The guide says, “Is everybody ready? Is everybody hanging onto the hand of the person next to you? Okay, we’re turning out the lights, so you can experience what it is like in a cave without human interference. Hang on tight!”
Emma smiles at Dance. She has decided that she wants to stand facing him, each of her hands holding one of his, not sharing him with anybody in the rest of the group. She’s been feeling a bit possessive about him. He’s been getting odd looks from people. It might be partly because he doesn’t look like anybody else, he’s been careful to be his more subdued but still sparkly concertmaster self with people who come up to talk, and he’s clearly her friend, her boyfriend, something. All the Japanese tourists with the cameras kept wanting to catch him in shots with his arm around her, embarrassing their interpretors with demands to make sure it’s clear that she is taller than he is. Apparently they want pictures of her as one of those giant-thighed American beauty queens, or something, which annoys Dance.
The lights go out.
There are squeals from little kids, there is a general ahhhhh sound, there are sighs, and chuckles. After a moment the guide begins to talk, in the dark, and the dimmer on some of the lights gradually comes up at one side of the cave, illuminating the flowstones and stalagmites on display.
Emma is not dismayed by the later display additions that augment the original formations.
For one thing, this area is wheelchair accessible. It is on a shorter park trail that the disabled can take to see something of what it’s like in other, further areas underground, in locations where they will never be able to go for themselves. She approves of that chance. There are a lot of people leaning on canes or walkers on the group about the guide. It’s clear many of them are in pain, but they’re out there, seeing a cave in spite of everything, slow but determined.
The additions to these displays are rather whimsically fake, probably done back sometime in the forties or so, judging by the general style of the reproduction. It’s always interesting to see what repeated and clearly artificial texture that some hopeful model-maker or plaster-cast-maker of years ago thought would will look convincing in dim light. In some displays, she’s seen what were clearly carpet-fragment blobbings used to add interest to concrete stalactites and stalagmites.
Say what you will about how it looks now, measured against the kind of careful special effects mastered for the unkind eye of the movie camera, these are not bad. One simply has to admire the effort they went to. She is looking at the work of a dedicated museum artist trying their very best, for the time period.
The guide talks, and the group moves to the next display, and the lights dim down considerably where they’re standing. At the next pool of light, the guide talks about safety rules for visiting outlying areas and other caves on their own.
“Was it carpet or bricks or wood planks this time?” Dance says, his eyes crinkling upward at the corners.
“Might have been a scrubbing pad of steel wool over some rough wood, I think,” Emma says, smiling back.
His hands feel warm. He looks at her in the dim light, tips his head a little to one side. “Real flowstone now?”
She nods, and points down a different passageway from that taken by the guide’s group. One of the startling things about the national parks is that they don’t try that hard to protect people from themselves. It’s not Disneyland. If you want to get lost in some distant branch, you’d better have told somebody ahead of time to come looking for you if you weren’t back by a certain time. Otherwise, nobody will ever know. At least, not for the next few years, until the next person has reason to go there.
There’s more lights on the side-branch, which have sensors. They come up automatically as Emma and Dance pass, and then go down again after some time. In front of the display of fluorescent lichen, Emma says, “It’ll take a little while for your eyes to adjust to see them,” and after the lights dim, Dance draws her arms forward around him. Emma leans forward into his back, resting her chin on his shoulder, cuddling into his warmth. Her hands brush down his chest and settle into his jacket pockets. She can feel the weight of his flashlight in one of them. Hers is in her own pocket, zipped up safely.
He murmurs some sound, and she answers, “I’m good. You good?”
“I’m good,” he says.
She leans forward a little more, and kisses the side of his face. “I’m really glad you came.”
He smiles. “So am I.”
Almost in his ear, Emma murmurs, “I think half the point of visiting cave displays is the bit where you get to wait in the dark with your sweetie, all cozy.”
“It’s a great excuse to hug your favorite person,” Dance agrees.
“Am I being obnoxious, girl-mauling you all day?” Emma says then, very softly.
He lifts one hand into his pocket, closes his warm hand over her wrist, draws her hand out, lifts it, and kisses the back of her hand. She feels his lips touch her skin. Then he brings up his other hand, and cups her cool fingers in his own warm ones. “No,” he says softly. “You’re fine. It’s me that has a problem.”
Emma feels herself grow very still. “Mmmm?” she says.
“You know, for a boy who likes boys, who says so all the time, it’s really weird to find out it’s not true. Not at all.” He speaks so carefully that, even though it’s soft and it doesn’t carry more than a few inches from her ears, it’s clear as a bell. “I’m just… I never met a girl who… who makes me feel like…this. So I sound like really bad… stories. You know, ‘I’m not queer after all!’ things. Stupid things.”
Emma is hugging him closely enough that she feels the changes in his breathing as he speaks. When he stops talking, his body is poised, tense, ready to move. Emma pulls her other hand out of his pocket, flattens both of them on his middle, and feels him draw in a deep breath.
Before he can say anything, Emma leans in and kisses his cheek again. Amused, she says, “You do know it’s not an on-off switch at all, it’s more like a dimmer switch on sexuality, right?”
“So if you say I’m a little on the dim side, I do not argue,” Dance says then, picking up her hands and holding them in his own.
She chuckles. “You can be a lot queer and a little bit girl-crazy if you want.”
“It’s very confusing,” he says.
“It’s all right,” she murmurs. “Look, can you see the lichens yet?”
“Yeah,” he says. They hear noisy feet running along, and people passing by, but they don’t come down the branch where she and Dance are standing. He says, quietly, “The lichens are wonderful.” After they’ve gone, and it’s quiet again, Emma wraps her arms around him more closely, and kisses his cheek again. He turns his head to make it easier for her to do this. He says, “Only, now– I think I’m not queer for men, either. Only one. Only one girl. I guess I like Emmas and Drins.”
She smiles. “Well, that works out then, because I like Dances. And Drins, too.”
“A lot?” Dance murmurs.
“Oh yeah,” Emma says. “I think he knows it, too.”
“Oh. Well, yes. I told him you– that you were asking about him, that you might be–” Dance says.
“Interested?” she murmurs. “Interested in Drin?”
“Yeah. And of course he’s… interested in you, a beautiful woman with a brain, and…”
“Umm, yeah,” she says. “You’re right. We… talked a little bit, a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh.” Dance doesn’t move, but he’s gone very still.
“You know what’s really funny?” she says. She draws in a deep breath of the odd, dusty, dry air of the cave. Up close, that is overlaid by the scent of Dance’s hair, the lavender odor of the shampoo he uses, the familiar smell of Dance’s sweat from the day’s traipsing about. At home he works out hard enough to sweat a lot, which means that today he hasn’t needed to make that much effort. She hasn’t made much of a dent in his capacity to hike. She can feel the strain in her own legs, exploring a couple of different sites. She does love to go through a museum or a park exhibit or an historical site thoroughly, mostly at speed, looking at every corridor and every branch, exclaiming over the weird things left in the back dusty corners. It made Dance smile at her poking around so consistently.
“What’s funny?” Dance asks, with a little catch in his voice.
She smiles. Drin told her bluntly last night, in an email of all things, that she could have him any day of the week she asked. He said he was a little concerned, though, because he knew Dance would be right there in her line of fire, too, should she be in the mood for that talented young gentleman instead. He asked her to be kind to the poor guy, whatever she decided to do about the both of them, and he was going to leave it in her capable hands.
She replied with a protest that Dance was queer, he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in her physical attributes, of whatever sort, and– and Drin calmly exploded that little theory to bits.
Drin told her if she left the bathroom door open to vent the shower steam, they kind of… both…reacted to it. They didn’t want to intrude on her privacy or anything, but it was quite a turn-on for him, and it was just as distracting to Dance, which nobody expected, least of Dance himself. So, erm, Dance might… not be quite as… calm as usual. She might not be able to go on taking Dance for granted, best buddies and galpal girlfriend, in the future. Which had made her wince a little bit.
He said other things too. A little sharp, in places. Maybe she knew she was having an impact on Dance and she just jerked on the poor guy’s chain, making sure she still had him.
She hadn’t been very happy at seeing that reflection in Drin’s emails.
Emma says, “Drin said that you happened to see too much of me hanging out of that blue silk dress of mine, a couple of times, and you got… a little upset with yourself for… reacting.”
“Yeah,” Dance says, at length. “Guess I was. Not exactly what we thought was in the specifications, is it? Sorry.”
“I’m not,” she says, laughing a little. “God, you two are the hottest pair of boys I’ve ever seen, just sitting around the house in your tee shirts, yelling at Wii games. I knew you were trying not to flag anything in my face. But trust me, I could eat up both of you without a spoon, and die happy. It’s just– it’s like it’s floating around in the air or something. Dance, I’m just fine with you ripping that damn blue dress right off me, okay?”
Dance turns his head and shoulders and looks at her. He can’t possibly be seeing anything, but he’s still looking at her. Then he lifts her hands and kisses her across her knuckles, gently, one hand and then the other, right where she’s skinned them crawling around. Then he says, softly. “Oh, I don’t want to rip the dress. That’s a fine dress. You can get more of those any time you like. I bet Drin will be happy to buy you more dresses like that.”
“This is supposed to be kinky, isn’t it?” she says.
“It feels pretty kinky to me to want to–”
“To want to do this?” Emma says, letting her hands slide down his jacket and onto his pants, sliding along that amazing belly of his, and back up again, and she can feel his ribs jerk still. “To feel like that?”
His hands cradle hers gently, his fingers warm on hers. “If you want me to come right in my pants, yeah,” he says, amused at himself. “It doesn’t take that much, feeling like this.”
“Like you want to make out right here in the dark?” she breathes into his ear.
“With the screaming kids in the next cave branch and everything,” he says wryly.
“Well,” Emma says, “the guides are probably used to catching people making out right around here. It’s too handy.”
“You got somewhere better in mind?” Dance says, and there’s a husky note in his voice she’s only heard a few times, lately, when he’s been speaking with Drin.
She chuckles. “I’ve got maps, and I know how to use ’em,” she says.
“Now I know why you like caves so much,” he says.
“Only with the right person,” Emma says gravely. “With you. With both of you. I trust you two guys.”
“I take it you came prepared?” Dance says, amused and disbelieving.
Emma chuckles. “I am a librarian.”
He sighs. “Do we need to go back to the car and get the helmets?”
“Or back to the hotel.”
“Something to be said for soft beds.”
He turns, sliding in her hands, and then he’s kissing her on the mouth, silencing the words. He breathes into her cheek, and her neck, and then his hands are remembering that her pants are too loose at the waist and too tight across the butt. He’s got his hands down that gap at the back, amazingly hot. “God, you have such soft skin,” he gasps.
That’s when the passage light comes on, of course. There’s a group coming traipsing on a tour toward them. Emma blinks, and scowls. “You have to turn the lights off and wait about ten minutes if you want to see the glow from the lichens.”
Dance chuckles, turning away, as if he’s never had his hands near her. But he says, “We can call him tonight, let him know how it goes.”
With people passing by them, chattering among themselves, Emma stares at him.
Dance turns then, about ten feet from her, looks at her, and gives a little shrug. “I mean, I don’t know if I can make you happy, or if I’m just– or if it’s going to work for you, or anything. He’s involved.”
Emma blinks. “Yeah,” she says. “You’re right.”
Then Dance gives her a crooked little smile. “I’m sure gonna try my best.”
“As always,” she says and smiles back.
writers’ notes: This is part of a story begun off some prompts here and in doll photography, “Vita Ersatz.”