"Who do you think is hottest," Vivian was saying, "Arthur or Lancelot?"
"Can't say I was paying much attention," Gwen said with a tight smile. She was trying for a tone and expression that would end the conversation without being offensively rude. It was an everyday struggle and she could already feel herself losing.
"Oh my God, how could you not be paying attention? They're gorgeous! And so different! I used to go out with this guy who looked a lot like Arthur, actually, I think he's more my type, even if it didn't work out that time. My dad's kind of... But you and Lance, I think you two would be really good together. He's kind of serious like you and he's a little foreign, like I think his parents are from Spain, or France or something. Plus he's really into you. Did you notice?"
Gwen's mouth opened but she had no idea what to say, so she shut it again. She didn't really understand why Vivian was talking to her at all. Gwen had been minding her own business, had gone on holiday by herself, in a country where no one she knew was travelling. It was in no way her fault that another English girl in the hostel lobby had recognised her from that one class they'd had together two years ago or that she'd sat down at the café table (where Gwen had been perfectly content reading her book) and insisted on girl talk.
Only now Vivian looked so disappointed she felt she had to say something. "Lancelot seems nice enough, I just haven't been thinking about him that way. Just not really what I came here for, I guess."
"What do you mean?" Vivian smiled mischievously. "You'd rather hook up with a Czech guy?"
"We British travellers should stick together, huh?"
"Excuse me," said a woman whom Gwen had somehow failed to notice up till then (which was preposterous, really, because she seemed to have been sitting at the next table and was stunningly beautiful). "I recognise you from the hostel and I couldn't help overhearing your conversation and, well, just wanted to let you know that the two boys you're talking about just walked past us. We set out together but I think I think they were on their way to the Bombay Bar, on Dlouhá Street. You know it?"
Vivian's face lit up with excitement and she put aside her unfinished coffee to gather up her things. "Thank you so much," she said to the stranger. "Are you coming, Gwen?"
"No, you go have fun."
"But we can double date! It'll be –"
"All right," the goddess said to Vivian, while Gwen was still trying to steel herself to put an end this. "While I'm doing you favours, have some free advice. Just because you're obsessed with boys doesn't mean every other woman you meet feels the same way. Some people are already in relationships, some of us are gay, and some people just have other priorities. So if somebody's trying to read their book and says they don't have an opinion on Arthur versus Lancelot, just leave them the fuck alone, all right?"
Gwen stared in amazement as a very flustered Vivian pushed away from the table and stormed off – still in the direction the boys had supposedly gone.
"Did Arthur and Lancelot really just walk past this café on their way to that bar?"
"Hell if I know. I haven't even met those guys. Just, you know, you looked like you needed an intervention."
Gwen nodded. "Thanks, I did. I mean, I appreciate it."
"Of course. Hey, us queer travellers should stick together, right?" She flashed a brilliant smile and held out her hand. "I'm Morgana, and I actually did see you two at the hostel, just so you know I don't lie about everything."
"Gwen." Gwen shook her hand. And nodded, encouraging Morgana to sit down. "So, we should – why did you call me –" but it wasn't that it was a bad thing, she reminded herself, so she smiled and amended, "how did you know I was gay?"
"I'm psychic, actually."
Well, so much for that friendship. "Really?"
"No, I'm just good at reading people. It's not even gaydar, really. I mean, she was giving away a lot more about herself than you were."
"Huh," said Gwen, who knew she had a tendency to be closed off and for once thought it would be a really good thing to be open to the person sitting at the other side of the table.
"Listen, what you said about…how we should stick together?"
"Maybe we should. I mean, if you don't already, since we're both here and…" She paused and took a breath. "Are you travelling with someone?"
Morgana shook her head. "No. Well, yeah, I came here with my friend Merlin and his boyfriend, but they're both planning on sticking around here in Prague all week. They just found out there's an Irish pub called Merlin and they're talking about trying to get free drinks. These are the kind of travel plans my friends make."
"Sounds pretty typical," said Gwen, who had been interacting with other backpackers for two weeks.
"Whereas I'm interested in getting out into the countryside to do some hiking," said Morgana, "maybe head to Poland next."
Gwen nodded dumbly, not quite willing to believe this was actually going to work out.
"It's not that I mind going to bars, and obviously Prague is wonderful, but Merlin and Will are country boys themselves, and going out into the mountains and roughing it is not their idea of a holiday, so, okay, here we part ways."
"It'll probably feel good to have some time to yourself," Gwen said, "if you've been travelling with them for a while."
"Not necessarily. I always like travelling with friends." She paused. "Want to be my friend?"
"Um, yeah. Yeah I would actually." And, since that was a little more direct than she was used to, "I mean, I've been wanting to do some hiking too, before I go to Wroclaw, but I wasn't sure about going out on trails on my own."
"Yeah," said Morgana, "I was worried about the same thing, though you always meet someone, don't you?"
Gwen smiled vaguely. She didn't usually make connections with the strangers she met in places like this.
"It'll be nice to get away from all these English-speakers anyway," Morgana added.
Gwen nodded eagerly and then laughed at herself. "Not that there's anything wrong with English speakers such as yourself, and not that I know any Czech myself," she admitted.
"And if we go together we'll be speaking English more than if we went alone. Still, we could save some money and defend ourselves against the likes of that girl."
"Yeah, not to mention the American guy who was hitting on me yesterday."
"Exactly," Morgana said, and it was so refreshing, having someone get it, Gwen could cry or laugh out loud. Instead she just sat there and smiled.
It happened that Gwen and Morgana were staying in the same room, along with Merlin and Will, the obnoxious American named Michael, two Polish girls (both named Agnieszka), and a guy who seemed to be asleep all the time so no one ever found out where he was from.
Morgana cowered Michael into silence in their first five minutes together. I have a champion, Gwen thought giddily. I'm in a medieval city and I've got my own personal noble warrior defending my honour.
The four of them did go out to the Irish pub where Merlin did indeed manage to drink for free, though the rest of them had to pay. Gwen hadn't been out much at nights so far on her trip, and though she didn't care much about drinking she enjoyed the good company. Merlin and Will's talk was full of cheerful innuendo about the girls and Gwen found she didn't mind. This is what people do, she thought. They meet in unlikely places and they talk to each other and have a pint. It doesn't have to be out of reach.
Back at the hostel they changed in the dark so as not to wake up the others. Gwen sat on her lower bunk and turned toward the wall as she pulled off her top and pulled on an oversized top she wore for sleeping, and then slipped her bra out through the sleeve. It was an awkward process but she was used to it from dorms and other hostels. She got her pyjama bottoms on under the sheet and lay in the dark with her eyes closed. And for the first time on this trip she actually felt comforted by all the little noises of a shared living space, as the others blundered through drink and darkness and settled into bed. Anticipation of the next two weeks on the road with Morgana was singing through her blood, but it didn't keep her awake, just helped her drift into dreams of mountaintops.
The first thing Gwen saw when she opened her eyes were Morgana's breasts. Well, Morgana's whole naked torso, really, and the rest of her body was probably there too, but she had pants on so that wasn't as disturbing. Gwen shut her eyes quickly again, but she could hear Morgana walking around, in no hurry to cover herself up. Gwen took deep breaths and wondered if they were at all convincing as sleep.
It wasn't the first time she'd seen a woman naked, obviously, nor the first time she'd seen a dorm mate naked in a youth hostel. All the same, it wasn't what she was expecting first thing in the morning, or from her new presumed soul mate. Besides that, she didn't trust herself not to stare.
At breakfast Will asked Gwen if she'd enjoyed the show. "A horrible exhibitionist, our Morgana," he said. "Not that I wouldn't do the same, if I had a had a body like hers."
"Thank God you don't," Merlin muttered into his coffee. "I like you just the way you are, you know."
"Sure, it's good enough to keep you happy," said Will, "but if I were trying to impress Gwen, a Morgana-shaped body would be the way to go."
At the next table Vivian and Arthur leaned close to each other and spoke in low tones, with occasional dark glances toward Gwen and Morgana, and Lancelot looked benevolent and rather heartbroken. Gwen did her best to smile at him while still ignoring Vivian, but it wasn't too much of a priority to her now what they thought. After all, she was moving on.
After such an auspicious beginning it was disappointing to realise that this was still real life rather than a fairy tale, and that Morgana was a human being rather than Gwen's Princess Charming. So in addition to charming towns and breathtaking vistas the Czech Republic had confusing bus schedules, hostels that lost their reservations, and beds that made Gwen's back ache. Morgana got a blister.
And the more time she and Morgana spent together, the more Gwen noticed their differences. It no longer seemed like such a big deal to have met up with another girl who happened to like girls and hiking. She was now travelling with someone who liked beer and swearing and walking around naked. Someone who wrote in her journal a lot but didn't seem to read books (she did look at her phone a lot, but Gwen couldn't tell whether that was novels just a whole lot of texts). Someone who had inherited more money than she knew what to do with.
What was good though, was that although Morgana liked to talk, she didn't need to all the time. So they'd share a train compartment, and Morgana would listen to Bat for Lashes while Gwen read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Morgana spoke some Russian and was occasionally able to fake her way through a simple conversation in Czech, while Gwen could communicate with people who knew French or German. They pooled the information from their guidebooks; Morgana would choose their route and then Gwen would find reasonable accommodations and restaurants.
After a week they'd also settled into each other's routines enough that Gwen didn't bat an eyelash when upon arriving at a new hostel, Morgana hung her bra and knickers from the frame of an open window, complaining that she'd sweated so much she needed to air them out. Gwen continued to keep her dirty clothes in a plastic bag. She'd take them to a laundrette before she ran out. Gwen also tended to change her clothes strategically when Morgana was in the bath or had gone ahead to breakfast early. Neither of them said anything about it, although they talked about everything else. Different habits, but they weren't hurting each other, and Gwen just got a lot of practice at looking vaguely in Morgana's general direction without outwardly reacting to her gorgeous body.
Then there was the day they hiked out to the waterfall.
It wasn't a bad day. Gwen's back was feeling fine and her pack wasn't too heavy, and Morgana's blister was doing better than previous days. The sun was out but there was a cool breeze. The trail was challenging but it was clearly marked. They were on their own so they could take breaks whenever they felt like it, and they munched on apples and some fantastic cheese Morgana had found in town.
Once the falls were close enough for them to hear, there was a steep descent through some rough rocks to the pools at the bottom, where the water was fast flowing but shallow, and people came to bathe with the waterfall showering down on them. They'd been hiking on their own but once they made it to the bottom they saw a dozen other people there, and Gwen realised to her dismay that there were no changing cabins, just rocks and water and a few trees. Even to get back to an isolated place where no one would see her she'd have to climb up to the top of the valley again. It would take another 20 minutes, and she'd need to put all her clothes and good shoes back on in order to get back down.
Standing next to her, Morgana set down her pack and removed her clothes to reveal that she was wearing a bikini underneath. Had she been wearing that the whole time? As usual, Gwen had avoided looking while Morgana got dressed in front of her this morning.
Gwen's one-piece was in her bag. If she had a bikini it might be easier to change underneath her top, but as it was she'd have to take everything off. There was no way this could be a good idea, not here with all these people.
Morgana jumped into the water and then screamed. "Fuck that's cold!" But she was grinning, and after taking a minute to tread water and catch her breath she added, "This is brilliant!"
Gwen didn't doubt it was. It wasn't a hot day but they'd worked up a sweat, and the water looked delightful. Gwen was a good swimmer. True, lately she'd mostly just done laps in the indoor pool (hence the one-piece) but when she was a girl she used to love swimming outside more than anything. With the sun flickering through the trees and the smell of the water she had a sudden vivid memory of that summer when she spent two weeks at her school friend Freya's family home by the lake. She certainly hadn't been embarrassed to run around in a bathing costume then. It had been heaven, that holiday – right up until Freya's dad caught the two of them kissing.
"Are you coming in?" Morgana called to her.
"My swimming costume's in my bag," Gwen shouted back.
"So put it on!"
"Where?" Gwen asked, gesturing around at the rocks.
"Here," said Morgana.
Gwen gestured at the people with some irritation.
"Are you – " Morgana started to say, sounding concerned, which made Gwen's skin heat more than the thought of getting naked.
It was that shame, she remembered her first year roommate at uni asking, Are you ashamed of your body? And no, Gwen wasn't, she was just fucking modest and didn't like feeling like she was some kind of freak because of it, and what kind of people made an otherwise idyllic swimming hole and didn't give you a place to put on a swimming costume nearby, and why did that mean Gwen was the one with the problem?
Morgana was coming out of the water because at least she realised this wasn't the kind of conversation they should have shouting, but that concern was mortifying, and once again Gwen didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but it wasn't a good feeling this time.
"There. Are. Men, at this waterfall," she said, low and furious, when Morgana was standing next to her again. "I don't know if you noticed, I know you don't tend to let these things bother you, but I am not going to take off my clothes in front of them. If I had it on underneath my jeans, if you'd thought to tell that's what you were doing, then maybe, but I am not baring everything to anyone who happens to look in my direction just so I can go home and say I swam underneath a waterfall in the Czech Republic. I am –"
"Gwen," Morgana said, her voice calm and firm, and Gwen froze, shut her eyes tight to hold back the emotion. When she opened them and took stock again Morgana was still standing in front of her but had taken a sheet of cloth out of her bag – some kind of wrap or sarong, Gwen supposed – and was holding it up in between them. She had it up at the level of Gwen's neck so it draped down almost to the ground.
"There's no one in the woods behind you," Morgana said. "I can tell because I'm watching. I'm standing between you and anybody at the water, and you can see them over my shoulder to tell if they're looking your way."
"I'll still be naked in the middle of the woods," Gwen said quietly.
Morgana nodded. "For a few seconds, which no one will see, and then we can go in the water. And if you decide not to, you can still get your feet wet and splash around a bit. I promise not to simulate drowning in order to get you to jump in and rescue me."
"Thanks for that," Gwen said, and after hesitating for another moment she crouched down to untie her shoes.
She took off her jeans and set them on the rock, then took off her knickers and set them in one leg of her jeans. She pulled on her swimming costume and pulled it up as high as she could without taking off her top. Meanwhile Morgana stood at her eye level but scanning the trees behind her, rather than looking directly at Gwen.
On the other side of the stream a man in red swimming trunks with a bare bulging belly was talking to a woman in the water. Gwen didn't recognise what language they were speaking. There were a handful of French people splashing under the waterfall and a family with two young children heading that way.
Gwen thought about trying to pull off her bra through her sleeve the way she'd sometimes done at the hostel. But that would be silly, it would take more time and wasn't necessary. So she took off her tee shirt top and then her bra. She'd meant to pull up the swimming costume at once, but then there she was, standing half naked on a rock, her breasts bare to the mountain breeze. Her skin prickled in the cool wet air, she heard water falling and birds singing, and Morgana was standing one foot away from her.
What, she wondered, was the big problem? What was the big rush?
"Thank you," she said to Morgana.
"Finished?" Morgana said briskly and looked Gwen in the eye for the first time since she'd started changing. Glancing at Gwen's bare shoulders, she narrowed her eyebrows in confusion.
"No," said Gwen, and she leaned forward and kissed Morgana on the mouth.
Despite her obvious surprise, Morgana responded at once, wrapping her arms and the sarong around Gwen's shoulders and slipping her tongue between Gwen's lips. The cloth was smooth and clean on Gwen's breasts and then there was the pressure of Morgana's breasts behind it, and Gwen was suddenly afraid she'd lose her bearings completely and tip into the water. She pulled back with a laugh.
"Okay, wait a sec, I should actually finish this," she said. She pulled the straps up on her shoulders and made a few more adjustments, and this time Morgana was watching her with a smile on her face. Then Gwen took the sarong and wrapped it around both their shoulders, made sure she had a firm footing on the rocks, and kissed her again, letting it last this time.
Funny, Gwen realised in the middle of it, how a minute ago she'd been so wary of the other swimmers, trying to assure herself they weren't looking her way. And now she closed her eyes and thought, Let them look. Let them see.
But when they pulled apart and Gwen looked around it seemed only one of the young girls was staring, and everyone else was occupied with their own affairs.
"We should have a swim, after all that," Gwen said cheerfully, and edged toward the water.
Morgana followed her, a little dazed but making as if what had happened was no big deal. "I did notice that there were other people around, you know. If they weren't here I'd just swim naked. That way I wouldn't have to carry a wet swimming costume with me on the way back."
"Mm hm," said Gwen. "Just a practical matter of wet backpacks. It doesn't have anything to do with you wanting to show off and tempt me some more."
"It has everything to do with that. God, I was afraid you'd never catch on."
"Oh, I'm on to you," Gwen said, even though she hadn't really been sure until she'd gone ahead and kissed her.
From now on, she thought with a smile, whenever Morgana made up some excuse to get naked, Gwen could actually let herself look.
Gwen jumped in the water. It was cold and swift and clean, and once Morgana was there with her it would be perfect.
Back at the inn in Staré Město that night they switched from the dorm room to a double. They took off each other's clothes with the light on before they took each other to bed.