The first time Marshmallow appeared on the ship, Jules was pretty sure she was hallucinating. Like, maybe the drugs had done something weird, and that there was a glowy fox thing in her bed, flopped on her legs like this was something that happened every day, was just her mind thinking a dream was reality. Jules wiggled her toes experimentally, just making sure they still worked, and let out a sigh of relief when they did. Marshmallow shifted as her muscles worked, and Jules yelped, because that was a lot harder to believe she was faking than, well. Any of the rest of it.
She wouldn't even have believed her own story of how she'd gotten out of The Staircase if Alma and Char hadn't confirmed her appearance. She still wasn't sure she believed herself about the big talking fox. A mist fox that carried her out for some reason made a lot more sense.
So she yelped, and then the fox looked up, and then Ell moved and the fox faded into mist and Jules said—whispered, really—"Just a dream," and saw Ell's hand in a thumbs-up, faint in the shiplight. Jules stared up at the bunk above her for a long time, thinking about dreams and memory, but the fox didn't come back.
The second time, Jules was hanging out in the lounge while Ell was flying—as their own excuse to be alone, Jules was pretty sure—and everyone else was kissing but not saying that's what they were doing holed up in the quarters. Or well, Alma and Char were almost certainly kissing, and Mia and Grace were dancing around each other and catching up on everything and maybe that included kissing. Jules didn't want to know, not really, so she was being a good friend and hanging out playing video games all by herself, not even bugging Ell into joining instead of doing their job.
She had almost completed her solo run of a side quest that would give her access to a new companion, a bird that was good for outdoor scouting, when it faded into view across the board from her. Jules bit back her exclamation, barely, turning into something she would plausibly say as she swore at a bad roll, not a loud surprised FUCK that would echo across the ship and bring others running out of worry.
So she stared at Marshmallow, and the fox stared back, and then Jules remembered to pause the game before her avatar died to the sorcerer waiting on the other side of the door. Cautiously, she crept around the board, and the fox didn't move until she was almost able to touch her. Then the fox slipped back, and Jules couldn’t tell if she was moving with her feet or if the rosy mist that surrounded her slid her back on its own.
Either way, Jules sat back and nodded. “Gotta be your idea, I guess,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You’re worse than our cat. At least Paul tolerates us picking him up all the time.”
The fox tilted her head, sunset eyes almost glowing.
“Paul’s had a lot more time to get used to us, though.” Jules shrugged and wrapped her arms around her knees, resting her chin on that support. “Thanks for getting me out of there. No thanks for getting me into there to begin with, though. You gonna stick around?”
The mist pooling around the fox brightened for a moment, and wafted out to brush at Jules’ currently-bare feet.
Jules laughed a little; it tickled. “Awesome. You’re gonna be a great addition to our family, Marshmallow. Still okay with me calling you Marshmallow?”
The fox laid down, almost ignoring her, and Jules grinned. “Marshmallow it is. Okay, dude, I’m gonna finish this level now. Talk more later, okay?”
Marshmallow didn’t respond in any way Jules noticed, but by the time she’d wrapped up the fight with the sorcerer (which, okay, she really should’ve remembered the warnings earlier about spirit orbs, but she’d gotten a bit distracted by Marshmallow, and so she used more potions than she’d wanted to and the fight took almost thirty whole minutes, which was twenty longer than she’d expected) and looked back over, the fox was gone again, with nothing left to even show she’d been there.
“Worse than a cat,” Jules muttered, and flopped back down on the floor, contemplating what she’d need to do next.
By the time they got back to Char and Alma’s house, Jules had seen Marshmallow another handful of times. The fox had an uncanny ability to only show up when she was effectively alone, and disappear as soon as she wasn’t paying attention. If it weren’t for how she had no other side effects from her solo adventure in The Staircase’s depths, she’d have gone back to wondering if it was just a hallucination. As it was, she was going with the thought that it was cooler if Marshmallow was real, and just waiting for when the fox either slipped up or decided that she wanted to reveal herself.
In the end, Marshmallow showed up while they were sitting together on the porch watching a pod of meteor-whights flash through the sky, lighting it up with rainbow streaks of color. Grace was writing something, as usual, and Ell was showing Mia how to fix some esoteric bit of wiring in Atkis, and Char and Alma were leaning on each other being soppy, and Jules looked over to see if she could maybe steal some beer without the adults noticing only to see Marshmallow lying there in full view instead, meeting Jules’ eyes with what was very clearly a laugh.
Jules swallowed, and didn’t look away from Marshmallow’s soft golden face. “Uh,” she said, eloquently, but her voice got stronger the longer she talked. “Y’all remember that fox that rescued me? She. Uh. Followed me home. Can I keep her?”
The night, warm and full of little creatures making their soft sounds, felt like it froze for a moment. Jules kept her eyes on Marshmallow, because she really didn’t want to see the expressions on anyone else’s face.
Laughter broke the silence in the end, and Jules looked over, startled, partially because that was Grace’s laugh, and partially because she’d really been expecting some kind of outburst from Alma. But Grace was bent over, and Mia was looking at her, concerned, when finally Grace managed to gasp out, “A Tessian Fox followed you home? Sounds like the beginning of a tall tale, or a joke.”
And then Mia was grinning, too, a little tentatively, like she always was around Grace, but then Mia said, “Did you name her already?” and the tightness in Jules’ chest relaxed, just like that.
“Yeah,” Jules said, looking at the other three out of the corner of her eye. “Marshmallow.”
Ell’s face did—something. Tight, eyes shining. Jules wasn’t sure what that meant, but they looked down, and didn’t make any more to interfere. Char had a hand on Alma’s shoulder, but she was looking at Ell too, concern on her face for them, not for Jules.
Alma said, “Ms. Hill thought you were extraordinary,” in the same way she’d always talk about when someone was hurt, and Jules’s throat filled with a lump at how quiet and controlled her aunt’s voice was. “Said that nobody had ever tamed or connected with one of those before.”
“I didn’t know that,” Jules whispered, looking back at Marshmallow, who had lain down with her eyes closed, sunset mist swirling softly around her.
“She brought you home,” Alma said, and the porch creaked with her footsteps. Jules blinked back tears of her own as Alma crouched down and slung an arm over her shoulders. “If she’s decided to keep protecting you, well. Can’t say I mind that.”
Jules leaned into Alma, and listened as Grace started telling stories about Tessian Foxes, her rolling voice sweet in the night air. By the end of the story, which might’ve been true and might’ve been legend, and Jules didn’t think she really cared which, Jules was tucked between Alma and Mia, with Marshmallow flopped over her legs. Somewhere behind them, Char sat with Ell, and when Jules looked back over at them, Ell gave her a thumbs-up.
Jules smiled back, and then turned back to the sky, watching the light flash. “I’m glad you’re my family,” she said, into the soft silence.
Mia wrapped her up in a hug, and then Alma knocked them to the ground, and before she knew what was happening Jules was laughing, breathless, at the bottom of what might’ve been a group hug if it weren’t sideways on the grass, and everything was right with the world.