“There you are,” Bernadette said, spotting Tick as soon as she leaned out the door of the bus.
Tick stood toward the back, glaring at the bus intensely with his hands set firm at his hips. He barely acknowledged that Bernadette had spoken. Had she not seen his chest rise and fall in a frustrated huff, she would have assumed that he hadn’t heard her at all. Bernadette moved off the step and started to make her way toward him.
“Adam was worried,” she said once she reached Tick’s side. She straightened her skirt and swatted at the fly that found her as soon as she’d stepped outside.
It was sort of the truth.
“I’m not going looking for him if he gets himself lost,” Adam had bitched a few moments earlier, holding his glass up so that Bernadette would take the hint and get him another drink. He’d started drinking an hour after the bus broke down. An hour into it he began asking Tick questions that Tick wasn’t in the mood to answer, and twenty minutes into Adam’s interrogation, Tick had stormed off the bus and hadn’t returned.
The truth was that Bernadette had been just a little worried, that mostly Bernadette needed a reason to escape Adam before she was required to start popping aspirin to fend off the coming migraine. What did it matter anyway, these details? Someone was worried, and here Bernadette was.
Tick had the back of the bus open and was still glaring at its insides. Bernadette pressed her hand to Tick’s shoulder in reassurance, and when Tick didn’t turn toward her, Bernadette glanced at the bus. She stopped and leaned closer.
“What is that?” She squinted, sniffed. “Is that face cream?”
“Yes,” Tick said. “I thought it might, I don’t know, cool things down in there.”
“Cool things down,” Bernadette repeated.
Tick sighed, threw up his hands. “We’re going to die out here.” It was the fourth time he’d said it since they’d broken down. He was beating himself up again, blaming himself for a creaky old bus that Adam had chosen to purchase all on his own.
“This isn’t your fault, Mitz,” Bernadette assured him. “If we do die out here -“
Tick looked up quickly and turned to her.
“Oh no, honey, don‘t worry,“ Bernadette said. “I’m sure some white knight is headed this way right now.“
“Some white knight,” Tick repeated, his tone doubtful.
Bernadette took Tick‘s hand in hers, squeezed. “Gorgeous, kind, handy with his tools. Come to save us all and sweep Anthony Belrose right off his feet.”
Tick pulled a face. “That’s what you think I need right now?”
“Don’t we all?” Bernadette asked.
Tick shrugged. “You can have him. Any white knight who finds us out here is all yours. Once you fight Felicia for him, of course.”
“Oh, of course,” Bernadette agreed.
“That is if he doesn’t take one look at that,” Tick gestured to the side of the bus, the words emblazoned there, Broken Hill’s hateful graffiti, “and ride back off into the sunset.”
“Well,” Bernadette sighed. “If that happens, and we do die out here, it still won’t be your fault. Surely we can all agree that Adam is to blame.”
Tick laughed at that, a quick huff of a laugh that ended as quickly as it had begun.
Bernadette took in the worried wrinkles of his forehead, the frown that returned to his mouth. He looked old for someone who was still so young. She tsked and released his hand, hooked her arm in his instead.
“Come on, dear,” she said. “Step away from the vehicle.”
Tick followed her easily, let her lead him to the chairs they‘d set up before the sun had chased them back inside. The sun was getting lower now and the chairs sat in the shadow of the bus, shading them from the heat. Bernadette moved her chair close to Tick’s and sat down.
“So,” Bernadette started, not actually sure the right thing to say now. She wanted to apologize for Adam, but she also wanted to know. Tick had to be aware that he couldn’t drop this on them and expect them not to be curious, not to wonder how it at all happened, how he’d ended up here in the desert with Felicia and Bernadette at his side.
Tick sighed heavily beside her. He shrugged and smiled. He had his hands pushed between his knees.
“What do you want to know?” Tick asked. He seemed resigned to the conversation now, ready to have it without so much as heavy hinting from Bernadette. Maybe Tick did want to talk about it. Maybe he just wasn’t ready to talk about it with Adam. And who could blame him for that?
What did she want to know? Everything. She wanted to know all of it. She couldn’t say that, of course. She didn’t want to scare Tick away.
“What is your wife’s name?” Bernadette asked instead.
“Marion,” Tick supplied, and as soon as he said it, Bernadette realized she‘d heard it before, that he‘d said it in a rush during the surprise announcement, that she‘d been so stunned she’d only subconsciously picked up on the detail.
“Marion’s a lovely name,” Bernadette said. “How did you meet?”
“I don’t know,” Tick admitted. “I’ve known Marion for as long as I can remember.”
“You were children together,” Bernadette concluded.
She took from Tick’s silence that she was correct.
“How long were you married before you - “
“A year,” Tick cut in. “She encouraged it, you know. She wanted me to - “ his hands fluttered by way of explanation.
“Live,” Bernadette supplied.
Tick snorted, looked around them. “Yeah.”
Bernadette wasn’t lying when she’d told Tick she was jealous. She was, just a little. She felt it in her stomach, a tiny pit sitting there. Tick probably thought the entire thing a mistake, but that was all part of living, really, wasn’t it? And there must have been some good there. Tick wouldn’t be bringing them to Alice Springs if there wasn’t good there too.
You never know unless you give it a go.
Bernadette stared out at the horizon, and then, unsure what came over her, she started to laugh. Tick stared at her for a moment and then he was laughing too, actually laughing this time. She could see it in his eyes. Lord, he was beautiful when he was laughing.
Eventually the laughter died and Tick moved a hand to her knee, squeezed.
“Bern?” he asked.
She could tell by the tone of his voice that he was going to apologize again, going to try to explain why he’d kept this a secret for so many years.
She covered his hand with her own.
“It’s all right,” she assured him. She leaned in then to kiss the corner of his mouth, then once light on his lips.
Tick kissed her back. She’d expected him to, but when she went to pull away, he followed and kissed her again. His second kiss was as light as the first, but when she pulled back to look at him, his eyes were closed, his face was soft. When she lifted her hand to his cheek, he turned his head into it and kissed her palm.
He was her best friend. He had been for years, though she’d always thought them to be an unlikely pair. She was a washed up old drag queen, a relic from a better time. She never understood what it was that kept Tick around.
She leaned in and kissed him again. He returned the kiss immediately, truly. It wasn‘t the affectionate pecks that they‘d always shared. It was real, full and intimate, tentative and touching.
Maybe this, this new Tick that Bernadette was just now getting to know, maybe this had always been what bound them to each other. Bernadette didn’t quite fit into this world of Adam Whitelys, not anymore. But now they were quickly coming to learn that maybe Tick didn’t fit in quite as well as they’d all believed either. Maybe this was why they’d been drawn to each other, why they’d come back to each other again and again.
Bernadette opened her mouth to Tick, felt him take the invitation, the soft press of his tongue to hers.
She’d always wanted him. Just a little. Just enough to keep things interesting. She’d made sure not to admit it to herself, made sure to keep it under lock and key, but there it was. She’d always longed just a little bit for this moment, for Tick Belrose.
He was too young for her, of course. Not that that had ever stopped her. Tick had years on Trumpet. Still, he was too young for her. And anyway, age was inconsequential when lined up beside the real punch line.
Bernadette could never be exactly what Tick needed. Not anymore. She’d come much too far for that now. She’d worked so hard to become everything that Tick had already left behind.
Tick kissed her and Bernadette ignored these truths, just for a moment, and imagined how it would go. It would be glorious, the weeks that they spent together, wrapped in each other. They’d go to bed together, naturally. He’d know what to do with her. He’d been there before, hadn‘t he?
It would be so beautiful for a while, the most wonderful intimate fling, but eventually Bernadette would be forced to set Tick loose. She would worry. She would fear that his love for her kept him locked to her, though when it came down to it, their love wasn’t of the passionate sort at all. He would become her prisoner, too fond of her to break away. Her conscience would never let her keep him. It wasn’t sustainable, and more importantly, it wasn’t what they were ever meant to be to each other.
For now though, she let Tick kiss her, relished in the heat of him, the love and the comfort and the consolation. Her hand was still on his where it rested upon her knee, her other hand resting there at his cheek. Tick’s thumb swept back and forth across her knee, broad strokes that reassured, that pulled her in to kiss him again.
Their kiss told her so much; things she‘d already known and things she‘d always hoped to be true. Tick’s kiss told her that Tick would always be there for her. Tick needed her as much as she needed him. Most importantly, even without that need, Tick would still desire her company. He was the best friend she’d ever had.
She let it live in her head, this glorious affair. This perfect moment and the sweet richness of a million ‘what ifs’. This belonged there, perfect and tucked away and unspoiled by reality, by time and by endings.
It wasn’t long - two minutes? three? - before a loud knock at the window pulled them back to it all. The noise was harsh and jarring. It forced Bernadette from Tick, from dreams of blissful nights and warm caresses. Back to the desert she went, to reality and the world post-Trumpet where she was once again alone.
Tick looked up toward the offending sound, his expression blank, his face just slightly red, and then he laughed, turned away just as quickly and squeezed Bernadette‘s knee.
Bernadette knew what she would see there, but she turned anyway, shook her head at Adam’s comic expression of horror and disgust on display behind the glass.
Adam’s face disappeared from the window.
“Here we go,” Tick said.
“What was that?” came Adam’s voice, loud from the door of the bus. He burst from within, stalking immediately toward them. He was holding a can of paint and a fist full of brushes, which he used to point at them, accusing. "Have we really been out here that long already? You can't be serious.”
Bernadette leaned away from Tick, crossed her legs and rolled her eyes up at Adam.
Adam returned the look. “Don’t give me that face, Bernice. If this is how it’s going to be from now on between you two, I need to know. I’ll start walking now before I become violently ill.”
“Should we tell him?” Tick asked, his voice low. Bernadette’s lipstick was visible on his mouth and Bernadette reached out to wipe it away.
“Adam, dear,“ Bernadette said, playing along. “Pack plenty of water. It‘s a long way to town.”
“No,” Adam said, He turned out toward the desert, disgusted. “No.”
“Ah,” Bernadette said, eyebrows raised. “Felicia’s jealous.”
“Of who?” Tick asked.
She meant, of course, that Adam wished to be the one kissing Tick, but the implication in Tick’s question delighted her. She laughed. Tick could be such a charmer.
“I’m not jealous,” Adam scoffed, completely devoid of even an ounce of Tick‘s occasional charm. “I’m nauseous.”
“What’s that?” Tick asked. He was changing the subject, nodding to Adam’s paint can.
Tick stood, moved closer to Adam as Adam leaned down to pry the lid from the can.
“Paint,“ Adam said. “If we’re going to die out here I want a more colourful epitaph than ‘Fuck off faggots.’”
Tick scrunched up his face.
“Pink?” he asked, his voice nasal, and Bernadette sat back to watch. She felt the moment passing, the affair coming fully to its end. Bernadette closed her eyes, listened to Tick and Adam bicker for bit longer before Tick gave in and took a paintbrush from Adam's hand.
“Come on, Bernadette,” Adam said. “It’s a big bus.”
“I asked for a plane,” Bernadette countered, needed to point it out just one last time.
Tick was right. They were going to die out here. They wouldn’t starve, no, they’d kill each other before it ever got that far.
She stood from her chair and picked up the third brush, dipped it daintily into the tub of pink. She stood beside Tick, painted over the ‘s’ as he covered one of the ‘g’s. His strokes were firm, direct, a little messy. He already had paint splattered on his leg. He turned to her and smiled, the paintbrush hanging dangerously in his hand as he leaned in and pressed the tip of his nose to her shoulder, his free arm moving to wind around her waist, as though ready to pull her in for a desert waltz.
It ached a little for just a moment, the memory of their brief imagined affair, before Bernadette pushed it all aside once more.
“You’ll spoil my dress,“ Bernadette said as she brushed Tick away from her as well. He stepped back from her and noticed his own leg, the spatter of paint that started on his shorts and spread out across his shin. He snorted, shook his head at his own clumsiness, and then he laughed, his head thrown back, mouth open. Bernadette found herself laughing with him again, found it impossible not to smile in return.
Bernadette slipped her sunglasses down onto her face and turned, still smiling, to stare out out across the flat expanse of the desert.
“Anything?” Tick asked once he'd pulled himself back together.
“Not yet,” Bernadette said.
That white knight had better show himself soon.