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Walk a Little Line

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Jester Lavorre is seventeen years old, and she has mixed feelings about summer.

Summer is good because it means no homework and staying up late every night and sometimes Jester’s mom sending her on vacations to beaches and big glittery cities. It means taking her car and driving Fjord and Beau to the lake on the outskirts of their small town and drinking illicitly acquired, too-warm beers with their bare feet in the slimy water. It means the three of them spending more time in Jester’s huge bedroom, electric fans whirring as they talk shit and abuse the DVD player and stand at Jester’s window to fling water balloons at the kids running around in the street below. It means Fjord and Beau sometimes taking their shirts off because they get so sweat-soaked and Jester getting to admire the view, which is totally something normal best friends do, she’s sure.

Summer can also be shitty because it means Jester’s mom going away for weeks at a time because of her work. It means unbearable heat when Jester’s always, always preferred the cold. It means Beau spending more time locked up at home with her fuckhead parents who won’t let Jester see her, or it means Beau finding more time to get drunk and pick fights she rarely wins in the nearby city. It means Fjord getting a job at some guy’s ranch and always being too busy. He ends every day all sweaty and stinky and less willing to let Jester buy him things, even though his job shouldn’t change anything because he needs to save all his money for college and a car.

Jester decides summer is bittersweet like grapefruits, which incidentally are in season pretty much any time but summer, something Beau and Fjord are both quick to tell her. She thinks it must be a rural town thing, to know when shit is in season or not.

She marks off her calendar at the end of every day, counting down to September, unwilling for summer to end but excited for a new school year to start. It will be her and Beau’s junior year, and Fjord’s final one ever, and Jester is nothing if not eager for something to change.

 

*

 

Fjord and Beau are her best friends. But—

Jester hates them sometimes, she really does, the two of them with their ridiculous bravado and stiff upper lips. She gets it, sort of, why they say they’re fine whenever they so clearly aren’t, why they have to be such dumbasses about stuff like that. She gets that they’re just trying to protect themselves, both still too used to playing the hands they’ve been dealt, forgetting Jester is there now to mix things up. Jester’s really good when it comes to cheating at cards. All they would have to do is ask for her help. They almost never ask—which is why, although Jester gets it, she still thinks it’s utterly stupid.

But they’re trying. Fjord lets Jester buy him coffee every morning, extra-large, one milk and no sugar (which, ew, she thinks, but if Fjord wants to pretend that actually tastes good then that’s on him.) He doesn’t bitch about it anymore or get embarrassed, just takes the cup and thanks her with his easy smile and goofy wink. And now, whenever Jester catches him picking at his tusks and gently bugs him about it, he actually listens. He’s trying to stop.

Nothing can stop Beau from sneaking into bars she’s too young for and starting fights she’s too skinny for. But she rings Jester and Fjord when she needs a pick-up, after. That’s something. More and more often, too, she sneaks away to Jester’s house on nights she gets locked out, instead of just climbing onto her own rooftop and chain-smoking for hours like Jester knows Beau used to do.

It’s one of those nights tonight, humid hot in the way that screams late June, even with Jester’s bedroom window cranked wide open. Beau had materialized on her doorstep an hour ago, shoulders slumped and grinning that awkward, cocky Beau grin. Fjord had already been there, lounging against Jester’s windowsill.

Fjord spends a lot of evenings after work at Jester’s now, sometimes even staying the night, especially when her mother is away. Jester tries not to get carried away with this relatively new development, but truth be told she’s already bought him his own toothbrush and towel to keep in her bathroom. Every morning that she gets to wake up to Fjord’s rumpled bedhead and surprisingly graceless snores, her heart feels like it’s about to burst open with rainbows and starlight.

Sometimes he groggily swings an arm over her waist and mumbles without opening his eyes, “Mornin’, Jester. Sleep well?” and it’s moments like those that Jester feels like everything is bound to be okay.

And this here, with Beau sitting cross-legged on Jester’s bedroom floor snickering at Jester’s stories while Fjord rolls his eyes and braids Beau’s hair—this is another one of those perfect, sun-kissed moments. Jester has both of her non-Mom-shaped favourite people here together, safe with her in her big, used-to-be-lonely room. They are real friends she can describe her pranks to. That’s all her eight-year-old self ever wanted, really.

But then Fjord finishes with Beau’s hair and does his manly bro shoulder clasp thing with her, and Beau flinches.

Jester notices.

Beau tries to mask her sharp little intake of breath with a fake cough, but Jester notices that too, like she always does. Fjord must as well, because he heaves a sigh and gets up, heading for the bathroom without saying a word. A stone drops to the pit of Jester’s stomach, hot, globby anger churned together with dread and worry. She is so sick of this.

“Beau,” she says.

“Jester.” She doesn't look at her.

“Fjord is getting the kit,” she says, even though Beau already knows. “Do we need the kit?”

She says nothing, but Jester sees her jaw tighten like she is holding back from snapping something mean and rude. Beau doesn't do that with anyone else—she's almost always just as mean and rude as she wants to be.

A few moments later Beau is lying on her stomach on Jester’s bed, her shirt carefully peeled away. She wasn’t wearing a bra, which means Jester is left to stare at her bare back, patterned with overlapping bruises and raw red patches. The skin is split open in some places. Fjord comes back holding some stuff that might help, but he takes one look (he always looks, even though Jester knows it gives him bad dreams, stirs shitty memories) and jerks his head at Jester when he too notices the small lacerations. She nods, already tugging at Beau’s hand.

In the bathroom, Beau perches on the wide edge of the tub as Jester cleans the little patches of broken skin, trying not to jostle any of the bruises. She stays very still and doesn’t make any noise even though Jester knows it must sting. Jester’s pretty good at patching her up by now, but she’s never had the gentlest touch. Beau usually does some loud, good-natured complaining about it when Jester’s fussing over her after a sports injury or bar fight, but on nights like this she is always tense and withdrawn.

“I am going to chop his toe off,” Jester announces somberly. “And then his dick.”

Beau cracks a smirk. “Wow. That is horrifyingly specific.”

“And then I’ll cut off his head and stick it up his butt.”

“Okay, now that’s just patricide.”

Jester is still completely serious. “It’s only patricide if you do it, dummy. If I do it, then it is vigilante justice, technically.”

She doesn’t respond, and Jester decides to not share the rest of her elaborate plans to maybe kill Beau’s dad. She turns off the tap.

“All done,” she says, trying to sound cheerful but probably failing. “Do you want me to do the gauze?”

She shakes her head. “It’s fine.”

“Are you sure? Because, like, you can go topless to let it breathe or whatever, you know Fjord and I don’t mind, but you might catch a cold even though it is really hot in here. So you should probably put on a shirt, which will probably sting if I don’t cover the cuts for you, or maybe I could, like, run you a bath—”

“Jester,” she says calmly.

Jester stops. She kind of forgot words were even spilling from her mouth. That happens sometimes.

Beau smiles, or tries to. Bizarre. “It’s fine, man. They’re barely anything.”

Jester knows she’s kind of right. The bruising probably hurts a lot more. But Jester always hates the bits of broken skin the most because it makes her wonder some dark shit, makes her stomach lurch and eyes burn when she thinks on it for a second too long, and she has to look away from Beau to keep her hands from shaking.

They return to the bedroom.

Fjord tosses Jester a tube of arnica cream from the kit, and they make Beau lie down on her stomach again. They sit on either side of her on Jester’s massive mattress, Fjord humming a wordless little song, low and calm. Beau’s skin is warm and familiar under Jester’s fingers as she massages the cream into all of the bruises across her upper back. Jester never lets Fjord do this part, even though Fjord can sometimes be much gentler than her.

One by one she counts the freckles sprinkled across Beau’s shoulders, brown skin toasted darker by the sun. The tight lump in Jester’s chest relaxes, a little.

When she’s mostly done, she touches her hand to the waistband of Beau’s shorts, hesitating.

“Hey, Beau,” she says, hoping she sounds teasing and mischievous instead of super worried. Beau and Fjord both get weird about worry. “Do you need me to check your ass, too?”

Fjord frowns. “Jes…”

Beau freezes for a moment before burying her face in Jester’s pillow. “Just—leave it alone, okay?”

Leave me a little dignity, she had snapped, the last time Jester had asked. Another time, though, when Fjord wasn’t around, she’d let Jester help with the bruising there. It’s kind of a lottery, in the end.

“Fine,” says Jester, even though it’s not. “Whatever you say.”

They stay like that for a while longer, Beau just lying between them as Fjord and Jester exchange looks.

“Stop talking literally behind my back,” Beau grumbles into the pillow.

“You realize no one was talking, right,” says Fjord.

“You’re having one of your weird eye-fuck silent conversations, man. I can feel it.”

Then she sits up, clutching the pillow to her stomach and glaring accusingly between the two of them. Jester would normally consider this adorable, but tonight she notices how even that little bit of movement makes Beau clench her teeth.

“You should really lie down again,” Jester says, at the same time as Fjord says, “Wish you told us about that bullshit earlier. Or, you know, at all.”

Beau’s glare turns real, something dark and sour. “Don’t fucking start, Fjord.”

“I’m not starting anything.” He casts his gaze determinedly at the window, even though by now he must know Beau wouldn't care if he saw her breasts. “You started it by showing up here and pretending everything was fine up until we noticed you were fucking hurt.”

“Everything was fine. Is. Can’t I come here just to fuckin’ hang out?”

“It’s not fair,” he says evenly. “Why do we—why do we always have to notice first? You know if you just asked—”

“Yeah, says Mr. Strong And Silent.” She snorts. “Fuck off, Fjord.”

“Holy shit.” Jester breaks. “Both of you fuck off.” She buries her face in her hands, trying to stop them from shaking again. “Oh my god. Ugh!”

They shut up and look away guiltily.

“Sorry, Jester,” mutters Fjord. “We, uh, we should go. Right?”

Beau winces. “Um, yeah. Sorry, Jes.”

Jester groans, reaching across Beau to grab Fjord’s sleeve before either of them can even think about getting up. “Fuck, you guys are so dumb.” She swipes her other hand across her eyes, hating the angry tears that spring forth whenever she gets mildly upset. “You know that’s not what I meant. Of course you guys should stay. And Beau, just—just lie down, okay. If you won’t let me fix your ass then at least don’t fucking sit on it right now.”

Beau’s ears glow red but she complies, going back on her stomach. Fjord looks away from the window and back at Jester, trying for the silent conversation thing again, but Jester avoids his gaze. She’s pissed at him, too, even though she kinda agreed with what he said.

She’s pissed and tired, sick of having to pretend all this is normal because if she pushes them and tries to actually talk, then Beau will leave and Fjord will clam up or deflect. She’s sick of trying to be gentle and funny and calm when this shit happens, when really she’s just angry, just fucking livid and sad and not much else.

Jester collapses backwards, staring at the ceiling she’d repainted a blindingly bright pink just one summer ago. She can see the unevenness of the paint job in the places where Fjord and Beau tried to help, and she snorts a little despite herself.

She points a finger at where Fjord is still sitting. “Stay,” she orders. She drops her arm, letting it knock lightly against Beau’s head. “You, too.”

“All right,” Fjord says gently, at the same time as Beau mutters, “Just for a while.”

It’s not enough, but Jester can live with it for now.

 

*

 

A couple hours later Beau pulls on her shirt and leaves, claiming her parents would get pissed if she slept over. Jester wonders how they could possibly get more pissed, after whatever set them off earlier in the day. She doesn’t say anything about it, though, just makes a dumb parting joke and ignores the way her chest seizes like it always does when she watches Beau trudge away from Jester’s front door. She wishes she would let them drive her home, at least.

Fjord looks like he’s thinking about leaving, too, but Jester touches his arm and says, “You told me you’d stay. And, you know, what if she comes back later? We could all have a sleepover.”

He sighs, but softens when he looks at her face. “All right. But I gotta get back tomorrow night at least.” He cracks a smile. “Don't want them reporting me as a runaway.”

As far as Jester can tell, the group home Fjord’s at now doesn’t pay much attention at all to where he spends his time, but she’ll take his word for it. She doesn’t want to get him in trouble. Unless it’s the fun kind of trouble, in which case she and Beau are always trying to get him into trouble.

It’s already pretty late and Fjord has work early the next morning, so they go to bed pretty much immediately. Jester makes sure her flip phone is charged and keeps it beside her pillow in case Beau really does decide to come back.

The room is pitch black when she’s awoken by the sound of a deep, hacking cough. On instinct, she bolts up and flicks on the lamp. She’s greeted by the sight of Fjord sitting hunched at the edge of the mattress and thumping his own chest.

Jester darts to the bathroom and comes back with a cold glass of water. She places it on the bedside table where Fjord can reach before she plops down next to him, rubbing small, soothing circles on his back. He takes deep gulping breaths and retches a little bit, until he finally reaches for the water and downs most of it in one go.

“Thanks, Jes,” he croaks, polite even at three in the morning.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she says.

There’s a sheen of sweat on his forehead, and a stray lock of soft, dark hair has fallen into his eyes. Her fingers twitch with the urge to brush it back. But Fjord is looking at her with the unreadable expression Jester hates, completely shuttered.

“I’m okay,” he says, predictably. “Sorry for waking you. Go back to sleep.”

Jester wants to argue, but she also doesn’t want to keep Fjord awake any longer when he has to get up so early and work all day. With an exaggerated sigh, she turns off the lamp and they both lie back down in bed.

Her eyes work pretty decently in the dark, but Jester rolls onto her side so she’s facing the wall instead of Fjord. She wants to look at him, so badly, but she doesn’t think she can bear the sight of Fjord’s back turned toward her, the thin duvet pulled up to his ears. Fjord has always been cool and mysterious in a romance-hero-sexy way, but he’s also her oldest friend, her first friend. She’s pretty sure she’s the only one who knows that his cute Texan accent is totally fake.

Lately, she feels him growing even more distant, even from her. So she doesn’t look.

“Did you have bad dreams again?” she whispers into the dark. “It’s okay if you did, you know.”

Fjord doesn’t say anything. Jester shuts her eyes.

A few short hours later, Jester buys Fjord coffee and drives him to work. He smiles and winks at her and drawls, “Thank you, Jester,” like always, but just like he said, he doesn’t come to her house to sleep over that night.

 

*

 

June draws to a close, and Jester has her own dreams. They’re not bad, necessarily.

Usually they’re just about a door. One of those fancy ones, with a pretty, white arch and a glossy spotless handle. Jester walks along a dirt path, a clean pleasant breeze tickling her knees and ruffling her very nice dress, and she gets closer and closer to the door but the dream always cuts off before she can open it. She wakes up annoyed. When she sees a door as pretty as that, of course she immediately wants to get her hands all over it, knocking on the wood, trying to turn the handle, maybe doodling a dick on that very white arch.

One night she stops walking and throws up her arms, exasperated.

“Hey, asshole!” she calls. “Stop fucking with me or I’m just—I’m just gonna take a piss right here! Then it’ll trickle down this dumb path and ruin your dumb door and you’ll feel pre-tty silly.”

Nothing happens for a tense few seconds. Then—

“What the fuck?” says the guy standing in front of the door. He’s always been there. There’s a small laugh in his voice. “That’s… that’s really not how dirt works. Liquid won’t just slide down.”

“Well, even if the pee doesn’t reach your stupid door,” she says, “I bet you’ll still be really grossed out or something.”

And Jester is standing in front of him now, in front of that very white arch, but the arch and the door and everything don’t seem at all important anymore. She looks up into a pair of the vividest, most obnoxiously green eyes she’s ever seen. They are all she can really make out from the person’s face underneath his hood. His cloak is kind of like the colour of his eyes but a darker shade, a little more dull, a little more real.

He is exactly as she remembers him.

“Child, you could never gross me out,” says the Traveler, laughing for real now.

“I’ll get you one day,” says Jester. She grins. “Hi!”

 

*

 

The thing is, Jester has known Fjord for one year and eleven months. Sometimes it feels like that was when her life really began.

It was before Jester’s first year of high school which was technically Jester’s first year of school ever, technically. When she was younger, she traveled with her mom or was stuck at home a lot, learning from private tutors. She was lonely.

Naturally, then, she was excited to get to be a student for real and meet other kids her age. She demonstrated this by sneaking onto school property a few weeks before classes began so she could scout out her new territory and also graffiti some penises on the back wall of the building, by the parking lot. She had to. It was just science. A biological imperative.

Then there was the boy. Fjord. A hiss of, “What the hell are you doing?

This was before his fake Southern accent. Jester maybe should have been startled or scared to be caught, but she remembers just feeling delighted that she got to meet the most handsome boy in the damn world while she was doing something totally impressive. It was the most realistic dick she’d ever drawn. Hot pink spray paint.

So Jester grinned at him and said, “I am drawing a dick on the wall of my new school. What are you doing?”

Before he could reply, the sound of a truck zooming down the street made his eyes go wide. He grabbed her hand and ran, and Jester was happy to follow even though she had no idea where they were going or why he was spooked.

They ended up on a little ravine path that led away from school property. As soon as they stopped running, Fjord let go of her hand like he had been burned.

“Sorry,” he said. “I thought maybe some older kids were gonna drive into the lot and—sorry.”

“That would have been fun,” said Jester brightly. “We could have made new friends!” She was pretty sure that was how it worked, anyway. You met people and if they liked you, then they had to be your friend forever.

“You were drawing a—” He sighed, realizing something. “Actually, you’re right. You would have made friends. Sorry.”

“Still, though.” Jester beamed. “Thank you for rescuing me. Even if it wasn’t really a rescue.”

Her fingers still felt warm and prickly. No one but her mother had ever held her hand before. Fjord seemed to blush at her words, but it was hard to tell against his smooth green skin.

They traded names, and smiles. Hers cheeky, his uncertain but kind.

“So why were you there, Fjjjord?” His name was fun and natural on her tongue. Like she’d spent her whole life playing with it. “It’s August, you know. And you were obviously not drawing a dick, so.”

“You can’t prove that,” he said, mouth quirking at the corner, highlighting the small scar sliced across his upper lip.

It was the first time she saw a hint of mischief from him, and her heart lit up.

“Truth be told,” he said, after, “I’m new around here too. You, uh, you can see the photo displays of the old graduating classes by peeking through the glass of the side doors, and, well. I wanted to see if there were a lot of other half-orcs there.”

“Well?” said Jester. “Did you find them?”

“No.” Fjord shrugged. “Not many, no. It’s—it’s a small town, after all.”

“I think I get that,” she said. “The only other tiefling I know is my mom. I mean, I’ve seen others, but you know, like you said, not in this town.”

“In that case,” he said without missing a beat, “maybe the two of us oughta stick together, then.”

Jester hesitated. She felt like her heart might leap out of her chest and dive right into the squishy muddy riverbed. “You mean… like we should be friends?”

“Exactly.” Now Fjord got shy. “Is that okay?”

“Yes!” she said. “Yes. That is okay.”

He smiled at her, and Jester glowed.

Beau crashed her way into their lives a month later, a slouching smirking presence in Jester’s second period math class. And just like that, the people in Jester’s life went from half a mom plus one imaginary friend to half a mom plus two real, solid, huggable friends with warm laughs and quicksilver grins reserved only for her. The Traveler kind of fell to the wayside, against that kind of competition.

Jester missed him often and still addressed all her diary entries to him, but she was pretty sure he’d forgive her and come back eventually. He was pretty laid-back, after all.

 

*

 

The Traveler tells her she’s special. He tells her long stories about how the world used to be, a world with magic and gods and devil-kin and angel-kin. Half-orcs are called half-orcs because there existed just orc-orcs. A world with giants and beasts and monsters.

“Why do you think your friend is so ashamed of his teeth,” he says.

None of it has outright disappeared from the world, not entirely. You just have to want to see it. You have to know where to look.

“The mirror, in your case,” he tells her.

Jester smiles, sharp teeth and purple eyes.

 

*

 

Out of the three of them, only Jester has her own car, so she’s usually the one driving Fjord and Beau around. It’s not something she minds, really. She likes watching them bicker and shove each other over who gets to ride shotgun, only for them to usually call a begrudging truce and both pile into the back. She likes how every time all three of them are in the car, Fjord will complain about the plastic smell of Jester’s cutesy air fresheners and Beau will complain about Jester’s radio picks and Jester will singsong, “My car, my rules, bitches.” When it’s just one of them getting a ride without the other, though, they don’t ever complain about anything. They just look at her with weird soft eyes and pretend they’re not humming along to that week’s Top 40. Jester likes that, too.

Still, it’s a nice change of pace when Beau pulls up in front of Jester’s house driving the clunky old truck her parents sometimes let her borrow. Jester wonders if they felt guilty about what they did to Beau the other day, but it’s more likely Jester will just never understand how that family operates.

Beau honks the horn twice and pokes her head out the window, grinning lazily. There’s a brand-new pair of sunglasses perched crookedly on her nose. “Get in, dude! My turn to chauffeur for once.”

Jester slides into the passenger’s seat with a giggle. “Wow, I feel like such a princess. Sweep me away in your shitty, shitty pickup truck.”

“Oh, sure,” Beau laughs. “Just admit you’re into it, your highness.”

They drive out to the ranch where Fjord works. It’s early evening by the time they arrive and Fjord is leaning against a fence waiting for them, thumbs hooked into his belt loops. His flannel shirt is tied around his waist.

“Wooow, so cool,” Beau calls out. “So casual. Who’re you trying to impress, Fjord?”

Fjord sidles over to the driver’s side of the truck and rolls his eyes at her. “Tryin’ to impress you, obviously,” he drawls, bracing his arms against the window frame. “Beauregard Lionett, will you go to senior prom with me?”

“Hey!” Jester scrunches up a napkin from the glove compartment and lobs it at Fjord’s head. It lands in Beau’s lap instead, who helpfully grabs it and finishes the job for her.

“Not even if I were bi, dude,” she tells him, smirking.

Fjord catches the napkin projectile and stuffs it into his jeans pocket, of course refusing to let them litter. He pretends to wince at her words.

“Harsh,” he deadpans. “I am seriously wounded, truly.”

“She’s just being mean,” Jester pipes up. “I bet if Beau liked boys, she’d actually totally be into you, Fjord.” She grins mischievously. “It’s the law.”

Fjord shoots her a wink. He always looks ridiculous when he does it. Her heart always flutters anyway.

“Then thank the gods we’re not in that alternate reality,” Beau is muttering.

He just grins, unbothered. “Those are some spiffy new shades there,” Fjord says instead. “Who’re you trying to impress, Beau?”

Beau switches gears immediately. “Turns out it’s you, after all,” she says. “Please take me to your prom, Fjord. It’s my deepest desire.”

“Jeez, you guys.” Jester sighs dramatically, impatient. “I get it. You are both very cool and both obviously trying to impress me, obviously. Are we finding a place to park now or are we going to the lake?”

It’s hard to tell because of their respective skin tones but she’s pretty sure Fjord and Beau both go a little bit red. The thought makes her oddly pleased.

“We, uh, we can stay here,” Fjord says, scratching his neck. “Vandren won’t mind.”

Vandren is Fjord’s boss and has always had a soft spot for him, sometimes letting him (and Jester and Beau, by extension) hang out at the ranch after the work day is over. Jester thinks he looks kind of scary and grouchy, but Fjord says he’s a good man.

They ditch Beau’s truck and head for their favourite spot, up in the empty hayloft. Beau hauls in a now lukewarm large pizza and a six-pack of beer from the back of her truck, undoubtedly acquired through another one of her shifty older friends in the city. Jester knows Beau has a fake ID of her own, but she has a feeling it’s something that works much better in a dimly lit bar or a shadowed street outside the club than it does in an actual liquor store.

Fjord looks at the beer skeptically. “Aren’t you driving?”

“I’ll have one drink.” Beau puts up a finger to emphasize her point. “Maybe two. And then we have, like, a good three hours here, right? That enough of a damn buffer for ya?”

Fjord folds his arms, unimpressed. “Not when you’re barely seventeen.”

“You’re such a PSA, man!”

“It’s fine.” Jester rolls her eyes. “I am not having any, so I can drive. You know, like always.”

“What? No!” she protests. “I was supposed to be chauffeuring you today.”

“You drove us here,” Jester says fairly. “And it’s still your truck and your gas. Ooh!” She brightens as an idea comes to her. “We can go to my house after, and you can sleep over. As payment, you know.”

“I—” Beau sighs, resigned. “Fine, I’ll call my parents and ask. Later.” She softens then, mouth quirking as she rocks their shoulders together. “Thanks, Jester.”

“Well, if that’s settled,” Fjord says with a shrug. He shoots Beau a look. “3-3 split then?”

“Fuck you, man, I bought these.”

“In that case, I get four.” He plucks the cans out of her arms before she can react. “Knowing you, you picked up a shitton of whisky along with this and I’m doing your liver a favour.”

Beau throws hay at him, but doesn’t deny it.

Jester just makes a face. It’s not that she never drinks. But—beer, whisky. It all tastes gross to her, and she’s never gotten through enough to really get drunk and understand why this is a thing people compulsively consume. Sometimes the fruity wines in the pretty pink-ish bottles are okay, she thinks. She’ll ask Beau to get some next time. Or better yet—some Mountain Dew or chocolate milk.

They climb up the wooden ladder and sit with their feet hanging over the edge of the loft, Jester perched happily on some hay bales while Fjord and Beau sip their beers and sling their banter. They all stuff themselves with pizza, even though there are pineapples on it and Fjord and Beau both hate pineapple on pizza. Jester is the one who loves it, but she wasn’t even the one to order the pizza this time, and everything about that implication makes her feel warm and buzzy.

“Hey,” Fjord is saying. “Hey, Beau. Beau. Hey, there.”

What?

He flicks the bridge of her sunglasses, knocking them completely askew.

Beau cusses and lunges for him, shoving fistfuls of hay down his shirt in retaliation. An empty beer can gets knocked off the loft and hits a stack of crates below with a dull clang, buried beneath the sounds of Beau’s yelling and Fjord’s laughter.

For once, Jester doesn’t immediately jump into the fray. She stretches out, content to lie back and let the clamor of their roughhousing surround her in a squishy bubble of familiarity.

The almost-sunset outside throws shafts of orange light across the three of them, and Jester yawns.

 

*

 

When she opens her eyes, she is looking up at the hayloft from the empty barn below. Fjord and Beau are right where she left them, laughing and drinking and shoving each other. She can’t make out what they’re saying. Jester’s own body is nowhere in sight, but she can see still the beer can Fjord and Beau had knocked to the ground in their earlier struggle.

“Aren’t they a sight for sore eyes,” says the Traveler, strolling to her side.

“What are you talking about?” says Jester, turning to him. “Everyone is so happy right now.”

“It’s not enough.” He sounds sad. Jester didn’t know the Traveler could sound sad. “You know what I’m talking about, child.”

She does. She can see it all as clearly as she sees this sun-kissed scene in the hayloft. She sees yet another black eye just barely covered by Beau’s sloppy makeup. She sees Fjord cutting his laughs a few breaths short, something shuttering in his eyes every time he realizes he’s let his guard down. She sees the both of them growing more and more distant, withdrawing into themselves in ways Jester doesn’t want to understand.

She sees an entire future weaving together ahead of them: Fjord quitting school and skipping town one morning without a word to anyone, disappearing from her life as suddenly as he’d entered it. Maybe he enlists like he’s always talked about and serves honourably and never gets the college education he wanted and doesn’t smile enough. Maybe he crosses her path again one day a polite, distant stranger. Then there’s Beau, angry, bright-eyed Beau following a trail of bloody knuckles and empty bottles until she turns up dead or in prison, not understanding she’s too young and good for either. And all that’s left is Jester, alone in her room again.

There’s another future in the back corner of her mind she can see, too, one that’s almost worse because they are actually happy, and they never needed her after all. The army pays for Fjord’s schooling and he finds someone he can actually, finally trust, and he settles down with kids and a job that makes use of his crooked smile and sharp-smart brain. Meanwhile Beau spits the blood from her mouth and finds her footing, and falls in love with a girl who can offer more than just dumb jokes and bathroom first-aid kits. And all that’s left is Jester, alone in her room still.

“No,” says the Traveler, gently. “Not alone. You’ve never been alone, child. I was always here.”

Jester feels an old warmth blossom in her chest, something that reminds her of long afternoons and the smell of lavender and the pranks she pulled when she was seven years old. It’s something she hasn’t felt in a long time, and it’s like discovering a forgotten favourite blanket from childhood.

But she’s not going to let him off that easy.

“You were gone,” she says, not quite accusing. “For almost two years, you left me.”

“Did you miss me?”

“Yes,” she says immediately, but pouts when he only cocks his head. “Not as much as I thought I would. But yes.”

“I wanted to give you a chance.” He looks up at Beauregard and Fjord in the hayloft again, and she hears a faint smile in his voice. “I wanted to give them a chance. I was willing to lose my champion this time around, if it meant you were satisfied.”

“Champion,” Jester repeats, a devilish smile curling across her lips. “Ooh. That sounds so intimate.”

The Traveler laughs and taps her chin with familiar fondness. “Always, darling.” Green eyes twinkle. “I have plans for you yet, rest assured. But we help each other, yes? What is it you desire?”

The first thing that pops into her mind is her mother, how home is brighter and warmer and softer whenever she is there, and how nice it would maybe be if maybe she could be there all the time, maybe. How much easier things would be.

Jester almost immediately feels a small stab of annoyance with herself.

She blinks hard, clears her head, and considers again. Thinks of patchy bruises and hacking coughs at midnight. She opens her eyes.

“I want to make Fjord laugh more and Beau hurt less,” Jester decides.

“That can be arranged,” says the Traveler.

He moves his hand to her shoulder, and Jester grins brighter than the sun.