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‘Okay. This is now to be the second time I have had to turn this tincan around—‘

‘What was that?’ Molly asks, poses the question in such a threateningly pleasant manner from where he is laid out on the back seat over Yasha’s legs, the way only he is capable of doing. ‘I would watch myself if I were you, Caleb—her name is Lucy and she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to any of us.’

‘She ran me over,’ Essek disagrees.

‘—and I would rather not do it a third time, especially coming off the Byway. The traffic will already be very unpleasant—’

‘Darling, I can appreciate dramatics, obviously,’ Molly drawls, gesturing with a flourish to his resplendent get-up as proof of that, and grins wide to Essek, showing off sharp teeth, ‘but I don’t know that tapping into your chair counts as running you over.’

‘It a hundred per cent does. Of course it does?’

‘Thank you, Beauregard.’

Don’t call me Beaure—’

‘Her opinion doesn’t count for shit, Essek,’

‘Fuck you, dude!’

‘—could kill all of you in here and no one would hear a thing—

‘She’d say the sun was green to disagree with me!’

‘I mean, I’ll agree to that,’ Beau laughs. The sound is obnoxiously loud but instantly quietens when a blue hand reaches up to smack her soundly in the face.

‘Too. Loud,’ the owner of that hand groans.

‘Oops. Sorry, Jes, I’ll be quiet.’

From the backseat, Molly mimes cracking a whip. Beau pulls a face, flips him off. Then,

‘Yo! Caleb! Are we moving or what? Road trip? Nicodranas? Beach party? Ringing any bells?’

Most of the passengers look forward to the man in question and they can see now that he has done a rather stellar job of folding his entire body over the steering wheel in abject dismay. Despondent, he stares blankly ahead at the garage wall, toward the homemade soundproofing Molly and Yasha had set up.

‘Hey – did you say somethin’ about killing us?’

‘Ja.’

‘Oh. Cool, cool, starting off the holiday season well, then,’ Fjord drawls.

Clearly irritated, Caleb shrugs. The gesture sends his too-sharp shoulders and elbows scattering in various direction. ‘I have been talking to you all, and you chatter away and do not listen. This is my warning,’ he announces, twisting in the driver’s seat to make deliberate eye contact with each of them. It’s a rare enough thing that one-by-one they fall silent. Caleb lifts his finger, points accusingly toward them. Slowly, so they don’t lose a word of it to his accent, he says, ‘I will not be turning around again. If you have forgotten something, it is forgotten. This is your last chance to get something from the house.’

He waits.

No one moves.

Then, ‘I hate to be this person, because you seemed to be making a very fair and valid point, Mister Widogast,’ Caduceus says in his low rumble,’ but I do need to go to the bathroom now. Seems like the right time, being that we’re home and all.’

There’s a sudden flurry of agreement like Cad’s admitting to it opened the flood gates—thankfully metaphorically—and the van erupts in a flurry of movement and cries of pain as elbows slam into sides and feet stomp on feet, various members of their crew climbing over one another. The van door rattles and careens open, hitting the end of its rail with a loud metallic clang! as they push at it, pouring out. The ramp in the back is lowered for Essek with a solid thud as it hits concrete, narrowly missing Beau’s foot.

‘You did it that time on purpose, Molly, you watch your fucking back in the water.’

‘No murder at the beach, Beauregard!’ Nott leans out the passenger side window, points a long finger warningly. ‘You know how I am about the water!’

‘…Sorry, Nott. Watch your fucking back in the competitive volleyball competition, Molly,’ Beau hisses. It’s a hard sentence to say with vitriol, but she manages.

‘Oh no, no, no, if you think I’m going to be doing anything for the next five days other than basking in as much of my glory as I’m legally permitted to bask in, you are very much mistaken. Competitive volleyball? Not my scene.’

‘No,’ Beau agrees, looking entirely too pleased with herself. ‘But it is my scene. And who’s to say my aim won’t be slightly off?’

‘No. No – you like winning too much. You wouldn’t.’

‘Who’s to say? Best keep both eyes open, Tealeaf,’ she warns, and what would be a dramatic exit is only somewhat undercut by the way she trips on the ramp leading out of the garage.

Molly frowns after her. ‘Yasha?’

‘I’ll protect you,’ she assures before he can ask.

‘Bless you, my love.’

//

With all of them bathroomed, fed and watered, they rush to the van. Caleb takes his place in the driver’s seat once more and begins, for now the third time, his extensive safety check.

‘Essek?’

‘Seatbelt and safety brake on.’

‘Yasha?’

‘Seatbelt on. Van door secured.’

‘Molly?’

‘Seatbelt on, darling, and all flammables duly packed away.’

‘Flamm—‘ Caleb sighs. ‘Ja. Okay, fine, whatever. Beau.’

‘Seatbelt on. Guns on fully display.’ He can see her in the rearview mirror and watches obligingly as she flexes; her shirt is sleeveless, as per usual, and the bicep that he can see is well-defined. ‘Also, first aid kit fully stocked and close at hand.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Why does she get a thank you?’

‘Thank you, Molly,’ Caleb acquiesces before Beau or Molly can start yet another fight. ‘Jester?’

The baleful glare bores into the back of his head as she lifts her head from Beau’s shoulder to say, ‘Awake. Seatbelt.’

‘You may sleep, you just cannot lay down. It isn’t safe.’ Jester just grunts at his instruction. Pulls one of Beau’s arms across to hold like a pillow, arms wrapping tight around it. Caleb’s eyes flick in the mirror over to those of his oldest friend and has to shake his head; she’s reading again, completely comfortable being manhandled by the other girl. He wonders if she even registers it happening. ‘Caduceus?’

‘Hm? What? Oh—the safety check, yeah. Yeah.’ He pats his chest.

Caleb has to twist in his seat to clarify what, exactly, that means coming from the man to find that Beau is also turning to look. She flashes him a thumbs up. Caleb sighs. If only they could do this with clarity, with precision, they could already be on the road by—he doesn’t check the clock on the dash, knowing it is three minutes out of sync—six minutes past nine. Such a thing will never happen, not with this most motley of crews; in the two and a half years Caleb has known them, they’ve never once effectively planned a single outing. It is a wonder they manage to get anything done at all.

‘Fjord?’

‘A-yup. Seatbelt, plenty of water. And an empty one in case someone needs to, y’know.’

‘What?’ Caduceus asks, curiously. ‘I don’t know.’

Fjord’s cheeks darken. He darts a look at Molly, who pretends to be absorbed in his new nail-polish, admiring the gleam, leaving Fjord on his own. ‘You know,’ Fjord says, putting emphasis on the words. Clears his throat. ‘Take a leak.’

‘That’s disgusting,’ Jester says in the same moment Beau says,

‘Smart.’

Really, Beau?’

‘I mean, yeah. We have some small-bladdered people in here.’

Thank you, Beau, my thoughts exactly.’

‘No, it’s gross,’ Jester insists, and throws Beau’s hand away from her, back into her own lap. ‘Neither of you touch me right now – don’t touch me, I’m serious,’

As the three in the middle row bicker, Caleb turns his attention to his navigator. ‘Nott?’

‘Present! Seatbelted! Snacked up! Navigation route planned and synced with—the sat nav, your phone, my phone, and plotted in the map!’

‘You are the best of all of them,’ Caleb tells her, and he enjoys for a moment the wash of complaints that flood forward from Beau—the loudest—and all the others. Enjoys Nott’s shrill agreement and the laughter that follows close behind. ‘Let us be on our way then, shall we?’

Nott holds the thick, soft-paged and somewhat worn directory over her head in a bony-fingered grip, shakes it triumphantly as one would a trophy. ‘To the beach!’

//

Jester sleeps well into the morning. She sleeps through Nott’s yelling as Caleb nearly misses the turn onto the Byway. She sleeps through a much-interrupted recitation of Molly’s brush with the supernatural in a graveyard—and through Fjord’s near-constant muttering of no no no and don’t tell me any more I don’t want to know, like the scaredy cat he is. She sleeps through their stop in the drive-through as they order a late breakfast or early lunch and take off once more to the south. She sleeps through a re-hashing of yelled directions as they search for, find, and nearly miss the exit from the Byway onto the South Road, and it isn’t until late in the morning as the peaks of the mountain range are coming into focus that she really starts to stir, pleasantly drowsy and warm under someone’s jacket. Cuddling into the warmth beside her, Jester awakens with a happy, contented sigh.

‘Hey.’ Gentle fingers card through her hair and scratch in the perfect place where Jester’s horns meet skull, eliciting a pleased rumble out from somewhere deep in her chest. ‘You awake this time?’ the soft voice continues.

‘Mm.’

‘Want some water?’

Jester smacks her lips. They’re dry, as much from not drinking water as from the air-conditioning that blasts dry and not particularly cool. They’d tried to adjust the temperature setting once—Lucy had broken down immediately, not even giving them the grace to think it had been a different issue, and she refused to pick up again until it was set to rights. Now they don’t dare touch it. A strip of tape has even stuck it into place, NO TOUCHY written in heavy black block letters across it.

‘Mm,’ she mumbles again.

A cool bottle is set in her hands. Not the drinking plastic like the dozen-pack Fjord brought but smooth glass. Jester wriggles until she’s sitting up more fully. Blinks down at the offering.

‘Thanks.’

‘Welcome,’ Beau says. ‘I got you a sandwich too—I know you said a burger so don’t jump me over it but you were, like, still fully out and a burger would’ve been soggy and gross by now, so,’ Beau hands that over too, and a handful of neatly folded napkins, before returning to her reading.

Jester peels the wrapping back from her sandwich and examines the ingredients before nodding, satisfied. Beau knows what she likes but it’s still nice to see that she’s chosen her favourites.

‘Extra pickles,’ she notes, and treats Beau to a brilliant smile.

As she eats, she entertains herself by listening in on a few of the conversations burbling around the van—Caleb and Nott listening to a very dry podcast, Molly and Caduceus discussing what Jester hopes is tea but sometimes sounds like poison, maybe, and Yasha chatting with Essek in such hushed tones that Jester can’t make out a bit of it. Fjord is staring out the window. He offers her a nice smile when she leans into his side but nothing more, soon returning his attention to the window and the view beyond it. There’s a melancholy that he carries with him and Jester knows him, and it, well enough now to leave him be.

She returns to her favourite activity—Beau watching.

The other girl is reading the way she always does—intent, turning out the world around her. She trails some of the words with the tip of a pencil, tapping the eraser end against the page now and again, frowning heavily, when she encounters something she is trying to parse. Even so entranced by her book, when Jester finishes her lunch, Beau closes her book around her thumb and leans forward to her back, pulls a sanitising wipe from somewhere within it.

‘What are you reading?’ Jester asks. She wipes her hands quickly; her fingers are itching to do something and she presses the rubbish back into Beau’s hand so that she can rummage in her back for her sketchbook, her pencils.

‘Book.’

Jester rolls her eyes. But—since she’s already upside down… She cranes her neck in the most bothersome way she can to try and see the title. Beau laughs. Lifts the book so Jester can see.

The Treatise of Yuma Falheich and the Expansion of 973—is this a history book, Beau?’

From the back of the van comes a braying laugh and a, ‘Nerd!’

Beau ignores him. ‘Yeah.’

‘But classes are over. We’re on holiday, Beau.’

Jester watches in fascination and no small delight as the colour in Beau’s cheeks darkens; her blue eyes cut away from the book, to her, and then out the window. She crumples the rubbish that still rests in her hand and shoves it into her jean pocket.

‘I – I know. I’m reading ahead.’

Caduceus hums a low sound that rises to almost a whistle. It’s a thoughtful, happy sound. ‘It’s nice,’ he says, ‘to be able to do the things one enjoys.’

Beau nods. Relaxes a fraction.

‘Beau, is he right?’

‘I mean, Cad is always a bit right, isn’t he?’

‘Not Cad.’ Jester’s grin pulls wide, wicked. ‘Molly. Are you a nerd, Beau?’ She laughs as Beau snaps her book shut with a huff—and promptly reopens it, slipping a ratty piece of blue ribbon in to mark her place.

//

Beau tries to be sneaky about it; she pretends for a while she doesn’t want to read, then easily distracts the others, then waits another agonising few minutes before she slowly, oh so slowly, slides the book up from where she had hidden it between thigh and van door.

Jester notices. She notices a lot about Beau, when she’s awake to notice. But she doesn’t say anything about it: not about how Beau hadn’t lasted fifteen minutes before returning to her book, nor the way she drags two fingers down the spine affectionately like one might pet a cat before she tilts the book open to her page, nor the way her restlessness—the bouncing knee, the tapping fingers, the snappy comments—ease. It would be easy to tease her about it but Jester doesn’t For as tough as she professes to be—very—Beau has a soft side when it comes to the things that are important to her. A vulnerability, which is a heady thing to know about another person. It wasn’t too long ago that Jester didn’t know anything about the other girl—for as vocal as she is about her dislikes, what she did like hardly ever seemed to come up. Anger shivers through her, turning her blood to ice as she considers why that is.

//

‘What’s wrong?’

It takes a moment for Jester to register the quiet words, pitched just for her. She turns, blinks as she comes face to face—nearly nose to nose, if the other girl hadn’t leaned back the smallest bit just in time—with Beau.

‘Huh? What?’

Beau nods down to where Jester is leaning against her, and at the frost that has gathered there.

‘Oh! I’m sorry!’

‘Shh, it’s fine, don’t worry about it—it’s not like you got me right in the eye with an icicle this time.’

Jester rolls her eyes hard. ‘I said I was sorry for that. Let it go.’

‘Um, no? First of all, it was my eyeball,’

‘You have another one.’

‘And second of all—wow, really, a second one? That’s funny, dude. Second of all, you never did tell me what made you that mad and I seem to recall that being part of the deal at some point.’

‘I don’t remember that at all,’ Jester lies blithely. She pulls away enough that Beau won’t be pressed up against her freezing cold arm—which means she’s pressed up against Fjord instead, cramped quarters being what they are, and he yelps at the surprise. Beau jumps on that, teasing him, and Jester is about to join in when she sees Caduceus watching her with lidded eyes that can’t disguise his interest, a warm, ponderous kind of curiosity. His head is tilted ever so slightly to the side and she feels buried in it.

What? she mouths.

He smiles, a tiny, knowing smile and a nervous flutter fills Jester’s belly. Like butterflies. Or like unicorns, stomping on her gut with their little hooves. Did he know? He couldn’t possibly know. Sure, he seems to know everything all the time but that’s because he’s such a chill dude and people like to talk to him and tell him things. Right? The nervous flutter redoubles—winged unicorns, apparently—and Jester plants a hand on the shoulder of Caleb’s seat.

‘Do not disturb the driver, plea—‘

‘We gotta stop. I’m gonna puke.’


Trostenwald is a very pleasant small town in the south west of the Empire, overlooking a large lake and miles of farmland. It is filled with very nice people, mostly, which is proven when a small pack of road-tripping uni stuents come barrelling through and into the first motel they spy.

‘Bathroom!’ one of them calls—a human girl with dark brown skin and a look of intensity that is either anger or concern.

The woman at the front desk half-stands from her seat, surprised but ready to point; by the time she does, the girl must have already spied the sign for the toilets and shoves her companion—a little blue tiefling—in their direction. A very tall person—pink-haired, smiling—follows her. He waves to the front desk. The woman waves back.

‘What’s your name?’ the human girl demands.

‘I—Yorda. Welcome to the Nestled—‘

‘Not interested. Yorda, okay, where can I find a pharmacy? Also—disposable camera, pastries, art supplies?’

‘Ah, well,’ Yorda looks from the girl who is…interrogating her? to the rest of the strange collection of individuals who have entered The Nook not far behind.

‘Beau,’ one of them calls, ambling over to join her at the front desk. ‘Tone.’

The girl—Beau, apparently—cuts a look sideways at the handsome young half-orc man. Then, she tilts her head to the side far enough it cracks, then returns the stare to Yorda.

‘Sorry for barging in,’ the girl adds in such a forceful tone that Yorda thinks the interrogation has moved to plain rudeness. But the young man doesn’t look bothered so much as he looks exasperated, and vaguely apologetic, and Yorda finally decides that the girl might just be like this.

‘That’s...alright, dear. Upset stomach, is it?’

‘Obviously. Which is why we need the pharmacy.’

‘Beau. Tone.’

‘She’s alright, dear,’ Yorda says with a smile to the young man. ‘There’s a chemist across the town square—little white building, rack of umbrellas outside of it. Camera, I’m not sure. Might find them in the chemist. If not, try the newsagents.’

‘Great. Pastries?’ Her eyes flick toward the hall where the other girl and their tall friend had disappeared. Yorda smiles, the intensity making sense all of a sudden.

‘Ah,’ she says, and nothing more on the subject. ‘Try Darlene’s. Near to the chemist, can’t miss it. Pretty blue and yellow awning over the shop. Not bad coffee either, though, between you and me if you’re looking for a good cup, you’ll have to get to Zadash for that. Or Nicodranas, depending.’

‘Got it.’ The girl spins around to face her friends. ‘Yasha—stay here. Carry Jester back to the van if she needs it.’ The tall girl nods, moves toward the back hall with a ducked nod and a wave to Yorda; Yorda returns her wave, somewhat bemused. ‘Caleb, Nott—pharmacy. We need antacids, mild painkillers, disposable cameras.’

‘Cameras?’

‘More fun than phones, Caleb,’ Nott explains. Whether she’s right or not, the young man takes that as a good enough answer and the pair turn and take off at a brisk pace.

‘Molly—‘

‘I’m coming with you, oh captain, my captain.’

‘Don’t—don’t make it weird. Essek – staying here, or coming with me and Satan?’

‘I’ll come. Help you carry. Though, may I point out,’

‘You may, dear,’

Essek sighs. ‘Thank you, Molly. I’m not sure that sweets are best for an upset stomach.’

Beau shrugs. ‘That’s Jester for you.’ The three set off purposefully for the front door; Beau stops, holding the door open for her friend in his wheelchair. ‘Thanks, Yorda!’

‘You’re…welcome?’

The door had closed before she finished speaking. She looks to the clock and is surprised to see that less than five minutes had passed. It had seemed like longer. It had seemed like no time at all. Like a tornado had whipped through her foyer and out again, leaving only faint reminders of its passage in the form of a very large young woman perched delicately as she is able on an antique chair.

Yorda shakes herself out of her befuddlement. Recalls her smile easily. ‘Can I get you something to drink? Yasha, was it?’

‘Ah. Yes. Thank you. I can help?’

//

‘There there, you’re alright,’ Caduceus soothes. He rubs over her back with a big, warm palm. Pats gently. ‘You’re alright. Everything is okay.’ Jester hangs her head, drops her forehead hard onto her arms. The ceramic is cold against her arms, the mirror cold against her head as she presses into it. She is very thankful now that the bathroom is clean; she hadn’t had the foresight to check before she’d been bent over the sink. ‘You’re gay, that’s okay—’

What?’ Jester croaks. Whips her head up fast, eyes wide. ‘What did you say?’

Caduceus frowns. He has to move fast to avoid her horns when she turns like that. ‘I said you’re okay.’

‘Oh. Right. Yah. Yah, I’m so okay, I am, it was a funny little moment wasn’t it? Probably I ate too fast or—‘ She bites her lip. Stares up at her friend.

He smiles.

‘Motion sickness,’ Jester whispers. ‘That’s all.’

‘That could be it,’ he agrees, very easily.

Jester wonders how he manages to do it like that; make it so easy for her to tell that he knows she’s lying, but that he doesn’t mind, that he’ll let her lie to him and to herself so long as she knows that it’s a lie, so long as it makes her feel a little more comfortable.

‘Are you ready to go back outside?’

Jester sniffles. Purses her lips in dismay. ‘I’ll wash my face. And teeth. I’ll be out in a second. Come out. Outside. Go outside. To the car.’ She closes her eyes so she doesn’t have to see the look of amusement cross Caduceus’s face. Why is she being like this? She’s better than this usually.

‘Okay,’ Caduceus agrees again, with only a little hint of laughter in his voice. He pats her head. ‘Take your time. We’re not leaving without you. Beau wouldn’t let us,’ he adds, and when Jester whips her head up again to try and see what the hell he could mean by that, he smiles his beatific smile and wanders outside. He pauses at the doorway, seemingly wondering which is the correct way back to the foyer, before he shrugs and turns left. She can almost see the thought that had landed in his head—either he’s right or not, fifty per cent chance either way. With a wave, he makes his way down the corridor and out of sight.

By the time Jester feels fully recovered, face patted dry, teeth gleaming and fresh, she comes out—walks outside—to find her friends clustered around a few small tables they’d clearly manoeuvred over. There’s a veritable feast of pastries on the tables and a number of mismatched teacups in people’s hands. She lingers in the doorway, confused by the array. Watches with a fond smile as Beau nearly throttles Molly.

‘These are for Jester. Lay off!’

‘There’s plenty here!’

‘She gets first pick.’

‘Oh honestly,’ he huffs, clicks his tongue. ‘You know, I’ve hated a lot of versions of you but this is your worst one yet,’ he says, and something else Jester can’t quite discern with his back to her. But Beau—Beau she can see clearly and she watches as the other girl’s face falls into shock and irritation and resignation and there’s a flutter in Jester’s belly again as she realises she knows this girl better than maybe any of her other friends, knows exactly what these expressions look like on Beau. And then Beau’s eyes are on her in return and Jester sees something she hadn’t expected. Something so foreign it takes a long moment to place.

Fear.

Under that gaze, Jester can’t move. The expression, the knowledge of what it is—fear, Beau is afraid—catches at her like a rip, deep and cold. Pulls her legs out from under her. A moment later, Beau slides her eyes out of their locked stare and moves instead to trace the lines of tears Jester had scrubbed away, and so, so tenderly over messed hair. The care in that look, in the heat of affection, of attention, warms frozen blue eyes nearly to grey. And Jester is left wondering, stuck somewhere between hope and a fear of her own, if the care had actually done away with whatever Beau had feared. Or had she just…hidden it away somewhere Jester doesn’t know about?

Jester, Beau mouths. Licks her lips. Calls out. ‘Jester! Hey, feeling better?’

The others turn in their chairs, smile and wave her over. Jester lets them. Sits with them at the table and accepts a little plate. She looks with no small wonder at the feast laid out—danishes and cinnamon swirls and a box of macaroons and swirls of meringue and little lemon tartlets with the sweetest little pastry lids she has ever seen, cut into leaves and vines to cover the berries within.

‘All of my favourites!’

‘Hold on—it wasn’t bad food, was it?’ Beau asks. ‘I didn’t—the sandwich,’

‘No, no, I’m fine. Pinkie promise,’ Jester assures her, flashes the sweetest smile she’s capable of—very sweet indeed—and watches as Beau visibly relaxes, blows out a caught breath and nods, hooks her pinkie with Jester’s.

Molly grins, setting a tart on his own plate now that Beau isn’t trying to strangle him for it. He meets Jester’s eyes and tilts his head ever so slightly in Beau’s direction. Drops a slow wink.

//

What did it mean? Molly’s wink? Did he know too? What did he think he knew? Because he couldn’t know something if Jester herself didn’t know anything—could he?

She eats another tart. Rolls the flavours over on her tongue—the citrus delightfully sour, the icing delightfully sweet—and licks the crumbs off her thumb.

If Molly thinks he knows something, does that mean he’s seen something? Has anyone else? Gods—has she noticed something? What is she doing?

Jester reaches for another tart. Glances over at Beau, who lounges with a leg kicked over the arm of her chair. There’s a doughnut in her hands with a bite taken out of it but it looks like she’s forgotten about it in favour of arguing with Caleb about—Jester can’t help but smile when she hears enough to pinpoint their conversation. History. She really is a nerd. There’s a fierce kind of joy in her eyes as she argues her point, and it only brightens when Caleb argues back, coming out of his typically quiet self to scoff at her. Beau grumbles at his comment, takes a bite from her doughnut. When she pulls it away to speak, a dusting of icing and sprinkles clings to the corner of her mouth.

Jester reaches for another sweet. She picks a doughnut. With sprinkles.


Shouting thank you’s! to Yorda, and promising to stop over on their way back form the beach to actually stay in her motel, the group piles back into the van sticky with jam and custard and powdered sugar. Lucy the Van, Molly assures them, has suffered far worse than sticky fingers in the time he has had her and, he adds cheerfully, only the Gods themselves could know what might’ve been done in her before that! The interior is hot and the air-conditioning is stuck, as ever, at a balmy twenty-seven but despite that, and despite the way skin stick sweatily to cracking leather seats, they make it down through the Valley with windows rolled down so they can smell the grass and feel the heat on their skin and scream the lyrics to all of The Worst Pop Songs—a playlist by Beau—followed by an identical playlist courtesy of Molly titled The Best Pop Songs Fuck U Beau.

Insisting Jester take the window seat just in case when they left the Nestled Nook, Beau had sat herself in the middle between her and Fjord. It’s thoughtful of her but it’s also a bad decision. Beau’s legs are too long for the middle seat, cramped up against the centre console between Caleb and Nott, so she has to spread her legs to either side of it and with every one of the many bumps along the unsealed dirt road, her knee knocks against Jester’s and her thigh is a burning presence pressed up against Jester’s. Beau throws her a sorry now and again when she’s thrown into Jester’s side, or laughs like when they’re all almost fully tossed out of their seats.

‘This is why we wear our seatbelts, ja?’

‘Yes, Caleb,’ most of them dutifully answer him.

Not Molly. ‘Can you be careful, Caleb? Honestly! Don’t you know how to drive?’

‘I do not see you with a license, Mollymauk.’

‘Ooh, full named,’ Nott teases.

‘I don’t need to know how to drive to know that it doesn’t involve being ejected from our seats—just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you can treat a lady like that, sir!’

‘Molly,’

‘Honestly! Try a little care, try a little tenderness,’

‘If I agree, will you stop talking?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Yes, Mollymauk, I agree. I will be more careful and tender with Lucy the Van.’

Molly sniffs, turns his pointed nose up toward the roof. ‘Very well. Forgiven—but not forgotten. You’re on probation, sir.’

‘Why d’you keep calling him sir? Is this a—‘

‘Shut up, Beauregard.’

Don’t call me that,’ she snarls back.

‘…Sorry.’

There’s a moment where the van is silent. Then Essek asks what precisely they have planned for the week and the mood settles, all those prickling feelings soothed by the even measure of a memorised itinerary. Beau breathes out, long and slow. Nods to Molly, who nods back.

Beau drops her hand on Jester’s knee and leaves it there.

Jester’s breath catches in her throat. Her skin prickles with the sudden feeling of being watched. Stared at. But a very, very, super duper casual glance around shows her that in fact no one is looking at her.

She dares, after a minute of sitting very still, to look down at the hand. A normal hand. Just a perfectly normal Beau hand, with her lovely brown skin and those familiar glossy raised scars on the first two knuckles, and a streak of purple jam across the thumb.

It doesn’t seem to be a big deal to Beau; she keeps up her conversation with Fjord and Essek about all the things they can go when they hit the beach, outside of their itinerary—volleyball and surfing if you’re feeling up to it, dude, and if you’re not wanting to move around heaps there’s this bookstore that sells the shittiest second-hand books for a buck a pop and you can return ‘em when you’re done for biscuits so we can hit the books if you want, and hey, do you want to bury each other in the sand up to our necks—and Beau trades her spoken apologies now for brushing her thumb against the freckled skin of Jester’s knee whenever they’re jostled hard by the uneven road. Her hand is so warm as well and maybe Jester would be able to deal with it, maybe it wouldn’t be entirely sweetly impossibly terrifyingly maddening if not for the fact that Beau is constantly moving. She never seems to sit still and it’s something Jester knew, something Jester has always liked about her friend, but now—now it’s impossible to ignore and impossible for Jester to find her composure when Beau’s hand keeps moving over the skin of her knee and thigh, exposed by her skirt that rides up an inch above her knee when she’s sitting like this. Beau drums her fingers on her kneecap, and shifts the pressure of her hand when she rocks with the movement of the van, and squeezes when she laughs at one of the boy’s stupid jokes, and draws absent-minded swirls and circles on the ticklish skin when she settles down with her book again. It’s maddening.

Jester needs it to stop.

Jester never wants it to stop.

If she thinks about it, it’s nothing they haven’t done before so it probably doesn’t mean anything to Beau. She would leave it at that, ignore the feeling and the hand very well indeed, if not for the way her gut swoops when Beau shifts her hand again, thumb finding the scar on the side of her knee.

Beau hums. Pulling her attention from her book, Jester shivers under the expression she wears; Beau’s eyes are intense with interest now shifted unerringly to her, to the scar she has found. ‘What’s this?’ she asks, words little more than a breath puffed into Jester’s ear.

‘Um. I fell—climbing on the rock pools.’

‘Bastards,’ Beau huffs. Grins. ‘Want me to kick their ass?’

‘The rock pools?’

‘Yeah.’

Jester is so warm and feels so strange, like she’s a hot air balloon and the only thing holding her down is Beau’s hand on her. She lets her eyes drift over Beau’s face, the familiar jut of her jaw, the messy thick brows, the scar over her left eye, the cocky grin. ‘Sure,’ she says, and smiles back. Leans her head back against the car seat and watches Beau’s attention dip—slow, down Jester’s neck, then very quickly to her knee and the scar. She feels the gentleness in the way Beau traces the scar then, like it’s a passage in her book she’s trying to memorise.

Turning her face into the sun, Jester closes her eyes. Feels the heat of the day against her face, golden and gentle, whisked away by the rushing wind before it can get too much. Feels the added warmth of Beau’s hand where it is sat once more on her knee, and allows herself the excuses of the bumpy road and the cramped van and her own habit of sleeping during car rides to leave Beau’s hand exactly where it is.

//

The twisting roads of the mountain pass are enclosed by high, craggy cliffs on either side all the way to the coastal road where the sheer granite abruptly falls away like a magician’s curtain to reveal nothing but the endless wash of blue. Blue, sun-burned sky above. Blue, sun-drenched sea below. Sunlight glints like diamonds off the caps of distant waves too far out to see with the naked eye; much closer in, Jester can see the swell of the waves as they break from the flattened waterline and rise, and roll, and crest, crashing into the rocky shoreline as so much seafoam.

Turning her nose into the wind, Jester breathes in deeply of the salt and sand carried on it; she can’t help but trade a giddy smile with Fjord, eager to finally, finally reach the seaside after a full day of driving.

Beau’s fingers drag across Jester’s knee and lift away. Unlike the waves on the shore, she doesn’t return, instead pulling fully away and bracing her elbows on the driver and passenger seat, leaning forward to talk with Nott.

‘Alright, Jes?’ Fjord asks. His smile is wide, eyes calm and kind. She can’t help but think it suits him—the sea, that is. He always seems more at peace when they make these trips south. Maybe that melancholy is drowned by the sound of the waves. Maybe it floats, sits a little lighter in his chest. She hopes so. ‘You excited to see your mum?’

‘Of course! Always, silly. I have so much to tell her about school and about the gallery and—oh my gosh, Essek! You’ve never met my mama!’

‘No, I haven’t had the pleasure.’

‘What am I? Pulled pork?’ Molly demands, aghast, with a wave of a hand dripping with rings. ‘Neither have I! And, might I add, I’m highly offended. Everything I’ve heard about her tells me that she’ll love me.’

‘Other way ‘round, Mol,’ Beau tells him. There’s no trace of mockery or annoyance to her for once. For now. ‘You have no idea, dude.’

Molly arches a dark brow. Settles into his seat with a faint, ‘Hmm.’

Beau twists back to face the front again; her attention passes over Jester as she does and she nudges her, crooks a smile. ‘Hey, you should text her. See if she wants to come down to the Wharf with us tonight.’

Jester drops her eyes to her lap. ‘She won’t.’

She hadn’t meant to, but somehow the quiet words calls Beau back to her. That same hand settles on her leg again. Squeezes. ‘Try anyway?’ Beau suggests, voice gentle. ‘You never know. Maybe she’ll say yes this time.’

‘You know she doesn’t like it. I don’t want to push.’ For so many reasons, but chief among them the desire above all else not to be unkind.

Beau regards her for a lengthy moment, the drag of her eyes over Jester’s face feeling just shy of a physical touch. ‘Okay,’ she says, eventually.

She leaves her hand where it is.


Nicodranas is a hellhole for traffic this time of year—all the parents taking their kids to the beach for the holidays, all the other university students having exactly the same idea as their group, flocking to the seaside and sun—and despite having survived a ten-hour drive together, it is the last half-hour that has them on the brink of murder. After a particularly snide comment—courtesy of Molly, the master of snide—Fjord has braced his arm with his hand flat against Beau’s spine, elbow jammed into the back of her seat so she can’t move backwards, stopping her from retaliating physically. Jester throws a glare at molly and throws her hand out for Beau’s hand, catching her when it looks like Fjord is about to snap his wrist trying to keep her in place. The other girl settles, despite the steam fair pouring from her ears.

Thank you, Fjord’s gaze says.

Jester nods.

‘If I see him, I’m gonna lose it,’ Beau tells Jester through gritted teeth.

‘I know, I know.’ Jester rubs big circles over her back, draws in an exaggerated breath. After a second, Beau follows suit. ‘I know you do but Beau, you don’t wanna get arrested in Nicodranas—‘

‘Could be fun,’

‘You do not want to be arrested in Nicodranas.’

‘I…don’t wanna get arrested in Nicodranas,’ Beau repeats obligingly. ‘But if he keeps talking about it, I’m gonna lose my cool.’

‘What cool?’ Molly demands. Somewhat muffled by the hold Yasha has on him.

It is only Jester hauling Beau sideways into what was supposed to be a hug but is lowkey a chokehold that saves Molly’s actual life. She shoots him another glare that hopefully impresses the knowledge upon his soul; if Molly doesn’t understand, because he’s glaring right back at Beau, Yasha at least looks like she does. That will have to do.

‘This has been incredibly entertaining,’ Essek says into the tense minute that follows, ‘but I hope you know that I want nothing more than to get out of this fucking van.’

The cloud, that pressing miasma of heat and exhaustion and irritation, lifts for a second as they cheer; they’ve been trying to get Essek to swear for the better part of the year, since they’d met him.

‘Who knew?’ Beau asks with relish as she follows Jester up the narrow, twisting staircase to the third floor, carrying her own bag and both of Jester’s. ‘All it’d take was ten hours trapped in a van with all of us, the worst fuckin’ people in the world?’

‘And me.’

Beau snorts. ‘You’re for sure included in that, Miss I Think I’ll Sing Annoying Songs On Repeat.’ Jester huffs. She’s a second away from storming off when Beau adds, ‘Hold up—gimme a second? Ah fuck, these are heavy. What’d you pack—bricks?’

She sets the bags down for a second to stretch her arms out, and Jester stops a few steps above her—looks back at her best friend and swallows hard. She’s glistening with sweat already, from the climb and the humidity, and it’s entirely too romantic of a way to see it but she swears that the light that pours through the sunroof overhead is pure gold and it burnishes every inch of Beau where it touches, makes her gleam with light. It catches in her blue eyes when she looks up and for a second, Jester thinks all her feelings are reflected right back at her—admiration, happiness. Adoration.

‘Jes?’

‘Hmm?’

‘What’d you pack?’ Beau asks her again, a curl of laughter warming the words.

‘Um. Bricks.’

Beau laughs. Follows her up the steps.

Spinning away, Jester flicks back with her tail to slap Beau’s shoulder. ‘Keep up!’

‘I’m carrying all our things, Jes—oof!’ Beau nearly falls back when Jester returns to her side just as quickly. Her fingers graze the tense muscles of Beau’s arms as she reaches to pluck her handbag off the pile. ‘Gee,’ Beau drawls. ‘Thanks.’

‘You’re welcome! Now come on, hurry up.’

Racing ahead of her so Beau doesn’t have to wait for her, Jester throws open the door to her old bedroom. Her mama has prepared it so prettily for her, the bed made in purples and the window and curtains set open to let in the warm sea air. It isn’t until Beau joins her and dumps their bags all in the same pile together on the bed—groaning, stretching the tension out of her arms—that it suddenly occurs to Jester that they’ll be sharing.

They always share. It’s not a big deal, it’s not a big deal—so why does it feel…why does she feel all clammy and warm and prickly all of a sudden?

Beau isn’t stupid. She never has been.

After a long moment where she just looks at Jester—Jester suspects she had been talking to her, stopped when Jester had obviously heard none of it—she moves forward again. Takes her bag from the bed and sets it on the floor. Without another word, Beau heads for the wardrobe and it only takes her a little while to find the sleeping bag tucked into top shelf. Jester’s heart thuds, trips, and falls over itself in her chest—seriously, what the fuck, is she dying or something?—to see Beau find it so effortlessly. To see Beau had clearly remembered something so insignificant about her room that she can find it so easily. She unrolls the sleeping bag on the floor next to the bed, drops a pillow onto it. Then, turning back to Jester, Beau smiles so kindly, and says,

‘I think I heard the guys say something about a night swim? Probably a good idea to put togs on before we go out, grab something to eat.’

Jester stares at her. Beau doesn’t say anything about the bed, or Jester’s weirdness. Just…smiles. It’s an unfamiliar smile that crinkles in the right corner of her lips. Jester wants—Her fingers twist in the folds of her pleated skirt and she drops her eyes to Beau’s collar, to the bedpost of her bed.

‘You—you can have the bathroom first. I gotta talk to my mama, so – you can have the bathroom.’

‘Cool. I’ll knock on her door when I’m done, let you know I’m headed down.’

‘Okay.’

//

The door closes behind her louder than she meant it to and so Jester is still breathless and worked up from her near sprint down the stairs when her mama pokes her head around the doorframe from her bathroom, hearing Jester’s arrival.

‘Who—ah, Jester!’ Her smile, the one reserved just for her, falters before it can be fully realised. ‘Jester? What’s wrong, my love?’

It’s all Jester can do to force a smile and shake her head. ‘Nothing. Nothing, mama, I’m—I’m fine,’ she says, and her mama looks almost – well – not ready to believe her, per se, but ready to leave the lie as it stands. To simply be the listening ear, the shoulder, the way she always is. But Jester’s traitor voice cracks as she says it and she recoils, pressing shoulders back against the door, and a little hiccoughed sob transforms on instinct into a laugh. It’s funny, after all; she’s usually so good at lying.

Jester’s mama turns from accepting to deeply concerned in an instant. She steps from her room in a decadent swirl of flowing robes and lavender perfume, and in mere moments Jester is swept up into her hold, in those soft and strong arms. Her mama holds her close and somehow, as Jester begins to shake and cry, tucked into the safety of that embrace, Marion manages to move them both over to the elegant chaise, to fall into it and cry as much as she needs. When finally Jester cracks salt-crusted eyelids open and peels herself away from her mama’s shoulder, wiping at her cheeks with the backs of her hands, she is cocooned by the soft robes and the soft croon of a lullaby.

Marion doesn’t let her go far, only easing Jester over so her head is set onto her other shoulder, hidden in the crook of her neck from the fading light of dusk and from anything else she wants to be hidden from. Jester nuzzles a little closer.

‘There, that one isn’t so wet. Much better, no?’ she croons and hitches Jester’s legs up over her lap, cradles her baby as best as she can. ‘My girl, my sweet girl.’

Jester sniffles. Nods. In a small voice, she says, ‘Sorry I ruined your robe.’

Marion clicks her tongue, dismisses that worry with a flick of her hand Jester cannot see but feels, her mothers fingers brushing across her shoulder. ‘Don’t you worry. Nothing that can’t be fixed, my love.’ She pulls back a fraction so that she can look into Jester’s face; her eyes narrow and Jester, despite the exhaustion of crying, squirms under the intensity of it. ‘Who is it?’

Jester affects a look of confusion. Her mama doesn’t believe it for a second.

‘Who? Who has hurt you? Tell me—is it one of these?’ She tilts her head toward the door and Jester knows she means the friends she brought with her to the hotel. Marion’s eyes fix on the way Jester sniffles and won’t meet her gaze. ‘So it is,’ she deduces. A spark of fury lashes off her forked tongue. ‘Which one? Which one was stupid enough to hurt my sapphire?’

‘It’s not like that,’ Jester tries to tell her. She sounds pitiful with a throat so closed up with tears, and it’s clear by the way her mama hugs her that she doesn’t believe her. Jester struggles, shifts her way down the chaise so she’s sitting upright again. She swipes at her cheeks. ‘I don’t—I don’t want you to do anything,’

‘Oh, do not worry, I will do every thing. They will hurt. They will wish to never have been born.’ Marion brushes a hand over Jester’s head, twists a finger in dark curls.

‘Mama, don’t. Just—don’t. I don’t need you to, to threaten my friends for me. I just—need you to be my mama and – and…’

‘And let you tell me about your troubles?’ Marion suggests when Jester can’t say it. Jester nods. ‘I see. Yes, my love, of course—I want to hear them, I do.’ She strokes her hands over Jester’s curls, pets her hair, drags her hands down to Jester’s cheeks and holds her in place a moment; the fury in her eyes, white-hot, fades to only love and when she pulls her gently forward, Jester moves with her, leans into her side again. ‘I want to know. You are so very protective of your hurts, so strong. Too strong, maybe.’

‘That’s silly. You can’t be too strong.’

‘Mm. I don’t know. If it stops you from telling your mama when you’re upset, or hurt, maybe.’ She says it lightly but Jester remembers dozens of moments, suddenly, in crystal clarity when she had been scared or hurt or sad and she had just…kept it in.

Jester blinks. There is a new vase on the small ornate coffee table that holds the most spectacular flowers—sharp, with vibrant orange almost plumage instead of feathers.

‘You would be upset,’ she says.

‘Yes,’ Marion shrugs like that is perfectly normal, like it is to be expected. ‘For you.’

‘I never wanted that.’ She wonders who sent her mama flowers, or if they are simply decoration. Perhaps there is a card. ‘Don’t want to do that to you.’

‘I know. Always trying to help people, my Jester,’ Marion murmurs. Strokes over Jester’s hair again. ‘But it’s my job, my life’s greatest gift, to see my daughter. To see her,’ she repeats, and her hand drops to Jester’s chest and presses over her heart. ‘Why you love, and who makes you laugh and sing and dance. To know what fears plague you. To know why you hurt. All of that is what my love for you is for.’ She waits. Not for Jester to act on the words, seemingly just to let her hear them, let them sit in the air a moment longer. Then, she asks, ‘Who has hurt you, little sapphire?’

Jester brings her knees up to her chest like she’s eight again and snuggling into her mama’s bed. Her fingers twist around the bangles on her mama’s wrist, feeling the smooth warm metal and her mama’s smooth warm skin.

‘I think…me?’ she whispers.

Marion sucks in a breath. Shifts, pressing her lips to Jester’s head. She says nothing, however, and her presence is not heavy nor terribly expectant. Simply calm. Waiting for anything Jester might wish to tell her.

‘I…did something wrong.’ Marion hugs her a little tighter but still doesn’t speak. Jester’s words feel like pebbles in her throat, uncomfortable, clicking together as she swallows dryly. She licks her lips. ‘I’m—I like someone, mama, and I don’t know if – I can’t – They’re kind and funny and sweet,’ Jester tells her, eyes squeezed tightly shut. ‘And every time they touch me I think I’m gonna puke.’

‘Not the ideal reaction,’ Marion murmurs. ‘May I ask—’

‘No!’

‘Mm. Alright.’ She breathes in. Lets out a long, ponderous sigh. ‘This is a situation, my darling.’

‘I know, I know.’

‘It sounds as though…they…are very dear to you.’

‘Mhm.’

‘And you are…upset by their advances?’

‘No. Yes. No. I don’t know. I’m not – of course I’m not – I love them so much, she’s my friend, mama, and, and I don’t want to tell her to stop—‘

‘Because it will upset them? Or upset you?’

Jester’s stomach twists. She tucks her knees higher. Her breath catches. ‘Me. I—I want, mama,’

‘Oh, my angel,’ Marion coos. Presses her lips to Jester’s forehead, arm wrapped around her shoulders. ‘Oh, my love,’

‘I can’t, I can’t, it’s—what if everything goes wrong and it’s my fault? What if I want this and I take it and I can’t stop?’

Marion shifts, peppers her hairline with more kisses. ‘Good. That’s good,’ she insists, hisses in the way that only happens when she’s mad or entirely passionate about something. ‘Take. Take everything! If she wants to give you something, take it! Her whole heart, her whole life, if she loves you it is a gift—’

‘But,’

‘Jester, my love, wouldn’t you give yours back to her?’ Marion wipes at Jester’s cheek, crooks a finger under her chin. Her eyes are golden, molten with adoration. The look in her eyes is familiar, of course, but Jester could swear that she has seen it on someone else. ‘You are a wonder. You are. You are so kind and…you want so much to bring joy to everyone around you.’

‘It makes me happy.’

‘I know, I know. It’s wonderful, it is. But…would you risk losing happiness, to perhaps let her have some of her own. Do you think – are you so afraid to take from her what she would willingly give you that you forget what you would give to her?’

The words make Jester’s heart ache, crumple small and tight in her chest. She thinks maybe the answer is yes. Instead of saying that, she asks, ‘What if I break it?’

What if I’m like him? she thinks, but does not say.

Marion shakes her head. ‘You can’t know something like that. There’s no way to know. But.’ She taps a finger on the underside of Jester’s chin, a fond little tap, and smiles very sadly. ‘You’ll know if it’s worth it. To try. I did.’

‘But…’

Marion waits. When Jester doesn’t speak, she continues, ‘But he broke my heart?’ Jester nods. ‘That’s true. And maybe it won’t help you to hear this, my darling, but I don’t believe he meant to. Sometimes that’s…simply how life is. You make promises you have every intention of keeping, only to break them. You make friends and lose them. You fall in love.’

‘I didn’t say love.’ Jester blinks up at her mama. ‘Did I?’

‘You did.’

‘Oh.’ Her heart gives a mighty thump in her chest. ‘Oh. But this is awful. This is really, really bad, mama! What if – what if I tell her that I like her and then I don’t? I’ve never – anything with anyone, and this is different, it feels different I think, but I don’t know and I don’t want to hurt her if I decide it isn’t actually like that at all. That would be terrible! And worse, what if I tell her how I feel and she doesn’t love me back?’

‘Who could not?’

Mama,’ Jester hisses. ‘That’s not helpful.’

Marion laughs, leans back in her chaise, and contents herself to watch Jester pace until she wears herself out or the time comes where she has to leave.


Beau knocks on the door to Marion’s room, as promised. Calls through the door briefly—‘We’re headed out, Jessie!’—and Jester freezes in place, tail wrapping tight around the chair leg of the chaise. Her fingers twist together and she glares at Marion, who pretends to not have noticed anything and covers her slight smile with a hand.

It’s some time after that Jester finally descends to the bottom floor of the hotel. Checking her phone, she can see she’s missed a full hundred or so messages in their group chat and rubs at her temple.

‘Just ignore them.’

Jester whips her head up, eyes wide. Beau is leaning against the railing of the front verandah.

‘Beau!’

Her friend smiles at her, made a bit confused, a bit wary, by her tone. ‘That’s me. You didn’t miss anything,’ she tells her, wiggles her own phone. It looks like she’s been aimlessly scrolling and listening to some music; she pulls her earphones out, messily winds them up and shoves them into her pocket. ‘I mean, you missed some stuff. Nott found about a billion, like, postcards ‘n shit like that. Caleb and Essek’ve searched a bunch of sites for a good restaurant,’

‘Like we’re not going to go to the Golden Arches for takeaway and sit on the beach.’

‘Hey, that’s what I said!’

‘Aw. We’re in sync!’

‘That’s hot,’ Beau nods, grinning. She ducks her head to examine the messages again, and misses Jester’s cheeks burning with heat. ‘Uh…what else? Yeah, Yasha got to talk to Orly, he says he’s gonna be open any time. You talk to your mum about that? Jes?’

‘Huh?’

‘About getting a tattoo?’

Jester blinks back at her then hisses. ‘No! Shit! I forgot!’

‘Well, that’s fine,’

‘I don’t think I’ll tell her, I might just…get it,’

‘Rebellious. That’s cool, that’s hot.’

‘Are you hot or something Beau?’ Jester laughs. ‘You’ve said that a lot.’

‘I’m, like – I’m wearing a jacket at the beach. It was a dumb move.’

Jester looks at her friend more intently, eyes dragging over the jacket that hugs Beau’s strong shoulders, hangs loose around her slim waist. Drags down jeans that cling to lean thighs—legs that Jester knows are powerful, has seen her fighting in the ring, has seen her home, drenched in sweat, after miles of running in the mornings in the shortest of shorts.

Jester licks her lips. ‘Looks good.’

Beau shifts. Stands upright from her lean, thumbs at the cuff of her jacket sleeve. ‘Thanks.’

There’s an odd note to her voice and Jester doesn’t dare read into it. She instead pulls her eyes away, over Beau’s shoulder to the moonlit waves and the beach, cast in silver.

‘Should we – dinner,’

‘Yeah, totally.’

‘Cool, okay. The others went on ahead so, yeah. Shall we?’ She doesn’t say in so many words that she was waiting for Jester, but why else? The thought sends a pleased shiver through her and Jester falls into step at her side. ‘If they’re not completely useless, they’ll have found something to eat by now.’ After a second, Beau sighs. ‘But they are completely useless, so they’ll be standing somewhere and arguing. Great. We’ll starve to death first.’

Jester laughs, and together they step out from the hotel entrance and into the Nicodranian streets.

Beau must be able to tell that Jester is in some kind of mood because she doesn’t press or question her. She doesn’t talk too much either as they walk, but there isn’t anything awkward about the silence. She relaxes into it bit by bit and considers the advice Marion had slowly begun to offer.

You can let fear of the unknown keep you stuck in place, Marion tells her, voice bitter with knowing precisely the cost of that. Or, you can try. And I think – I hope – if you are kind to one another, even if it doesn’t work out the way you wish it to, it doesn’t have to end poorly. And it may not work out the way you wish it to—you may be pleasantly surprised to find it is much better.

They have two weeks here, in Jester’s most favourite place in the whole world. With her most favourite people.

Jester’s eyes slide over to Beau as she climbs swiftly up onto a low stone wall, lifting her arms as counterweights as she balances, walks one foot in front of the other.

‘Hey, Jes?’

‘Mm.’

‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Of course! What is it, Beau?’

Beau lifts one of her hands to scratch at her neck, wobbles on the wall. She is quick to drop her hand again, warm hand brushing on Jester’s shoulder to steady herself for a second. ‘So, okay,’ she begins, ‘don’t make fun of me,’

‘No promises.’

‘Rude but okay. Okay, so, this book I’m reading—the one on Falheich?’

‘I totally know who that is.’

‘Super cool archivist of the ninth century.’

‘Oh! Cool!’

‘You don’t have to pretend, Jes, it’s cool’ Beau laughs, and it should be funny, the way she looks when she grins down at Jester because her chin squishes against her chest and her smile is lopsided and she wobbles again, distracted, but Beau just looks very sweet, actually, and human and lovely and Jester ignores the kick of her too-fast heart in her chest to focus on Beau’s words. ‘There’s this section that’s in Infernal and I can understand some of it but not all of it and I was wondering—if you’re not busy—tonight you could maybe help me translate it? I’m sure it’s gonna be, like, basically a fuckin’ shopping receipt for their supplies into the Hellish domain but it’d be a massive help and,’

‘Of course I will, Beau.’

‘Yeah?’ Beau scratches at her neck again. A very familiar gesture, with real nails to it, real anxiety.

Jester wonders if maybe her parents had called her, or e-mailed, and whether Beau will talk about it with her. Or about the photo of the little boy she keeps stuffed into her wallet on crappy printer paper, not the glossy photo card stock Jester would have happily lent her, if she had asked. But she doesn’t ask. Maybe Jester could break into her phone. She considers it idly; she knows Beau’s password, she could get in and out without a trace, forward the email to herself, print it off at work at the gallery. Would Beau like that? Or would she find it an invasion of privacy? She should probably ask first. She should definitely ask first. She learned that lesson after half-stalking Beau’s parents, trying to find out more about the pair.

‘Jes?’

‘Huh?’

‘You…are not listening to me.’

Jester smiles sheepishly. ‘I was distracted. There was – a moth?’

‘A moth.’

‘Mhm.’

Beau nods slowly. Jester sees the exact moment her best friend decides to just let that go and repeat herself; the slow thaw of tension that is replaced by an almost exasperated fondness. Jester should definitely be listening this time, because Beau is for sure repeating herself, but instead she is enchanted by the grimy orange of the street lamps that drenches Beau in warm light when she steps into that pool of light. She reaches up. Tangles her fingers with Beau.

‘I didn’t hear a word of that,’ she interrupts. ‘I got really distracted.’

‘Another moth?’

‘No. By you.’

Beau’s head whips to face her, jerking her shoulders to follow a second behind. The twist of the motion makes her stumble and fully fall from the low rock wall, and by the time Jester has her seated down onto it Beau is swearing and clutching at her wrist, hissing when Jester touches a finger to her scraped cheek.

‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ she hurries to say. ‘Shit!’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Are you offering to look after me, Nurse Lavorre?’ Beau teases, fingers probing at her wrist, and she hisses again—this time with surprise, with shock—when Jester slides her own cool fingers over the reddened skin, traces the edges of the rapidly forming contusion.

‘Maybe.’

‘In that case.’ Beau shrugs out of her jacket—ignores Jester’s protests that she doesn’t need to do that—and offers her arm again. The other she holds just so, making the muscles look really good. ‘How does it look?’ she asks, and her eyes dart down to her flexing arm. She waggles her brows. ‘Well, nurse? Am I gonna live?’

‘You actually – you’re actually bleeding a little,’ Jester has to tell her.

‘Huh?’

‘From your chin? You must’ve knocked it.’

Beau’s pose falls as she reaches up, swipes her fingers over her chin. ‘Ow!’

‘Don’t touch it,’

‘That hurt.’

‘I mean yeah? You don’t touch – you need to sanitize – only you could manage something like this, Beau,’

‘I take risks, I live dangerous, live on the edge,’

‘You’re silly.’ Jester pats at her pockets but she hasn’t brought much with her save for her phone and purse. She can’t find it in herself to be surprised when Beau pulls her backpack around to her front and digs out a fully supplied first-aid kit.

‘Just in case someone does something stupid. Didn’t think it’d be me,’ Beau confesses, ‘but there we go.’

Jester crouches in front of her. Touches two fingers to Beau’s cheek, turning her to tilt her head into the light. Fussing over her for a good while, she wipes the scrape clean and obligingly plants a bandaid in place, covering the minor scrape with a bright blue plaster. It looks as though it’s actually blue with clouds, which is kind of cute.

‘How does it look?’

‘Silly.’

‘Wow. Great bedside manner, doctor.’

‘Ooh, a promotion?’

‘You earned it,’ Beau shrugs. Touches a finger tentatively to the plaster. It must feel strange, the plastic and adhesive tugging at her skin when she speaks, but when she shrugs again. ‘I know I look dope, don’t lie. These are the coolest plasters they had. Oh—don’t use them on Caleb, though, they’re plastic and he hates that on his skin. There are fabric ones in there somewhere.’

‘Right, right, right, good call.’

Jester’s hand fell at some point as they talked—or, rather, as she had laughed at Beau—and her fingers tangle with Beau’s again. It feels…not natural, exactly, but good. And she knows Beau has noticed too because her eyes flicker down very quickly to where they are connected and then back up.

Beau tilts her head ever so slightly to the side, eyes appraising.

‘Good talk with your mum?’

Jester licks her lips, a nervous flick of her tongue. Nods.

Beau nods back. ‘Smart lady. Hot, too.’

‘Beau!’

‘What? I’m only huma—ow!’ She leans back, away from Jester, as the girl smacks her hand into Beau’s belly. Beau smirks. ‘Hey, if you wanna touch my abs, you just gotta ask. No need to get violent about it.’

A hot and cold chill washes over Jester, a full-bodied shiver, when she thinks about taking Beau up on the offer. Thinks about abandoning their friends, and standing up into the cradle of Beau’s thighs and putting her hands out, onto Beau’s abs and feeling them as she breathes and moves and then, then, kissing her under the light of the streetlight here, where everything feels kinda warm and golden bright and lovely and—

‘Okay.’

‘Huh?’

‘Okay,’ Jester says again. Meets Beau’s eyes. ‘I want to.’

‘Uh. Like – right now?’

‘Like always.’ That’s true, she realises. Thinks back on meeting Beau that first day, fresh from the gym, how the other girl had lifted her shirt to wipe at her face. Thinks back on early mornings talking to Beau just in her shorts and sports bra, towel slung around her shoulders as she towels her hair dry with one end, bleary-eyed and shoving scrambled eggs around on the fry pan for Jester before her first classes. Thinks back on late nights talking to each other until she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer, and waking snuggled into her friends arms, body long and lean against her.

‘Huh,’ Beau says again. ‘I mean. Classes might be hard, and like being out and about, y’know, public indecency and stuff, but we could totally make it work. Get some kind of permission or something,’

‘Why are you making a joke out of this?’

‘Because it is one? Right? Isn’t it a joke? … Jes?’

Unexpected. That was unexpected. But not a full setback, she thinks, because Beau doesn’t look like she’s being cruel saying it—if anything, she looks nervous. Sitting absolutely still, fists balled on her knees, shoulders locked up tight.

Be brave, she hears her mama’s voice in the back of her head.

Be brave, she tells herself, more firmly.

Beau has never said that she wants this, not out loud, never said that she wants Jester. But in the few years they’ve known each other, Beau has rarely told her what she wants, what she likes, what she loves. And still, Jester knows. Knows that Beau loves adding frozen berries to her protein sludge. Knows she loves history more than maybe any other class. Knows that she gets a thrill like nothing else from winning a fight. Knows that she loves sitting in different and sometimes weird places in the library whenever she can, but that she also has a favourite place she returns to when she needs to really dig in and focus. Knows when Beau wants seconds of dinner, twisting her fork just so and tapping nervously against the side of her bowl. Knows Beau won’t wear shoes around the house and likes going barefoot but hates the feel of smooth caret and that when Jester had replaced the carpets with mats of a rough, woven material that Beau had been happy. She hadn’t had to say anything, because now Jester finds the other girl home far more often, pacing or laid out on the floor reading and working on her assignments. Jester knows that Beau loves her little brother, and that she loves her parents too, no matter the complex and terribly strained situation that is. Jester knows that Beau is envious of Jester’s relationship with her own mama, and that Beau would never let it show because as much as she is envious, she’s also pleased for Jester that she has it.

Jester knows Beau; the other girl tells her everything she needs to know without words.

Jester knows Beau loves her. Sees it in the early morning coffee waiting for her, exactly the way she needs it. Sees it in the way they crush everyone at charades, and the way Beau forces herself to still and listen and give Jester thoughtful, good advice even for the silliest of problems that she has. Sees it, now that she can admit to it, in every one of Beau’s smiles, and in her eyes. Molten adoration.

She wants words this time. Not always, not for everything—she likes the mystery, likes getting to figure Beau out. But for this…

‘It’s not a joke.’

‘Well. Never let it be said I turned down a pretty girl when she wanted to touch—‘

‘It’s not a joke, Beau. Also – all girls? Or…just me? Because I don’t think I’m a jealous person but I might get jealous, maybe,’

Beau snorts.

‘What?’

‘Jes…’

What?’

‘You’d get jealous.’

‘You don’t know that!’

‘Are you kidding me? C’mon. You – you like your things and you don’t like sharing is all I’m saying. You’d get jealous.’

‘That’s different.’

‘If you say so.’

‘You’re not a thing, Beau,’

‘Right, sure, but – no, I mean, I guess I wouldn’t know. You’ve never been jealous of…of me before.’ She sounds like she can’t believe what is coming out of her mouth. Looks up at Jester, eyes wide. Stunned.

Jester presses her lips together to keep a thought in. Then blurts it out anyway. ‘Yes I have!’

‘Okay, what the fuck is going on right now? Did I actually hit my head just now? Do I have a concussion? What is happening? How many of you am I seeing?’

‘I was jealous,’ Jester continues to blurt out. ‘Before break! There was that party,’

‘Ah,’ Beau breathes, a light sparking in her eyes. Slowly, ever so slowly, she starts to grin.

‘You kissed Reani at the party and I get it, I do, she’s so pretty and great and totally your type because she’s, y’know,’

‘Pretty and great and tough?’

‘Right! And I didn’t know why I was like, whoa, when I saw it happen and then I did know why because she was kissing you and that I didn’t want to happen, unless it was – ‘ Jester looks away from the grinning Beau, swallows. ‘Um. And I was like, that can’t be a thing, I would have known, right? But then the more I thought about it the more it made sense because, first of all, hello? Girls?’

‘Right.’

‘So pretty.’

‘So great,’ Beau agrees easily, and Jester kinda wants to cry because Beau doesn’t sound entirely amused—she sounds a little amused but mostly she sounds kind, and like she’s listening intently to every rambled word Jester drops into her la.

‘I’m so stupid, I am. I mean, my whole life I was like, oh I just wanted to spend all my time with my best friends, with Cali, because we’re friends and that’s normal and fine and I love my friends and now I’m like oh duh, Jester, you had a crush on her, but then this,’ Jester waves her hands between her and Beau, ‘this is so different, Beau, because it’s intense and it’s – it’s wild, it’s like, oh she’s your best friend and the best fucking person I’ve ever met and I love her and if I love her like that maybe she’ll leave because who knows why! Maybe you’ll get kidnapped or maybe you’ll move away for work and find someone who is so cool and put together and smart the way you are and, and, that’s not something I want and I guess it’s kind of cliché to be, like, oh, I love my best friend but it’s kind of not at all and there’s no good literature out there for this kind of situation, Beau, and you kept touching me and I know I freaked out earlier and I know you saw it so don’t try to lie and it’s nothing to do with you,’

‘Kinda sounds like it has a lot to do with me, actually.’

Jester rolls her eyes. ‘Nothing you did wrong.’

‘Ah.’ Beau leans back on her arms, looks fondly up at Jester. ‘You tried to do research?’

‘Don’t laugh at me.’

‘I’m not, I’m not. Sounds like you were looking in all the wrong places though, or talking to the wrong people if you didn’t find any…literature.’

‘Well, who was I supposed to ask?’

‘Me, maybe?’

‘What? No, stupid, I like you. I can’t talk to you about it.’

Beau moves very fast and her hand is very gentle when she takes Jester’s, swipes her thumb over Jester’s knuckles. ‘Jes,’ she says, breathes her name like it’s precious. ‘You can talk to me about anything.’ She waits a moment. Then, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’

Jester scowls. She’s not upset, exactly, just feeling mightily off-balance and exposed and her ‘No,’ comes out very huffy.

‘Okay.’ Beau drags her thumb over the crests of Jester’s knuckles again, more slowly. She watches the progress of her thumb, vaguely amazed, in awe. ‘Can I talk about something?’

Jester blinks. ‘Oh? Sure?’

‘Yeah. Yeah, maybe you can help me.’

‘Okay. Yeah, of course, anything.’

‘Cool.’ Beau tilts her head in the opposite direction. Drags tingling lines over Jester’s hand with her fingers. It’s not like she means them to be tingling, but everywhere her fingers go, Jester feels the path of them left behind like the gentlest of brands.

‘There’s this girl,’ Beau says, very coolly, very casually, and Jester feels a rush of molten fury burn in her gut, up her throat. She swallows down hot words and nods encouragingly to Beau, who doesn’t see it because she’s too focused on the way she’s unmaking Jester just by touching their fingers together.

‘She’s – ah – the prettiest girl I’ve ever met, bar fuckin’ none. And really great. Fucking wild sometimes and it always feels like… Like I’m a step behind her? Like she’s always a second from barrelling outta control, but in the best way possible, and I’m…left to run after her. And it’s not a bad thing, not at all. Thought it might be at first but it really, really isn’t. It’s – exhilarating? Exciting. Extended metaphor, but it’s like I’m seeing the whole world as she runs through it and going all these places I’d never thought I’d go. Or dared to? And it always seems like—she knows what she’s doing and where she’s headed, and wherever it is, it’s going to be great. Fate, destiny, whatever has no choice in the matter, it’s gonna be great.’ Beau licks her lips. ‘And it always seems,’ she continues, a little haltingly, voice a little rough now, ‘like she knows what she’s doing to me. Like she knows I’m following her. Knows I can’t help it. Because I can’t. I can’t go anywhere. I don’t want to, either. It’s a totally mad, impossible thought. Leave? Why the fuck would I ever do that? Leaving her… The world would go all slow again and – and I’d miss her, mostly, because sometimes it feels like we’re orbiting each other?’ Beau confesses, and when she lifts her eyes now, finally, to Jester’s, they are burning hot and Jester realises like a fool that the girl Beau is talking about is her. That she’s talking about them. ‘And it feels,’ she says, voice hoarse, sending a shiver down Jester’s spine, ‘like we’re spinning in circles just waiting for something. A little nudge, and we’ll – ’

‘Collide.’

Beau’s smile tugs up crooked, pleased. ‘Yeah,’ she murmurs. ‘Collide.’

She stands then. Takes Jester’s hand properly in her own. She’s really close and Jester doesn’t think she’s imagining that Beau’s eyes are on her lips.

‘Beau.’

‘Yeah.’

‘To clarify,’ Jester says in a quick whisper, ‘to be completely clear, I don’t wanna share you.’

‘I don’t think there’s any danger of that.’

‘Beau, what? You’re a catch.’

‘Yes,’ she says, and laughs, ‘but I’m caught. And it’s impossible to see anyone else in the world when I’m looking at you. And Jes, I’m always looking at you.’

Jester feels a bright smile burst across her face. Her cheeks flush with the brilliant warmth of it. ‘Who?’ she says, flutters her lashes. ‘Me?’

‘Hey, look who’s got her swagger back,’ Beau laughs, and Jester preens. ‘That’s hot.’

Jester laughs. Grabs Beau’s other hand tight. ‘Beau.’

‘Mhm.’

‘Do you wanna kiss now?’

For all her confidence and relative ease with the conversation—once she had understood what was happening—Beau can only stare at Jester now, and a similar flush crawls up her neck and fills her cheeks. She swallows a few times hard, unsticks her tongue from the roof of her mouth.

‘Uh. Yeah. Yes, that’d be – thanks, yeah, that’d be cool.’

She waits. Then,

‘Oh – you want me to kiss you.’

‘If you please,’ Jester agrees primly, nods.

‘Yeah.’ Beau takes her time about it. Takes in every bit of Jester’s face in this perfect, golden light. Commits it to memory, hands coming up to cup Jester’s cheeks carefully, cradle her face like she’s made of spun gold. ‘Yes, I please,’ she says and, leaning in, kisses Jester. Wraps an arm around her shoulders and pulls her in close, dips her down for their second kiss, making Jester laugh into her mouth and clutch at Beau for balance. She whispers something as she kisses the corner of Jester’s mouth, and her cheek, and then her lips again and again and it takes a moment for the rush, the joy of this happening—finally, and really well, and in all the perfect ways Jester had imagined for herself, even if the person in those dreams hadn’t made herself known until recently—for Jester to understand what she’s whispering. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Beau says between each kiss, and Jester doesn’t know if it is for her or for someone, something, else, but each time she says it, Jester kisses her back.

They do make it to dinner, eventually. Holding hands the entire way.