The other girl tenses. It might have gone unnoticed by someone else but Jester has spent months with Beau, falling asleep together sometimes halfway through a word, curled next to her in Caleb’s hut, watching her sleep when she couldn’t. So she sees it. And it is another sign of the time they have spent together that Jester can follow Beau’s movements, the little signs of how she comes away, what she does to take note of herself and the things around her: shoulders flexing to test the bed beneath her—in this case, vine and rock; hands clenching into fists in readiness; a release of breath it had taken some time for Jester to learn sends Beau’s ki out in a very minor burst—she had been caught by it once as she had leaned over Beau, intent on drawing on her face, and it had been a shock, startling but fun, to see Beau’s eyes flash open and already be fixed directly on her. Tonight, Beau curls a little on herself, rubs at her sore hip, and she must catalogue Caleb beside her, and Fjord’s arm under her neck, and where Frumpkin and Nott are curled up close beside her, because when she sits up and stands her movements are graceful and smooth, never coming close to jostling them.
‘Jester? Jes?’ Beau calls back, voice hushed. She fumbles a little at her head to pull her goggles down over her eyes, which magnify in the rounded lenses. Beau blinks owlishly around the interior of the dome—Yasha and Cad curl on the outer edges, everyone using them as either a headrest or a heater—before everything about her goes tense and sharp and her head snaps up, eyes searching intent around the outskirts of the hut. The tension bleeds from her when she sees Jester standing, safe and sound, just beyond the hut. ‘Hey,’ she says, tone half-worried, half-relieved. ‘What are you doin’ out there? Didn’t you get slashed up by a massive fuckin’ tree cat last time we were in a place like this? If you needed to go pee, you should’ve woken me up.’ Despite a yawn, despite her scolding, she picks her way out of the hut toward Jester; the closer she gets, the more Jester realises that the worry isn’t for any cats—it’s for her. Jester. Beau’s eyes are fixed on her, and that’s unavoidable with the way they’re magnified behind the lenses. Beau’s face is fifty per cent eyes, and they are locked onto Jester, and on the way Jester’s fingers twist and twist and twist at the rings upon her fingers.
Jester smiles. ‘I haven’t seen any cats. Except Frumpkin.’
‘Eh, doesn’t count,’ Beau says, waves her hand like she’s slapping away a bolt.
Beau stops a few paces away. She scratches at the back of her neck, where skin meets hairline. The jungle is quiet enough around them that Jester can hear the quiet scritch of her nails. ‘Oh – uh, I mean,’
‘He’s a fey king,’ Jester chides, starts to laugh. And then, then the irony of that joke—that lie—catches up to her and her throat closes tight around the sound, strangling it.
Beau’s expression had cleared with the joke, grinning with her, but then Jester croaks her laugh, nearly chokes on it, and Beau gets concerned again. She opens her mouth. Closes it again. Her head tilts slightly and she drops her hand. Says, oddly gently, ‘Um. I’ll apologise to Frumpkin if he calls me out about it.’
Jester smiles forcefully, to make up for the weird laugh. ‘Good, good.’
The night is heavy with shadows and the heat. A jungle is never really quiet, never really still. Somewhere close by, something drags over the leaf litter, slow and steady, the scrape and slide of scales over bark and sandy dirt. In the distance, night birds call and answer in low voice. The harvest moonlight pours like honey over the nearby trees, and beneath that light the colony of beetles marching up into the boughs of one of the trees looks like like dark water washing up from its roots.
They each say one another’s name in the same moment and then stop, waiting for the other to speak. Their apologies break at the same time too, and their huffed laughter, and then finally Beau lifts her hand and puts it fully over her own mouth. Lifts her brows, widens her eyes comically wide, as if to say, See? I can’t possibly talk now.
Jester smiles. Turns the rings on her thumb. ‘I—was gonna ask, um, and you can say no if you want because you’ve had kinda a rough couple days and,’ Jester bites her lip when Beau’s hand drops. But the other girl doesn’t talk. She folds her arms and cocks her head to the side like she did in the sewers when they had first met, and the halfling thief had been lying to them, or whenever Essek speaks in general, or anyone important or even vaguely shifty, and Jester’s stomach twists when she realises Beau is reading her. She falters, but Beau nods for her to continue and there’s nothing judgemental or harsh about her. Just intense. Jester breathes in, eyes closed, taking a moment to steady herself. What was she so afraid of? Beau knowing that she was upset? Beau already knew that she wasn’t perfectly happy all the time. Beau seeing that she was upset when she didn’t want her to see that, though? Seeing through her mask? Maybe. But – Jester looked up, caught the sad watchful eyes on her – Beau probably already did. The thought made her stomach drop, like free-falling, and Jester couldn’t tell if it was thrilling or terrifying.
‘I was wondering… Kind of hoping, really? That you could take me through that meditation again. It was… it was really nice. Calming,’ she says much more softly.
Beau doesn’t answer. Her head shifts the smallest bit, eyes sliding from her hands, from her curled shoulders, from her body language, up to her eyes. The difference was tiny; the difference was immense. She wondered for a moment if Beau really didn’t know any magic but from where she stood, it felt like the other girl was reading her mind. It was as though she had been looking at the nimbus of her, of whatever stuff it was, energy, that surrounds Jester, and now Beau is staring into the heart of Jester herself, her mind.
Beau doesn’t say anything and she doesn’t move either – not towards or away from Jester. So Jester continues.
‘I had never done that before and you know, you’re really good at it, have you ever taught people before? Oh my gosh, Beau, have you ever taught the little monks? Do they come to the Soul as, like, babies? Or are they all -‘ Jester’s eyes widen as she realises what she was about to say.
‘Kidnapped like me?’ Beau suggests, voice rough. The small laugh she tacks on is the same.
‘Nah, it’s all good.’
‘It’s not, Beau! It was shitty of him, of both of them,’
‘This coming from Miss Why Not Forgive Your Dad?’ Both of them go very still, each surprised by Beau’s words. She grimaces. ‘Sorry. Besides, I didn’t mean – I meant it’s fine for you to talk about it. I don’t care.’
‘It did bring you to me. All of us, I mean.’
Beau nods. She tilts her head just so and suddenly Jester can’t see her eyes for the deep shadows; it sends a pang of regret through her, and mild annoyance because she’s pretty sure Beau knows exactly what she’s doing to hide her face and that’s not fair.
‘Anyway,’ Beau says, not chipper but firmly, as though pulling them back onto the path where everything was clean and clear. ‘You want to meditate?’
‘Okay.’ Beau shrugs her acceptance. ‘We can mediate elsewhere but I think the hut is safer. No guarantee we won’t fall asleep this time and we shouldn’t be out in the open for that. Not this out in the open anyway.’
Beau turns and leads the way back to the hut. Jester has to keep her eyes on the forest floor—it isn’t anything like it had been walking with the Traveller, where the vines bent and warped, grew and shrunk to his design. The jungle floor is knitted and laced with the Wildmother’s intricate weave and if Jester isn’t careful, she’ll break an ankle in it.
‘Where’s your favourite place to mediate?’
Jester watches as, ahead of her, Beau’s step falters. It’s as though she locks up tight for a moment and has to prompt her body into function once more, her foot coming down slightly louder than before.
A twig snaps.
They catch their breath, glance about to see if there are any hungry creatures about. But the jungle—beyond the faint flutter of wings and the drone of many insects—is quiet.
It is broken by a single quiet word. ‘Nicodranas.’
‘My favourite place to mediate. Nicodranas.’
Jester slows as they arrive at the hut. Everyone still looks asleep and if they aren’t, well, they could still hear outside of the dome. It just feels more private to be outside, somehow.
‘Never seen so much blue before,’ Beau says, the words faintly garbled by her stepping through the dome. Not enough that Jester can’t understand.
‘You liked the ocean?’
Beau considers the question, arranging herself on the floor of the hut where she can sit and not on someone else. Jester sits beside her. It’s cramped, their thighs and hips pressed together, but it’ll do fine, Beau tells her.
‘Yeah. I did. It’s beautiful,’ she says. Jester stares. She’s never heard Beau say that before, or, if she had, she’d never said it in that tone. Almost…wistful. ‘There’s nothin’ like that in - in Kamordah. I mean, the water there’ll kill you, so,’ she shrugs.
‘The ocean has a couple teeth too,’ Jester points out.
‘Yeah. That’s true. That’s very true. It’s still beautiful.’
Beau settles into a comfortable pose, talks to her quietly for a short while as she gets Jester to focus on her breathing, on feeling it move through her body. Feeling, noting, disregarding the itching sensation of her legs falling numb. Hearing Caduceus’s soft snores and the way it melded into the drone of the insects. Focusing on one sound, trying to pull it away from the rest, before letting it return to the surroundings and choosing another sound. Jester tried, but she kept returning to the slow, calm march of Beau’s guiding words.
‘You’re supposed to be focused on breathing.’
‘I am. Look.’ Jester breathes in and out, more obviously than she needs to. Smiles when she hears Beau snort. ‘What’s your favourite colour?’
‘I asked you first.’
‘I asked you second,’ Beau counters. It would be petulant, which would delight Jester, except for the fact that she sounds uncomfortable. Jester opens her eyes and lets them skate over the furrow between Beau’s brows, the new tension in her shoulders and clenched hands. The way she cricks her neck and her jaw tics before she spits, ‘Blue.’
‘You said green, though. Before? Yesterday?’
Beau shrugs. ‘You didn’t get me with the spell. I didn’t have to tell the truth.’
‘But that means you lied,’ Jester points out. ‘Just because you could?’
Beau’s hand reaches out and settles on Jester’s wrist at the first hint of a wobble in her voice. She turns toward her, boots scratching in the dirt, and leans in so they can speak more quietly. The goggles let Beau see but Jester wishes she didn’t need them—wishes she could see Beau’s eyes unimpeded—and she lets the impulse guide her. She reaches up to lift them off, hooks her fingers under the leather; Beau hisses at the scrape of fingernails and her free hand comes up to join Jester’s.
‘Hold on, hold on, I can’t see without,’
Jester huffs. She gestures imperiously and the hut’s dim light grows brighter, ever so slightly. Beau drums her fingers on the curve of her goggles before she gives in. She helps lift them up and off, slowing when they catch on her headband. She squints, blinks against the sudden light.
Beau’s fingers slide over the soft leather. It’s dark from sweat and her fingers trip over the join into glass lenses. She folds them neatly in her lap and says, softly, ‘It wasn’t you, Jes.’
‘You just like to lie? That’s cool and fun, I guess,’ Jester says, and her voice wobbles the words far away from the point where they could be taken honestly.
‘No, no, I don’t. I’m not - like that anymore.’ Beau sounds genuinely hurt so Jester flips her hand so she’s holding Beau’s. ‘I just—I dunno. It’s always been green. I loved the valleys and the forests because they were nothing like shitville Kamordah, and I look good in green, and -‘ Her hand goes up to the new jade necklace.
‘Right. Right, right, right. And now it’s blue?’
Beau licks her lips. ‘Yeah.’
‘Because of the ocean?’ Jester asks. Her stomach is in free-fall again, though she’s sitting still, and she doesn’t really know why.
Beau just nods. Lifts her shoulders in the smallest shrug. ‘Why do you wanna know about that anyway?’
‘Oh I don’t know. Curious, I guess?’
Beau is silent for a bit. Then, ‘Okay.’
Jester finds the strangle hold on her throat tighten somewhat—Beau doesn’t care, Beau doesn’t ask because she doesn’t care, and maybe because Jester is such a good liar now that she can’t tell—but she lets the thoughts and the sensation out on the next breath.
Sucks another in.
Glancing sideways to her friend, Jester finds Beau watching—finds Beau’s face open and gentle and waiting. Peaceful. Like Jester could tell her anything and it wouldn’t flummox her at all.
‘Does this help you be wise and stuff? Think better?’
‘It helps some people, sure.’
‘Does it help you?’
Beau hesitates. ‘Sometimes,’ she says, which isn’t much of an answer. ‘There are things that meditation helps me counter. Being charmed, and stuff. Like, I’m more familiar with the patterns of my thoughts and when people try to - to pull them off course, it’s harder.’
‘But sometimes I can’t close out my thoughts and fighting is better.’
‘But it hurts.’
‘So do my thoughts, sometimes,’ Beau mutters.
Jester doesn’t think she was supposed to hear it. But she did. So she squeezes Beau’s hand tight and leans her weight into Beau’s shoulder.
‘Mine are just a lot,’ she says. It’s true but it’s a lie as well, and sometimes those are Jester’s favourite statements. Delicate, balanced, and funny only if you know both sides of the joke. ‘I think about whether Toya is singing still and if Caliana is safe and if Pride’s Call has a bunch of lion people living there—‘
‘Why would -‘
‘—and about the big bird in the tree and if it hates us or if it was like oh hey those people were really cool and one of them was a leaf the whole time, which they have to have really loved, right, because they live in a tree? You don’t make your house in a place you hate, so they have to have really liked trees and leaves and stuff…’
‘And I think about my mama sometimes,’ Jester confesses, trying not to let her tone drop from bright and cheery, ‘because I miss her and she has to miss me even more because I have all of you guys but she has no one, and I think about my dad and Vandren, Fjord’s kind of dad? And your dad,’
‘Wow. We all have daddy issues, huh?’
Jester hummed. ‘I think it’s just us three.’
‘Hmm, well, there’s time yet.’
Beau says it so casually, so well painted with cynicism, that Jester snorts. Claps a hand over her face, mortified. She can’t help but bathe in the amusement, the warm regard that positively shines out of Beau’s eyes when she smiles Jester’s way.
‘Do you wanna try some more?’ Beau asks her, and it’s gentle like she knows there’s more on Jester’s mind, like she knows that’s just what’s on the surface.
‘If you don’t mind.’
‘Nah. I don’t mind. It’ll help me sleep too.’
It’s maybe not perfect meditation practice, but Beau doesn’t let go of her hand.