georgie still didn’t know what Melanie was trying to do, but when she’d announced she was planning to head back to Andy’s that weekend for a touch up, Georgie had volunteered to do it, instead. Georgie thought she’d seen a glitter of triumph in Melanie’s eye at the time.

A glitter not unlike the one in her eye, now. It was annoying. Georgie’s controlled breath in had too much bleach in it to be truly calming.

She slung her leg over Melanie’s lap. “Tilt your head back and shut your eyes,” she ordered. Melanie obeyed after a startled blink, letting her head hang over the edge of the tub.

Georgie carefully rinsed the rest of Melanie’s head with the detachable sprayer, sheltering her forehead and eyes with her free hand. She let herself fall against Melanie, torsos meeting in a long, warm line, breast to no-breast. The worst of the bleach washed into the tub, she began to gently comb the fingers of her free hand through the short, silky hair at the top of Melanie’s head.

She watched Melanie exale and melt, her mouth fall open slightly to show the wet pink inside and the tips of her teeth. Melanie’s hands floated slowly upward, as if in a trance, to settle on her hips and stroke.

“Mmm, nice…”

“Nicer than Andy?” Georgie was unable to resist asking.

“Oh yeah. You’ve got much better tits,” Melanie said, head lolling in Georgie’s hands. Georgie resisted spraying her in the face, as satisfying as it would be. As if feeling Georgie’s eyes burning the surface of her skin, Melanie’s eyes opened slightly, her neck straining as she peered up at Georgie.

“You don’t like ‘tits?’ Baps?”

“Tell me why you’ve been so arsey about Andy, anyway.”

“I’m not being—“ Melanie’s head wobbled and Georgie slid her hand beneath the warm, wet nape to support her, “—you look like you want to fry me right now. I’m getting mixed signals here. Anyways, you’re the one being arsey about Andy.”

She sniffed dismissively in response. Georgie was already regretting rising to Melanie's bait. She’d managed to resist for weeks.

“Fine, maybe I—cat! Cat! Blue cat! Blue cat!”

Georgie spun to follow the line of Melanie’s sight. The Admiral, perched on the rim of the pedestal sink, was daintily dabbling one paw into the open pot of blue dye waiting there. He froze, golden eyes locked on Georgie’s, and then bunched up to leap through the open door out into the hall.

Georgie scrambled to her feet, calves numb from crouching on the ground, and lunged after him. The Admiral hit the floor and bolted in an orange streak. “Sasha! Sasha catch him before he—“

“There was some on his nose!”

“I saw,” Georgie said sharply. Whiskers, too. Tiny beads of blue on the ends making them look like sewing pins. Out in the hall, dots of blue showed his trail. Georgie followed more slowly. He’d be holed up under the couch by now, waiting for Mother to cool off. She spared a moment to hope he’d bypassed the rug on the way. She thought about mentioning she had the emergency vet in her phone, but didn't want to panic Melanie.

Sasha stood in the living room, hair twisted into a braid around her head, unlooping her apron from over her red pinafore dress and holding it out to Georgie. “You let him in?” she scolded, looking at the trail of blobby paw prints along the floor. “What were you thinking, leaving the door open? He thinks that’s his room.”

Thank you, Sasha, for explaining my own cat to me.” Georgie took the apron, slung it over her shoulder, and pulled the couch away from the wall as smoothly and quietly as she could. Then, in a much-practiced motion, she climbed onto the back, dropped the apron onto the Admiral’s crouched form, and scooped him into her arms. He came stiff-legged and noodle-backed, but didn’t swipe at her. Turning, she saw Melanie standing in the doorway with the dye pot.

“I-it’s non-toxic,” she said, eyes wide, “but I don’t know if that’s for humans only, or…”

Sasha took it from her hands and read the label, lips moving. She fished out her phone to look up an unfamiliar ingredient, and Georgie realized she was holding her breath. The Admiral, for his part, didn't struggle, seeming faintly embarrassed. He twitched his whiskers, trying to shake the blue off.

“It should be fine,” Sasha said at last. "Even if he'd managed to ingest a little bit."

Georgie saw Melanie relax. "His mouth and nose are clear," she added. She'd managed to keep him from grooming his dye-coated paw.

“The base is coconut oil," Sasha went on. "Maybe he smelled the fat, or something. Let’s get this goofball cleaned off.”

Georgie handed him off to Sasha, regretting snapping at her.

“Your stew,” Melanie said. Only then did Georgie notice the encompassing odor of tomato, beef, and some warm, tangy spice.

“Oh, it’s fine. It needs to simmer for another hour, at least. Come on.”

While Sasha sat on the toilet lid, the Admiral bundled in her lap, carefully dabbing him clean with moistened paper towels and Q-tips, Georgie painted the dye onto Melanie’s hair.

“He’s going to have a grey foot for a while,” Sasha said after a few minutes’ work. She rubbed between his ears, making his eyes slit in contentment. “Aren’t you, honey? Aren’t you, you dumb idiot?”

Melanie, who’d been sitting silently on the rim of the tub the whole time, hands clenched in her lap, suddenly spoke up. “Don’t call him that!”

Sasha looked up, grinning. “You’re right. You’re the dumb idiot.”

“If I hadn’t had the door open, I’d have passed out from the bleach,” Georgie said defensively.

“This is bullshit. I’m going back to Andy’s next month.” Melanie grumbled under her breath.

“Why do you keep doing that?!” Georgie flung the brush back into the pot.

“Doing what?”

“She’s trying to make you jealous and knows flirting with me won’t work any more,” Sasha said, setting the Admiral on his feet. He scampered towards the door with a wary look backwards as Georgie made a series of explosive gestures toward Sasha.Yes! Finally! Exactly! Thank you!

“I’m! Ugh! It’s not--” Melanie turned toward the wall. The blue custard-spikes atop her head made her sulky posture extra-ridiculous.

“Seriously,” Georgie said more softly, touching Melanie’s shoulder with dye-covered gloves, “what is it, then? Are you sorry you moved in? Do you miss him that much?”

“I miss—“ Melanie turned back, but wasn’t quite able to look Georgie in the face. For the first time, Georgie considered that there might be something more serious bothering her. She glanced to Sasha, who turned her palms up. “I miss…you could be more affectionate. Physically. I miss it.”

“I’m…what?”

“You mean just Georgie, or…” Sasha sounded as baffled as Georgie felt. Sasha touched like every brush of their skin was air through a respirator. She'd drape her long body over Melanie, and rest her chin on her shoulder while she did the dishes--it would have driven Georgie crazy, but Mel seemed to like it. Grab one of them by the hand when they passed in the hall and spin them under her arm, or sprawl across their laps while they watched telly. And it wasn't as though Georgie didn't touch Melanie, either.

“We touch all the time," she protested.

“In public, though,” Melanie said, narrowing on Georgie. “You’re always a step and a half ahead of me. Like it would kill you to hold my hand every once in a while.”

Was it true? Surely, she must have held Melanie's hand before, but she couldn't think of a single instance. Bumped shoulders, yes. Slung an arm around her hip on the way back from a pub night before they were even together. But holding hands?

It was a bit strange. She'd held hands with previous partners. Not all of them--Georgie's first girlfriend back at uni had thought nothing of pushing her up against the almond tree and kissing her until the pink blossoms swam around her head, but never held her hand. She wondered whether it broke down along gender lines and hoped not.

Georgie was about to retort that Melanie never reached for her hand either, when she caught her expression. Her gaze was still averted, a tender set to her mouth. Oh, Georgie realized, this is actually difficult for her. Melanie put up such a good front most of the time, it was easy to forget she had any soft spots.

She peeled off her gloves, dropped them in the bin, and turned back to take one of Melanie’s hands in her own. It was small and smooth and cool and the feel of it sent a charge up her arms. Shocking in its unfamiliarity, its delicacy.

“Alright. I’ll try,” Georgie said. “I’ll try not to forget, and if I do, you can remind me, alright?”

“There’s…there’s actually…ugh! It's not just that. I don’t know why it took so long to realize it was bothering me...”

Sasha shut the bathroom door and drifted back to sit on the toilet lid again. She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, listening.

“So you’ve been on Ghost Hunt UK a good half dozen times now,” Melanie went on determinedly.

“Yessss…am I due to have you back on What-”

Melanie’s hand rose to cover Georgie’s mouth. “Shut up. And Sasha’s been on once.”

“About that,” Sasha put her hand up. ”Margory said yes to my being in front of the camera again. She thinks it ended up being good publicity.” The new Institute Head had a more media-centered approach to outreach than her progenitor. It was the least of Margory's "modernizations," but the one that most irritated Sasha’s boss.

Melanie’s other hand came up to cover Sasha’s mouth. “Focus. Anyway, there are three King James fics already and no…Melorgies.”

Georgie was stunned. She glanced to Sasha for some cue on how to react

“…or whatever our smushname would be. We don’t even have one.”

So your fans don’t like me that much. Georgie was about to say. Doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with our relationship. But before she could open her mouth, Melanie gave her a warning look.

“And before you call me ridiculous, it’s not about the fanfic. Last time you were on, you didn’t even hug me at the end. You hugged Andy, and left me with my arms just hanging there like a pillock. I had to get Toni to cut around it.”

Oh.

Melanie finally took her hands away from Georgie and Sasha’s mouths, but they both thought the better of interrupting. She still had more to say.

Georgie remembered the moment in question, the dry golden grass outside the shambling farmhouse they’d investigated. She’d seen Melanie lean toward her, and something inside her had locked up. There were too many people too close, the glittering black eye of the camera. Georgie had ducked around to the other side of Andy, keeping him between her and Melanie as they delivered their rehearsed signoffs. Melanie had never said anything about it, leaving Georgie to assume she’d been subtle.

“I can understand if you…might not want to make a big announcement we’re together, or anything. And I don’t want you to hug me when you don’t feel like it, especially on camera. It’s just…messing with me a bit. That other people can’t tell we like each other? It makes me…”

Melanie swallowed. Georgie looped an arm around her waist. She could feel the tension thrumming through Melanie beneath her hand.

“I don’t like doubting myself.”

“Oooh,” Sasha said, comprehending the emotional logic, “So if you can get Georgie jealous, it functions as reassurance? That she wants you?”

“Or maybe it’s just hot when she gets territorial,” Melanie retorted. Georgie squeezed her closer, then dug fingers into her ribs until she squirmed. “Wait! Stop. I…I guess maybe the two are related. Jesus, that is arsey, isn’t it?”

“Well, maybe, but I sort of suck too for not being able to touch my girlfriend where other people can see.”

“Do you know why it’s hard?” Sasha asked. Her dark eyes, magnified by her big granny glasses, gave Georgie a flutter of that same scrutinized feeling that had made her flee Melanie’s outstretched arms. She took a breath and bore the discomfort.

“I think I…I think I’m the opposite of an exhibitionist. You know how pandas can’t mate in captivity?”

“I’m not asking to mate on camera.”

Sasha tilted her head, one brow raised. Yes, Sasha we know you would.

“The thing is,” Georgie went on, eyes shut to compose her thoughts, “I don’t come from a touchy family, and then there was that thing at uni where I went completely inert for a year. And I thought all that was behind me, but the past couple years, as the show finally got to be a full-time thing, it’s been harder not to…hole up at home? And you’d think that’d numb you to people, or numb you to touch, but it’s actually the opposite. It’s fine here at home where I feel safe, but I can get overwhelmed by--"

Do I have to say it?

"--by love or, you know, other good feelings if…” Georgie ventured a glance toward them to see if she was being understood. They were staring at her like a shooting star was trembling on her brow. She trailed off, face heating.

“So you can’t hug Melanie sometimes because it gives you too many feelings?” Sasha said. Georgie gave a one-shouldered shrug. The fact that there wasn’t the slightest hint of mockery in Sasha’s voice made it even more embarrassing. “Sorry, that’s cute.

“Well, thank god my damage is one of the cute ones.”

“Being sensitive isn’t a damage.”

As if Sasha’s big, missionary’s eyes staring at her weren’t enough, Melanie pulled her into a kiss--a firm, careless smear of their lips against each other. No heat, just reassurance. Georgie scrubbed her mouth on her sleeve when Melanie released her. There was something expanding behind her ribs. Her "sensitivity." A bubble swelling on the loop, trembling, on the verge of flight, of bobbing away on a warm breath.

Or bursting.

“Right! Enough about me,” she said briskly, twisting the tap. “Let’s get you rinsed off before the hair falls out of your head.”

“I’d look so hot bald though.” Melanie lowered herself back to the floor on her hands.

Georgie glanced from the water running over her hand as she tested the temperature to the top of Melanie's spiky head. Her oblivious spiky head. Sasha had relaxed as well, now that Melanie and Georgie had traded vulnerabilities. The water was lukewarm already. It wasn’t cold enough for what she was considering to actually be mean, she decided.

Georgie turned the sprayer on and doused them both.

Sasha flipped from laughter at Melanie’s shriek to goldfishy shock when the stream of water turned on her, pasting her dress to her body. Georgie dropped the sprayer and ran, dropping apologies through wild giggles. Not much room to run, as the bathroom was maybe four meters square, but escape wasn’t the point. Melanie recovered first.

“—Melanie! Melanie, no!” Georgie shrieked, back forced against the wall, trying to wrestle her wrists out of Melanie’s pointy little hands. “You need to-you need to rinse your hair. You’re getting blue—“ everywhere. Melanie's hair, slicked flat to her head, was shedding sheets of thick blue water down her neck, over her shoulders, soaking her tee shirt. Glancing down, Georgie saw it running down her legs to puddle on the tiles.

Over Melanie’s shoulder, Sasha got slowly to her feet, looking down at herself in outrage. Her dress clung to her thighs, outlined her navel like her body had been painted red. A panicky bolt of I’m-in-for-it-now ran from Georgie’s toes to her chest, making it hard to bite back her laughter.

“And whose fault is that?!”

“S-Sasha,” Georgie said weakly, “Just a-just a second now. I want you to think about how I could have got your hair wet and I didn’t—“

“I guess I’m the lucky one, then!” Melanie shouted, little drops of blue water caught in her eyelashes. Her mouth flattened into a pale line, eyes narrowing as something wicked occurred to her. Then she whipped her head side to side, flinging dye at Georgie's face.

When Georgie finally opened her eyes again, she saw Sasha had actually caught the worst of Melanie’s attack. She loomed over Melanie’s shoulder, glowing with rage, painted in smears of blue.

”Melanie—“ Georgie warned, right before Sasha looped an arm around Melanie’s ribs.

“You. Are. CHILDREN!” she bellowed, hauling Melanie off her feet. Melanie was so startled, her hands unclamped and Georgie was free. She didn’t have time to run, though, because no sooner had Sasha tumbled Melanie into the tub, than she was back, hoisting Georgie just as easily.

“You’ve RUINED our clothes! You’ve DESTROYED the bathroom! You are going to LOSE your deposit—“ Sasha dropped Georgie on top of Melanie, who scrambled out of the way, letting Georgie’s butt thump bruisingly into the porcelain.

“I wasn’t getting it back anyway,“ Georgie protested. “I’ve been here six—“ And water filled her mouth. Sasha had grabbed the sprayer and turned it upon Georgie.

"Shut up!" Sasha high-stepped over the edge of the tub, wet skirts slopping around her ankles, jerked the shower curtain closed, and stood looking down at her and Melanie. “You are both going to sit there and behave yourselves while I wash the idiot off of you.”

“Better women have tried,” Melanie muttered, then sputtered sorries through the stream Sasha directed at her.

Maybe the idiocy was in their clothes (tear them off!) or their skin (scrub it squeaking!) Their hair (that too!) Their mouths (how's the soap taste?) It wasn’t entirely clear, but by the time Sasha was done with them, they'd been recivilized, and the bathroom was cleaned down to the cerulean-stained grout.


“Does it taste burnt to you?” Sasha worried over dinner.

Georgie was exhausted and still a little sore, but felt more content than she’d been in weeks. “Mmm. Yeah. It’s good, though.”

The three sat around the table in dry clothes, sharing the stew. The Admiral, for some reason, had chosen Melanie as the likeliest mark that night and kept placing his paws on the side of her chair, before leaping onto her lap to sniff at her bowl. Georgie had watched her tiredly set him back down on the floor three times already. She wondered how long it would take her to realize she could just shut him in the bedroom.

“Oh, get that expression off your face, Sash,” Melanie said. “Even when you fuck up, it comes out incredible.”

Sasha’s smile was just a shy upward twitch of one side of her mouth. “Oh,” she said thoughtfully, looking up at them. “I just realized…actually I have something I need to apologize for, too.”

“No you don’t.” Melanie managed to get a chunk of beef into her mouth before the Admiral leapt from the counter to the table and she had to toss him toward the living room again.

“You’ve literally never done anything wrong in your life, Sasha.”

“It’s about the fanfic.”

“Oh, enough about the fanfic. Melanie shouldn’t be reading it, anyway.”

“I wrote the King Jameses.”

“…what?” The spoon tumbled from Melanie's hand.

“I had no idea it’d make you so insecure about-about you and Georgie…”

Georgie raised an eyebrow toward Melanie, who was more astonished by the revelation than Georgie thought was warranted.

“But Sasha, they’re…” Melanie swallowed. “You’re kidding, right? They’re terrible! The characterization—the…I'm the 'elfin-proportioned youtuber.'” She caught herself. “They are supposed to be terrible, right?”

Sasha laughed behind her hand. “Yes, they’re supposed to be terrible. I thought you’d guess when I sent you the link to the first one on April Fool’s, but then you didn’t, so I just kept pushing the envelope.”

Georgie had thought she was over being jealous, but, looking between Sasha and Melanie, she desperately wished she’d thought to do it herself. The look of incredulous glee overtaking Melanie’s face…Georgie wasn’t sure she’d ever managed to evoke that level of delight.

“I have got to see this,” she said quickly, tamping it down.

“Are you sure you’re prepared? How well do you handle spicy?” Melanie’s eyes gleamed.

“Are they really that explicit?” Georgie wondered. Sasha was hiding her face in her hands. Her hair, which had dried enough for curly tendrils to fluff out, trembled around her head. “What? They are?!”

Melanie grabbed her phone from the counter and Georgie nudged Sasha, giggling. “Come on, don’t you want to spread the gospel?”

“I’m sort of wishing right now,” Sasha said quietly toward the ceiling, “I hadn’t been quite so effusive about my sexual prowess.”

“Which one do you want first?” Melanie asked, collapsing back into her chair. “The one where she spanks the demons out of me, the one where we get kidnapped by Darkiplier, or the one where we’re the only two were-panther royals in London so we have to produce an heir?”


Later, piled on the floor in front of the television, Georgie nudged a drowsing Melanie awake. “Listen, I’m alright to make the announcement.”

The Admiral, resting on Georgie's chest, curled the tips of his claws through her shirt absently, before relaxing back into a rolling purr. Melanie, in contrast, went from groggy to alert instantly. “About-“

“Yeah. Next time you have me on. And I'm a couple months out on What the Ghost right now, but there, too. When I can think of a natural way to do it. I want people to know I love you. And Sasha, if she wants.” At her other side, Sasha shifted, as if her name would rouse her, but only nuzzled against Georgie's hip before resettling.

Georgie was conscious she was staring at the ceiling instead of Melanie’s face as she delivered the words she'd been arranging inside her head all night. Some things were too much. But Melanie's bright hair was soft as feathers under Georgie’s fingertips, and when Melanie’s exhalation hit Georgie’s cheek, she knew that precise expression, anyway.