It starts with dinner. But not a movie.
The only thing Julia finds herself watching is the way the girl across the room grins like lightning. She’s taller and slim, but the muscles showing – thanks to her purple tank top – are a little distracting to say the least. She's smiling at this blonde boy sitting next to her, and Julia scowls.
You're prettier than him.
Startled by this thought, Julia stabs at another noodle, twirling it slowly around her fork.
Why is she already isolating herself? Training as a recruit for The Clave is supposed to be giving her a fresh start; a way out of the cramped house, and the gangs around every corner, and the arson attacks, and the general fear that danger is lurking in every street.
But instead, it’s the first night in Chicago, and she’s sitting at a table in the corner of the Institute’s large canteen. Alone.
Julia scowls down at her food. She reminds herself that she’s here to better herself. To become powerful and earn a living; to quickly move her parents out of that crumbling house as soon as possible.
The thought of them sitting at home, struggling to get by as usual, threatens to spill tears from Julia’s eyes. But she doesn’t let them fall. Not now. Not ever. It’s better to throw up a brick wall to separate herself completely from the others. To play the cynical recruit without a heart.
There will be no making friends, or making eyes at the pretty brown-haired girl who is-
Making her way over. To Julia’s table.
Before she has time to scuttle away, the smiling girl sits down beside Julia, carrying her own dinner tray, and plonks it carelessly on the table.
Up close, she’s even more beautiful. Her dark skin contrasts the brightness of her shirt, and the dimpled smile sends butterflies into Julia’s stomach.
The girl turns to her. “Did you know that koalas can sleep for up to 22 hours a day? Imagine it. You could just wake up, eat, maybe do a bit of yoga up a tree or something, and then go right back to sleep. That’s pretty cool, huh?”
She shoves a forkful of pasta into her mouth, still grinning, as if it’s totally normal to just start a conversation like this.
Julia is shell-shocked. Or in awe. And kind of mad.
“And you are?” Julia asks, wishing her voice didn’t sound so cold.
“Zoe. I’m Zoe. Zoe Hargrove.” The girl sticks out a hand, and after a moment of staring at it, Julia reminds herself to act like an actual human being and shake it.
“I’m Julia.” She says.
“You looked bored over here so I thought-“
“You’d come and rescue me? Thanks, but I don’t need a saviour.”
Or an angel, Julia thinks, against her will. The girl’s smile is catching the light, and all Julia can think of is how beautiful she is. Unfairly so.
Zoe simply shrugs. “Alright.” She says, not sounding the least bit offended.
Julia waits for her to get up and leave, but she doesn’t. After a few more moments, she slowly starts to eat, not sure about what else to do.
“How about this? The longest recorded kill by a throw knife – in all of a history – is, how long, do you think?”
It takes Julia a moment to realise that Zoe is waiting for an answer.
Julia rolls her eyes. “No clue.” She mutters.
Really, the girl is infuriating.
Zoe ignores her sarcastic remark. She laughs, and it’s such a light, happy sound, that it seems to wrap around Julia. She tries to push it off, but it seeps into her thoughts.
“Well,” Zoe begins again. “The longest throw that killed a man, was actually eighty-seven feet. It was thrown during world war two, and…”
Admittedly, Julia tunes a lot of it out. She hears the words, but they don’t really register. She does stare at Zoe’s lips for a while, trying to make the shapes become words, but it only gnaws away inside Julia’s chest, and she has to look away.
And that’s how it begins, and continues.
Zoe always shares these strange little facts and Julia snarks her in response, sometimes with a comment, but usually just a blank expression. She tries to smile one time, but it sticks at the corners of her lips and refuses to properly tug into what she’s trying so desperately to show.
Their training begins as well, and Julia is partially grateful that they’re separated because sparring with Zoe would be an absolute nightmare. Especially if they’re needing to get hands-on.
Julia likes Alec Lightwood, the agent training them. As a teacher, he’s strict, but not unkindly so. He knows his stuff, and Julia listens to his instructions carefully. She learns how to hit with more force, and how to rely on parts of her body that she never thought could be used in defence.
When they swap over at the gun range, Julia finds herself immediately seeking out Zoe. When she sees her hit the target for the first time, she hides her proud smile. The warmth in her chest skyrockets when Zoe starts to tease her, and although she bites back with equal humour, there’s something in her voice now that almost strains. It wants to be set free, and Julia doesn’t know how to cage it any longer.
Then, the day of capture the flag arrives.
Julia is in charge of guarding it, while the others rush around the Institute and take down as many of Magnus’ team as they can. Another thing Julia doesn’t want to admit is that Magnus is really cool. She’s seen him stealing glances at Alec as well, and their back and forth tension makes Julia want to bang their heads together, or lock them in a room together until they admit it.
Why does it bother you? Julia asks herself. Because everyone else sees it as amusing, as something to take bets on. But to Julia, she finds herself snapping sometimes. Defensively. As though admitting to their feelings would mean she has to admit her own.
“Well, well, well. Time to see who’s better on the field after all.”
Zoe’s expression is so fierce, and for a moment, as Julia stands before the flag, she loses her breath. The flushed cheeks, the wild hair, is everything Julia longs for. She doesn’t even fight back. Not completely. Just enough to pretend that she’s trying to stop Zoe from winning.
But really, she was lost the day that Zoe sat down at her table.
Zoe disarms her, carrying the flag away onto the field. As their team celebrates, Julia stares. She watches as Zoe and her teammates cheer and clap each other on their backs.
The thing about Zoe is, Julia realises, that she’s always surrounded by light.
And Julia always feel trapped in the shadows.
After sixteen years, Zoe comes to the realisation that being cheerful all the time is exhausting.
It saps all the energy out of her. And she's proud to say she's always had a ton of that.
But smiling all the time is tiring.
Perhaps that’s why she loves being around Julia. The other girl scowls a lot, and doesn’t exactly encourage her to speak, but there’s something about her that always relaxes Zoe. She doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to Julia. The red-haired girl doesn’t ask stupid questions, or make Zoe feel like she has to fill in the silences.
After the capture the flag game, she feels victorious. For the first time in a long while, Zoe knows that she's won something out of her own skills, and not because someone's pitying her in gym class, or whispering to be kind to the poor deaf girl.
And after her training session with Magnus, Zoe realises how true it is. No one can make her feel unworthy. No one has the power of her, except for her own fears.
I am more than my disability, she thinks. I am so much more.
And if someone couldn’t see past that, they were going to have to move on. Because Zoe was tired of pretending that it was okay to be treated like this. If training is teaching her anything, it's that. And Magnus' words - sweet, beautiful, sassy Magnus; who she adores beyond words - sink into her dreams.
Suddenly, she comes to a door.
Zoe blinks. Frowns.
She didn’t even realise where her feet were taking her until now. To a door. A dorm room. One that was definitely not her own.
And when it swings open, and reveals a girl with deep red hair and an abundance of freckles, Zoe understands. Where else would her feet take her?
“Hi.” Zoe says.
Julia is looking less threatening in a pair of flannel pyjamas. Her hair is tied in a lose bun, and she looks softer in the low light.
Her brown eyes widen suddenly. “Are you okay?” Julia asks.
Zoe resists the lifelong habit of tugging at her hair. She lifts her chin instead. “I’m fine. Great, actually.”
After a moment, Julia clicks her tongue against the roof her mouth. She narrows her eyes. "Okay...?"
Dumb feet. Stupid feet. Why did you take me here?
Julia doesn't slam the door in her face, and the corners of her lips twitch. "So you just came here to talk at...” Julia looks back, at the clock hanging up. “…2 in the morning?” There is amusement in her eyes now.
Beautiful eyes, Zoe thinks. Unhelpfully.
“All the best things happen at that time.” She says. It's a dare; one that she really wants Julia to reach out and grab.
Julia hesitates, and Zoe prepares for the worst. She waits for the eye roll, but it doesn't arrive.
And then, Julia clears her throat and slightly opens the door. “You, uh…want to come in?”
“Yeah.” Zoe nods, hoping her cheeks aren't too flushed.
They find themselves sitting on the top bunk – the bottom is unoccupied thanks to the uneven number of teens in their group.
“What’s it like having a room on your own?” Zoe asks. She’s lying down on her back, staring up at the ceiling and ignoring how aware she is that Julia is just sitting quietly beside her.
“It’s okay. Gets quiet.”
“Well, if you want a bunkmate…”
Julia raised an eyebrow. “Why would you want to share with me?”
Keeping her expression unreadable - even though she's been told many times that she's got the worst poker face in human history - Zoe shrugs. “Well, for starters, I still have so many amazing facts to share. Like, did you know, that…”
She's interrupted when Julia laughs. Which is definitely not a bad thing. At all. Suddenly, quietly and soft like butter, Julia laughs. She then tries to stifle it, but it bubbles out.
“What?” Zoe asks.
Julia shrugs, but her shoulders are still shaking with laughter. “You’re so weird, Zoe.” She whispers.
But she whispers it in such a way that Zoe wishes to laugh herself. Or cry. Maybe both. Because Julia is looking at her, really looking at her, and all Zoe wants to do is squirm and look away. But also to be brave. To be brave and dare to reach out.
Suddenly, Zoe hears herself ask, “Do you want to know?”
Just from saying those words, she can feel her heartbeat start to pound away. It does what it always does; starts beating away with her ready confession. It hovers on her lips, waiting, and as always, it's accompanied by the anticipation. The moment of awkward silence; the 'oh, i'm sorry to hear that', and 'you're so brave'.
Before she can talk herself out of it, Zoe replies, "“About this.” She points to the right side of her face, the missing side. The cut off side. The side that means she's like a mannequin at a store that wasn't put together quite right.
Stop thinking like that. She hears a strong voice say. Commanding. Kind. It's half her own voice, half a version of herself that she wishes to be. A version of herself that, if she hopes and tries hard enough, will become real. You are perfect.
She waits for Julia to roll her eyes, or worse, to shift awkwardly and look away. Zoe waits for the silences that greet her every time she ties her hair back, or the stare that lasts a few seconds to long.
“Do you want to tell me? Because you don’t have to.”
Zoe blinks. She’s speechless for a second or two. When has anyone ever made sure that she wants to talk? That it’s not the most important thing about her?
“I do.” She says, and it’s the truth. She wants to share this, which is probably the most surprising thing.
Zoe takes a deep breath and says, “I was just born like it. Without it, I mean.”
And there it is. In the open. A truth she cannot change, and perhaps, doesn't want to anymore. This is always who she's been, but between training and discovering how strong she can be, how smart and quick-thinking and confident, Zoe realises that she not only can't change it, but doesn't want to.
Finally, Julia replies. “How dull.” She teases.
Zoe lets out a sigh of relief. She even grins. “Right?" She replies, happily. "I’d like to know the horror stories people in the street make up about me.”
At that, she winces. Actually, she wouldn’t want to know the stories. Zoe really, really wouldn’t.
Julia senses the sudden tension in her shoulders. She sits up on her elbows and says sharply, “Whoa. Has someone here said something? Did they insult you? Was it Kian?” Julia demands. Anger flashes in her eyes. “I swear to god I’ll beat the living shit-“
“What? No. Oh my god, no.” Zoe giggles at the thought of Kian insulting anyone. "Kian is a softie." She reveals, and she waits for Julia to lay back down again.
When she does, the words come back to her. Julia's words. Her sudden anger, her protective anger.
And then Zoe grows silent. Her laughter dies down, and the words in her throat become harder. Meaningful.
She turns on her side to look at the other girl. “Why?” She whisper-asks.
“Why would you beat up Kian because he insulted me?”
Julia snorts. “Because you’re too nice to yell at him.” She mutters, lifting a hand up to trace on the ceiling. She traces slow circles, and then stars, and Zoe watches quietly, not wanting to disrupt the peace.
“I’m not nice.” Zoe mumbles.
Julia laughs again, as if she knows something that Zoe doesn't. Or refuses to. “Zoe, you make the sun look like the ice age." Julia says. "You’d rather set fire to yourself than say something unkind.”
Warmth spreads across Zoe's chest.
“Think you know me, huh?" She scratches her nose, another habit her mother is always teasing her about. Another reason her poker face is the worst. "Well, Julia, I can be mean." Zoe says. She smirks, raising a fist to mock-punch the ceiling. "I can be a bad bitch.”
Julia snorts again. “Sure." She deadpans. "And I’m straight.”
The way she says it is so calm, but the silence that falls around them is tense. Not dangerous, or painful, but important.
Julia gulps. “Shit.” She's facing the ceiling still, but even under the low light, Zoe can see that her smile is gone.
“I won’t tell anyone. I promise.” Zoe vows quickly.
And then, Julia's smile is back. "Oh, no, it's not that.." Her red hair shines as she shifts onto her own side, and now they're lying face-to-face, their noses mere inches away. Her smile is soft when she finishes, "I’ve never said it out loud before.”
Zoe thinks about touching her then. About brushing a hand across her forehead, or running her forefinger across the dainty freckles colouring her nose and cheeks. Her red hair is crimson and dark, and reminds Zoe of pomegranates. She licks her lips.
“We should go outside and just scream it." Zoe suggests with a smile. She tries to turn away, to look away from the red-haired girl, but she's too close, and too drawn in to pull back now. "We should find space on one of the rooftops and just scream until our voices disappear." She fills the silence with words, the only distraction to the fierce hunger in her chest. "We should...we should..."
"We’ll be assigned places soon.” Julia suddenly says.
Zoe blinks. The sudden subject change surprises her, as does the disappointment that follows. "Yeah. We'll probably be split up.”
Zoe is watching Julia for any sign, but unlike her, the other girl's expressions are so careful, so hidden away. Which means, Zoe is going to have to be brave. So she licks her lips again and asks, quietly, “Will you miss me?”
Julia lifts her chin, meeting her gaze. “I’ll miss your facts.” She teases, but there's a husky edge to her voice.
It sends goosebumps along Zoe's arms. "Mean." She pouts, hoping to hide the effect it has. She admits, "I might miss you, you know."
Julia shifts, and she's even closer, her leg pressing against Zoe's as she leans forwards. Her lips are so close that Zoe can see her dimples. "Might?” Julia teases. Again, her voice is barely a whisper, low and husky and far from mean.
“Depends on what you leave me to remember you by.” Zoe challenges.
Julia raises an eyebrow. She doesn't move. Until she does.
The redhead tilts her head, her forehead resting against Zoe's as they share the pillow below them. It's soft and slightly warm and indented, and when Zoe leans closer, she sinks into the material, as well as Julia's presence.
“How about this?” Julia whispers. She leans forward and kisses Zoe, softly. Her lower lip trembles slightly, but the warmth, and the very real feel of her is enough to make Zoe inch closer. She carefully cups Julia's chin and lifts it even more, deepening the kiss. When Julia's own hand reaches up to cup her face, Zoe doesn't even hesitate when her fingers skim over the irregular side of her face. She lets herself believe that Julia means it when she says she doesn't care. She lets herself hope, and have the courage to open up.
She kisses Julia softly, and then a little desperately. Their legs tangle together, and the bunk becomes their safety.
When they pull back, Zoe blinks, the world coming back into focus. And it's all coming up red. A brilliant, burning red, with freckles and grins.
Zoe giggles then.
"What?" Julia asks. But she's smiling too.
"I was just thinking. We need to send Magnus Bane a thank you card."
Julia nods in agreement. "Make it glittery."
"Can I ask you something?"
Zoe asks, "Did you let me win? At capture the flag?"
Julia didn't even hesitate.
They giggle, holding each other and sharing another kiss. After a while, Zoe feels her eyelids growing heavier, and the last thing she remembers is the crook of Julia's shoulder, as she tucks her nose into the dip in her shoulder and falls asleep.