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It's Beautiful, and So Are You

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Two weeks after Jude came back to the States, Prudence came home one afternoon to hear the sound of raised voices in Lucy’s room.  Instantly cautious, Prudence crept forward as quietly as she could, straining to hear.  It wasn’t that she particularly thought Jude was dangerous or violent; it was just that she couldn’t take the chance.  Sometimes she still woke up with her jaw feeling a little sore and remembered Mike, remembered how casual the back of his hand seemed until it hit her.

 

“You didn’t come back for me!”

 

That was Lucy, and Prudence felt a little better when she heard that there wasn’t any fear in Lucy’s tone.  Of course, Lucy came from parents who adored her and a brother who would bring down the moon for her.  Prudence was pretty sure Lucy didn’t know what it was like to be on the wrong end of someone’s sense of entitlement or bad mood.  Mike had taught her that lesson well: If no one knows you’re there, they can’t hurt you.  If you might be in danger, hide.

 

It wasn’t until later that Prudence had discovered that being invisible could hurt just as badly, just in a different way.

 

“I bloody well did come back for you!  It took me a while, all right?  I’m sorry.  I wasn’t sure at first—I didn’t know—”

 

Prudence realized their argument was nothing serious, just another issue they had to work out, and moved on.  She wasn’t interested in eavesdropping now that she knew it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, nothing that would end up with bruises and broken glass.  Lucy and Jude hadn’t parted on the best of terms, that was all, and it would take a little time for them to readjust and talk through everything that had been left unresolved.

 

Satisfied, Prudence moved into the kitchen, rummaging in the cupboards and refrigerator, searching for food.  A bag of potato chips, half-empty, rolled into a cylinder and secured with a rubber band, beckoned to her from the shadowy corner in the very back of the cupboard.  She reached for it, but her fingertips barely brushed the cellophane. 

 

“Whose idea was it to make cabinets this deep?” she muttered to herself, trying to squeeze more of her shoulder in to give her arm more reach.

 

She could still hear Jude and Lucy, though she could no longer make out what they were saying, and all she wanted was to grab that bag of probably-stale potato chips and go to the living room to watch television where she wouldn’t have to hear them anymore.

 

 “Need a hand?”

 

Max’s voice behind her made her jump, and she caught her shoulder on the edge of the cupboard shelf.  “Ow!”

 

“Are you all right?  I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

 

Prudence waved him off.  Max was sweet, sometimes a little overprotective ever since that first mistake when he’d tried to make her feel better and ended up making her feel worse.  He still liked to joke that he was the one who turned her gay, but she thought she heard something behind that joke every now and then.  At any rate, he hadn’t really been with anyone for more than a few dates since then, and that worried her when she thought about it.

 

“I’m just trying to get these chips out of the cupboard, and they’re—”

 

The door to Lucy’s room crashed open, and Prudence and Max both turned to see what was going on.  Jude stormed across the living room, headed for the front door.

 

“Jude!”  Lucy came running out of the bedroom.  “Don’t walk out in the middle of this!”

 

Jude didn’t answer, just kept pulling on his coat.  It was spring, warming up into summer, but it was still chilly in the evenings and downright cold when the sun went down.  Lucy marched up to him and grabbed his arm, keeping him from pulling the coat up onto his shoulders.  He stood there, still silently glaring down at her.

 

“Don’t go.”

 

“Why not?”  Jude’s voice was sharp with hurt, his accent thicker than normal.  Prudence could feel herself trying to hide behind Max, trying to be… invisible.  “You don’t want me here.”

 

“That’s not what I said!”

 

“You bloody well did, and I’m not going to stay where I’m not wanted!”  He jerked his arm out of her grasp and shrugged the coat on, opening the door with such force that Prudence heard the whoosh all the way in the kitchen.

 

“Jude!”  Lucy’s voice was desperate now, closer to tears than it had been when Prudence had listened outside her bedroom.  Prudence wasn’t sure how walking out in the middle of an argument had turned into leaving for good, but somehow it seemed to have taken that turn, at least for one of them.  “Don’t go!”

 

He paused halfway out the door, his back still to her, and tilted his head back.  Prudence heard him sigh.  “Give me one good reason, Luce.”

 

Prudence felt it like a physical punch to the chest as Lucy’s silence stretched out two beats too long, and Jude started forward again.

 

“He needs you!” Lucy blurted out desperately, and Prudence watched Max’s back stiffen in front of her.  His hands clenched by his sides in the way that Prudence had learned mean he was dealing with things that he didn’t want to—things like Vietnam… or like this.

 

Jude hesitated, just barely, but then he was gone and the door slammed shut behind him.  Prudence jumped at the noise it made but didn’t move out from behind Max as Lucy turned and headed back to her room.  She was right in front of her door when she saw them, her teary, red-rimmed eyes going wide in surprise, but she went into her room and shut her door without saying anything.

 

Silently, Max turned and reached into the cupboard.  Prudence heard the cellophane crinkle, and then he put the bag of chips in her hand.  “Here you go.”

 

Prudence looked down at the rolled up, rubber banded chips and then looked up at Max.  “TV?”

 

Max smiled just a little.  “Sure.”

 

***

 

They were sound asleep, propped up against each other on the couch, the decimated bag of chips—that had been stale, despite the rubber band—ripped open on the coffee table, when Jude finally came home.  They’d left the TV on, and the program they’d been watching had faded into the seven o’clock news. 

 

The door closing woke Prudence up, but Max was still asleep on her shoulder.  She made a shushing motion at Jude and then pointed to the TV.  Jude was smart enough to know what she wanted and turned it off.  The news was all about Vietnam, and Prudence didn’t want Max to wake up to that.

 

As soon as the TV went off, Max relaxed against her, and she realized exactly how tense he’d been.  She wondered if he could hear it in his sleep.

 

She wasn’t expecting Jude to stay in the room with them, but he sat down on her other side from Max and exhaled loudly. 

 

“I don’t know what to do, Pru,” he said.  She felt Max twitch against her side but held still, not wanting to wake him, not wanting to discourage Jude.  “I came back here because Liverpool didn’t feel like home anymore, and now this is… it still doesn’t feel like home.”

 

“Maybe you just need a little more time to adjust,” she said.  “You’ve only been here for two weeks, and you were gone a lot longer than that.” 

 

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”

 

Her stomach twisted at the thought of Jude leaving.  She liked the idea of home the way it was, her family being who it was.  She liked having family, liked having a home, one single place.

 

The circus had felt a little like family, all of them all together all the time, united in performance and sleights of hand.  They’d adopted her, welcomed her in, and Rita had seen her when she’d been doing her best to be invisible.  But Rita wasn’t looking for family, and Prudence was.  While Prudence would always love Rita for making her comfortable in her own skin—mostly—they had different ideas of home in the end.

 

Sadie had offered Prudence a place in the band, and when Rita kissed her and told her it sounded like a good place for her, like a good home, Prudence had left the circus behind.

 

But Prudence hadn’t run from something, she’d run to something.  The same as she had when she’d left home.  Her parents didn’t know who she was, and she knew it would break her mother’s heart to tell her, bring so much shame on her own family that she couldn’t bear to think of it.  She had run to New York to find a place where she could be herself without breaking anybody’s heart.  And then she had broken her own.

 

She’d run away from Sadie, though.  And that had been a mistake.  And maybe she had run away from Lucy too, just a little bit.  Lucy, with her big dreams and fearless eyes and way of thinking that life would always be good to her.  Prudence didn’t trust life that much—it hadn’t given her much reason.

 

“What made it feel like home before?”  She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer, but this was about Jude, not about her.  “Was it Lucy?”

 

Jude glanced at her from the corner of his eye and she shrank into Max a little, trying to get away from that look.  “You heard us, then?”

 

“A little.  We—I was in the kitchen.”

 

“Aw, Christ, both of you?”  Jude leaned around her to peer at Max.  “Is ’e still asleep?”

 

“I think so.” 

 

Jude sighed heavily and sat back against the cushions again, his head tilting back to rest on the back of the couch.  “She’s right, you know.  I wanted to see her, wanted to know how she was doing, but….”

 

“You were more worried about him?”

 

Jude nodded.  “When I was deported, he was still in Vietnam.  We didn’t know—and then Lu—and the bombers blew themselves up, and I didn’t know….”

 

“Things change, sometimes,” Prudence said softly.  “Sometimes it’s better to change with them, if you can.”

 

Jude rolled his head to the side, fixing Prudence with a helpless look.  “I don’t know if I can.  What if he doesn’t want the same things?”

 

Prudence smiled wryly.  “You should be me.”

 

Jude’s brow furrowed, and he sat up.  “Is it still Sadie?  ’Cause, Pru, I don’t want to—”

 

“No!”  She lowers her voice a little, darting a glance a Max and then at Lucy’s closed door.  “No, not Sadie.  I get that I’m not her… type.”  She shrugged, just one shoulder, and couldn’t meet Jude’s eyes.  “I just—I just want somewhere I can be me.  And someone who knows who that is.  Someone I don’t hide from.”

 

Jude made an aborted motion as if he was going to hug her, and she smiled, appreciating the pause but a little sad that he knew he needed to wait.  Men grabbing her was never going to be okay, not ever again.  But Jude didn’t grab, and she hugged one of his arms to give them both the comfort of touch. 

 

“Did you know who you want that someone to be?”

 

Jude’s question wasn’t entirely unexpected, but Prudence still couldn’t answer it, at least not directly.

 

“Someone who isn’t afraid of facing anything.”

 

“I don’t know anyone like that, Pru.”  Jude shrugged into her a little bit, jostling her companionably.  “Except maybe Max, and well—”

 

“No,” she said, laughing.  “No.

 

They sat together a little while longer, until Jude said, “Maybe Lucy is trying to figure out who she wants that person to be, too.  And maybe she wants someone different.”

 

Prudence squeezed Jude’s arm a little.  “I think it might be that she knows you want someone different.” 

 

Max snorted and choked behind her, and she turned to look at him.  He smacked his lips a couple of times and settled into her back, still asleep—or faking it.

 

Jude laughed a little and shook his head, as if he knew Max wasn’t really asleep.  “Thanks for listening, Pru,” he said, standing up and stretching.  He headed toward Lucy’s room and stopped, unsure.  Instead, he went through to Max’s room, and Prudence turned her head to see if she could see Max’s face, to see if his eyes were open.

 

They weren’t, but he wasn’t breathing, and Prudence smiled. 

 

“You can stop holding your breath now,” she said.  “He’s gone.”

 

Max sat up and glared at her out of the corner of his eye, but he didn’t mean it, and she smiled when he too got up and went to his room, though he cast a glance at Lucy’s room first.  Prudence got up, cleaned the chips off the table, and went down to hear Sadie and Jojo play.

 

***

 

There were times when Prudence felt so homesick she could just cry.  She missed her mother’s cooking, the comforting scent of spices wafting through their cinderblock home, the sound of being told to “Turn down your music, Prudence!  The neighbors will call and complain, and then we will have the police, and then what?”

 

Prudence was never sure exactly why her mother was afraid of the police.  They were legal immigrants, they weren’t breaking any laws, they paid their taxes on time.  Prudence was on the cheerleading squad, she made good grades, she treated others with respect.  But her mother was terrified of the police, and Prudence could only guess it had to do with Hong Kong during the war, with the fear of knowing that some disappearances weren’t by choice.

 

Overwhelmed by a longing for the safety she’d had at home before she’d realized what she felt, what she was, Prudence found an Asian market store  just down the road from the crowded house where she lived with her new family.  She stared at the aisles and aisles of food, some familiar, some not, marked with kanji she didn’t know how to read—Chinese, Japanese, Korean... maybe not Vietnamese, she wasn’t sure, what with the war and everything—and wished, for just a moment, for her mother to tell her how to take those familiar packages and make her favorite foods from them.  To the left, a sushi chef was carefully cutting fish above a glassed-in display of all kinds of seafood, even a small red octopus with curling tentacles.

 

A young man wearing an apron with the store’s logo on it came up to her, smiling and bowing.  He said something to her in rapid Mandarin that she almost caught, and she stared at him blankly.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said to him in stilted Mandarin, struggling to remember the words she’d spoken with her mother.  No one else spoke it with her since she’d left home, and it felt like her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth, clumsily forming the sounds.  “My Mandarin is rusty.”

 

“Ah, another one,” the young man said, still smiling brilliantly.  His English was perfect and unaccented.  “I grew up here, too.  My family’s been here for ages, actually, and not even my parents speak Mandarin much anymore.  Do you need help finding anything?”

 

“I’m... I’m not sure what I’m looking for,” she confessed.  “My mother used to cook this dessert that I loved, gau, and I was feeling a little... um, I wanted some.  But I don’t know how she cooked it, and I can’t call her and ask her.”

 

A moue of sympathy twisted the young man’s lips, and she wondered if he thought she meant her mother was dead.  No, I am—at least as far as she’s concerned.

 

The boy nodded and smiled.  “Well, I can definitely help you find the ingredients, but we also sell gau ready to eat, since it takes so long to make.  But if you want to make it yourself….”

 

Prudence laughed.  “No, I think the ready-made will be just fine.  Thank you.”

 

She was staring at the gau, which she had set over a pot of water to steam into edible softness, when Lucy came home from her new job playing secretary for one of the big-name newspapers.  Lucy still fought the mainstream, but now she did it from a quieter place, a place less likely to get her blown up than her last job.

 

“Ooo!”  Lucy’s noise of girlish surprise startled Prudence, especially when it came from so close behind her as it did.  She felt Lucy hovering right at her back, peering over her shoulder at the gau.  “What are we having for dinner?  That looks good!”

 

“It’s a dessert my mother used to make.  It’s just a little treat.”  Prudence’s mouth was already starting to water with the memory of the gau, soft and warm and sweet against her tongue.

 

“I’m excited,” Lucy said with such audible enthusiasm that Prudence could almost feel her smile.

 

“It’s almost ready,” Prudence assured her, staring again as if she could make it soften and warm by wishing for it.

 

Lucy shifted away from Prudence, leaning against the counter, her hip propped against the silverware drawer.  She watched the gau as well, and it wasn’t until several seconds had passed that Prudence noticed the odd quality to Lucy’s silence.  It was her “loud” silence, the one that meant she was on the verge of asking something she wasn’t sure if she should.  Prudence watched her with a smile that she tried to keep secret, but by the time Lucy opened her mouth to speak, her forehead wrinkled under the fall of blonde hair, it had grown to a grin.  The question, on the other hand, caught her off-guard.

 

“What happened to Rita?”

 

Prudence shot her a wide-eyed look, and Lucy shrugged, looking a little embarrassed.  “You don’t have to tell me if it’s too personal.  I just wondered.”

 

“We were good for each other for a little while,” Prudence said carefully.  “But I think we were at different places with what we wanted.  She wanted to keep traveling with the circus, and I... wanted a home.”

 

Lucy nodded, mulling this over in her mind.  Prudence gestured that she wanted to get to the silverware drawer, and Lucy moved out of the way as Prudence opened it and reached inside, fishing out a fork.

 

“I don’t know how to break up,” Lucy said finally, and Prudence got the feeling she didn’t want an answer, so she just held her tongue.  “I never had to break up with my first boyfriend.  The Army took care of that for me.”  There was a little bitterness there still, soaking through Lucy’s voice like red spider veins.  “So I don’t know what it’s like to reach the natural end of a relationship.  To think, ‘I loved this person, and that was good, but we want different things now.’”

 

Prudence stared hard at the gau, waiting for it to show signs of softening, waiting for her mind to find the words that Lucy would need to hear.  “Do you and Jude want different things now?”

 

Lucy shrugged again and tugged at the ends of her hair.  “Not on the surface, really.  We both want everybody to be happy.  But I think what makes him happy isn’t really me.  I’m not sure it ever was.”

 

Prudence shook her head.  “I think it was.  I think you were exactly what he needed.”

 

“He loves Max.”  Lucy was staring down at her hair, trapped between her fingers that were pulling at the strands, twisting them around her knuckles. 

 

Prudence said quietly, “I know.”

 

“He doesn’t have a way to make that fit inside his head, though.  He doesn’t know how to see that the way he and Max feel isn’t just... isn’t just best friends.  And I was the closest thing to Max that still fit inside his lines.”

 

“He’s happy with you, though.  Happy enough that can’t be the only reason you want to break up with him.”  Prudence shook her head before Lucy could say anything else, reaching out to test the gau with the fork.  It gave, just a little, and she knew it would be done soon.  “And don’t say it’s because you want Max to be happy.  Max loves both of you, and as long as the two of you are happy, that’s good enough for him.”

 

“It shouldn’t have to be good enough,” Lucy grumbled, and Prudence laughed. They let the silence stretch out for several long moments, and just as Prudence scraped a forkful of sticky, sugary treat off the edge of the softening gau, Lucy said, “I’m not sure I’m happy with Jude.”

 

Prudence turned and held out the treat to let Lucy have a taste.  Lucy hesitated for just a moment before she leaned forward and opened her mouth.  Prudence was surprised; she’d meant for Lucy to take the fork.  Carefully, she put the fork into Lucy’s mouth, holding her breath when Lucy’s lips wrapped around the tines and her tongue flicked out to catch the last bit of gau

 

Prudence could hear her voice shaking just a little when she said, “Maybe you should be totally sure you’re unhappy before you break up with him.”

 

Lucy nodded, licking her lips as one hand came up to half-hide her mouth in a sudden, uncharacteristic display of shyness.  After she’d swallowed, she gestured to the fork Prudence held and said, “That’s good.”

 

Prudence finally remembered to breathe again and turned to scrape off a bite for herself.  The taste hit her tongue in a burst of homesickness, and she closed her eyes against the sudden emotion.  When she opened them again, Lucy was watching her with a kind of wonder, and Prudence blushed and looked away.

 

***

 

It had to be that night, the very same night that Prudence had fed Lucy a bite of gau standing in the middle of the kitchen, that the ceiling in Prudence’s room started leaking.  If it had just been leaking, that might have been one thing, but apparently there had been a leak at that spot in the roof for a while, because just when Prudence was drifting off to sleep, the ceiling right above her bed burst open with the pressure of what must have been a gallon of water.

 

Her surprised yelp brought the whole house running, and Sadie scratched a hand through her hair as she sighed up at the mess.  “Guess we’ll get to fix that in the morning.”

 

“In the morning?” Max scowled.  Jude peeked around his shoulder into the mess of Prudence’s room with its soaked bed and dripping girl.  “She needs a place to sleep before then.”

 

“She can sleep with me.”  Lucy’s voice was still soft and scratchy, not quite awake, but her offer came through clearly enough.  There was a moment of uncertain silence at the reminder that Lucy was sleeping by herself lately, Jude having crashed in Max’s room after their argument a week before.

 

Prudence might have been tempted to turn her down in an effort to save everyone the awkwardness, but she really couldn’t sleep in her bed, and where else was she going to go? 

 

“That’s okay, I’ll sleep on the couch,” Prudence said, shaking her head. 

 

“Don’t be silly, Pru,” Jude said softly.  “That couch is barely worth sitting on, much less sleeping.”

 

“He’s right,” Lucy put in.  “There’s plenty of room in my bed.  I won’t bite.”  Lucy’s cheeks turned a little pink, but she smiled.

 

Prudence swallowed and nodded.  “All right.  Um, thank you.”

 

She changed into dry pyjamas—Lucy’s, too long by half, rolled up at the sleeves and the legs—and toweled her hair until it was just barely damp, and then crawled into Lucy’s little bed, trying to hug the edge, not wanting to make Lucy uncomfortable.  She’d just relaxed when she felt a gentle tug at her hair and held her breath.

 

“Pru?” Lucy whispered, still dragging her fingertips through Prudence’s hair.

 

“Yeah?”

 

When Lucy didn’t say anything else, Prudence turned onto her back so she could see Lucy’s face.  Lucy was lying on her side, one hand tucked under her head, the other with a gentle hold on a small section of Prudence’s long hair.  She was staring at the strands as she petted them, not meeting Prudence’s eyes, and Prudence frowned.

 

“What is it, Luce?”

 

Lucy didn’t say anything, just pushed herself up on her elbow so she was looking down at Prudence, and moved in closer.  Prudence froze, waiting to see what Lucy was going to do, her heart trip-hammering so hard she could feel her pulse fluttering in her throat. 

 

“I think I… want to kiss you.”

 

Prudence blinked, but her voice sounded surprisingly normal when she said, “Okay.”

 

The first brush of lips was soft and dry, like butterfly wings on a summer day, and Prudence expected it to end there.  But Lucy pressed in more firmly, her lips warm against Prudence’s, and then her tongue licked over Prudence’s lower lip, and Prudence hadn’t been kissed since Rita said goodbye to her when she left the circus, and oh God that felt amazing, and yes, please.

 

Lucy’s tongue was slick and hot sliding along her own, and Prudence pushed her hands through Lucy’s long hair, keeping the strands away from their faces, away from this amazing thing happening with their mouths.

 

When they pulled back, their breaths coming in hot puffs against each other’s faces, Lucy had turned bright pink all the way up to the tips of her ears.  Prudence licked her lips, chasing the unexpected sweetness that reminded her of the subtle taste of the dessert they’d shared earlier, and Lucy smiled, sudden and bright, like the sun bursting out from behind the clouds.

 

“I’ve been wanting to do that for a while,” Lucy confessed breathlessly. 

 

Prudence grinned back at her and gripped the blonde hair she still held in her hands.  “You can do it again anytime you want.”

 

Prudence’s lips felt bruised and tender by the time they’d had their fill of kissing, hands moving from hair to backs to sides and pulling each other close.  Their legs were tangled and their noses were touching when, by mutual unspoken consent, they began to let themselves drift off to sleep.

 

Lucy’s breath tickled over Prudence’s lips when she whispered, “I think I know what I want now.”

 

Prudence kissed her one more time, and she smiled as she murmured, “So do I.”