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how many roads must we walk down

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It starts with: “Babe. Are we catering to the dairy pedant?”

It starts with Amicia wishing she was wearing a thicker jacket even though she should be in this aisle for all of twelve seconds. And Mélie is just one aisle away, just right around the corner in the fresh food section, probably bickering with her brother (who didn’t trust either of them to buy food he would eat and had insisted on tagging along for their weekly games’ night prep; “Not after last week’s fiasco,” he’d said, citing the vegetarian noodle salad debacle – it’s a valid criticism).

It starts about a month out from Christmas. Give or take a few last minute sales.

Mélie does not reply. An unusual enough occurrence that Amicia decides to forgo shivering beside the blocks of cheese and shuffles around to the fruit and veg stands.

She finds there a tableau like no other. Where the baked goods meets fresh produce, Arthur stands clutching a long roll of crispy bread to his chest as if he expects it to ward off evil spirits. Holding a plastic bag of tomatoes forgotten at her side, mouth agape and shoulders slouched, is Mélie. And between them both, a shopping basket dangling precariously from two fingers and a bag of grapes spilling at her feet, is a woman Amicia doesn’t know. Blonde, about Mélie’s height, pale-faced (though under the circumstances that may not be an indication of her natural complexion), and jaw swung low, she stares at Arthur as though he’s some horrible spectral apparition about to rip her throat out with bloodied claws.

For what could very well be an eternity, the scene remains frozen just so, filled with the tinkling of early onset Christmas carols through the store’s speakers.

Then Amicia says, “Babe?” and the whole thing shatters.

Mélie turns first – no surprise, and neither is the warmth that curls insistently through Amicia’s chest in response to her attention. (The only surprise is that she still gets the same breath snatching sparklers even after years.) There’s no cheeky smile tilting her lips, however, and that keeps the stutter of her heart from developing further. Next, Arthur’s eyes flick her way, just briefly, before he’s staring at the woman again.

And for her part, this mystery lady never wavers; she stares so intently at Arthur it’s a wonder her eyes don’t bore holes in his skull. She takes a step closer, lifts a wary hand, mutters something Amicia doesn’t catch. Backing up a half-pace, Arthur avoids her grasp; shoulders square and tense.

“I’m not,” he says, voice flat and hard – the opposite of his usual demeanour. “I don’t know you.”

He makes to step past her and the woman follows the movement, eyes wide and pleading, caught somewhere between shock and sorrow and purest confusion. When those eyes slip past Amicia to Mélie, her brows lift a little higher, mouth works a little faster in its search for something to say.

The words she finds are enough to stiffen Amicia’s spine. “Ah… Arthur?”

Arthur freezes in his tracks, his weight all on one foot.

“Arthur Dubois?”

His other foot hits the ground with a sharp twitch. Unable to look away from Arthur and the blonde lady who somehow knows his name, Amicia feels rather than sees when Mélie slides closer. Not close enough that Amicia can take her hand, but closer, a comforting warmth just there, a support.

Slowly, Arthur turns again. He repeats, “I don’t know you, lady.” But there’s a resigned wobble to his tone suggesting otherwise. The woman might not pick up on that though.

Shoulders slumping, the blonde sighs. “I don’t suppose you do. And… can’t say I really know you either, I guess.”

Before considering the wisdom of voicing her thoughts, Amicia asks, “Why should you?”

Now the woman allows her gaze to take in Amicia, just quickly, then she’s settling on Mélie. She gets this awful feeling like this weird lady is trying to catalogue every defining feature about each of the twins, as if filing it all away to take out and smooth over on rainy days. There’s only one obvious reaction, too: when her eyes snag on Mélie’s scar, then she’s back to staring.

And saying unsettling shit like, “You’ve grown up so well…”

Mélie goes rigid, exuding a general aura of discomfort, irritation… no… perhaps more insolence at being addressed so. Annoyed that a stranger would make any suggestion that she might dare presume to know anything about her. About either of them. Amicia understands the sentiment.

“Since we can all agree we don’t know each other,” Mélie says coldly, “how about we go our separate ways.” The icy sharpness to her tone, the almost cultivated lack of emotion betrays her. It requires physical effort to prevent Amicia from turning, reaching out, pulling Mélie close. Not that Amicia knows why she’s so affected, just that she is.

And when she manages to tear her gaze from the lady, allows her eyes to trace gently over Mélie’s features, she sees a clenched jaw, squared shoulders, the sort of standoffish posture Amicia hasn’t seen her adopt in years. It’s… uncomfortable.

But then the woman – lurching forward, hand outstretched – breathes, “Mélie? Please.”

Her words – said so softly – are met with a sharp flinch, a whole body tilt away as if to retreat from something venomous and malicious. The shift of Mélie’s frame angles her towards Amicia and she very nearly succumbs to that urge to reach for her. But there’s still something iron in her expression and that welds Amicia’s feet to the spot.

No longer pinned by whatever spell the woman had cast on him, Arthur’s eyes refocus on the present, he rolls his shoulders, takes a few slow, deliberate strides to stand beside Amicia. Almost the three of them line up, a united front against the stranger. Amicia grasps blindly with her right hand until she finds his – palm already turned towards hers as if he’d been waiting for exactly this – and laces their fingers together, squeezes. She may not be fully sure what’s happening, but she knows he needs the reassurance.

Shaking her head, tightening her fist on the bag of tomatoes, Mélie steps back, keeping distance between her and this woman. She also says, “No,” in a tone so, so icy it rekindles Amicia’s desire for a heavier coat. Mélie turns away from her, blinks at Amicia. “Cheese,” she huffs. And just like that she spins and storms off.

Amicia watches her go, but Arthur draws her attention back when his hold on her hand tightens briefly. Now, fascination held not entirely by the twins, the woman seems to finally realise Amicia knows them; her eyes drop to their joined hands and her expression… shifts. She’s not stupid, she knows what conclusion this woman is drawing, but she also doesn’t want to engage her in further conversation.

So when the lady opens her mouth to speak, Amicia interrupts: “You dropped your grapes.” The woman blinks at her, a little dumbfounded perhaps, but her gaze is diverted long enough that Amicia has enough time to tug on Arthur’s hand and murmur, “Let’s go.”

It takes a beat to get Arthur going, but once he starts walking he simply follows along with her. Circling back around the end of the aisle, they find Mélie bent over slightly, one hand white-knuckled on the door of the freezer, glaring absolute death at the colourful children’s yoghurt packs.

With a final squeeze, she releases Arthur’s hand and closes the space to Mélie in half a long stride, rests one hand on the small of her back, pries gently at the fingers on the door. “Hey,” she mutters, prompting Mélie to look at her, the fire in her eyes ebbing. It’s a curious mix of emotions: the last embers of her anger, coiling smoke of fear, and overlaying them both is the usual softness with which she always looks at Amicia. “Let’s finish up and go home.”

Mélie’s eyes close slowly and she inhales one deep breath, letting it out in a whispering sigh. “Yeah. Let’s.”

They don’t split up this time, moving as a group down the aisles to ward against another potential ambush, and scooping up items as they go. That block of cheese (finally), a few more fixings for burgers, and snacks for games night this evening. Neither twin says anything about the weird woman and Amicia doesn’t ask.

Not in the store, not in the car on the way home, not even while they cook the food. Mélie’s face remains tight until Lucas bustles through their door, arms around board games and more assorted bags of chips and sweets than they could possibly need. His eyes go big when he sees their own pile and he sighs, “Oh.”

That’s about when Arthur’s shoulders drop and a warm smile finally graces his face. Just like that, the tension oozes from them both and – for a while, at least – they’re back to normal.

Rodric appears mere moments later, dishevelled and wild, brandishing a plastic bag from one hand. “I got it,” he says, unhelpful.

Whatever psychic bond he’s developed with Arthur of late clearly kicks in, though, because he says, “Really?” in the most childish wonder-filled voice she’s ever heard. And he practically launches himself into Rodric to wrest his arm out of the air and peel the plastic away.

What he pulls from inside is a video game case but he presses it to his chest before Amicia can see what it is.

Mélie leans into her side with the answer: “Smash Bros.”

“Ah.” Good. So they’ll all hate each other by the end of the evening.

Lucas, knowing the same thing she does, groans. “Can we at least eat before you start picking fights?”

Arthur pats his shoulder briefly. “Of course we can. But I will be victorious this time.”

“In your dreams, buddy,” Rodric laughs.

It’s fine. It’s a good evening.

Arthur gets upset (as he always does: theatrical and whiny) when Mélie and Amicia inevitably team up (unofficially, illegally) for Cluedo. Lucas is awful at team playing during Epidemic but when he’s finally talked into Smash Bros, he kicks Arthur’s butt to unanimous shock.

“Fluke,” Lucas insists.

“Maybe.” Rodric doesn’t sound convinced.

It’s a fluke. He wins one other round much later and it’s only because Mélie (knocked out first and growing bored) decides this is the perfect time to use her mouth to distract Amicia. And of course she’s successful, which allows Lucas to punt her Link off the platform and into next Wednesday. He says something high pitched and thrilled, but Amicia is too focused on Mélie’s hand on her hip, thumb pressing under the hem of her shirt, what her tongue’s doing just under her jaw to hear what he actually says.

She does squawk, though, when Mélie accidentally drops an elbow into her thigh after a pillow smacks into the back of her head.

“Hey,” Amicia grouches, leaning around her. “Rude.”

It was Arthur – no surprises – who threw it. “None of that shit in public.”

Exhaling heavily, Mélie tilts herself, a soft, warm weight, into Amicia’s side and turns a lazy smile on her brother. “You moved out for a reason. Off you go.”

“You’re chasing us out? The nerve?” Arthur huffs.

But Lucas is stuffing a fist into his mouth to stifle a yawn and Rodric is checking the time on his phone. “It is pretty late, Art,” Rodric tells him.

“Yeah, I could use a sleep,” Lucas confirms.

Even though she can’t see it, Amicia knows with certainty that Mélie’s smile is smug. Arthur grouches and whines and pouts, but he helps pack up the games and pile rubbish in the bin and lets Rodric usher him to the door.

“We’ll see you soon, yeah?” Lucas asks.

“Of course.” Mélie offers him a fist to bop and once done he even turns it willingly to Amicia for the same. “Tuesday.”

“If not sooner,” Amicia adds.

He beams, prods Arthur in the kidneys to get him outside and then they’re gone. Just the two of them left. Mélie opens her mouth, god knows what she intends to say, but whatever it is, she’s interrupted by her jaw cracking loudly around a yawn.

Amicia laughs, leans into her space, elbows on shoulders so she can pull Mélie in to kiss her. “It’s bed time,” she mumbles against her lips.

She gets a hum in response, and Mélie’s hands on her waist, warm and steady and present. “Doesn’t have to be.”

“Yes, it does. You have to get up at like five tomorrow.”

“It’s fine.”

Amicia huffs a laugh, kisses her again, pulls away. “You’ll regret it.”

“Yeah.”

She still doesn’t let go of Amicia’s hand until she absolutely must, though. And she dithers long enough that Amicia is already in bed, tucked up and reading, waiting. When Mélie crawls in with her, throws a leg over one of Amicia’s and an arm around her waist, it’s with a tired sigh and a soft grumble.

“Why am I so tired?” she enquires of Amicia’s stomach.

“Because your job requires an early start and you sit up too late,” Amicia tells her flatly, turning the light off.

“Ugh.”

They lie in silence for maybe five minutes, long enough that Mélie should be asleep, but Amicia can still hear her breathing, not quite the even hum just yet. Her fingers twitch, slip under the hem of Amicia’s shirt and smooth over the skin there absently.

“Do you wanna talk about it?” she asks softly.

There’s a beat where she thinks maybe Mélie won’t answer; then she exhales again and wriggles around until she can press her nose into the hollow of Amicia’s throat (and her movement pulls her shirt askew in the process). Another beat follows where the only thing to even vaguely constitute a response is the warm press of Mélie’s lips on her shoulder and a faint sigh.

Then she finally says, “It’s not important,” the words thrumming through Amicia’s skin.

“You both knew that woman.”

Honestly, it speaks to how much Mélie has grown that she doesn’t even flinch, remains just as soft and warm under her hand. Even if she does scrunch her nose up, tuck it a little more firmly into Amicia’s neck.

Eventually though, she pulls back, squeezes at Amicia’s hip and says, “Yeah. We did.” After a second where her mouth twists sourly, she adds, “A long time ago.”

With a huff of a laugh, Amicia brushes her fingers across Mélie’s cheek and into her hair. “I don’t want to make this sound less dramatic, but I’ve literally known you for over ten years now. How long ago are we talking?”

Mélie barks a bitter laugh. “Okay. Fine. A really long time ago. We were kids.” Her free hand finds Amicia’s and tangles their fingers together. “That was… ugh. The crazy lady was our mum.”

Before she can really stop herself, Amicia’s fingers have tightened in Mélie’s hair to the point it must be painful. It gets Mélie to meet her eyes, though. Wariness flickers behind the warm blue of them, the warm blue that she loves so much.

“Your mother,” Amicia repeats, voice hollow in her ears. “The woman who left when you were like four and you haven’t seen since?”

“That’s the one.”

“The woman who left you with your asshole father?”

“Good song, and yes. The very same.”

“And she…” Amicia rolls her eyes up to the ceiling and when they come back down to Mélie’s face again, there’s a (not-bitter) smile gracing her lips. “She just…”

“Recognised us, yes.”

“Wanted to talk to you, I was gonna say,” Amicia corrects. “Like she just went out to the store and got stuck in traffic.”

“I mean, we’ve never claimed to have very good parents, princess.”

Amicia rolls her eyes. “I didn’t expect her to try and strike up a conversation like nothing was wrong.”

Mélie drops her chin onto Amicia’s chest. “Probably just surprised we were both still kicking.”

“What a horrible thing to say.”

“I mean,” she begins with an arched eyebrow but cuts off, yawning. She tries again, “I mean, she can’t have expected much leaving us with him.” With a sigh, Mélie rolls her face to the side and curls up properly against her. “I’m surprised you’re not trying to talk me into giving her a chance to explain herself.”

Amicia shuffles herself around a little more so tugging Mélie closer (a nearly impossible task given how close they already are) aligns their bodies like puzzle pieces clicking together. This action facilitates her ability to kiss her on the nose, also, which is nice.

“If she wanted to get to know you, she wouldn’t have walked out on you,” she mumbles. “And if she wanted to explain something, she’s had years to get in contact. A random encounter doesn’t give her any right to expect that from you.”

The only way Amicia knows Mélie is laughing is from how her chest vibrates. And when she pushes herself up on one elbow just enough that she can look Amicia in the eyes, her expression is filled with all that wonderful warmth that echoes bright and cosmic in her chest. She scooches forward far enough that she can tip down and plant a proper kiss against Amicia’s mouth. But she doesn’t.

She just breathes the words against Amicia’s lips, “Have I told you I love you today?”

“A few times,” she replies, the hand in Mélie’s hair slipping to the back of her neck to make it easier to pull her in the last of the way. “But it’s nice to hear again.”

“I love you,” Mélie whispers.

“Hm,” Amicia hums. “I love you.” This time, when Amicia tugs at her, Mélie allows herself to be reeled in, weight resting across her. “Get some sleep. You can shit-talk your mother more in the morning.”

It takes Mélie a moment to give up kissing her and settle back down, but she does, with a final huff of a laugh. “Yeah. Goodnight, Amicia.”

 

-

 

Only one thing interrupts Amicia before she usually gets up at nine, and that’s Mélie slipping out of bed at six. She rolls over when she feels Mélie stir, not quite awake but pulled from whatever weird dream she’s having to the edge of awareness. It’s enough that she remembers whining at Mélie, remembers getting a soft laugh in reply.

Remembers Mélie leaning back down to kiss her gently with a mumbled, “Go back to sleep.”

There are worse things to disturb her rest.

Notably, the god-forsaken banging that starts up around seven. It pounds against the inside of her skull like it wants to kick off a migraine and won’t hear anything to the contrary; it’s incessant and just irregular enough to annoy and did she mention loud. This time when she grumbles and kicks at the blanket, there’s nothing gentle about it.

She tromps to the window, rips the curtains back and drops her forehead to the glass with a pained thunk. Renovations are starting down the street. Amicia has read exactly none of the information beyond the start date, so she’s not sure what’s becoming of the old office complex, could be anything but she really hopes it’s just fixing structural issues or whatever. Anything else and they’ll be demolishing and rebuilding for months and she cannot articulate how much it will suck to wake up to this every morning for the foreseeable future.

In a pointless attempt to block out the noise, Amicia pulls the curtains too and storms into the kitchen. Poking through the cupboards and fridge, however, reveals something that she should’ve thought of sooner: they went shopping last night but were in such a hurry to leave after their encounter with Mélie’s mum that they hadn’t actually completed their shopping. They’d grabbed food for dinner and some snacks; nothing for breakfast or lunch or whatever else. Which means Mélie will probably buy lunch, no doubt skipped breakfast altogether, but that’s no help to Amicia right now, staring vacantly into the fridge as it beeps at her to close the door.

After a bit she finally does as it requests.

Then she sends a text: if i go get some groceries for the rest of the week is there anything u want

It pings while she’s pulling her shoes on with a reply from Mélie. nothin specific comes to mind?

So she shoots back a heart emoji and leaves.

From their apartment to the store isn’t all that far, but she drives anyway just in case she ends up with way more stuff than she could reasonably carry by herself. This time, before she heads in, Amicia shrugs into a cardigan specifically to survive the cold food section.

Pushing a cart along the aisles is way less fun without Mélie, honestly. In fact, it’s downright boring to mosey around thinking about what food they’ll need until Friday. And in a few cases planning further ahead for Christmas. She still doesn’t know for certain what everyone’s doing on the day, but she can probably assume safely that the twins will have Christmas with her family, maybe Lucas and Laurentius will join them. Perhaps the five of them will do something the eve of, maybe not until Boxing Day. Regardless of the logistics there are a few things it can’t hurt to have; like chocolates and themed jelly lollies and party hats.

As she’s staring at packets of pasta, her phone vibrates. Then it vibrates again while she retrieves it.

Mélie: if ur still there? can u grab powdered onion and slivered almonds?

if ur done i'll get it otw home

Amicia: i got it no worries

She receives a lipstick emoji for her trouble. It makes her smile. That’s it: the highlight of her shopping adventure. The rest is all meat and vegetables and fruits and rice and their usual assortment of cooking requisitions. On the way through the frozen foods she grabs a tub of Mélie’s favourite ice-cream too. Just because.

It isn’t until she’s actually loading the bags into her car that she’s grateful not to be carrying it all home. How do they eat so much food anyway? It’s just the two of them since Arthur moved out and they still seem to be at the store every other day. Every third day if they’re lucky. Maybe they should make a proper grocery list and try and go only once a week. (Even as she’s thinking this it sounds outrageous. They’d never do it.)

She’s just put the key in the ignition when a door opens across the street and she looks up without thinking. The door belongs to a herbal remedy store, just a small place wedged between a novelty hobbyist shop and a place selling footwear. It’s the woman leaving the store who catches her eye: the blonde from the produce section, Mélie’s mother.

Now that she’s not as surprised and confused, Amicia has a chance to really look at her. She is pale, the blonde fades near the roots – evidence that she dyes it, chipped polish glints on her fingernails as she hefts the hessian bag from the shop. And something else… It takes a moment for Amicia’s brain to register that it’s a wedding band. The woman flips her hair back and with the movement, her eyes catch on Amicia.

For a moment they just stare at each other. Then the woman moves, takes a step like she wants to come over and Amicia remembers she’s holding the car keys. She turns it and the engine thrums to life which means she can escape.

Her hands are white-knuckled on the wheel as she drives; she’s half-way home before realising that she doesn’t know if this woman has a car, if she could follow. So she takes the next turn and drives aimlessly for ten minutes until it occurs to her that she wasn’t driving aimlessly, she was, in fact, going to Rodric’s.

She pulls into his driveway so she can turn around. He’s not home. Neither is Arthur, probably. Maybe Lucas? But she has cold food so she just goes home. Is it paranoia that she drove around on the off-chance her girlfriend’s mum would follow her home? Is it stalking if the woman had? What’s the term for an estranged parent trying to make contact after so long?

These are the questions she ponders as she packs the food into cupboards. Those same questions distract her from the readings she’s supposed to be doing and revision for exams next week. They’re still rattling around her brain causing disruptions when Mélie kicks open the door at just after five.

“Hey, I’m gonna order Thai, I don’t wanna cook.” She thumps around in the living room for a second and then something whooshes down the hall behind her and Amicia turns from her laptop in the office room (the one that used to be Arthur’s bedroom) in time to see Mélie’s other shoe go flying into their bedroom. In time to see the woman herself stick her head around the doorframe and offer the brightest most wonderful smile in the world. “Sound alright?”

Amicia hums. “Oh, yes.”

Mélie enters the room fully, pads across the carpet in her socks to lean down and peer into Amicia’s face. “You doing okay?” To punctuate her question, she drops a gentle kiss to the corner of Amicia’s mouth.

“Saw your mum again today,” she mumbles.

She feels how Mélie’s nose scrunches up. “Ugh.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Unfortunately.”

Finally dragging herself from the weird places her thoughts have been hanging out, Amicia slides her fingers into Mélie’s belt loops and pulls her down onto her lap. “Yeah, what is it?”

“Lorraine, I think? I was really young at the time, remember,” Mélie explains, settling herself properly with an arm around Amicia’s shoulders. “Was still calling her mummy.” Her fingers tug the band from Amicia’s hair and twirl it absently. “What’d she want?”

“Don’t know. I was in the car and she was coming out of a shop across the road,” she mumbles. “Didn’t give her a chance to try and talk, just drove away.” She hesitates before adding with a breathy laugh, “Like a paranoid person who thought she might follow me.”

“Thanks,” Mélie chuckles, tipping lower to kiss her cheek. “Don’t want her knowing where I live.” Her mouth trails down, down. “Don’t want her stalking you either.”

The words, whispered – purred – into Amicia’s skin make her shiver and her hands tighten against Mélie’s hips. “Thanks,” she murmurs and it comes out breathless, hoarse. Somehow her brain skips through all the things Mélie makes her feel, makes some tenuous connections (that she will not think about) and suddenly she’s remembering another detail and blurting, “I think she’s married.”

It startles Mélie enough for her to pull away. “What?”

“She was wearing a wedding ring.”

Mélie’s mouth works soundlessly for a moment before she shrugs. “No business of mine if she is.”

Amicia smooths a hand up her back. “I know. I’ve just spent all afternoon thinking about… stuff. Like… What if she lives near here? We might see her a bunch. What if… Mélie, what if she has more kids?”

Her fingers tighten in Amicia’s hair. “They’re not my kids,” she grumbles, “so I don’t care.”

She tips an eyebrow up. “And the other?”

The way Mélie looks at her makes Amicia wish she hadn’t asked; a tingle down her spine and that flickering ember in her stomach. “If we see her then I guess we see her,” she says with a half-shrug. “And I’ll be ignoring her.” To really emphasise the effect, Mélie inches closer, kisses her slowly, purposefully. Amicia doesn’t understand what the purpose is – too lost in her lips to think about it – until she pulls back a hair’s breadth and whispers, “What made you think to tell me she’s married, anyway?”

Amicia smooths a hand behind her ear, urging her closer. “I don’t know. You addle my brain.”

It makes Mélie laugh, low in her throat; a little bit teasing and a little bit the kind of promise to make Amicia squirm. “I’ll addle other things too.”

“That makes no sense.”

“Don’t care.”

 

--

 

Mélie must tell Arthur at some point because Amicia bumps into him right near her campus that Thursday. She’s leaving the coffee shop – hot chocolate in hand – and he’s coming out of the local grocer’s two shops down; he’s got two bags (heavy if the edges pressing through the plastic are anything to go by) in one hand and his phone in the other.

“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” he’s saying when he stops beside Amicia. “I’m on my way home now.” He must be talking to Rodric. “Nah, I’ll walk. See you later.” Tucking his phone into a pocket, he shifts one bag to the other hand and offers her a bright smile. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Fancy it,” she says wryly. “What brings you all the way over here?”

The bags rustle when he shrugs. “Heard you saw mother dearest at the store. Mélie said you think she might live nearby and I didn’t wanna risk it alone.”

“I suppose that’s fair.” He starts walking and she falls into step beside him absently. “Did she say anything else? Should I expect her to insist we drive all this way for food?”

Both of Arthur’s eyebrows shoot up. “She hasn’t said anything?”

“Apparently her plan is to ignore her.”

His eyebrows drop. “Yeah, that’s what she told me, too. Seems right, but,” Arthur’s eyes cut to her just for a second, “you’re worried?”

Amicia sighs. “Not about Mélie. I get why she doesn’t want to talk to her.” He opens his mouth with a frown but then snaps his teeth together. “Yeah, she was surprised by that, too. I’m more worried about how our lives will be forced to change to accommodate your mother. We can’t live under this like… shadow of her presence, that’s not healthy.”

He laughs softly, shifting so the plastic handles are wrapped around his wrists. “Oh yes, I feel that. Feel it right in my shoulders at the moment.”

“And can you imagine explaining to Lucas that we have to rearrange our lives because your mother moved into the neighbourhood?”

His laugh is more honest this time. “Oh… that would be fun. Let’s tell him we’re moving again.”

“Ha! You’re on your own with that one.”

“Are you gonna walk all the way home with me?”

Amicia stops dead on the footpath, looks around. “Oh. No, I have another class.” She turns but steps back so they’re still next to each other. “Are you free tomorrow evening?”

“I’m not, I have a date. Rodric and Lucas will be there though.”

She hums thoughtfully. “Alright. Have fun and please send a text this time if someone’s going home with you.”

And now his laugh is full-bodied. “I will make no such promises for the second.”

“I have no idea how Lucas lives with you.”

He takes a few steps away and calls back, “Me neither!”

 

--

 

Half-way home from her class on Friday afternoon she gets a text from Mélie: we have no bread rolls for dinner, could you stop on your way back and grab some. It is accompanied by a truly alarming number of question marks and a heart emoji. Since she only drives to class when she has to pick groceries up, she’s sitting on the bus, ear phones in, not paying her surrounds much attention.

The text snaps her to reality, though. It takes her a second to pick a street sign out through the fogged windows and gloom of the evening, but when she does, anxiety lends strength to her knees in propelling her out of her seat and towards the doors, smacking a ‘stop’ button furiously on the way. Amicia has to hook her elbow around one of the posts when the bus takes a corner and then she nearly tips over when the driver immediately applies the brakes.

“Thanks, sir,” she says as she swings from the post out the door, stumbling half a pace when she hits the pavement. The bus would have dropped her off only two blocks from their apartment building, but their nearest grocery store is two stops prior to that, the stops are pretty close together, but she’ll still probably be home later than she would like.

So she sends a text to Mélie, at the store now, might be home late

no worries be safe

The streets are bathed in light from shopfronts and streetlamps so she’s not particularly worried about getting hurt somehow but she suspects that’s not what Mélie was alluding to. It’s funny, she thinks as she crosses the carpark into the store, how something so simple as going to buy food has become a truly gymnastic exercise. And a stressful one at that. Even as she walks through the doors Amicia peers down the aisles to see if Lorraine is lurking amongst the cereals. Ridiculous.

Amicia does her best to put all thoughts of being stalked by Mélie’s mother out of her head. Instead, she mouths along with the lyrics of the song playing through her earphones and makes a beeline for the in-store bakery. At this time of the day, most of the shelves are empty but she bounces along them in time to the music anyway, just to be sure. A few lonely loaves of bread remain, and a couple of plastic trays of croissants hang out with the muffins. No rolls though.

She whirls at the end of the shelf and bops over to the bakery counter. There’s no one there at the moment so she pulls out one earbud and calls, “Hello?” into the space.

It takes a moment before a young man in a white apron pokes his head out from a back room. His hands are layered thickly with flour as he dusts them absently down his front. “Hi?”

“Sorry to bother,” she says, popping the other bud out of her ear. “Are there any rolls of bread hiding back there?”

“Is the shelf empty, is it?”

“Basically.”

“Ah,” he hums. “Hang on.” He’s back not a few seconds later with a trolley loaded with baked goods. “What were you after?”

“Rolls.” Amicia holds the bench flap up so he can push the trolley through and snags a bag from the middle shelf as it goes. “Thanks.”

“Have a good evening,” he tells her.

She plugs her other earbud back in and makes for the self-service checkout. Not bothering to grab a bag, Amicia queues behind an older fellow with a handbasket filled with canned fruit. She’s seen stranger things in people’s shopping.

He’s scanning the cans and stacking them meticulously in bags made of thick fabric or maybe vinyl (clearly he’s done this enough to know he needs very sturdy bags for so many cans) when someone grabs Amicia’s elbow. It startles her enough to nearly drop the bread. What kind of weirdo touches some stranger in the supermarket?

Almost, as she turns, she expects it to be Arthur or something even though he’d said he wouldn’t be here this evening.

In the queue behind her, crowding well into her personal space (and therefore cutting off any hope of polite escape), is Lorraine. Her hair is pulled back into a tidy bun, only a few errant strands wisp away from her otherwise immaculate do and speak to a long day; a pair of square half-rim glasses perch on her nose but do not at all conceal the spark of desperation in her blue eyes (eyes Amicia tries not to dwell on too much – they are eerily familiar); a grey, pinstriped skirt suit hints at an office job and the polish on her fingers has been tidied since the last time. This close, Amicia can tell without a doubt that the ring on her left hand is a marriage band, an ostentatious engagement ring sits with it – probably it’s the one that did the sparkling the other day.

All of this, Amicia takes in with a quick flick of her eyes and then she twitches away sharply. She doesn’t get a chance to drop the bread and bolt for the door though. Unfortunately.

“You know my children.”

No question mark there.

Amicia rips her eyes away, stares at the ceiling. “I don’t know you.” Silently, she wills the old man to scan his cans faster. Please, scan them faster. Perhaps if she stares at them intently enough it might happen.

“I’m Lorraine,” she says, scooting a little closer, trying to squeeze into Amicia’s field of view. “Lorraine Tesson. How are they?”

Brow furrowing, Amicia stares harder at the cans. It’s more of a glare at this point. She doesn’t answer.

“Please,” Lorraine says softly. “Please.”

She shakes her head. “Nope.”

Fingers clutch at her sleeve again and Amicia unwillingly turns to look at her again, wrenching her arm free. “Please. You can’t know… I’ve… I just… Is Seamus…?”

Amicia snaps, rounds on her. They’re about the same height but anger makes her feel taller, makes her quiver, hand fisting around the top of the bread, it makes her voice hard. “If you wanted to know something, you could’ve come looking for them.” She leans closer, her tone dropping from cold to frigid and Lorraine takes a half pace back. “You could have not abandoned them with him.”

Every word has Lorraine flinching. “I never wanted… He was so violent and I… I…”

“Left,” Amicia finishes for her. “You left. And you left your kids with him.”

Something steel flashes in her eyes then, a challenge. “I wanted to go back,” she says. “I wanted to get them away from him but…” The challenge fades as a memory of some kind flickers across her face. “I made a mistake.”

“An understatement,” Amicia tells her flatly. “Do you live around here?”

Still lost in whatever event she’s reliving, Lorraine replies absently, perhaps saying more than she means, “Yes, we moved for the schools. The apartment building by the gym. My…” Reality returns to her eyes and her teeth click together. Oh yes, she definitely said more than she intended.

The man with the cans finally finishes with his checkout and Amicia steps away from Lorraine properly. “Fine.” She scans her bread as fast as possible and keeps backing up. Lorraine can’t follow, she has her own shopping to do, but before making a break for it, Amicia adds, “Leave us alone.”

It takes an effort not to let her feet bust into a sprint and her shoulders remain tense the whole way home.

 

--

 

“You were quiet during dinner,” Mélie murmurs leaning into her side while she does the dishes later. “Didn’t even laugh at Rodric’s stupid comments about Arthur. You alright?”

Her shoulders lift without permission and it’s not until Mélie’s fingers skate under her shirt to brush at her hip that she relaxes. Tension escapes her in a great sigh. “Your mother cornered me at the store,” she admits in a whisper. “At the checkout.”

Now it’s Mélie’s turn to tense, fingers freezing. Her voice is devoid of all emotion when she asks, “Did she say something?”

Amicia turns, wipes her hands on the towel to remove the suds and wraps her arms around Mélie’s shoulders. “She just kept asking how you are.” She shakes her head even as she tucks her nose into Mélie’s neck. “Didn’t tell her anything.”

She feels a huff in response to that but the only real reaction is the way her fingers tighten in Amicia’s shirt. “Why is this happening? Was she looking for us?”

“I don’t think so. She said she moved recently.”

“You asked where she lives?”

“Yeah. Nearby.” She pulls back. “Do you want to know?”

Mélie shakes her head fiercely but her eyes are staring off out the window, perhaps she’s seeing into a dimension where her mother remained a constant in her life. “No,” she says at length, looking back at Amicia. “I don’t. I don’t want anything to do with her.”

“Alright.” She brushes her hand over Mélie’s cheek and behind her ear, pulls her close enough to kiss softly. “Alright,” she repeats against her lips. “Hopefully she’ll leave us alone.”

“Hopefully.”

 

--

 

Is it a bad thing that she didn’t tell Mélie her plan? Maybe. There’s a few wiggly worms of guilt gnawing at her stomach over it. But Mélie’s decision does not have to be Arthur’s too.

So she knocks on their door and is unsurprised when Lucas answers.

“Did Arthur come home last night?” she asks after greetings are exchanged and he’s put the kettle on.

“Yes. He’s in his room.”

“Alone?”

He turns part way back to look at her over his shoulder. “Yes? Why?”

“My visit is for him, specifically,” she mutters, slumping over the counter. “It’s… uh. Well, it’s a personal thing.”

This time, Lucas turns fully, brows pinching over his eyes. “Should I be worried?”

“Hm? About what?”

His eye roll speaks volumes, but at this early in the morning she’s just too tired to read them. Lucas must know that because he adds, “You’re coming to visit Arthur at an ungodly hour on the weekend by yourself.” And that’s enough to flick a switch in her head.

It makes her wheeze a laugh. “I’m not cashing in one twin for the other, Lucas. It’s just… I don’t know if he’ll want to share just yet.”

Now, his eyebrows climb towards his hairline. “Did he get someone pregnant?”

Her laugh is more full bodied this time and she has to sit up properly. “Not as far as I know.” She rests her chin in her palm as he pours tea. “It’s not serious, Lucas. But it is up to him to share.”

“Alright. Do you want sugar or honey?”

“Sugar, please.” She waits until she has both hands cupped around the mug before asking, “Are you and Laurentius having Christmas with us this year?”

“We do every year.”

“And every year mum wants an RSVP or something.”

He makes a thoughtful noise and they lapse into silence. Then, “Do you want me to go wake him up?”

“If he’s not here by the time I finish my tea I’ll do it myself.”

Arthur is not, unluckily for him, awake by the time she finishes her tea, so it is with a moderately evil cackle that she pushes his door in. A thick cover is pulled up over Arthur’s head but his feet stick out just slightly from the other end. She trails her hand up the blanket, probing gently until she finds his shoulders, then she peels the cover back just slightly so she can find his neck. Then she skitters her fingers – twitching like spiders – over his bare shoulder, across his back (because like his sister he tends to lay face down in his sleep) and up around his neck.

It takes a little moment, but the gratification of the way he flops and shrieks is incredible.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he basically squeals launching himself away from the bed, one hand jerking over his shoulder to slap at his back. But he spots Amicia at the same time he registers her laughter. “Not fucking funny, Amicia. What the hell?”

“Okay, it was a little funny,” she says around her gasping. “Mélie waited until you’d moved out to tell me you’re deathly afraid of spiders.”

“Nearly gave me a bloody heart attack, woman. Why?”

She offers him an unapologetic shrug. “Because I had the opportunity.”

He scratches absently at his chest. “Yeah. Why are you here anyway?”

Amicia slips off the bed to press the door closed with her heel before she sits back down. “Okay. So it’s about your mother.”

“Oh my god.”

“Look,” she says, shaking her head. “I had this conversation with Mélie last night but… well she’s your mother too.”

“Do I need to be fully dressed for this?”

“Only if talking to your sister’s girlfriend in your underwear makes you uncomfortable.”

“I… yeah.” He leaps from bed to rummage around in the pile of clothes stacked haphazardly on his desk chair. Likely it’s all been laundered just not put away. A nasty habit of his. He wriggles into a pair of jeans and bellyflops onto the bed beside her. “Right. Lay it on me.”

So she relates her encounter with Lorraine the previous evening in as few words as possible, his face is hard the whole time. When she gets to the end and says, “Mélie didn’t want to, but would you like to know where she lives?” everything about his posture seems to close despite being sprawled on the bed.

“She’s not going anywhere, is she?” he asks, flat.

Amicia shakes her head. “Doesn’t seem like it. She…” A pause as she scans Arthur’s face for any indication he doesn’t want to hear the next part. His expression is carefully blank; no help. “She said she moved for the schools. I think she has more kids. At least one.”

Now he sags. “Kids?” His mouth works soundlessly for a moment. “I… could have siblings?”

“Seems so.”

“I…” His eyes are distant, but not fearful. Amicia sits with him until he’s ready. It’s a good five minutes at least before Arthur’s eyes fix on her sharply and he says, “Where?”

 

--

 

Once again, it feels dishonest to be sneaking off with Arthur on Sunday while Mélie is running errands. Sometimes Amicia accompanies her on the little trips she makes into the nearest large-ish shopping district for art supplies and the like, but with her exams starting soon, it hadn’t been too abnormal for her to claim her need for study. She does need to study, that wasn’t a lie. But it’s a lie if she doesn’t do what she said she was going to, right? Whatever the case, her guilt-worms are multiplying and she’s worried her stomach won’t last much longer.

“Mélie doesn’t know you’re coming with me,” Arthur asks softly as they walk from the bus stop to their destination. “Does she?”

“No,” Amicia whines. “I should have told her but she’s so determined to pretend she has no mother and I didn’t want her to worry or anything.” She lifts her shoulders and huffs in the best approximation of a full-body sigh she can manage. “I feel awful, Arthur.”

“She’ll forgive you,” he mutters. “Me on the other hand…”

She stops abruptly and snatches at his wrist. “Do you want… like… Are you hoping to have her in your life?”

He snorts. “No. But she has answers to questions.” Arthur’s eyes flash with something determined. “And I want her to know that I’m alive in spite of her.” Turning his hand, he slips their fingers together and squeezes. “She gets nothing from me. Like we got nothing from her.”

“And Arthur?” His eyes remain steady on hers the whole time she chews on which words to use in framing her question. “What if she doesn’t want to let you go so easily?”

He squeezes her fingers again. “It’s much too late for that,” he murmurs.

Lorraine’s description hadn’t been the most precise, but it was enough for them to locate the building in question. Somehow, this collection of blocks manages to be barely ten streets away from grocery store where they do their shopping while also managing to almost classify as suburbia, there are nature strips and a park just over there; on the bus here Amicia had noticed a two things and both of them were schools. Middle schools specifically, which gives a reasonable indication of how old Lorraine’s kids are. Importantly, there’s also a gym. The gym she’d mentioned.

People with sports’ bags slung over their shoulders walk down the street and some people who have forgone the gym entirely are jogging in their form fitting athletic-wear, many in pairs but some on their own. It’s enough to make her feel as though she’s stepped half way across the city and emerged somewhere entirely new rather than simply one suburb over.

“Makes you wonder if we gave up on tennis too soon,” Arthur grumbles, rolling is shoulders.

“Well there’s a gym right here,” she replies. “I’m sure they’ve got a court.”

He wrinkles his nose, stops in front of the apartment building on the corner. “Pass.” Leaning over to look at the list of names beside the buzzer, Arthur squints his eyes. “What’d you say the name was?”

“Tesson.”

Hovering above the glass, his finger skates down the listings. “M and L Tesson? Sounds right.” Still, he hesitates before ringing the buzzer beside it.

A very heavy moment hangs between them while they wait and then the buzzer goes off on their end. “Who is it?” A man’s voice.

“Uh…” He pauses; very confident. “Hi. I’m Arthur. Looking for Lorraine?”

Another beat of silence. “What’s your name?”

“Arthur.” And then he adds, “Dubois?” sounding like he isn’t sure in the least.

They wait some more, only this time Arthur is clearly feeling the anxiety because he reaches out and takes her hand again. Amicia fills the gap by saying in almost a whisper, “Last chance to back out?”

“No. She gets what’s coming to her.”

She squeezes his hand.

“Come on up, then,” says the man’s voice. Probably this M fellow, whoever he is.

And the door swings open to admit them. She releases his hand to summon the elevator and pick the floor. He fidgets the whole ride up to the fifth floor though, so when the doors open she takes his hand once more to stop him from twitching. He’s not second-guessing, though, Arthur’s the one to scan the door numbers and drag her in the right direction. She didn’t even see what their number was but Arthur leads her with certainty down the corridor and stops in front of a door identical to all the others except for the number painted on it in white.

Arthur clenches her fingers so hard she wonders they don’t grind together.

Then he knocks.

It takes a moment but then the door is pulled in, not with speed or surety, almost wary. The opening reveals a tall man basically the opposite of Seamus. He’s slender but the way his shirt fits around his shoulders and across his chest makes it clear that he puts the nearby gym to its full use. It’s strange, perhaps, that Amicia catalogues this man, not on his own merits, but in relation to Seamus. His eyes are soft and brown, his jaw shaven, his hair a tidy mop of curly brown, the creases on his face are laugh lines rather than an ingrained record of scowls. He’s different. Not what she expected.

Not what Arthur was expecting either if the way he blinks is any indication.

The man looks between them, something uncertain in his features. “I’m Max,” he says and she compares that to Seamus too. Soft-spoken, not a voice prone to yelling if she had to guess. In fact, except that he’s not as bluff and solid, he reminds her just vaguely of her own father.

“Arthur,” he replies. “And this is Amicia.”

“Not your sister, I take it.”

“No. What has she…?” Before the question is even fully out of his mouth Max has opened the door and stepped aside to invite them in. “Oh.”

Again, Arthur lets her hand go when he goes in and she follows. Slipping past Max into the apartment is… unusual. For the split second she’s beside him, she thinks about how this probably isn’t considered the safest of things to do, what with going into a stranger’s apartment and all while no one else knows she’s there. It peaks when the door clicks shut but passes when Max crosses the room and waves to the sofas in the living room.

“Lorraine’s not here right this second,” Max tells them, sinking into a chair and shuffling some papers onto the coffee table. “She’s just gone to pick up some supplies for next weekend.”

“Something important?” Arthur enquires, a simple platitude. Amicia drops onto the largest sofa, away from Max, a careful distance that might as well be a wall.

He clearly isn’t expecting, “Our son’s twelfth birthday,” as a response. It’s obvious in how Arthur freezes half way into a seated position right beside her.

His, “Oh,” is faint, breathy, surprised, a deflating balloon.

To his credit, Max seems to know exactly the elephant he has released into the room by his strained smile. “You weren’t expecting to find you had a brother, I suppose. Sorry.”

“Uh…” Arthur rubs at his neck. “What’s his name?”

“Theodore.”

He hums but Amicia is doing sums in her head, too busy with that to notice Arthur’s full reaction. Twelve. They would’ve been what? Fourteen? Fifteen? Mélie’s scar would have been brand new. He’s younger than Hugo, even. Just thinking about where they were and what Lorraine was doing at the same time is… well, it’s crazy.

(She also does not comment, or even think too hard, about how this Theodore follows a clear trend; that being all of Lorraine’s kids are apparently born around Christmas.)

“Do you,” Max’s eyes cut between them again. “Do you live nearby?”

“It’s a short bus ride,” Arthur says. “What do you do?”

At that, Max’s eyes crinkle. “I’m a teacher. PE and technology.”

“Sort of an odd combo, isn’t it?”

“I get that a lot, actually.” He shifts a little uncomfortably. “I’d ask what you’re doing, but I feel like Lorraine probably wants that and you’d not like to repeat yourselves.”

Arthur’s smile is wry. “Something like that.”

As if summoned, a key hits the lock and the front door opens. Max springs up from his seat with such speed it’s a wonder he doesn’t hurt himself.

“They didn’t have balloons in orange, unfortunately,” someone calls from the entrance, Lorraine, no doubt. “So I got red and yellow.”

“We’re in here,” Max replies. As she’d thought, he doesn’t seem capable of raising his voice too much, even when he’s trying to be loud. She wonders how he handles a classroom full of kids. Or a sports field full even.

There’s laughter in her voice when Lorraine asks, “We?” but it dies when she comes around the corner and sees them. “Oh.” And her bags drop to the floor in a whomp.

Max holds a hand out for her but her eyes remain glued to Arthur. Still, he seems right in his assumption that she needs help; Lorraine all but staggers into the room and collapses into a chair heavily. Her eyes flick to Amicia, but it’s Arthur she’s interested in.

And yet her first words are clearly directed at Amicia: “I thought you said to leave you alone?”

“I did. And I meant it.”

“This is my choice,” Arthur explains. “It’s not a permanent invitation.”

Her mouth works for a second, brows coming down just slightly. “What then?”

“I have questions.”

She sighs. “Go on.”

“I know why you left,” he says, toneless. “It’s the same reason we did. I want to know why you never came back. Why didn’t you take us with you?”

Arthur had told her, once, his theory of why: that the twins reminded her too much of Seamus, with their red hair and complexion. Amicia hadn’t found it a good enough reason then, and if Lorraine spouts it here, now, she still won’t.

Luckily, Amicia doesn’t have to come up with a suitable punishment for such a silly excuse because Lorraine says, “I went to my sister’s place. I panicked. She lives in Paris.” She takes a deep breath, the veins in her neck standing out. “She’d warned me about Seamus and I hadn’t listened. And…” Now she clears her throat, looks away. “I’d never told my family I was pregnant with you. Didn’t speak to them for the five or six years I was with him.”

He snorts. “They don’t know we exist?”

“They do. I told them. Told them I wanted to come back for you.” Lorraine sucks in another deep breath when she looks back at him. “I have two older siblings, a sister and brother. Between them, they made sure I never came back. When I left your father I was still very young, only twenty-five.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“I was stupid,” she mutters. “He was three years older than me when we met, had a job, seemed so put together. And he was charming and kind.”

“That didn’t last.”

“No. When he found out I was pregnant he… changed.” She shakes her head. “I’m sorry. I should’ve fought harder to come back and get you. Running to my sister seemed like the smart thing, the safe thing. It put so much distance between me and Seamus. I guess I didn’t think about how hard it would be to come back. How afraid I was to try.”

When Arthur next speaks he’s calm, the sort of calm and quiet that is honestly more terrifying than yelling. “Do you know how afraid we were? We were children and you left us with an abuser. For years.”

“I know.” There’s a tightness in Lorraine’s voice when she says that, hinting heavily at tears. “Sorry doesn’t cover how much I hurt you.”

“No. It doesn’t.”

“You got out though?” Despite clearly knowing the answer, she sounds… fraught. “Both of you?”

“Not without help,” he says drolly. “I’ve known Amicia longer than I did you.” Arthur takes a moment to inhale but after his next words, she thinks perhaps the pause is as much to build anxiety in Lorraine as it is to brace himself. “Her parents were better to us than either of you ever were.”

And yeah. That hits Lorraine like a physical slap. She flinches backwards, blinks, but doesn’t get angry. She knows as well as anyone else how much she let the twins down, knows she deserves everything he flings at her. Probably doesn’t make it any easier to hear, though.

When Lorraine drags her eyes away from Arthur to scan Amicia it marks the first time she’s so much as glanced away from him since she sat down. “You’re Amicia?”

Not trusting herself to speak, Amicia just nods.

“You’ve known them a long time?”

She can’t resist a little bit of snark when she says, “Longer than your son has been alive.” Her words do two things (other than be kind of bitchy): they give context, and entirely preclude the notion that Arthur is still her child. Lorraine doesn’t miss that.

Arthur, on the other hand, had clearly not realised that. He turns to her at the waist, mouth open slightly and breathes, “Holy shit. I’ve known you most of my life.”

“Yeah,” Amicia drawls back, “you two stuck like glue.”

It takes a few seconds before Arthur shakes that realisation and recalls whose couch he’s sitting on and why. Then he turns back to Lorraine. “Why’d you come back?” There’s no hopeful note to his tone – he clearly doesn’t think she returned for them – in fact it’s all but dead. A question that needs asking but not one he’s looking forward to hearing the answer to.

As if to prove his point without even speaking a word, Lorraine shifts uncomfortably. “I found work at a bank in Paris,” she explains slowly. “My sister was a driving force in getting my life back together after Seamus. It wasn’t a big bank at the time, but it’s grown a lot since I started and they’re setting up a branch here.” She shrugs. “Having been with them since almost the start, they sent me here to oversee the branch.” Her mouth opens but it takes her a long, long, half-second to decide to add, “I… won’t lie. I didn’t think I’d see you, but I hoped.”

“Well, we’re alive,” Arthur says, dry as you please. “Congratulations on finding us.”

At long last, Max says something. “We did look at housing near where you used to live, but…”

“It was too far away from either of our workplaces to be useful,” Lorraine finishes.

Arthur hums before admitting, “Dad still lives there. I guess, anyway, haven’t seen him in years. We moved with Amicia and some other friends after high school.” He rolls his eyes (clearly for Amicia’s benefit), “And then I moved again because ugh.”

“There’s no need to be like that, Arthur,” Amicia says sweetly.

“You don’t live together?” Lorraine asks, facial expression a picture-perfect snapshot of confusion. “But…”

God no,” Arthur huffs. “Living with those two is insufferable.”

“You’re insufferable.”

Lorraine’s eyes flick between them and settle on Amicia. “You live with my daughter?”

“I live with Mélie,” she corrects.

“So… you two aren’t…?”

Amicia frowns, swaps a look with Arthur. It takes a while (an embarrassing amount of time to be honest) for Lorraine’s implication to click with either of them. And in her defence, Amicia’s just really used to how things are and they’ve been like that for years.

Arthur bursts out laughing. “Oh my god. We’re not dating.” His words are nearly garbled beyond recognition around his cackles. “Geez.”

“Oh,” Amicia says, voice and nose wrinkled with displeasure. “Gross, no.”

Gross?” Arthur asks, whirling on her. “Me?”

“Yes, you. I’ve seen how you live.”

He rolls his eyes again. “Can’t recall the last time someone thought we were together.”

“Happens all the time,” she tells him. “Constantly.”

“Seriously?” For whatever reason, Arthur seems genuinely shocked by this.

“Yeah, of course they do. For the same reason they think I’m dating Rodric.”

“Rodric?” Lorraine interjects.

“Another of our friends,” Arthur tells her. “One of my two roommates. Lucas is the other one.”

“You have friends,” Lorraine breathes. “Good friends?”

“Better than I thought I deserved. And a college education and a job.” He tips his head to one side. “You really didn’t expect much for us, did you?”

“Can you blame me? Knowing I left you where I did.”

“I suppose not.” Amicia makes a sound in her throat without really meaning to and he pats her knee. “We all know you’re an exception, princess.”

“Jerk,” she grumbles. But she has a question now. “You mentioned a sister. And a brother. Does that mean Arthur has… cousins? Extended family?”

As if this had not occurred to her, Lorraine blinks a few times. “Ah… Yes. They’re both married, my sister has no kids and my brother has two. They’re… a few years older than you.”

Arthur had evidently not considered this either; his jaw works. But after a moment he closes his mouth and frowns. “Biological family, maybe,” he says quietly, shaking his head. “I know my family and these people are just abstract concepts.” He looks over at Amicia and she smiles. Yeah. They’re family.

A note of pleading enters Lorraine’s voice when she says, “They don’t have to be abstract.”

But Arthur’s having none of it. He stands. “I’m not looking to expand my family circle,” he tells her, voice tight. “I had some questions and you’ve answered them. That’s all.”

Lorraine stands after him. “I have some questions, if that’s alright?”

He swaps a look with Amicia and she nods, he doesn’t sit back down though. “Fine. But,” he lifts a hand, “I’m not answering any questions about Mélie. She chose not to come see you. Respect that.”

Despite her words, Lorraine doesn’t actually seem to know what to ask, or perhaps his decision not to answer for Mélie simply put paid to her intention. “Are you… well?”

He snorts a laugh. “Yeah. I am. Healthy, happy, living life.” His eyes dart to Amicia and she rolls her eyes, smiles, even before he says it she knows what he’s thinking. “Okay. Mélie is too. Against all the odds, we’re doing well.”

Unspoken on the end Amicia hears, in spite of you, despite what you did. We survived you.

Lorraine sits back down. She doesn’t fight them when they leave. Maybe she heard it too.

 

--

 

Arthur holds himself together until they step off the bus and then something cuts all his strings and he falls apart.

“Thanks. For coming with.”

“Any time, Arthur.”

He sucks in a deep breath. “That kinda sucked.”

“Not the answers you wanted?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know what I wanted. A confrontation, I guess. Some kind of conclusion?”

“Well…” she says, stepping away. “Let me know if you need to talk later. I have to go tell Mélie about our adventure.”

At that, Arthur cracks a wan smile. “Good luck.”

 

--

 

Amicia is unclear if it’s a good thing that Mélie isn’t home when she gets back. On the one hand, she doesn’t feel like she immediately has to explain anything (and there is a large squirming mass in her gut still telling her that she’s done something horribly wrong); but on the other hand she can actually go and do what she told Mélie she’d be doing today. Which is her revision. For her final exams.

Her final, final exams. Ever.

It’s easy to get sucked into her books and notes and practice cases. Easy to exchange whiny texts with Zara and Brad, an enquiring email to a professor, all things that distract from what she did in the morning.

Right up until Mélie sidles up behind her and rubs hands across her shoulders.

“You taken a break since I left?” Mélie asks, teasing, leaning around to smack a messy kiss to her cheek. “Come on, I bought lunch.”

Her words do two things: remind Amicia that she hasn’t eaten since leaving with Arthur, and kick her nose into gear so she can suddenly smell something delicious and warm from the kitchen. She twirls her seat around, looks up into Mélie’s broad smile and twinkling eyes. They’ve been together for nearly six years now and still that galaxy of stars in her expression startles her into silence, Amicia has long since realised she’ll ever get used to it. Nor will she ever be able to contain the expanding solar feeling in her chest to go along with it.

Or stop up the worst, “I love you,” that always tumble from her mouth with or without prior thought.

Mélie tips down a little further to kiss her properly. “I love you.” When she leans out she adds, “That’s why I’m insisting on lunch.”

“What’d you buy?”

“Turkish wraps.”

“Oh, I love you.”

Mélie laughs. “Haha, yeah, yeah.” She hadn’t even unpacked the bag yet; it’s a nice feeling to know Mélie’s first instinct was to come check on her. It does, however, also remind her of those gnawing worms.

And after all this time? Mélie can tell before she’s finished unwrapping her food that something about her mood has taken a dive.

“You alright?”

Amicia sets her food down. “No.” She can feel Mélie turn bodily towards her, can sense the concern in her expression but she simply folds her hands together on the bench in front of her, eyes fixed on them. “I… went out with Arthur this morning,” she begins slowly. “He wanted to visit your mother.”

The silence that emanates from Mélie then is palpable. Not quite mad, but… hard. It makes Amicia look over at her. But she’s not looking at Amicia, rather, Mélie has turned just slightly and is staring through reality into some other dimension above their sink.

Her voice is very soft. “You went with him?”

“Yes. He asked.” She searches Mélie’s face but there’s no hint of anything. “Are you upset?”

That snaps her back to the present. “What? No!” Her hand shoots out and lays over Amicia’s. “No. Just… why did he want to go? Why didn’t he say something?” There’s no accusation in her voice, no hidden question why didn’t you say anything.

“He… knew you weren’t interested in talking to her but he had some questions. I guess he just didn’t want you to get mad at him or something.”

“I’m not mad,” she repeats, she sounds a little lost in thought though. “What answers did she give him?”

Amicia flips her hand over and is relieved when Mélie threads their fingers together. “Where she went when she left, why she didn’t take you with, or come back, where she’s been since, that kind of thing.”

“Did it help?”

“I’m not sure. He’ll probably need to think it over.”

Mélie wrinkles her nose but her lips tip up into a slight smile and her eyes refocus properly on Amicia. “If I ask you what she said will you tell me to go ask her myself?”

“No,” Amicia laughs. “I won’t.” And she squeezes her hand to prove it.

Mélie sits silently through her recount of their visit, reacts not at all to Max being her husband and barely twitches at the mention of twelve-year-old Theodore. Her face scrunches at the story of Lorraine’s flight from Seamus and her subsequent stay with her family, tightens almost imperceptibly at the revelation that she has extended family on her mother’s side who never knew she existed.

“We didn’t tell her anything about you,” Amicia concludes. “Arthur made it clear he wouldn’t.”

“Not anything?” she asks with a sardonic laugh.

“Well. He did say that you’re well and happy. Did he lie?”

Her laugh turns throaty and she uses their joined hands to tug Amicia off her chair and between her knees. “No. He didn’t.”

Before Mélie can draw her down to kiss though, Amicia asks, “And does any of this help you to know?”

She hums. “Not especially. Doesn’t change any part of my life. Doesn’t change where I am now or how I got here.” Her fingers slip free of Amicia’s to smooth across her hip. “Doesn’t change you.” An eyebrow tips up. “Does it?”

“It certainly does not.”

“Good. And I’ve made it this far without her. I’m sure I can keep going.”

After a sarcastically drawn out thoughtful noise, Amicia leans in to kiss her. “I’m sure you can.”

 

--

 

“I will not be carolling this year, you can’t make me.”

Hugo’s voice echoes through the phone line and he gets shushed by Beatrice.

“Do you need us to bring anything, mum?”

“If the five of you are getting together at some point, then no. Just yourselves.”

“Lucas wants to know if you’re giving surprise gifts again,” Mélie says, leaning over the back of the sofa to join in. “Last year you ‘put him out’. His words, not mine.”

Beatrice laughs. “Tell him to bring a bag then.”

Mélie continues on her way through the room and Amicia asks once she’s gone, “Why is Hugo not carolling this year? He loves carolling.”

From her tone, she can almost imagine her mother cupping her phone and hunching around it trying to be sneaky. “He’s got a girlfriend, Amicia.”

“He’s… What?” She lowers her phone and calls down the corridor, “Mélie! My brother has a girlfriend.”

“Then he’s doing better than mine!”

She focuses back on their conversation. “Okay, tell me things. What does she have to do with a lack of carols?”

“She’s a bit of a Grinch, if you ask me, which you did,” Beatrice mutters. “Isn’t interested at all in festivities. I invited her to Christmas dinner and she said she doesn’t celebrate. Which is fine! Obviously. But she eats I assume. So I don’t know. It worries me that he’s changing just to be something she might like more.”

“Tell him that, mum. I know it was years ago now, but having friends who were honest about how I changed around Lucien was important.”

“Oh, Amicia. He’s sixteen now. He doesn’t want to hear my opinions.”

“Then I’ll tell him. Or I’ll make Arthur do it.”

“I’d love to hear Arthur do that. Does he qualify to give relationship advice?”

“He’s overqualified to give criticism.”

That makes her mother laugh again. It’s strange how their relationship has improved in the years since she moved out. What had once been a somewhat strained connection where Beatrice was distant and aloof, now they call once weekly and it feels more like having a mother. A weird thing to feel, perhaps, given Mélie’s complete lack of a mother-figure (even though Beatrice did dip her toes into that role a few times). But she talks to her mother so regularly now, and her father less than previously. Adulthood sure does strange things.

“I’ll see you in two weeks, darling,” Beatrice says.

“You sure will.”

 

--

 

She sees Lorraine with a lanky, dark-haired boy in the grocery store parking lot with Lucas just a few days before Christmas. It’s absolutely packed, a chaotic jumble of cars trying to merge coming in or going out, people pushing massive trolleys piled high with supplies. Children are yelling at parents, babies dragged out in the icy weather are bawling; over there a pair of adults are having a loud swearing match, and that way is a car with a hood up and smoke billowing out while a woman in a poncho flaps her hands at it fruitlessly. It’s a mess. A classic pre-Christmas mess.

“Why do so many people leave things to the last minute?” Lucas asks her in a high pitched whine, fingers twitching against his thigh like he wants to jam them in his ears.

“Same reason we’re here, I guess.”

He eyes her askance. “You don’t live with Rodric, the food disposal service.”

“No, I live with Mélie, let’s see how many different things I can put in this curry and still have it be edible.”

“You do go through vegetables.”

“Luckily, we’re only here for the little things.”

“I feel like paper plates and disposable cutlery are on everyone’s mind right now.”

Lucas doesn’t go in with her, just waist by the exit; fidgeting the whole time, she’d wager. And he’s right. Paper plates? There are none. She does get cutlery, though, luckily. In pretty good time, too. He jumps when she hooks her fingers into his elbow.

“Let’s scram.”

He exhales heavily. “Yes, please.”

It’s while they’re crossing the parking lot to the footpath that she spots Lorraine. She and the boy – Theodore, she assumes – are packing bags into the back of a car, a little grey sedan with shiny chrome bumpers. Amicia catches her eye over the top of a car waiting for an empty spot and Lorraine freezes. She tightens her hold just a little on Lucas and keeps walking. Lorraine stares at them, something crawling across her face a lot like confusion or wonderment or dismay, Amicia doesn’t spare the brain power to interpret it but at least she doesn’t try to walk over. That might have a little to do with her son getting her attention, or having somewhere to be; whatever it is, she’s grateful.

“Who was that?” Lucas has gotten a lot better at interpreting body language and is just generally a mite more observant. It’s nice for him, but it makes it harder for her to keep this under wraps.

“Just… ah. Do you remember last month I visited Arthur really early and you worried it was something bad?”

“Yeah?”

“Well it was about her. Ask Arthur sometime. It’s still not mine to tell.”

He frowns. “Still nothing bad?”

“Still nothing bad.”

“Alright.”

She hopes it’s not a lie.

 

--

 

 After the boys have left on Christmas Eve, Amicia crawls into bed beside Mélie and flops across her. It’s freezing and wiggling under the blanket and into her side is so nice and warm. Mélie curls an arm around her side and turns further into her.

“Will you wear that sweater tomorrow?” Amicia asks her blearily.

“I’m already bracing myself for it, yeah.”

She hums into Mélie’s shoulder. But they don’t lapse into silence for long, another (stupider) statement is on its way out of her mouth before she can stop it. “We could have two crazy family Christmases now, you know. Can you imagine?”

Mélie grumbles something in the back of her throat. “We could not.”

Turning her nose so she can kiss the column of Mélie’s throat she corrects, “I know you don’t want anything to do with her. It’s just funny to think that she’s there. A few blocks away, doing Christmas.” She yawns.

“Blood doesn’t make them family, princess.”

“No, I know.”

“You’re my family.”

“Yep.”

“Fuck ‘em.”

Amicia huffs a gentle laugh into her skin. “There’s a joke to be made there.”

Mélie’s fingers tighten against her hip. “Don’t make it. I have to look your mother in the eyes tomorrow.”

“She loves you, Mélie,” she hums. “And she knows… all that.”

“Just go to sleep.”

 

--

 

Christmas is, as always, at the de Rune home. An entire motorcade crowds all the space in front of the house: both her parents have cars (those are in the garage), but her brother now has a little red thing that has to share the driveway with Amicia’s when she arrives, she gets parked in not five minutes later when Rodric pulls up on the curb and all the rest pile out. They’ve picked up Laurentius and all the foodstuffs he’s brought with him, so that car is packed.

“We probably should’ve brought Arthur,” Mélie mumbles to her. “Rodric’s car isn’t really big enough for four people and supplies.”

“Yeah. Maybe we’ll take him home or something.”

Mélie just snorts.

She and Amicia are wearing ugly Christmas sweaters and it’s extremely vindicating to see that all three of the boys elected to wear theirs too without any prompting at all. Rodric, built like a bull as he is, looks downright adorable in a cute, fuzzy snowman sweater but Arthur (naturally) got the worst one. His has lights.

And his first words reflect this when he joins them. “I hate you so much.”

“Why are you looking at me?” Mélie squawks. “It could’ve been Amicia.”

“Only a sibling could find something this awful for me to wear. It was definitely you.”

Mélie continues to protest her innocence even though her shit-eating grin gives her away completely. They’re not greeted at the door, they rarely are now that Hugo is no longer an enthusiastic eight, but it’s easy enough to find her family. Robert is in the kitchen, hands gloved in festive oven mitts been overseen by Beatrice who is frantically trying to do something with a bowl of salad while also directing Hugo in laying out place settings and all the attending miscellany.

“… think any of them care if their napkins are folded into cranes, mum,” he’s saying like it’s absolutely not the first time they’ve had this conversation.

“We don’t need crane napkins,” Lucas puts in by way of greeting at the same time Arthur exclaims, “Oh! Crane napkins? Yes, please!”

Then it’s suddenly a loud jumble of good evenings and Merry Christmases as everyone calls over the top of everyone else in greeting. It settles after a prolonged beat of noise; Laurentius is pressed into a seat by Rodric, Lucas and Amicia crowd in upon her parents in the kitchen to offer help, while Arthur insists Hugo show him how to fold paper cranes. It’s the exact kind of warm, familial mess that Amicia loves so much about this time of year. She gets a look – a look – from Mélie, seated across from Rodric having a conversation with Laurentius, and it says so, so much.

(It says: can you believe this is our life? Can you believe this is what we’re doing? Look at us. Look at where we are, how far we’ve come. This is what family should be. And… yeah.)

She trails her fingers across Mélie’s shoulders as she goes back into the kitchen, an acknowledgement of all the things unsaid. In the doorway, Robert does a little dance while holding a pot, based on the pattern she can see between his mitts, it’s his famous, artery clogging potato bake – he always cooks it in that dish. As she rolls her eyes and brushes past him he leans over (still head and shoulders taller than her) to kiss her hair.

Amicia is fully prepared to collect other dishes to place on the table, but instead her mother all but drops the tray she’s holding and corners her by the sink.

“Uh… am I in trouble?” she asks slowly, genuinely confused.

Unhelpfully, Beatrice wraps her in a hug, and when she pulls back (before Amicia even has a chance to return it), she says, “I’m proud of you,” and cups her face between her hands, “I hope you know that.”

“Oh… kay? Mum, are you on something?”

Beatrice brushes her fingers across Amicia’s cheek, her smile is softly serious. “Last time I was at work one of my colleagues told me her son is getting divorced; he’s just a few years older than you. He married the girl he was dating in high school.” She strokes Amicia’s face again. “I just… I hear so much about other people’s kids and then I think about you and…” she sighs, words fading away.

“Mum?”

“How long have you and Mélie been together now?” Tangent time!

“Six years, why?”

Beatrice is silent for a moment but she can see on her face that she’s trying to sort out her words. They still come out rather blunt: “Have you thought about getting married?”

Mum.” That’s the only verbal reaction she manages for a while; physically she jerks back, Beatrice’s hands falling away, and splutters as she searches for something to say but all of the thoughts in her head have been thrown into disarray like a collection of pens on a table that gets flipped. She scrambles to pick them all up and finally manages, “What? No, we haven’t talked about it.”

“Have you thought about it?”

Cue more splutters. “I… no?” Has she? “I guess not. It’s not…” Not what? Important? Not something she wants? God, does she want that?

(Fucking typical of her mother to ask this before they do all the Christmas-y stuff, now she won’t be able to think about anything else.)

“Well,” Beatrice mutters, stepping back. “You take your time with these things,” she says. “So many of the stories I hear from friends these days is how their kids have rushed into something that they think they should do and then, when it doesn’t go as planned, things fall apart. I’m just… glad you don’t feel like you have to rush.”

“Didn’t dad say making mistakes is important in life?” She asks the question little breathless but with just the right amount of citrus that her mother knows she’s partly joking. Partly? Completely? Damned if she knows.

Beatrice lifts an eyebrow but turns back to what she was doing so the rest of her expression is a mystery. “Can’t imagine you’d like Mélie to be a mistake.”

Amicia’s heart squeezes painfully at the very suggestion. “Yeah, okay.”

Beatrice kisses her cheek on the way out. “Bring those bowls, would you?”

She makes a noncommittal noise but before following she leans right over the sink and takes a few deep breaths. Maybe she should’ve known her mother would have something like that to say, Beatrice does like to drop weighty conversations in awkward places.

Still, when she takes the bowls back into the dining room, the first thing she sees is Mélie’s bright smile directed across the table at her father and her heart thuds painfully. Wife? She could be your wife, it pounds against her ribs. And when Mélie turns the smile on her and it blurs around the edges with that glittering starlight, her heart beats harder.

 Arthur says something teasing to Hugo during dinner; something about his girlfriend she thinks (it’s hard to listen and understand at the moment). Her salad-tossed thoughts settle just long enough for her to think: they could be legal brothers, brothers-in-law is legal.

After dinner and dessert and dishes and settling down beside Mélie in the living room (squeezed together on the single seat couch because they haven’t bothered with respectability in a long time), there’s a soft moment before her father comes tromping down the stairs with presents for them all. Thankfully he no longer dresses as Santa, but he still declares something about how ‘no one in his family goes without a gift’ and Arthur’s mouth is open to say something snarky and Lucas ribs him to get him to shut up. But sitting there – fingers twined through Mélie’s, Lucas and Hugo bracketing Arthur on the long sofa, Rodric sprawled out on the floor by the tree, Robert doing some dramatic rendition of finding wrapped presents in a festive sack, Beatrice and Laurentius sitting on the other sofa with teacups in their laps and amused smiles on their faces – she sees her whole family. And her mother’s voice asking if she’s thought about getting married fades into a single, sparkling thought: if she and Mélie were married, most of them would be legal family.

Actual, on paper, family.

A not-bound-by-blood family, but because they chose each other.

Her fingers tighten on Mélie’s and she gets a strange look for it but just shakes her head. Later.

 

--

 

Later. Their front door is barely closed before Mélie says, “You were quiet tonight, you alright?”

“Yeah,” she breathes. And then immediately corrects herself with, “Not really.”

Mélie laughs, soft and warm, takes her hand. “What’d your mother say this time?”

Amicia fully intends to think her words through before speaking, but instead they just blurt out: “That she’s proud of me for not rushing into anything and have we thought about getting married.”

“Oh,” Mélie huffs, eyes closing, brows lifting. “Is that all.” After a deep breath, she opens her eyes and smiles. “And?”

“And?” Amicia’s voice hits a pitch that would be embarrassing if anyone other than Mélie were to hear it. “I think we both know I have an excellent track record for being oblivious.”

Mélie hums her agreement and takes her hand, draws her over to the couch. “But you’ve thought about nothing else since, have you?”

“No! Of course not.” She flops onto the seat but Mélie just waits patiently. So she sighs. The concept feels just way too big so she closes her eyes, but then that doesn’t super help and when she opens them again Mélie is just… smiling faintly. “I’d be your wife,” she murmurs. “We’d be actual, legal family. All of us, Arthur too.”

She shakes her head. “Forget Arthur. This is about you and me. And a piece of paper doesn’t tell me you’re family, Amicia. I chose you, nothing changes that.”

 Her mouth falls open but no words come out, her gaze just flits between Mélie’s eyes. “Mélie,” she breathes, lifting a hand to brush her fingers so – so – lightly across her face. “If something happens to me, my mum can help legally. But if something happens to you…” Her throat closes over.

“I have Arthur,” she replies softly.

“You could have me.”

And boy, isn’t that a weighted statement.

But Mélie (being Mélie), is a cheeky shit with a cheeky answer. “I thought I already did.” Her lips curl up beneath Amicia’s hand.

“Mélie,” she exhales.

She takes Amicia’s hand away from her face, presses a kiss to the inside of her wrist and winds their fingers together. “I know what you mean, princess. But under no circumstances would I marry you for some technical legality.”

With a breezy laugh, Amicia says, “Now there’s something I never would have thought to hear from you ten years ago.”

“Ten years ago I was a scared little girl.” She shifts so she can tuck one leg underneath herself and leans closer. “I’m not scared of you anymore.”

Her tone is… Amicia’s breath catches in her throat and she tips back, expecting Mélie to continue a forward movement. She doesn’t.

Somehow she manages to ask around the lump of her inhalation, “Would you marry me because I’m crazy in love with you and regardless of what you say you’ll still be stuck with me forever?”

Now Mélie allows Amicia to slip fingers into her waistband and pull her closer – where closer means over – and down until she’s settled on knees and an elbow close enough to tease. And she makes use of it, whispers against Amicia’s mouth, “Now you’re onto something.”

But Amicia doesn’t kiss her, just smooths her palms over her hips and tilts her head back against the armrest and asks, “Would you marry me so I can introduce you to my friends as my wife and brag about it?” in a voice like honeyed wine.

“I think I’d be the one doing the bragging, Amicia,” Mélie laughs.

“Oh no,” Amicia disagrees. “I can see it now. Hey, Brad, this is my wife, she’s better than yours.”

“You’re so bad at this.”

She brings her hand up until she can thread her fingers through her hair. “Dare you to do better.”

Mélie drags her lips along Amicia’s throat, her jaw and then speaks into her mouth. “Sorry I was late, Ness, I had a health concern to take care of. Yeah, no I’m fine, but have you seen my wife? I thought my heart stopped.”

Amicia doesn’t intend for her resulting laugh to be quite as throaty as it comes out but she feels Mélie’s reaction to the sound and can’t find it in herself to care. “Okay,” she mumbles against Mélie’s lips. “Okay, that was good.”

“Thank you.” And then finally – finally – Mélie lets gravity pull her the last little way and kisses her.

If the stars in Mélie’s eyes and the sun in her smile still give Amicia pause all these years later, then kissing her is still some kind of cosmic collision. It makes her fingers clench, nails digging through the fabric of Mélie’s sweater, lucky for that particular article of clothing or she’d have scratches on her shoulder. It makes Amicia’s spine arch in an attempt to find more points of contact. It makes her brain stop working properly.

But not entirely; there’s enough cognition left for her to gasp as she pulls back. “Hang on,” she gasps. “Hang on. Are we talking about this seriously?”

“About getting married?”

“Yeah.”

Mélie props herself up on one hand, eyes dark and hair dishevelled. “I think we are.” She tilts her head and some of her now messy hair flops over, curls around her jaw. “Maybe the important question is: would this be something we both want? Not right now, but at some point.”

Unable to resist touching her for very long, Amicia reaches up to brush that stray hair behind her ear. “I –” She cuts off before the thought has a chance to complete. “If I said one way or the other will you…”

“I’ll still tell you what I want,” Mélie murmurs, tipping back down to brush a light kiss to her lips. “I told you, I’m not afraid of you anymore. Not afraid of this.”

Amicia can’t see in her eyes any hint that she’s putting on a brave face or anything of the sort so she admits, quiet and fragile, “Honestly, I’m happy with any way you’ll have me, but I’m warming up to this idea, yeah.” She curls her fingers around Mélie’s ear, following the hair she’d just rearranged.

“Do you know what I think?” It’s rhetorical, her pause is just to make Amicia squirm. It works. “I think,” and she leans back in to leave heated, ghostly, open-mouthed kisses across her collarbone, shoulder, “I think that it sounds real nice and leaves zero room for misinterpretation.”

“Mis…” Mélie’s mouth makes it hard to say such a long word. “Misinterpretation?”

Her eyes glitter so dangerously when she pulls back. “I told Ness once that I had plans on the weekend with my girlfriend and she didn’t get it. She has no excuse not to understand when I tell her I can’t stick around for gossip when I’m going out with my wife.”

Just something in how she says that, the emphasis, the look in her eye, has Amicia sucking in a sharp breath through her teeth, her fingers knotting tighter in Mélie’s sweater. “Oh.”

Oh,” Mélie agrees, her fingers hot beneath Amicia’s shirt.

She barely manages a hum in a reasonable vocal range before she’s lost in Mélie’s lips again. Somehow, Amicia does form a single, final, coherent sentence: “I think… we should revisit this… later.”

“Mmhmm. Later.” The words are nearly indecipherable from where they’re murmured into her skin.

 

 

--

 

The new year starts in the best possible way: “Mélie!” she calls, banging in through the front door, scarf and coat already half-off she’s in such disarray. “Mélie, I got the position!”

Something bangs further into the apartment and then Mélie is down the hallway, paint on her face cracking around her broad smile as she throws her arms around Amicia. “Told you,” she laughs, pulling back far enough to smack a loud kiss to her cheek. “Congrats.”

“Oh my god!” Amicia leans out, takes Mélie by the face. “I’m going to be an honest to goodness lawyer. They’re gonna let me be in a courtroom.”

“Yeah the courtroom sounds less scary than all the angry soon-to-be divorcees you’ll have to deal with.”

“Oh, psh. Them I can deal with.” She unloops her scarf and shrugs out of her coat. “Do you have to be up early tomorrow? Can we go out for dinner this evening?”

“To celebrate?”

“Yeah. Just you and me.”

She tilts her hip against the kitchen bench, folds her arms. There’s paint on one of her elbows too; how she manages that is a great mystery. “Princess, I’m never too busy for you.”

Amicia knows her face scrunches up into something Mélie probably finds condescending but she can’t help it. Can’t resist flipping her scarf around Mélie’s neck either and sing-songing, “Aw. That’s so sweet.”

“Uh huh, keep it up and you’ll be paying.”

Uh huh,” Amicia repeats, kissing her carefully. “I’m picking.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Oh we are not going to that pretentious restaurant are we?”

Amicia just laughs.

 

--

 

She doesn’t drag Mélie to the pretentious restaurant (the one they went to for Lucas’ last birthday), they go to a little pub within walking distance of their apartment. Mélie says something under her breath about how this isn’t fancy enough for Amicia’s achievement, but it’s not meant to be heard and she doesn’t want to point out how soft she is. Even if it does warm her inside better than anything else ever could.

Mélie holds the door for her and it’s just the cutest thing; and it’s not even ruined by her dramatic eye roll.

They’re directed to a little table off to one side and given menus by the smartly dressed young man at the reception. It’s a weeknight, and not a holiday, so there are mostly empty seats; except for a few at the bar or tucked away in booths in the corners, there’s also a pair of pushed-together tables with a reserved sign in the middle surrounded by as yet unfilled seats.

“Someone’s having a party,” Mélie mutters.

“Seems so.”

There’s no reason for them not to, so when they get to the table, they shuffle the chairs to one side, backs to the wall so they can sit closer together. The bonus of this is that they don’t have to worry as much about being in walkways should anyone pass by behind them. And Amicia doesn’t especially like having people behind her anyway.

“Well I’m having seafood,” Mélie decides after barely a glance at the offerings.

Amicia hums for a moment but settles with, “This chicken looks nice.”

“Which?” She leans right over into Amicia’s space to see what she’s pointing at even though she probably could’ve seen just fine from where she was.

“You’re ridiculous.”

“You love me.”

“I do.”

She snatches the menu from Amicia’s hands and bounds away before any chance to stop her can be mounted. There’s no point going after her, so while she’s ordering (and paying), Amicia sends a text to their group chat that says: got the job at the law firm and receives a near-instantaneous reply from Arthur (who lives with his phone in his hand), yeah you did when do we party.

i'm out with mélie right now no youre not invited

uh rude, he replies. i'm srs tho. when.

Lucas interjects: i'll buy a cake for games night

that’s all i need guys ty, she says.

god ur lame, Arthur opines, no wonder ur with my sis

Mélie slumps into her seat again, phone in hand, already typing a no doubt nasty reply. And, yep, it is: stop ruining everything jerk ur just mad you don’t have a hot successful girlfriend. Then she tucks her phone away and focuses all of her galactic attention on Amicia. “You hadn’t told them yet.”

“Hadn’t told anyone before you.”

One corner of her mouth quirks. “Why?”

She shrugs. “Wanted you to know first.” Amicia leans into Mélie’s space until her whisper can be heard over the combined muttering of all the other patrons, “I always want you to know first.”

Mélie hums. “Sure. Except for that one time you told my brother how much you love me before I even had a clue.”

“That’s no one’s fault but yours, Mélie.”

“Mm.” She leans over. “Hey? Congrats on the job. You’re a proper adult now.”

“Oh no... taxes!”

Mélie just laughs.

 

--

 

Amicia is fully ready to go after their dinner is finished, but Mélie whines and says, “I’m too fat to walk home yet,” so they sit there, leaning into each other and watching the other patrons meander about. Some leave, others arrive, a few sit at the bar on stools and chat with each other. It’s not a bar bar but there are clearly a few folks around, even mid-week, trying to make an impression on the handful of weary nine-to-fivers drowning their woes.

And it’s because of their lidded-eye people watching that Amicia spots – wouldn’t you know it – Lorraine and her family wending their way between the tables. Not just the three of them, though; another woman, slightly taller than Lorraine and with short, mousy hair is chatting with her and a man short and wide enough to be considered stout trails along at the back with Theodore.

“Mélie,” she whispers and gets a grunt in response. Her eyes aren’t just nearly closed, she’s straight up half-asleep. “Mélie. Your mother is here.”

“Hunh?” She snaps aright, eyes alert now, peering around until they spot her. “Oh, of course. Fuck.”

“We can go?”

“No,” she groans. “I ordered dessert.”

Amicia turns, presses a soft kiss to the corner of her mouth. “I’m sure we can get it to go?”

A deep sigh. “Too late. We’ve been spotted.”

She whips back around in time to see Lorraine usher her family into seats and head in their direction. It’s probably too late to put some space between them and even if there was Mélie can be… weird about pretending they’re not what they are. Regardless of that, Amicia frowns, this is not leaving them alone; she stands too, not wanting Lorraine to have a height advantage and Mélie follows her up but more slowly, wary.

“Pretty sure this isn’t what we agreed, Lorraine,” Amicia tells her flatly once she’s close enough. Her arms fold automatically, it’s perhaps too standoffish for the situation but she doesn’t correct her posture.

“I know, you said to leave you alone. I just…” Her gaze doesn’t leave Mélie once. “Arthur said you were happy?”

“I was until you walked over,” Mélie grumbles.

“I’m sorry for wha–”

“Not interested.” Lorraine opens her mouth to say more but Mélie speaks over her. “No. Seriously. Arthur came to see you because he wanted you to explain yourself. I don’t. You left us. And who we are now has nothing to do with you. No part of us is, and you won’t have any part of our future either.” She leans over the table. “So leave me alone.”

Lorraine’s eyes are so wide, almost teary. “I’m… I understand. You’re right; you owe me nothing.” Her eyes cut to Amicia but don’t linger long. “I left you in a horrible place; I can’t imagine how your life was but… Is it too much to just ask… how you are?”

Mélie blinks.  “Fine? I work at the art gallery? I’m dating a lawyer? I got lucky. We both did.” Her eyes narrow. “And all of that is more than you deserve.”

Amicia can tell from the way Lorraine’s eyes flick and her mouth works that she wants to ask about the scar. Wants to, but already knows the answer, already knows Mélie won’t answer. When she glances back at Amicia it’s clear she wants clarification on that, too, but wisely keeps her mouth shut.

Instead, she just bobs her head and backs up. “Sorry.” And then she’s gone. It’s unclear if she means she’s sorry for bothering them here in this particular moment, or if it’s a wider, more all-encompassing sorry like the one Mélie shot down just before. Could be both. Doesn’t matter.

Mélie sits again like the strings holding her up have been cut but it takes Amicia a little longer. She watches Lorraine’s progress back to her table, watches the other adults lean in to ask questions – she can imagine them perfectly. It isn’t until the other woman twists at the waist to look their way, eyes wide but brows pinched, that Amicia looks away. They’ll be talking about Lorraine’s eldest child, her only daughter, scarred by her own father, the one she was left with. Maybe even how she’s probably gay, that’s unexpected; an artist? Also a surprise. Definitely angrier than her brother – or… not angrier, more vindictive; not as surprising.

Bringing her out of her thoughts (and unconscious frowning directly at this mousy-haired woman) is Mélie’s fingers folding over her thigh.

“Sorry.”

“You have an agreement with her?”

Her eyes snap to Mélie’s face and the crooked smile she’s wearing. “Yes. I told her to leave us alone. She agreed. That’s all.”

“All of us?”

“I wasn’t super specific, but yeah, that was the gist.”

“Huh.”

The dessert Mélie had ordered arrives then and Amicia isn’t as polite as she might like in asking if they could put it in a take-away container or something but the server takes her curt tone in stride. And if Mélie says something to smooth it over, well, Amicia’s gone back to glaring at the other table.

“Hey,” she murmurs, “stop trying to bore holes in them. Let’s just go.”

So she allows Mélie to tug her up and towards the exit, collecting their now-packaged dessert on the way out with a thanks to the server who did it. Compared to the stuffy inside, the sharp cold on the streets hits them like a wall of vicious, biting insects.

“Sorry our celebratory dinner got ruined,” Mélie says, hooking their elbows together and pulling her close.

“It’s fine. There’s still dessert to cheer me up again.”

A truly impish smile is her reward for that. “You mean this?” She lifts the bag with the dessert. “Or do you mean me?”

Laughing, Amicia twists to kiss her cheek. “Maybe both.” Squeezing the arm through hers she adds, “You’re the best, you know.”

“And you’re a little bit biased.”

“Am not. Lawyers are required to deal in factual evidence.”

“Where’s your evidence then?”

This time, Amicia gets to use the impish smile against her. “I know I can find some when we get home.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

 

--

 

 

“You found your what?”

“Oh relax, Lucas,” Arthur drawls, flopping down onto the couch with a brand new bowl of popcorn. “She moved in nearby.”

“We’ll be ignoring her,” Mélie adds.

“Sure will,” Arthur concurs.

Which is new and fun to hear because up until that point Amicia wasn’t sure where he’d land on the subject. He didn’t seem to know himself, either.

“You’re not interested in…” Rodric waves his hand around vaguely. “Mending bridges?”

“Nope,” both twins say together.

He shrugs. “Okay then.”

“Why?” Lucas asks, tone more moderated now but tinged thickly with confusion.

“She left us,” Arthur explains. “We got here on our own. You’re more my family than she is, mate.”

“Plus she has a new family,” Mélie says, flat. “New husband, new son. New life.”

“We all do. She has hers, we have ours.”

“And never the twain need meet.”

Amicia pats Lucas on the knee. “Blood doesn’t make someone family, Lucas,” she reminds him. “You’re family.”

His mouth works as he processes that but then he nods firmly. Understanding things like this isn’t easy for him, but with that example it’s probably less of a challenge.

“Y’all talked to her?” Rodric wants to know.

“Arthur did.”

He rolls his eyes. “Yeah, Mélie didn’t wanna give her the time of day but I got her story and told her to bugger off.”

“Not in those words, though,” Amicia assures Lucas when his eyes shoot wide.

“Naw,” Mélie drawls, “but you gave her a piece of your mind.”

She huffs. “It’s not hard to leave people alone. It requires no effort at all.”

“You’re still her children,” Rodric says mildly. “She probably won’t ever stop thinking of you like that.”

“That’s her problem,” Amicia grumbles.

“Yeah. Robert de Rune was more a mother to me than she ever was,” Arthur laughs.

“I’ll tell him that next time we speak.”

“You do that.” Arthur’s smile turns downright evil with how it twists under his glittering eyes. “And I’ll tell him you two idiots have been talking about getting married without filling him in.”

Lucas spins to Mélie first and then rounds on Amicia. “You’re what?”

“Fuck you, Arthur.”