" Do you want to go first?"

I looked into the dark eyes of Madrigal Orion and saw that they glittered with excitement, anticipation- there was no fear, no fear at all. But then, there never was- not during our bonding, as we called it. And now,there was no fear of it in me either.

I shook my head, my hands gripping the edge of Madrigal's red bedspread. Digging them in, out. I didn't really know why I was doing it- I guess I, like Madrigal, was growing excited, anticipant. Already my heart was beating faster, my pulse tingling in my arms. I already felt my body preparing, upping my adrenaline level...

" You can go first, Mad," I said, and though I tried to keep my voice steady, it wavered slightly in my eagerness. I couldn't wait to see it, feel it, prove to her how tough I was, how much I could take it. I wanted above all, though, to feel the rush of relief and dizzied adrenaline high, the tender warmth toward Madrigal, the closeness I always felt with her afterward.

My right leg was jiggling up and down restlessly, involuntarily, and I tried to stop it, hold it steady- I didn't want to shake the bed. That could be dangerous... more so than we needed.

Madrigal smiled at me, the slow, curling seduction she reserved for anyone she felt like messing with. But with me, I knew, only with me, was it sincere. My heart beat faster still- her smile was not dentist-perfect, for there was a gap between her two front teeth, but somehow it made her look incredibly sexy rather than taking away from her looks. She knew it too, judging from the number of times I'd seen her use it to get the reactions she wanted.

" All right." She scooted closer to me on the edge of the bed, her hip and thigh touching the sides of mine. She bent her head close to mine, and her long dark hair tickled my cheek. I didn't brush it away, didn't want to; I couldn't wipe away the smile it brought me.

Seeing my smile, Madrigal smiled again, her eyes flashing. She too seemed nearly breathless.

" Pull up my sleeve for me?" she asked.

I took her right hand, squeezed it, feeling the small fingers squeeze back firmly. Then letting go, I began to pull up the tight, long sleeve of Madrigal's mauve shirt, easing it slowly, carefully, up to her elbow- it would go no further. Various markings stood out starkly all across her tanned arm's length- old, whitened, pale pink, purple, and angry red. Lines and shapes, words and crude drawings etched into her flesh- etched with her own hand. Etched with razors, with glass, tacks, needles- once, even with a rusty nail.

" You have it?" Madrigal asked, her voice hushed, hoarse with her jittery trepidation.

I didn't reply, just handed the razor to her wordlessly, my eyes meeting hers. Her fingers closed around it, and she smiled again.

" Don't worry, Celeste- I won't have it for too long. You'll be next." She laughed, a deep, throaty sound that was older than her sixteen years. " We are so fucked up, you know that?"

" I know," I replied, my voice more serious than I had intended or felt.

She laughed again, held the razor so rigidly her fingers had turned white.

" Yeah. And neither of us really give a shit, do we?"

She put an arm around me suddenly, squeezing my shoulders. She kissed my forehead, her lips staying pressed to my skin for a few moments, lingering. I closed my eyes against her touch, half-hoping she couldn't feel my heart's steady buzz in my chest.

She ran her hand down my arm, slowly, deliberately, and as her hand touched my scars one by one through the fabric of my sleeve, they came alive, burning and tingling, aching to be touched, picked at, reopened once again.

At last her hands left me, and slightly breathless, she held the razor blade over her arm, tracing a smooth patch of skin.

" New ones today?" I asked. " Not just reopening an old one?"

Madrigal shook her head. " If they get too deep they stain clothes too much, and then Petra might see. It's a delicate balance- deep but not enough that they constantly bleed. I know it's a long shot she would notice- she never sees anything, let alone gets an urge to wash clothes and go through my drawers. But you can't be too careful, especially you- watch that kind of thing around Julie and Alliance."

I nodded. Madrigal, with a tremulous hand, lowered the blade to her skin, stabbing it harshly. She made no sounds, not cries of pain, no hissing intakes of breath- there was nothing in her eyes but her resolve. She dragged the blade back adn forth into a half moon, deepening it, defining it, as blood began to spread faster around it. I handed her a tissue from the box on her night table, and she blotted it, wiping at it with short, quick gestures. Clinching the stained tissue in the same hand that held the razor, she dragged it through again, making it deeper. She turned to me, her eyes dark, almost blank except for their glint.

" See?" she said, her voice tight, strange, sounding much further away than it should from someone practically sitting in my lap. " C for Celeste."

I smiled, squeezing her unbloody arm as I laid my forehead on her shoulder. I watched her, excitement increasing as she carved a D beside it, for Delsin, my last name.

" I've marked myself," she nearly gasped, her eyes almost wild as she held the tissue to her cuts. " Marked myself with you, Celeste."

" It looks good," I told her, my voice nearly as hoarse as hers. " I love it. I love you."

" I love you too," she told me, laying her head atop mine for a few moments. I slid my arms around her waist, squeezed, then letting go, said, " All right, my turn, Mad."

She gave it to me, her fingers closing over mine. I breathed in raggedly, trying to get my heart rate under control. I was shaking, but not from fear- from anticipation of what was to come...

Madrigal rolled up my sleeve for me, her warm fingers sliding gently over the marks of my right arm. As I lowered the blade, I thought of how it was already stained with blood specks at its tip, her blood, Madrigal's blood. It would be entering my skin, mixing with my own blood, as it had so many times before. I wouldn't be surprised if she and I were more fully blood sisters than I was with Alliance, my 11-year-old sister.

My skin itched, tingling with my anticipation of the razor's breaking of its smoothness... and when it did, I felt nothing, no pain, only relief...

When I was finished, I had initials on my arm as well- MO, for Madrigal Orion. I was short of breath, and I felt light-headed, giddy- I could not stop smiling. Madrigal smiled back, hugged me tight even as I pressed the tissue to my new marks.

" I love you," she whispered, her cheek pressed against mine. " I have no one else but you. No one else would ever understand. No one..."

I burrowed nearer, could hear my own loud breathing, could feel hers, could feel her rapid heartbeat so close to my own. Her hot skin against mine- there was nothing but her against me, her and the beginnings of delayed, prickling pain in my arm.

" I know," I whispered back. " I know..."