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when our eyes meet: darling, i fancy you

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There's no chocolate in Hell. No fresh strawberries with peak June flavour, warmed in the sun. It - well, it's Hell. The food sucks, and that's kind of the point. There's this particular way that it tastes bad, a sort of universal off-ness that sucks the pleasure out of eating altogether. Astra used to be able to describe it, when she was young and the memory of real food was fresh in her mind, but over the years the specifics faded away. Everything just tastes - wrong. Almost like the real-world version but a little bit to the left.

(Later, John will explain this to her: that sweet taste just doesn't exist there. That so many foods are made up of a complex blend of flavours that taking one family away altogether makes everything seem just a little terrible.)

Astra learned to eat only things that she'd never had before; things couldn't taste wrong if she didn't remember the way they were supposed to be.

+

The first time she eats an orange it nearly makes her cry. It's complicated. It's like nothing she's ever experienced before but it's also something she knows she's experienced, deep in her bones. There's a sense-memory, of soccer - no, football games, back when she was small. Reaching into a plastic container of sliced oranges and biting deep into the flesh, grinning around the peel. Her mother laughing at the sight of her, calling her silly in her kindest, most affectionate voice.

The orange tastes like juice, like sweet and sour and beautiful texture and Astra wants to hold it in her mouth forever. Wants to draw out the experience of it so that she can the complex interplay of bright acid and heavy sweetness. She wants to dig into this feeling until she's sick of it.

She eats three oranges in a row and gives herself a stomachache, but it's worth it.

+

Astra hasn't had ice cream since she was nine years old.

(How long it's been since she was nine years old is controversial, at best. Chronologically, she should be turning fifteen this year. But time in Hell is stretchy in a way that regular time isn't; birthdays are complicated. She's older than fifteen, somewhere in the ballpark between twenty five and forty and that's good enough.)

She rediscovers it by herself at the seaside, on a hot day.

(First, she rediscovers the bus, takes it into town a few times by herself before she works up the nerve to go to the beach.)

There's an ice cream stand there, families queuing for cones of slightly-melty swirled soft serve and it gives her a sudden pang of nostalgia as she passes. She reaches into her pocket, mentally thumbs through the cash and coins she brought for the day and does some quick math as she steps into the line of people.

The only flavour is vanilla. The man at the cash register asks her if she wants flake in it. She panics, mumbles yes to save herself the embarrassment of asking what that is. It turns out to be a stick of chocolate, shaped in a bar with lots of ridges and folds; Astra can see how it would crumble when bitten into. He pops it into the side of the soft serve cone, like a jaunty little flagpole and Astra can't quite fight a smile.

She takes her first bite by herself, on a bench overlooking the beach. There's a path here, a steady stream of cyclists passing through and families with young children making slow progress to and from the water. The texture as it hits her tongue is like the oranges, but bigger. It's like this with so many foods, now: cheese sandwiches, cherry tomatoes, chocolate chip cookies. There's that initial taste, and a sudden rush of remembering. This is something she used to like. This used to taste good. This used to be familiar.

She drags her tongue run in the same direction as the swirls along the side of the ice cream, smoothing them as she goes. If she tears up a little, it doesn't matter: there's nobody important around to see.

+

"What do you like?" Charlie asks.

They're slouched across the sofa in Charlie's apartment. It's 1978, and they've been dating back and forth across time for a few weeks, now. Astra shrugs. Her back is resting against Charlie's front; Charlie's got both arms wrapped around Astra's middle. Charle reaches out, takes one of Astra's hands. "I'm not sure what I like," she says.

Charlie fiddles with Astra's fingers. She rests one hand palm-up, sets Astra's hand on top and puts the other on top of both, palm-down like a little Charlie-hand sandwich. "Come on, you've got to give me something. How am I supposed to take you on a real date?"

"This is a real date."

Charlie huffs; Astra feels it against the back of her neck. "I want to take you somewhere."

"Here is somewhere," Astra says.

Charlie presses her mouth to the back of Astra's neck. It's sweet at first, starts out as a kiss and ends with the flat of Charlie's tongue along Astra's nape a little too wetly to be romantic. "Don't be difficult," she says.

Astra reaches up, swipes the wet of Charlie off of her skin. "Fine," she says. "I like ice cream."

"Ice cream," Charlie says, thoughtful. "I can do that."

+

"How many flavours are there?" she asks.

Charlie shrugs. "Thirty six," she says.

Astra balks. It's too many choices, kind of good but kind of overwhelming all at once. She's only had vanilla, plain and sweet and creamy and even that seems like too much to handle some days. "How do I know what they taste like?"

Charlie shrugs. Her voice is still even, her smile still bright, but her hand comes up to rub Astra's back like she's picked up on her nerves. "Guess we'll have to try them," she says.

Astra steps out of the queue. It's weird. She knows it's weird, that she's a grown adult who is definitely going to take at least twenty minutes to pick a stupid flavour of ice cream. She's supposed to be used to this. Other people eat ice cream all the time, know what bubblegum and cookies and cream taste like.

Charlie knows that she's still catching up, but Astra doesn't want to have to admit it. Doesn't want to ask for help picking a flavour because she doesn't know if she likes nuts in her ice cream, or if she prefers caramel or chocolate. "What flavour do you like?" Astra asks.

Charlie shrugs. "All of them," she says. "You want me to pick?"

Her hand slides across Astra's back, down to her hand, where she squeezes. "Yeah," Astra says. "Yeah, I'd like that."

Charlie comes back to Astra with a takeaway container. Inside are ten different scoops, each one a different colour and texture. "They wouldn't let me get them all," she says. "But I thought we could start here?"

Something bubbles up in Astra's chest; emotion filling her like a balloon. "Yeah," she says. "That'd be a good start."

Charlie hands her a spoon and pulls her chair around the side of the table so that they can sit hip-to-hip. Astra takes her first bite, flavour hitting her tongue with intensity on the edge of overwhelming. This time, when those happy-too-much tears start to prickle behind her eyes, she doesn't mind quite so much.