“Well, that’s it,” Jolyne says, throwing her cards onto the board. “I’m bankrupt.” Emporio hesitantly starts nudging a few bills in her direction but she pushes his hand away gently. “Nah, I’m out. Have fun.”
They’ve been at this game of Monopoly for most of the afternoon. Hermes hadn’t joined them because Monopoly is a terrible game, plus she hasn’t played Monopoly since The Incident at the public library in 1999. Jolyne’s been floundering for the past half hour, despite Emporio’s increasingly regretfully extended loans. F.F. is doing surprisingly okay. Weather Report is absolutely dominating for no discernible reason.
(Hermes had almost asked where Emporio managed to find a copy of Monopoly, but then she noticed the stab marks on the lid of the box. She still doesn’t get ghost shit, but she’s also not sure she wants to get it.)
Jolyne plunks herself down on the sofa next to Hermes. “Monopoly sucks,” she complains, sticking her bottom lip out in a dramatic pout. She expresses everything with her whole body, like a stage actor trying to project every emotion to the back of the theatre. Objectively, she should look ridiculous, but Hermes has accepted that she’ll think Jolyne is cute no matter what she's doing.
Across the room, Emporio makes a hissing whine, like air escaping from a tire, and Hermes is abruptly reminded that they have an audience.
“Did you land on Weather Report’s hotel again?” Jolyne calls, not looking away from Hermes.
Emporio doesn’t answer, already silently forking over a wad of paper money.
Hermes wants to kiss Jolyne, but she’s never been big on PDA. She reaches for Jolyne’s hand instead, lacing their fingers together. With her thumb she strokes gently over the delicate bones of Jolyne’s wrist, tracing the line of tendon to the palm of her hand.
Jolyne’s still looking at her, expression soft and wondering. It’s how she always looks at Hermes--like she can’t quite believe her luck. Like she doesn’t quite believe Hermes is real. It’s absurd and unnecessary. (Hermes doesn’t want her to stop.)
“Hey,” Hermes says.
“Hey,” Jolyne says back, a little breathless, and then she squeezes her hand in a fast little pulse, like a heartbeat.
Hermes recognizes the gesture--Jolyne started doing it without explanation a couple of weeks into their relationship. “What does that mean?”
“When you--” Hermes squeezes back to illustrate.
When Jolyne blushes it’s always from her cheeks to the tips of her ears and then down her chest. Hermes doesn’t understand the movement of it at all, but she’s followed it with her eyes dozens of times before. This is an unhappy flush, though--as her ears turn pink, Jolyne tries to pull her hand away. “Sorry.”
Hermes tightens her grip. “I’m not saying it’s bad.”
Jolyne stops, even if she still looks like she wants to shrink into herself. It doesn’t suit her at all, like an unnatural shape she’s been forced to contort herself into.
“It just seems like it means something,” Hermes adds.
“You’ll think it’s stupid.”
“I think Monopoly is stupid. I don’t think you’re stupid.”
“This is really dumb though,” Jolyne whines.
“I’m not holding a gun to your head.” It comes out gruffer than Hermes intends. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
Jolyne seems to struggle with herself for a moment before pleading, “Promise you won’t laugh?”
Hermes levels a flat look at her.
“Okay, so when I was a kid I was, you know…” She gestures vaguely with her free hand. “Loud?”
“I didn’t promise anything.”
“Fine,” Jolyne says, but there’s a raw edge to it, “then I won’t tell you.”
The bad thing about Jolyne is that she’s always too much--never aware of how much space she’s occupying, how loud she’s being. She moves through the world like someone who has never really been forced to be small--or maybe like someone who has but the lesson never managed to stick. Hermes isn’t sure which option makes her more jealous. That’s not fair, she knows; Jolyne almost certainly has her own baggage, even if Hermes hasn’t seen it. (Jolyne doesn’t know any of Hermes’s baggage, because Hermes hasn’t felt the need to share it. Maybe Jolyne is the same. Hermes has trouble picturing that, but maybe. Maybe.)
The good thing about Jolyne is that she wears her heart on her sleeve. She doesn’t try to hide what she’s feeling--or maybe she just doesn’t try to hide it from Hermes. Hermes doesn’t have any trouble reading the hurt in her wide eyes, in the trembling twist of her mouth.
Hermes isn’t sure if Jolyne being so transparent makes it better or worse when Hermes fucks up and hurts her. Mostly she just feels like an asshole. “Sorry I laughed.”
“It’s fine,” Jolyne insists stubbornly, even though it’s obviously not.
“You were loud,” Hermes prompts. “Like...yelling? Or?”
“Nah, I was always really...huggy,” Jolyne says. “You know, like jumping, full-body octopus hug.”
“So the same as you are now.”
Jolyne swats at her, but she’s grinning now. “Hey.” That’s Jolyne: resilient as hell, bouncing back from any setback by sheer force of will. She won’t get mired in negative emotions. She won’t let herself.
Hermes can feel that itch to kiss her building in her chest again, but she just gestures for Jolyne to go on.
“But my dad--he doesn’t do well with…” She gestures vaguely at herself. “So I’d run up and try to hug him and he’d like--” She pantomimes a full-body recoil, her back slamming into the arm of the couch.
“I mean, not that bad,” Jolyne says, a little winded. Hermes is pretty sure she didn’t mean to do that; Jolyne’s constantly colliding with objects and people, her body taking up too much space when she forgets to keep herself in check. “It just seemed that bad in my head.”
“That’s a shitty thing to do to a kid.”
“I mean,” Jolyne says, backpedaling, “I’m sure he had stuff going on, but--”
“Well, he’s always been kind of a shitty dad,” Jolyne says, like it’s a joke. “I was probably a shitty kid too, but--”
“No, fuck him.” Hermes can’t get the image out of her head of a tiny Jolyne, wearing whatever mismatched fashion monstrosity little kids decide to dress themselves in, trying to hug some faceless man who completely shut her down. Hermes wants to kick his ass. “You shouldn’t treat your kid like that.”
“Can I,” Jolyne asks with a note of desperation creeping into her voice, “just tell the rest of the story? And not have to defend my dad to you?”
Hermes tamps down her anger. She wants to ask, Why do you feel like you have to defend him? Instead she says, “Sorry.”
Jolyne waves it off. “Anyway, the point is, I wanted to let him know how much I loved him, at the top of my lungs, and he hated it, so my mom came up with the,” she squeezes Hermes’s hand, tight and quick. “Like, a secret code sort of?”
Hermes squeezes back.
“It means ‘I love you,’” Jolyne clarifies.
Hermes is pretty sure that her face is doing something strange. It isn’t the first time she’s heard Jolyne say it, but every time it still feels...intense, like that moment of weightlessness at the top of a roller coaster. It’s exhilarating and terrifying but mostly it feels like she’s teetering on the edge of an inevitable fall. “Oh,” she says stupidly.
“So instead of trying to jump on my dad I could just,” Jolyne squeezes Hermes’s hand.
Now that Hermes knows what it means, it feels like seeing the flash of a signal fire in the distance. Hermes is suddenly seized by the urge to run until her lungs ache and her muscles burn, as far and as fast as she can to relay this message.
Jolyne’s watching Hermes’s face closely. Her body is tense--like a coiled spring, vibrating in preparation for explosive movement.
Hermes squeezes back, and the sheer goofy delight on Jolyne’s face tips Hermes over the edge. She presses a kiss to Jolyne’s grin and then plants a second and a third when Jolyne starts laughing. I love you, she thinks, trying desperately to transmit the message with her hands and her mouth and every cell in her body. I love you, I love you, I love you.
F.F. whoops across the room, and Hermes flinches backward, suddenly self-conscious.
“Two hundred fifty dollars, please!” F.F. announces, sticking their hand toward an increasingly pale and sweaty Emporio.
“I love you,” Jolyne blurts out, too loud, and then flushes a second later, from her cheeks to the tips of her ears down her chest.
Hermes reaches for her hand and squeezes with all her might.
“You don’t mind?” Jolyne asks.
“It’s kind of weird, right?”
“Love is very weird.”
“What?” Jolyne shoves at her, like she thinks Hermes is joking. “No, I mean the...the thing. It’s weird, right?”
Hermes doesn’t know Jolyne’s father, but she hopes for one intense, vindictive moment that he gets his comeuppance for ever making Jolyne feel like she needed to be quieter, more palatable. Then she remembers that Jolyne’s here in part to save her father. So, fine, she hopes he’s okay, and then that he gets his comeuppance. Even if Hermes doesn’t think he deserves it, Jolyne deserves her happy ending.
“It’s not weird,” Hermes says. Then, because she can’t help herself, “Did he do it back?”
“Your dad. Did he do it back?”
Jolyne’s expression is complicated, caught in some strange space between recognizable emotions. “Yeah,” she says. “He did.” Her expression twists into bitterness and she adds, “Until he left.” Her eyes drop to their entwined hands, but Hermes can tell that her mind is elsewhere.
Hermes wants to offer some comfort, but she doesn’t know what to say. Family is complicated maybe, but that’s the emotional equivalent of poking a hornet’s nest for Hermes and too vague to sound sympathetic anyway. “You’ll get his disc back,” she says. She can’t say she expects Jolyne’s dad to magically be less of a dick, but. At least if he's alive the possibility is there.
“Yeah,” Jolyne says, tone ambiguous, but then the corner of her mouth quirks up. “You’ll like my mom, though. She’s cool.”
Jolyne knocks against Hermes’s shoulder lightly. “What about your family?”
Here it is: a chance for Hermes to get everything out into the open. She dodges it. “I don’t have one.” She’s not a coward. She just doesn’t want to have this conversation right now--not with Jolyne’s vulnerabilities laid bare, not with an audience, not before she does what she came here to do. “Not anymore anyway.”
Jolyne opens her mouth to say something, but Hermes cups Jolyne’s face with her free hand, tracing along her cheekbone with her thumb. Jolyne’s eyelashes flutter. The little furrow between her eyebrows smooths out, her lips parting. Hermes loves her, like something cracking her rib cage open and crawling out into the light of day.
“We can be your new family,” Jolyne blurts out, and Hermes doesn’t know how to laugh it off, so she just squeezes her hand.
The next time it comes up, Green Dolphin Street Prison is far behind them. They’re curled up together on the bed in a one-star motel, trying to get some rest before they continue chasing after the priest. Jolyne’s on top of Hermes’s arm, which has moved past pins and needles and into feeling kind of numb and staticky. Emporio is passed out, sprawled across Jolyne. He’s a restless but deep sleeper, or maybe today has just been exhausting. The bed is way too small for three people, even if one of them is a shrimpy kid.
Jolyne reaches for Hermes’s other hand--the one she can actually feel--and laces their fingers together. She squeezes--just once, like the pulse of a beacon. It’s weaker than usual. (She’d cried earlier in the evening--a slurry of wordless grief and stress once her adrenaline had crashed. Hermes hadn’t known what to do. She hasn’t had much practice at being comforting. Little sister privilege, she supposes.)
“I had something with my sister,” Hermes whispers. “Like,” she squeezes back.
“Your sister?” Jolyne asks, and Hermes can see the moment when she remembers, the little furrow between her eyebrows born of secondhand grief. “Right, your sister, uh...” She trails off.
It’s strange to realize that Jolyne has known her just as Hermes this whole time, not Gloria-and-Hermes. It’s strange to realize that Jolyne has only known that Hermes had a sister for a week, when so much of Hermes’s current existence has been warped in orbit around her absence. (It’s strange to realize that Jolyne has only known Gloria as a dead woman, when Hermes always remembers her so vibrantly alive.) “Gloria,” Hermes offers.
“Right, Gloria,” Jolyne says. The name sounds strange from her mouth, the pronunciation too Anglicized. It feels wrong in a way that hurts Hermes’s teeth, like a fork scraping against a metal bowl. Hermes loves her, but in this moment she feels like an intruder.
“Do you know Morse code?” Hermes asks, trying to change the subject.
Jolyne scrunches up her nose. It’s cute. Hermes wants to kiss her but restrains herself. “What, like,” she mimics the sound of a telegraph, “dit dit dit, dah dah dah, dit dit dit. Right?”
“S-O-S,” Hermes confirms.
Jolyne beams at her, but her smile wilts a moment later. “That’s, uh, all I know, though.”
“There’s a whole alphabet,” Hermes says. She taps the message out on the back of Jolyne’s hand: tap tap tap, swipe swipe swipe, tap tap tap.
“Right.” She taps out another message--the five-letter sign off that she and Gloria would end their nightly conversations with. She hasn’t used it in years, but muscle memory is a hell of a thing. Jolyne watches in rapt, uncomprehending attention. “Gloria and I would...talk like this sometimes. At family dinners and stuff.”
“Kind of like spies.” Now that she thinks about it, didn’t Gloria have a spy phase? Hermes remembers watching movies borrowed from the public library with her. They’d been in black and white, so they hadn’t held her attention for long, but Gloria had just sat and watched even when Hermes was antsy and squirming. (Hermes had liked the fight sequences--she can remember that much. But all the talking? Not so much.) “We’d do it at night too. Just like...tap messages on the bedroom wall.”
“You just...memorized all that?” Jolyne looks impressed.
“Yeah.” It hadn’t seemed strange at the time. “Didn’t you have codes with your siblings?”
“I’m an only child.”
“...right.” Hermes always forgets. It makes sense when she thinks about it. It’s probably unkind to think so, but Jolyne seems like an only child.
Emporio shifts in his sleep, eyebrows scrunched together, one arm looping clumsily around Jolyne’s waist.
“Can’t believe you forgot about your little brother,” Hermes jokes.
Jolyne wrinkles her nose. “I just felt weird having him call me ‘Miss Jolyne’ all the time. Like I was a kindergarten teacher.”
“And ‘big sister’ is better?”
Jolyne gives a half-shrug. “I always wanted a brother,” she says.
“Why?” Hermes blurts out. When Jolyne’s expression crumples, she tacks on, “Boys are so…” She trails off, unsure of the right word. Annoying, maybe. Smelly. Persistent.
“Yeah, but, I dunno.” Jolyne keeps trying to fidget and then remembering that she can’t move without waking Emporio, her hands flitting toward each other before she stops herself. “I guess I just wanted...a friend? You know, like, someone to go on adventures with. That’s probably dumb.”
“Siblings are annoying,” Hermes says. “They get into all of your stuff. Never leave you alone.”
“Yeah, like I said, it was dumb.” Jolyne is shrinking into herself again. Hermes hates it. “And my parents shouldn’t have had a second kid anyway. Shouldn’t have had a first one, probably. Anyway,” she rushes to add, tripping over her words. “That’s really amazing, though. Memorizing Morse code.”
“It’s really not.”
“You must have been a smart kid.”
“The alphabet only has twenty-six letters.”
Jolyne scowls. “Hey, let me compliment my genius girlfriend.”
“It’s just memorization.” Hermes doesn’t know why she’s so resistant, but she doesn’t want to be praised for this. It makes her feel strange and queasy, like she’s getting motion sick. “Anybody can memorize shit.”
“Not me,” Jolyne insists.
“Can’t you take a compliment?”
“Not if the compliment is fucking stupid.”
“Why are,” Jolyne asks, but her voice breaks halfway through the sentence. “Why are you being like this?”
“I’m--” Hermes starts, perhaps a bit too heated, but it feels good to direct the unsettled feeling in her gut toward something.
“I know you think I’m a spoiled child, but--”
“Let me finish!”
Hermes clamps her mouth shut. Her anger reverses course and slams back into her as anxiety.
“I just…” Jolyne disentangles their hands to scrub at her eyes. “I don’t know what you want.”
Hermes breathes through her nose, teeth gritted so hard that her jaw hurts.
“You’re supposed to say something now,” Jolyne prompts, but there’s desperation written across her face.
“I don’t want anything.”
“You obviously do,” Jolyne says bitterly. “I’m doing something wrong.”
“Why does everything have to be about you?” Hermes spits before she manages to reel her tongue in.
Jolyne presses her hand to her face, so Hermes can’t see her expression.
“Look,” Hermes says, as gently as she can manage, “this isn’t...this isn’t you doing something wrong. I’m just…” She tries to figure out how to put it in words that would make sense to someone who knows her as just Hermes. “I haven’t really talked about. Gloria. All that. I’m not used to it.”
“Sorry,” Jolyne says, her voice small and pitiful.
“It’s not about you,” Hermes insists. “It’s about me. My shit.”
Jolyne is quiet for a long moment, her expression still hidden behind her hand. Hermes wants to say, Look at me. She wants to say, I’m sorry. She wants to say, You’re being a child but maybe I am too.
Instead she says, “I want to talk about it.” It hurts, like peeling back her flesh layer by layer, stripping every callus she’s built up in the past three years until it’s just tender new skin underneath. “Not right now, but. I’ve spent too long not talking about it. It’s just going to be shitty and hard.”
“Everything is shitty and hard,” Jolyne says, but she lets Hermes pry her hand away from her face. Her cheeks are a little blotchy, her eyelashes clumped together.
“Not everything,” Hermes corrects her. “I just…” Have anger management problems, she hears Gloria say, twenty-one years old and looking down at Hermes. She’d always assumed it was meant to be condescending, but maybe Hermes was just shorter than her. “I’m not good at this shit.”
“We can suck at it together then.”
“Yeah,” Jolyne says. She pulls Hermes’s hand toward her to kiss the inside of her wrist. Hermes’s pulse jumps. She both does and doesn’t hope that Jolyne can feel it.
“You would have been a good big sister,” Hermes says, because the alternative is saying something she’ll regret.
“You are a good big sister.”
Jolyne’s mouth does something strange, pulling in two directions at the same time. “I hope so.” She shifts closer, and feeling spasms back into Hermes’s arm. “Oh, shit, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Hermes says, through gritted teeth, trying to flex her fingers. “My arm just fell asleep.”
Jolyne both moves and stays completely still, Stone Free letting her shift inhumanly so Hermes can move her arm. Hermes is unnerved, as she always is, but then a second later Jolyne is wrapped around her, ear pressed to her heart, one arm around Emporio while the other gropes for Hermes’s hand. When she finally manages to find it, she squeezes so tightly it borders on painful.
Hermes’s heart is racing, but Jolyne just lies half on top of her and holds her, like Hermes is something precious that might slip away if she isn’t careful. It’s weird and unnecessary and no one else has ever treated Hermes this way.
Hermes doesn’t know what to say in response. She isn’t sure she can respond. She taps against Jolyne’s hand again, five letters repeated over and over.
“What does that mean?” Jolyne asks.
“I love you,” Hermes says, like it’s no big deal, like it’s something she can say without her heart racing like she’s fleeing from a predator.
“But the last letter is O,” Jolyne mumbles.
Hermes’s whole body locks up.
“Right?” Jolyne looks up at her, bangs falling in her eyes. “I didn’t, uh...read that wrong?”
“No, it’s.” Her voice comes out strained. “It’s in Spanish.”
“Oh,” Jolyne says. She lowers her head back to Hermes’s chest. “Your sister?” she asks, and if the situation were different, it would be funny how bad she is at sounding uninvested.
“Yeah,” Hermes chokes out.
“Will you tell me about her someday?”
She could say no. Jolyne would be hurt, but. She could say no and Jolyne wouldn’t push her. “Yeah,” Hermes decides, and her stomach swoops, like plummeting down the first drop of a roller coaster. “Yeah. I will.”
It’s as they’re heading toward the motorcycle in the motel parking lot that Emporio exclaims, “That car is pink!”
“What?” Jolyne and Hermes chorus. Jolyne laughs in delight at their synchronicity.
Emporio’s a strange kid. Maybe Hermes just isn’t used to interacting with people younger than her, but something about Emporio seems...off. He’s so anxious, except in those rare moments when he forgets to be. Hermes can see the transition back now, his wide-eyed wonder slowly disintegrating into something flinchy and uneasy. It’s like watching someone drown--not in a deluge, but in the inexorable creep of a rising tide. “Sorry,” Emporio says, “I’ve just never seen one before?”
“What?” Jolyne asks again, but she’s darting glances at Hermes from the corner of her eye.
Emporio twists his hands together. “I mean, I haven’t seen many cars?”
“Uh,” Jolyne says, her eyebrows comically high.
“I,” Emporio squeaks, but then his voice dies abruptly before he can get the rest of the sentence out.
They stand awkwardly in the motel parking lot, Emporio’s mouth working soundlessly, Jolyne jerking her head at Hermes with less and less subtlety, and Hermes entirely out of her depth. Why the fuck does Jolyne think Hermes knows what to do? Hermes is no good with kids; she’s never needed to be. (Does Emporio even count as a “kid”? He’s a preteen, isn’t he? Hermes hasn’t paid attention to that distinction since she entered high school, so she might be wrong.) When they’re in a crisis situation, Hermes doesn’t have time to overthink every interaction with Emporio. But once their lives are no longer in danger, everything Hermes does feels patronizing or too formal or off-balance somehow--not appropriate for interacting with someone a decade younger than her who both knows how to pilot a helicopter and has never seen a pink car.
Hermes isn’t sure Jolyne knows any better than her, but she tries so fucking hard that, even when she jams her own foot into her mouth, it’s charming, somehow. “Well,” she says, vibrating with worried affection. “Well, uh.” Hermes has seen this expression on her before--gearing up to hurl herself single-mindedly at a problem until it’s resolved or fucking demolished. It’s half of the reason Hermes didn’t tell her about Gloria. (She doesn’t want to think about the other half.) “Well.”
Emporio is looking increasingly panicked, so Hermes takes pity on him and states the obvious. “Cars can be pink.”
The nervous tension drains out of Jolyne’s body so quickly that Hermes nearly laughs at her. “They can be whatever color you want!” Jolyne adds, throwing herself headlong into this new tack with far too much enthusiasm. “You can add pictures to them too!”
“Pictures?” Emporio asks. His voice comes out proportionally too small for his body, but at least he’s saying words.
“Yeah, like, there was a guy in my neighborhood who had unicorns on his van? And dragons and stuff. I think it was for his job or whatever but it was still cool.”
“A guy at my high school had flames on his car,” Hermes adds. “He thought he was hot shit.”
Emporio smiles weakly, although his expression dissolves back into his regular anxious neutral a moment later.
“Hey,” Jolyne says, face lighting up, “my mom and I used to play this game on long car rides--I’d count blue cars and she’d count red, and at the end whoever won got a milkshake. So!” She nearly hits Hermes with the force of her gesticulation, but Hermes manages to lean out of the way in time. “We...we can make a game too! We’re gonna be driving a while today, so like...points for spotting weird-colored cars?”
Hermes nearly says that’s a stupid idea, but Emporio asks, “Can we?” with such poorly disguised enthusiasm that she bites her own tongue. For a second he looks like a little kid instead of an adult who has been jammed into a kid’s body. An “old soul”--that’s what people call them, right? Kids who are too mature for their age, who didn’t grow up fast so much as they were forced to act grown too soon.
(That’s what the women in their neighborhood always called Gloria--an old soul. At the time, Hermes had thought it was a compliment for her maturity or maybe a subtle insult to her bratty little sister. Now she’s not so sure.)
Hermes drags herself back to the present, back to Emporio looking up at Jolyne--like Hermes used to look at Gloria, before she knew better. “What counts as a ‘weird color’?” she asks, her voice surprisingly steady.
Jolyne waves her off. “Oh, you’ll know it when you see it!”
Oh no. Hermes has exploited enough loopholes to know that this one needs to be closed. “Emporio,” Hermes says, and he flinches. Shit, was he startled or did she sound too mean? “What colors would you expect to see on a car?”
“Um.” Emporio stares down at his hands, frowning. Thinking, maybe. Probably not scared of Hermes. (Hopefully not scared of Hermes.) He counts them off on his fingers. “White, black, blue, red, and silver?”
“Holy shit.” It’s out of Hermes’s mouth before she can stop it. She knew he was sheltered, but--okay, no, actually now that she thinks about it, this is his first time outside of prison, isn’t it? Totally fair for him to only think cars come in five colors.
Holy shit, he thinks cars only come in five colors.
“Oh my god, we’re gonna get so many points,” Jolyne crows. “Loser has to buy the milkshake.”
Emporio looks lost again.
“You’ve...you’ve had a milkshake before, right?” Hermes asks.
“Um. I know what it is in theory…?”
“Holy fuck,” Jolyne blurts out. She registers her own words and then rushes to add, “Sorry, Emporio.”
“You can say ‘fuck,’” Emporio says, looking slightly offended. “I grew up in a prison.”
“Oh fuck, yeah, you’re right.” She gropes for Hermes’s hand (Hermes discreetly moves the injured one out of her reach). “Hermes. We gotta get this kid a milkshake.”
Hermes doesn’t even like milkshakes that much, but Emporio looks excited instead of anxious. “Yeah,” she says. “After we save the world,” she adds, and she means it to be a joke, but it comes out too serious.
“Right,” Jolyne says, plowing straight through the awkward moment. “Right! Save the world, then milkshakes.”
“For the winner?” Emporio asks shyly.
“Yeah!” Jolyne’s got that fire in her eyes, that determined set to her jaw. She clenches her fist like she’s the protagonist of an anime, and Hermes feels her chest constrict with the force of her love for her. “Hope you’ve got money, Hermes!”
Hermes’s chest unclenches abruptly. “Why the fuck do you think I’m going to lose?”
Jolyne swings her leg over the motorcycle with a cocky little grin that gets Hermes’s heart racing again. “What, do you think my little brother is going to lose to you?”
Hermes reels her reply back in before it can leave her mouth, because Emporio looks...so fucking over the moon. Like Christmas came one hundred times. Like he just heard they’d be living at Disneyworld. Happier than Hermes has ever seen him. Like he’s a dumb little kid who gets excited about dumb kid shit. He’s fucking incandescent with joy, and looking at him makes Hermes’s heart hurt.
In that moment, she feels like an interloper. Hermes has said again and again in the past few months that she has no family; her sister is dead and her father is dead and her mother has been out of the picture so long that she doesn’t even bear mentioning. Jolyne deserves to have this--hell, Emporio deserves to have someone looking out for him for once--but Hermes? Hermes has never wanted kids, and she still doesn't. She isn’t a surrogate mother. She isn’t even an eccentric aunt. Hermes is just...here, wedging herself into this budding family, with their in-jokes and their secret codes and their thoughtless affection, until someone realizes she doesn’t belong. They’re going to defeat the priest and Jolyne will get her father back and Emporio will have a real family for once in his life and Hermes can’t think ahead without flinching so she’ll figure it out when she gets there.
Hermes doesn’t know what to do, so she just slides behind Jolyne on the motorcycle, pressing up as close as she can. She pats the space behind her. “C’mon.”
Emporio inches his way onto the seat. God, this is going to be a squeeze with all three of them.
“Arms around my waist,” Hermes prompts, trying not to sound impatient.
“Oh,” Emporio says, and he puts his arms around her, but gingerly, like he’s trying to embrace a cobra.
“You’re gonna need to hang on tighter or you’ll fall off.”
“Sorry, Miss Hermes.”
“Don’t do that,” Hermes snaps.
Emporio flinches backward.
She grabs his arms without thinking. “Just ‘Hermes’ is fine,” she says, trying for comforting but mostly managing curt.
“Please.” She pats ineffectually at his arm. Shit, she really has no idea how to interact with kids. “We’re...friends, right?”
“Of course,” Emporio says, and Hermes can’t see his face, but he sounds so unshakably certain. “Of course we’re friends.”
“Then I’m just Hermes.”
“Oh,” Emporio says, and his arms tighten around her. “Okay, Hermes.”
“Everything okay back there?” Jolyne asks, like Hermes isn’t pressed so close she’s in danger of inhaling Jolyne’s hair.
“Yeah,” Hermes and Emporio chorus, and then Emporio giggles nervously against Hermes’s back.
“Alright,” Jolyne says. Her form blurs for a moment, twisting incomprehensibly, and then she snakes around Hermes and Emporio. Logically, Hermes knows that Stone Free’s strings can snap and break, but in that moment, with her girlfriend wrapped around her waist and legs, she feels more anchored and protected than she has in a long time. “Thanks,” Jolyne says to Hermes, in an undertone, and she squeezes Hermes’s calf. It feels strange coming from a string, but the meaning remains unchanged.
There’s a sudden lump in Hermes’s throat, some wordless emotion she doesn’t want to examine jamming her windpipe. She swallows. It doesn’t help.
“You okay?” Jolyne asks, her voice still lowered.
“Yeah,” Hermes says, but she doesn’t sound convincing at all.
“Do you need--” Jolyne starts, and Hermes can feel her revving up to body slam whatever might be causing Hermes distress.
Hermes loves Jolyne, and it feels like it always does--like falling, like drowning, like something sudden and violent and inescapable. It should make her feel angry or helpless; she’s spent her whole life chafing against every restriction placed on her. Instead it makes her feel...scared. Like she’s not sure she can live up to it. Like Jolyne wants more than she can provide. Like she needs to run away before she disappoints her.
Maybe that’s on her, she realizes. Maybe that’s the problem with setting all her expectations by the standards of a dead woman.
Hermes still hates PDA, but she presses a kiss to Jolyne’s ear, because it’s the easiest part of her to reach. “Nah,” she says. “I'm good. Let’s go.”
The tip of Jolyne’s ear flushes pink. “Well then.” She clears her throat. “Hang on tight,” she says, at regular volume; “I’m not gonna lose you two.”
Sandwiched between Jolyne and Emporio, the road racing beneath them, Hermes is reminded of a trip she took with her family when she was still in elementary school. She’d crammed into the backseat with her father and sister while her cousin and abuela took the front. She doesn’t remember what her cousin said--she just remembers the way she and Gloria had laughed until they couldn’t breathe. Her father had spluttered at them to explain what was so funny, and, midway through her explanation, Gloria had dissolved into giggles so violent that tears streamed down her cheeks. That had set Hermes off again, and she’d collapsed in wheezing laughter against her sister’s side. The joke probably wasn’t even that funny, but it hadn’t mattered to either of them at the time.
It was a good memory. It is a good memory. For once, Hermes feels like she doesn’t need to flinch away from it or pack it up in a box of keepsakes never to be seen again. She can remember it here, now, with her arms wrapped around her girlfriend and Emporio (her...what? Friend? Her girlfriend’s brother?) clinging to her for dear life, without it feeling like a betrayal.
What feels like an eon ago, Jolyne had offered her a new family. Hermes isn’t ready for that. Jolyne is constantly rearranging the furniture of her heart to make room for whoever might want to live there, but Hermes is much more set in her ways. She’s had sheets over half the furniture for the past three years, boarded up every empty room and acted like it didn’t exist even when she couldn’t stop remembering its former inhabitant. She’s not ready to have family again--not when her vengeance is so recently completed, not when her grief and anger is still fresh. She’ll take down the boards and fold the sheets, but she needs to air everything out before she’s ready to let anyone else in.
She’s not ready yet, but she thinks someday she might be.
(Jolyne will still be here, when that someday comes. So much of the future is uncertain, but Hermes is sure of that.)
As they’re pulling onto the freeway, Emporio mumbles something behind Hermes, but the words are ripped away by the wind before Hermes can figure out their shape.
“What?” she shouts over the roar of the engine.
Emporio leans closer, arms tight around her waist. It’s almost a hug--a really shitty one, but a hug nonetheless. Hermes hunches down, and Emporio strains upward to shout into her ear (or as close as he can get), “Green car!”