People are rivers. Their heads can be slow and shallow or deep and dark and rapid, but everyone has their waterfalls, their whirlpools. So crossing people, for a powerful legilimens, is a tricky business. Queenie Goldstein is well aware of how deftly she has to navigate in order to stay out of the currents of other people’s minds. Some days, all she does is wade.
She'd tried to explain to Jacob, once, what it was like. That people don’t think in straight lines. They think in pulses, sort of. Or in ripples – or spider webs. And if you can perceive those currents of thought – if your head has a trap door that flaps open of its own accord or, worse, never latches shut to begin with, through which other people permeate – then you’re never quite out of the rivers of other people’s minds.
If someone were told to picture a cake, for instance – they aren’t just going to conjure an image in isolation. They can’t. Whether they're aware of it or not, their mind is also going to touch on how that cake smells and tastes and feels – they might picture a cake that looks like an amalgamation of two favourite birthday cakes from their early childhood, and each of those cakes is tied to a separate chain of memories dropping down into deep wells of emotion.
And that’s just a cake.
Queenie knows, in theory, that not all legilimens are open, all the time. Some can flip it on and off. They can open and close their minds at will. But she’s never been that way, not really – she’s not sure the door in her head has ever been closed. She thinks maybe she was born without hinges.
If she concentrates real hard, she can put a frosted glass cover over the gap that lets other people in (…or, maybe it lets her out?). It muffles the outside world, dulls it so that she can sleep, or read a book or have a real conversation with someone without their thoughts coming off them like sunbursts. But it’s tiring, and her cover tends to wear down over the course of the day – it goes faster if she gets stressed out, or upset, or angry.
Tina’s good at occlumency, of course, so being around her is easier – more peaceful – than being around most other folks. And most of the higher levels of MACUSA have thorough training in the art of keeping their minds to themselves. But most everyone else goes about broadcasting just as loud as if they were screaming all day – their thoughts bounce off Queenie’s glass cover till she gets a headache from the constant clatter. And no-majs are the worst, of course. There isn’t a no-maj in the world that isn’t open as a book and loud as a wailing baby.
So working in Jacob’s bakery on the weekends might not be the best way to keep her sanity.
But Jacob is… Jacob. And there just ain’t that many ways to keep close by him without getting herself brought up on fraternisation charges and him obliviated all over again (and gee that was tricky enough to undo the first time).
And mostly she can cope, she can. She drinks a little extra coffee so she can power through Saturday mornings. She gets home Sunday night and pretty much goes straight to bed. She’s a little head-achey and tired the first couple of days of the week. And Tina gets that look on her face like she’s tasted something bitter when she watches Queenie yawn at the dinner table.
But Jacob folds a pair of fresh iced buns into a hankerchief for her to take home and calls her ‘doll’ and looks at her like she hung the moon and it’s worth all the headaches in the world.
Except she totally over does it one Saturday and basically faints in his back room. Scares the crap out of that poor shop assistant of his. The next thing she knows, Jacob is picking her up off the floor and laying her down on the flower sacks, leaning over her to feel her forehead.
“Queenie, can you talk? You okay?”
She tries to say ‘yes’, but what comes out is more like ‘mgrlfl’ so no, she’s not. The world has gone glassy and grey. She feels cold.
Jacob closes the shop and sends the boy home early, then brings her a glass of water. Her hands are numb and shakey. She can hear his concern coming off him in crackles and pops and her skull is pounding. She can’t get the glass to her lips.
“Hey,” Jacob takes her shoulders, “Queenie, honey – look at me.”
She tries – everything’s still dangerously out of focus, though, and she can’t see his big dark eyes properly at all. She can only feel him thinking about his mother, who died from a cancer in her breast, and how pale and sick she looked by the end, and his brother’s body going slowly blue in the deep cold of the French winter and –
Queenie wants to throw up.
“Can you,” the words are thick on her tongue, “think a little less. Please.”
“Sorry,” he squeezes her shoulders, “sorry, honey. Is that what’s – right, of course, okay – ”
He’s not actually thinking any less, or any quieter at all. Bless him, he’s a no-maj – he couldn’t think quietly if his life depended on it. But he’s trying to thinker nicer thoughts, at least. He’s trying to picture a meadow. A stream. Something calming. Though under that there’s still the memory of his mother’s clammy hand in his, the morphine stripping her away from him, the same distant, hazy look in her eyes as Queenie has now and –
She turns aside and wretches, her stomach knotting painfully.
To his credit, Jacob doesn’t flinch. (Jacob has seen much, much worse than a pretty girl retching on the floor of his bakery). He lets go of her shoulders, and takes the glass of water off her to hold it to her lips.
“Just a sip,” he’s saying it and thinking it at the same time, “just a little, you can do that.”
She manages a mouthful of water, though it tastes like grit.
“Good – now another,” he sits down next to her on the flower sacks, puts an arm around her shoulders and holds the glass for her, “there you go.”
He’s so sturdy and sure beside her – Queenie finds herself leaning against him. He’s warm, and if she huddles close maybe she’ll be able to stop shivering. And he still smells good, even after a whole day on his feet – he’s been up since four this morning, baking the day’s bread and icing buns and filling pastries. He smells like yeast and powdered sugar – he always smells a little sweet. He holds her hand.
“You’re okay, honey.”
Queenie presses her face to his shoulder and inhales deeply. If she could only rest a minute – though she can already feel the heat of Jacob’s embarrassment, his fear and pleasure at having her so close, how precious he finds her, how much he wants to kiss her and how hard he’s trying not to think about that –
“You having trouble keeping it all out?” Jacob asks, and Queenie wonders how he can concentrate with everything happening in his head. She can only nod. She tried to explain to him what it was like once – the pulses and waves, and how sometimes she just… drowns.
“Okay,” Jacob is rubbing her back, “okay, you wanna try something?”
She nods again.
“When I was in the trenches on the Somme,” Jacob says, and he’s actively trying not to picture it for her, but there’s some horrible, horrible memories bobbing just under the surface of his mind, “when the other side would send bombs over, or gas or grenades or machine gun fire, and you’d just be sitting in the mud waiting to see if you were about to get hit – I’d sit there and – the trench I was in, they’d pasted up one side of it with plaster full of bits of cork, try to absorb the damp though – mostly of course it just grew mould. I’d sit there, and I’d watch that wall. And I’d count.”
She can see the wall, as clearly as he can. Patches of damp seeping into grey-green mould – the smell of wet earth and blood. Machine gun fire crackle-crackle-popping in the distance.
“The Germans, their fire would come in pretty regular rounds – pretty much always to a count of six,” Jacob is still talking, his hand still making warm, regular circles on her back, “so I’d sit there and stare at the cork wall and count to six. And when I got to six, either I’d be dead, or I’d be watching little bits of cork come off that wall. But all I had to do was get to the end of that six count. I never let myself think about the next six, or the next day, or the next week. As long as I didn’t think about nothin’ else, I could always make it to six. Kept me from losing my mind. Blocked everything else out.”
It really did. He still counts to six sometimes – Queenie’s heard him muttering it under his breath.
“You gotta concentrate on something,” he says, gently, “maybe if you can concentrate on something else, something steady and regular, you’ll get back to yourself.”
Queenie nods, blindly – it makes sense, it does, though she can’t think of anything steady or regular at all in the mess of his head, her own head, the heads of the hundred odd people in the surrounding buildings all thinking their own distant thoughts –
“Lay back,” she mumbles, giving him a little push, back onto the flower sacks.
He does, with a confused little grunt – and she promptly lays down next to him, and puts her head on his chest.
“What are you – ”
“Heartbeat,” she says, firmly. “Yours.”
Queenie isn’t sure how long they lie like that. Jacob’s heartbeat isn’t exactly totally steady – at first it speeds up a lot, because she’s curled herself against his side and tucked her head under his chin and sometimes he just wants to hold her so bad he can’t believe it’s actually happening.
But then it settles, because he’s making himself take slow, regular breaths, and he tries not to think about anything except pastry recipes. And his body is warm and his hand returns to her back, the smell of powdered sugar on his shirt. He’s so tired – he’s always a little tired – and he has an ache in his back from spending all day stooping to pull trays out of his oven, and a knot in his shoulders that’s been there for days. Even though Queenie feels cold, she knows she’s warm to him, comforting, smelling like the vanilla lotion she uses to keep her hands from chapping in the New York winter winds. Very slowly, he’s starting to fall asleep.
His heartbeat is strong and sturdy just like him. She counts. One, two, three, four, five, six.
And slowly, slowly, her mind grows quiet. The endless tide-pool nature of the world of minds outside her own slows, settles, stills.
He blinks awake, surprised to find himself here on the flower sacks with her – his mind had drifted home to his bed. His momentary disorientation settles into a smile.
“You feeling better?”
Jacob helps her up, and helps her on with her coat, too, though he does that every day when she leaves.
Jacob’s bakery isn’t actually all that far from her and Tina’s apartment – she can walk the route in all of thirty minutes, though usually she apparates. But she absolutely doesn’t have the energy to apparate right now, and the idea of walking for half an hour when her legs still feel pretty much like wet noodles isn’t appealing either.
“You want me to walk you home?” Jacob asks, gently.
He always offers to walk her home. She always refuses, because if Tina catches them there’ll be an awful fight – she can feel the quarrel coming, actually. Tina’s been brewing a stern conversation with her on the subject for weeks, the way she does when she sometimes forgets that Queenie is no longer an orphaned six year old but a grown woman who is allowed to make risky decisions if she likes.
But today – Mercy Lewis, she’s not getting back without someone to keep her upright, Tina’s disapproval notwithstanding.
With a bit of luck her sister will be at work, even though it’s Saturday. She never did know how to take a day off.
“Yes please,” she murmurs, adjusting her hat with fingers that feel a little shaky and numb, still. “That would be good of you.”
Jacob nods, and begins to lock up the shop while she waits outside.
Her hand fits real neatly in the crook of his arm, tucked in warm and safe. It’s beginning to rain a little, a fine, chilled mist, which, thankfully, drives most pedestrians inside, giving Queenie some peace as they make their way through quiet streets. They go slow, and it’s almost nice.
“You get enough to eat today?” Jacob asks, gently.
Queenie shrugs, delicately. She didn’t. She knows she didn’t. She had breakfast that morning and that was it – it seems silly to forget to eat when you’re spending all day surrounded by baked goods, but it’s easy to do in the afternoon rush.
“You worry me sometimes, you know that?” Jacob sighs.
Queenie wrinkles her nose. “You sound like Tina.”
“Well if she’s worried about you forgetting to eat and getting over-tired and then having a fainting spell, I gotta say she has a point,” Jacob gives her hand a squeeze.
Queenie chews her lip, feeling unreasonably sulky. She can take care of herself – she really can. But if Jacob weren’t the sort of man to worry for her, she probably wouldn’t like him half so much.
“I’m fine, Jacob.”
“I know, honey.”
Except she’s spoken too soon, because her knees give out while they’re still only half way back.
“Oh jeez,” Jacob catches her, and props her against a wall, “we gotta get you somewhere warm and dry.”
“I’m okay,” Queenie manages, sounding much less convincing this time.
“I think I got enough on me to put you in a cab,” Jacob begins digging in his pocket, but Queenie shakes her head.
“No – no, don’t do that for me.” The bakery’s doing great but it’s still a young business and money’s tight as ever. Jacob barely has enough spare change to feed himself right now – he’s been living on stale pastries for a week. “I’ll be fine in a moment.”
“You don’t see the colour you’ve gone,” Jacob tells her, gently. “You’re gonna need more than a minute, and it’s cold out. Don’t wizards have cabs?”
“Brooms,” Queenie tells him, absently, and then enjoys how big Jacob’s eyes get.
“Oh yeah. I guess they’re a little more sophisticated these days than probably what you’re picturing but… basically.”
Jacob looks like a schoolboy. “Well – well – that’s just – geez.”
He’s such a sweetiepie Queenie would kiss him if she wasn’t also sure that if she stops leaning on this wall for support she’d fall straight over on her face.
“So you can’t just – call one of those? A broom?”
Queenie shakes her head. “It doesn’t quite work like that.” She and Tina only have the one broom between them – a battered old thing badly in need of having its brush replaced – and Tina’s the one who rides it if she really has to. Queenie liked being whisked around Ilvermorny by her sister or hanging on the back with some nice boy who’d give her a ride, but she never much got the hang of it herself. “Last time I was on a broom I crashed through my dorm room window at school trying to sneak back in after lights out. Broke my wrist. Got detention for a week. Lost my house fifty points.”
Jacob takes off his hat and runs a hand through his hair, the way he does when he’s feeling especially delighted by her, and laughs. “Alright, well, you’re gonna have to tell me the whole of that story some time. But right now, we really gotta get you home. What do you think? I can put you in a cab, I don’t mind – ”
“No – Jacob, no – I can walk it, I’m sure I can – ”
She tries to take a step, demonstrably, and promptly collapses against him again. He grasps her under her armpits and props her back against the wall with a wry smile. He’s flushed – he likes touching her so, so much – but he knows as well as she does that a twenty minute walk is just not gonna happen right now.
“Tell you what,” he says, after a moment, “I used to carry guys back to base when they got wounded. I’ll give you a ride.”
Queenie blinks at him, then giggles at what he’s picturing. “What?”
“C’mon,” he turns his back to her and crouches slightly, “not as classy as a broom, admittedly, but I’ll get you there. I’ve carried flower sacks bigger than you.”
“But your shoulders hurt,” Queenie points out. And his back, and his feet, and his knees.
“And they’ll still hurt tomorrow whether we do this or not. Now,” Jacob glances back at her, his gaze bright, “you let me carry you, or you let me put you in a cab, lady’s choice.”
He carries her six blocks, whistling the whole time, stopping every now and again to hitch her up a little. Queenie can’t help herself – she laughs till she aches. His head is so full of tenderness for her he barely feels his back hurting.
“Giddy up,” she pats him on the head, and he snorts like a horse and Queenie nearly falls off laughing so hard. “Oh, you’re such a good boy.”
His whole mind swells up with pleasure, then he takes off whistling again.
She sings the words to the tune in his head. It’s an old song – something about tipperrary and home, whatever that is. The Brits used to sing it in the trenches, apparently.
By the time they finally get back to her building, she’s shivering and tired but happy – giddy. Jacob is singing a show tune about a pretty girl who he can’t have and even though he’s pretty absurdly off-key, Queenie is so powerfully fond of him that when he sets her down on her doorstep, she throws her arms round his neck and clings to him for a moment – his heart almost stutters to a stop.
“Come up?” She asks.
“Your sister won’t mind?”
“She’s not home,” she tells him, because she can’t feel the tell-tale brilliance of her sister’s mind anywhere near by. “C’mon.”
She still has to pause twice on the stairs, but she gets there, with Jacob holding her hand.
The apartment is cold and dark – Tina must have been out all day. Queenie has just enough energy to flick her wand at the fireplace in the main room so that it roars into life, before she collapses on the couch with a desperately relieved sigh.
“Your coat’s wet,” Jacob has taken off his hat and coat already, hanging them up by the door, before reaching to gently prop her back up, “you’ll catch a cold.”
Queenie groans, sulkily, at being forced to move again, but she doesn’t mind Jacob helping her to take her coat off, or kneeling to unbuckle her shoes. He hangs them over the fireplace to dry.
“You need something to eat,” he heads for the kitchen – what passes for the kitchen in their little place – proprietorially.
“No, come sit with me,” Queenie drapes herself over the end of the couch nearest the stove to watch him plaintively. “Please. I’m cold.”
“I’ll get you a blanket. Don’t pout at me, I’m not that soft.”
“Yeah you are,” she props her chin in her hands and smiles the way she knows makes him giddy.
He rolls his eyes, though she can feel his heart filling up with sweetness for her. “I’m gonna make you some soup, then I’ll come sit, okay?”
“Okay,” she yawns, and watches him work.
He fetches her a blanket first – the purple one from her bed, at her request – it used to belong to her mother, and it still smells faintly of her perfume, although Queenie knows that that’s because Tina periodically spritzes it with the same rose water dear mama was so fond of. Tina started doing that when they were still children, trying to keep the scent alive on the blanket for her little sister – she still thinks Queenie doesn’t know.
Jacob wraps her up like he would the filling for one of his pastries – folding the blanket into a triangle, knotting two corners over her shoulders, folding the excess fabric around her middle and over her arms, tucking all the edges in. If he could he’d give her scalloped edges, she’s sure.
She giggles, and he plants a kiss on her forehead before padding back toward the stove.
Queenie adores how Jacob gets when he cooks – he’s putting together a recipe in his head, something his grandmother used to make for him as a little boy back in Poland, changed up with what he can find in her and Tina’s cupboards – it’s coming together in his head like a melody. “You gonna be able to work our stove?”
“I’m a no-maj, not a dummy, I know how to work a stove.”
“Yeah but we don’t light it with matches,” she puts her head on one side.
He pauses, confused, then glances at her wand. “Oh. Right.”
She smiles, and flicks her wrist – just enough to spark the stove top to life. “There you go.”
“Thanks,” he snorts at her, then puts a pan of water on to boil.
He chops onions and garlic and cabbage, makes a stock out of chicken bones, adds noodles and corn and mushrooms and chilli. It starts to smell almost good enough to be tempting, though Queenie still feels a little sick to her stomach.
“You had any yeast I’d make you some bread to go with it,” Jacob says, as he’s stirring the pot on the stove, “shoulda thought to bring a loaf from the bakery. Sorry.”
“No, this is nice,” Queenie’s watching him keenly. It is nice – Jacob at work, that little line between his brows as he concentrates, humming to himself, stirring, testing, thinking, the deft way his hands work a spoon. He hasn’t been in her apartment since their adventure with Newt, months ago now, but he fits so well here. She thinks she could watch him every evening, tired but cheerful, gentle and kind.
He brings her a bowl on a tray, with a glass of orange juice and an aspirin.
“You ain’t gonna have some?” Queenie breathes in the scent of the soup – salty, savoury, warm. Good.
Jacob glances nervously toward the door. “How long you think your sister’s gonna be?”
Queenie considers. “She works till pretty late most nights. I’ll deal with her if she comes back, don’t worry.”
“She won’t obliviate me?”
“She wouldn’t dare,” Queenie squeezes his arm – and she believes that. Tina is an auror and she believes in the rule of magical law above pretty much anything else – but she loves Queenie, and she must know that Queenie would never forgive her for taking Jacob from her.
Jacob nods, uncertainly, but he gets up and gets himself a bowl.
They eat in companionable silence, side by side. Queenie’s appetite soars back to life with the first spoonful – her head still aches and she’s still shaky and dizzy and tired, but her stomach settles immediately. The soup tastes like Jacob’s childhood. She lets it fill her up.
“S’good,” she mumbles, tapping the bowl.
Jacob grins, pleased. “Pretty much just like my grandma used to make me when I was sick.”
Queenie lays her temple against his shoulder, bathing in the kindness of him.
“You’re just the sweetest guy, Jacob,” she tells him, warmly, and feels him go hot all over.
“You’re not so bad yourself, honey.”
It’s the first time in a long time that they’ve been truly alone, in private. She’s only ever really spent time with him in his shop – anywhere else she’s too worried someone from the magical community would spot them and recognise her. Most everyone with any association with MACUSA knows her as the sister of Tina Goldstein, the heroic auror who helped capture Grindlewald and eliminate a deadly obscurial. There was a picture of her next to Tina’s in the papers that reported Tina’s reinstatement. She’s not an inconspicuous figure. And even though MACUSA mostly tried to keep the fact that a No-Maj was involved at all out of the press, there are still rumours.
It wouldn’t be hard, if someone spotted her ‘fraternising’, to put two and two together. And then there’d be a world of trouble.
She can feel Jacob forming a question along those lines already – the question she’s been trying to head off for weeks now.
“Queenie,” he speaks softly, placing his empty soup bowl down on the coffee table. “What happens, if your people catch us?”
Queenie keeps her gaze on her soup. She’s eating slower than him. “They’ll obliviate you again.”
“Right,” Jacob nods, “you’ve said that – but – I mean – what happens to you?”
Queenie bites her lip. “I don’t know.”
She knows perfectly well. Tina has dropped some utterly unsubtle hints about minimum sentences for unlawful fraternisation over the last few months as it is.
“Queenie.” He’s determined to get an answer – she can feel it down to her toes.
Queenie sighs, drawing her knees up to her chest and holding them there. “I guess I get sent to the New York Witches Penitentiary.”
He raises his eyebrows. “What’s – that’s a prison, right?”
“Um – yes.”
She feels his heart sink. “For how long?”
“I don’t know,” Queenie bites her lower lip, studiously avoiding his gaze. “Depends on the seriousness of the charge. Tina would probably pull some strings for me, and it’d be my first offence so… maybe just a couple of years.”
“Years?” Jacob suddenly feels sick, which immediately makes her feel sick – she has to put the soup down to avoid retching. “Are you – oh jeez, Queenie, you can’t – ”
“Yes I can,” Queenie looks at him sharply – she’s had this speech prepared for a while for Tina, but if she needs to use it on Jacob too, so be it. “I’m a grown woman, Jacob, I can take risks if I want to. I know perfectly well what I’m getting into.”
“But,” Jacob shakes his head, “there’s risks and there’s risks – you can’t do prison time for me, there’s no way I’m worth that – ”
“Of course you are,” Queenie stops him, firmly, one hand on his wrist. “Jacob, you’d be worth every moment of it.”
His mouth drops open, and she can feel how utterly he thinks he wouldn’t be, which is so sad she could cry – how little he thinks of himself, her precious Jacob – and oh she’s so tired, she really is going to cry, her eyes are welling up –
“Hey no, don’t do that,” Jacob hastily produces a handkerchief.
She takes it from him. “You’re a sweetiepie, but you’re a little dumb sometimes.”
She blows her nose, scrubbing at her cheeks.
“No I ain’t.”
“You don’t believe that,” she glances him up and down, “you don’t believe you’re anything special at all, but you’re wrong – you’re wonderful, and if I have to spend a decade in prison for every month I get to spend with you I’ll do it, because I get to make that choice – I get to choose you, no matter what Tina says or whatever awful laws we have or whether you think I should or not. So don’t try and talk me out of it. I can be stubborn as Tina when I set my mind to something, just you wait and see.”
Now Jacob looks ready to cry.
But he just takes her hand and kisses it, very gently.
“You’re the bravest person I ever met, you know that?” He tells her, softly.
“You met Newt Scamander.”
“Yeah, and I fought in a war, so I know what I’m talking about.”
Queenie laughs, damply. But he’s not exaggerating by much. She touches his cheek, letting herself wade a little deeper into how he feels about her – it’d knock her off her feet if she weren’t already sitting down.
So she kisses him, just gently, just the softest brush of her mouth to his, and feels his whole body stutter-stop and his mind fill with sunshine. Queenie lets her forehead rest against his for a moment.
“I love you, Jacob,” she tells him, and she means it, though she hasn’t even let herself think it for weeks.
“I love you too, Queenie,” and when he says it he sounds like he’s praying, or promising something – and like he’s never been surer of anything in his life before.
He’s been forming those words in his head for as long as she’s been trying not to think them – he keeps letting them stick in the back of his throat – they scare him, but she’s made him brave.
“Well then,” she speaks into the quiet, giving him another kiss, “that’s that. We’ll just have to figure it out.”
“Yeah,” he nods, feeling certain because she does, squeezing her hand. “We’ll figure it out.”
And she finds herself giggling, through her tears, because she’s never been good at being too serious for too long.
Jacob strokes her hair back off her face for her with a small, crinkly-eyed smile. “I love you so much, doll.”
“I know, honey.”
“You gonna finish your soup?” He offers her back the bowl, and she takes it.
“You gotta sit with me the whole time,” she tucks her feet beneath her on the couch and begins to eat again, slowly, savouring it. Her hands have almost stopped shaking. “I’m cold.”
“I’ll wash up, real quick,” Jacob gets up, collecting his own bowl to take it back into the part of their apartment that passes for the kitchen.
Queenie watches him for a moment, feeling a curious lightness fill her up from the inside, as if a window has been thrown open somewhere. Jacob is shuffling about, putting away the soup detritus from earlier. He bobs in and out of her line of sight, but she can track the friendly texture of his thoughts as he moves around.
When he sits back down she wriggles into his lap, throwing her legs over his knees, tucking her head under his chin.
He giggles, like a naughty little kid, and holds her close, kissing her temple. “You comfy?”
“Yeah,” Queenie sighs, “I’m getting there.”
Tina has had the longest day in maybe all of wizarding history, so really, the last thing she needs when she gets home is to find her sister grey as a ghost, wrapped in blanket on the couch and, oh yes, in the arms of Jacob Kowalski.
A No-Maj is on her couch. A No-Maj is on her couch, with her sister in his lap.
“Hey Teenie,” Queenie says, from Jacob’s chest, like that’s no big deal at all and she isn’t breaking at least eight magical laws in a row.
Jacob stutters and sort of waves at her – he, at least, has the grace to look sheepish.
And Tina is about to muster every inch of disapproval she’s capable of, really, she is, she has the mother of all lectures brewing on the tip of her tongue – but.
Queenie is shivering.
Queenie is horribly pale, and the circles under her eyes are so dark they almost look bruised, and her hair has that damp straw quality it gets when she’s been feverish. And she’s all bundled up with her favourite blanket, one arm tight around Jacob’s shoulders, the fingers of her other hand curled at the collar of his shirt, and she looks small and so, so tired.
Tina sighs, heavily. “You have one of your episodes?”
“I don’t have episodes,” Queenie frowns, struggling to sit up a little. “I got a little dizzy, that’s all.”
“She passed out, so I brought her home,” Jacob adds, earning a poke in the ribs from Queenie for his trouble.
“Oh, Mercy Lewis, Queenie,” Tina shakes off her coat, hat and shoes, “did you hit your head? Cause last time you practically cracked your skull open and – ”
“No, Jacob caught me,” Queenie pats his arm affectionately. “He even carried me most of the way home. He was very gallant.”
Tina doesn’t want to know where Queenie has spent today that that was even possible (…she knows exactly where Queenie has spent today). Jacob has gone red, though whether at the praise or because Queenie is stroking the back of his neck, is unclear.
“We’ve talked about you over exerting yourself,” Tina kneels by the couch and takes Queenie’s face in her hands, feeling her forehead – hot and sweaty – and her cheeks, checking her eyes, which, at least, are clear.
“Yes, only a million, million times before,” Queenie gently pulls away from her, “I’m fine.”
“You need to eat something,” Tina gets up, heading toward their stove – but she can smell that someone has already been cooking in here before she gets half way across the room.
“Jacob made me soup,” Queenie pipes up. “It was very good.”
“There’s some left if you want it,” Jacob offers, tentatively.
It does in fact smell very, very good. But Tina finds herself wanting to refuse simply to be contrary. Neither Jacob nor his soup should be anywhere near her place of residence, let alone holding her sister quite like that. She’s so annoyed she’s fighting an urge to pout like a frustrated five year old.
Even without her particular skillset, she’s sure Queenie would be able to tell how she was feeling from her expression alone, because she wraps an arm stubbornly around Jacob’s shoulders and stares Tina down.
Tina heaves an exasperated sigh. “He can’t stay.”
“He can stay till I go to bed.” If Queenie were standing up, Tina’s sure she’d stamp her foot.
“Which had better be soon – you look about ready to drop.”
“I already did that once today.”
Tina glares at her. “That’s not funny.”
“It’s a little funny.”
So Jacob puts Queenie to bed. He gathers her up off the sofa and carries her into the bedroom, while she laughs. He sets her down on her bed, and brings her her night gown and her dressing gown and her favourite slippers – she flops back against her pillows and directs him, full of pleasure as he fusses over her like they do this every day.
(…perhaps they do. Tina has, admittedly, been trying hard not to notice Queenie’s fraternising. At this point she honestly can’t be sure of exactly what they do together, and she’s fairly sure that that’s a good thing).
Tina props herself up in the doorway, somewhat reluctantly enjoying a bowl of Jacob’s soup as she supervises them – it feels ridiculous, but if Queenie is going to insist on conducting her romantic life with all the common sense of a giddy teenager, then Tina is going to treat her like one.
It has been a very, very long time since anyone but her has taken care of Queenie. It’s an odd feeling.
“You want cocoa?” Jacob asks, hastily averting his gaze as Queenie begins to unbutton her blouse.
He nods, and brushes past Tina on his way back to the stove. Tina joins her sister in the bedroom – the blouse is giving her trouble.
“You don’t have to,” she protests, weakly, as Tina gently brushes her hands away and starts on the buttons herself.
Tina shrugs. She knows she doesn’t have to say ‘but I want to’ – Queenie is quiet, letting her sister peel the blouse off her shoulders, wriggling out of her skirt. Tina drops Queenie’s night gown down over her head, lets Queenie pull it straight to her satisfaction.
This has been their habit since they were children. Since before they lost their parents. Since a time when Queenie’s stubby toddler fingers couldn’t handle buttons or buckles at all and Tina, gravely dedicated to her new role as elder sibling in all the ways that only a six year old can be, would dress and undress her, tie a ribbon in her hair and make her toast or a cup of warm milk. It’s the routine they return to whenever Queenie is sick, or having a fainting spell – a sturdy, homely structure for their evenings, a bulwark against the chaotic nature of life beyond the tight circle of their sisterhood.
Tina remembers, with horrible clarity, what it was like to watch their mother grow pale and wan over the months it took for the dragon pox to finally claim her, and when Queenie’s fragile, she begins to resemble their mother far too much for Tina’s liking.
She pulls the comforter up to Queenie’s waist, and fluffs her pillows, propping her up so she can still feel the warmth from the hearth in their front room on her face.
“Thank you,” Queenie murmurs, meekly. Mercy Lewis she really does look like their mother. Tina compulsively feels her sister’s forehead again, brushes the cold edge of an old terror aside – Queenie isn’t green, or speckled with sores, or sneezing sparks. There hasn’t been a dragon pox outbreak in twenty years thanks to a rigorous vaccination scheme brought in by Piquery, and even if there were one, there are much better medicines available now. Queenie is not going to get sick. She is not going to die. At least, not on Tina’s watch.
She kisses her sister on the forehead anyway, for luck.
Jacob is still in the kitchen – what passes for their kitchen – giggling. When Tina puts her head round the door she finds him bending down to be at eyelevel with a work surface, watching a spoon stir a mug of cocoa by itself.
He looks a little shame faced when he realises he’s caught, hastily straightening up.
“Forgot you had these,” he says, by way of explanation, indicating the spoon.
“Yes, I know,” Tina gives him a dry look, “I was there when you forgot.”
Jacob hastily picks the mug up and scurries past her to bring it to Queenie. He’s left a second mug on the side – for her, she realises. Gods would it kill the man to be just a fraction less decent? It’d be a lot easier to stay annoyed with his general presence if he weren’t so damn nice.
The cocoa tastes heavenly – is that cinnamon he’s put in it? Nutmeg? – which doesn’t help matters at all. Tina tries to distract herself by tidying up a little, but Jacob has done most of that too. Damn it.
When she comes back into the bedroom, Jacob is sat on the edge of Queenie’s bed, as she nurses her cocoa and strokes his wrist with her free hand – their heads are bent close together, talking softly. The only light in the room is provided by a lamp in the corner and firelight from the front room. They’re so absorbed in each other they don’t notice Tina until she clears her throat.
“I’ll walk you out,” she tells Jacob, pointedly.
Queenie keeps one hand on his arm as he stands. “Get home safe, okay?”
“I promise, honey.” He kisses her knuckles, like something out of a story – a knight. Though he’s much too short to be a knight. “You get some rest now.”
“Jeez you two make me feel like the wicked witch of the west,” Tina rolls her eyes, “okay, love’s young dream, let’s go.”
She ushers Jacob back into the living room, sends a pointed thought to Queenie about staying in bed and then leads Jacob out into the stairwell.
The apartment door has barely shut behind him, when Tina stops so abruptly that Jacob almost crashes into her.
She turns and looks him up and down, gravely, in the dim light from the landing above – and Jacob is not, admittedly, the tallest human being in the world, but all of a sudden Tina might be.
Tina doesn’t always wear her height like it matters, kinda more like she’s perpetually shocked to find her feet at the ends of her legs – awkward and folded in on herself. So it’s easy to forget that this gangly willow of a woman – Queenie’s introverted, long-suffering but fundamentally decent older sister – is not only capable of towering over him, but is equipped with a wand and magical law enforcement training and what he’s certain would turn out to be a mean right hook.
And right now she’s most definitely standing up at her full 5’11 – in her shoes, she’s got at least four inches on him, and he’s feeling every one of them.
“Mr Kawolski,” she begins, softly, but with a flint edge to her voice he suspects would put the fear of god into even his old foreman at the cannery, “I like you, I do – personally, I mean – I think you’re very brave and very kind and in my book that counts for an awful lot. But. If Queenie ever suffers because of this – because of you – I will find you and I will hurt you. Very, very badly.”
“Miss Goldstein,” Jacob replies, as assuredly as he can given that he’s being threatened by magical forces beyond his imagination, “if she gets hurt because of me, you can do whatever you like to me.”
Tina considers this for a moment, then gives a single nod. “Then we understand each other.”
She shows him out without another word.
It’s a brisk, clear winter morning when Queenie returns to Jacob’s bakery the following Saturday. At Tina’s insistence, she has brought sandwiches wrapped in brown paper for lunch and a thermos of sweet tea charmed for extra energy.
“Not that you’re gonna be spending the next eight hours on your feet, chatting up No-Majs and selling ‘em donuts while you make eyes at some guy who owns a bakery,” Tina drawls, tucking the thermos into Queenie’s satchel.
“Of course not,” Queenie takes the satchel from her, primly slings it over her shoulder, then gives her sister a kiss – hopes she doesn’t have to say thank you, thank you, I love you out loud.
She hums as she enters through the bakery’s front door – the smell of sugar and dough immediately envelopes her, the warmth from the ovens in the back, the chatter of a couple of kids debating whether to spend their allowance on cookies or slices of pie. The atmosphere of the bakery envelopes her like honey. Somehow, this has become her home.
Jacob is laying out bread rolls on shelves under the counter, and everything in him lights up at the sight of her.
“G’morning, Queenie,” he gently takes her coat, hat and satchel from her. “Henry, you take these in back for Miss Goldstein, yeah? And fetch her an apron.”
“Yes Mr Kowalski,” Henry darts past them, “hope you’re feelin’ better, Miss Goldstein.”
“I’m much better, thank you, Henry.”
Queenie slips behind the counter, already feeling the way the young girl outside wants to ask for a cream bun even though she’s been sent with strict instructions by her mother to only come back with a loaf of bread – or that older gentlemen is contemplating slices of strudel and missing his dead wife – or –
Jacob squeezes her hand, his thoughts all tender, his presence steadfast. “You okay, honey?”
“Yes,” Queenie tells him, “I’m just perfect.”
“You got that right.”
Queenie laughs, and pulls on the apron Henry brings her, and turns to the first customer of the day. Her frosted glass cover is firmly in place. The minds of the world are only a distant hum. She’s free in her own head again, and Jacob Kowalski loves her.