She couldn’t stop. She thought her anxiety had gotten better, but after Cameron had held her hand in such a soft way, her nerves had been a wreck. They’d finally taken her hand in the way she wanted. Whatever their gemmes had told them finally pushed them her way. What more could she do than shake and pray they weren’t playing a cruel joke on her?
Basil yelling at her for being with them finally tipped her over the edge and made her look like the biggest idiot crybaby in front of all of them. She didn’t know what she’d done to make him so frustrated. Had she said something offensive, done something out of turn? Did she deserve to hold Cameron’s hand as someone more than a friend? Did he just hate girls like her?
She didn’t know Maywood that well, either, but that didn’t stop the girl from defending her. Before Avery could ask where she was taking her, Maywood paused and yelled at Cameron and Basil to keep up. Cameron, sticking their nose up at Basil, followed them back into Arkeh:na. Basil followed with his shoulders hunched and head to the floor.
Maywood said sweet encouragements to Avery to keep her from sobbing. While not catching a lot, Avery heard, “It’s okay. I’ll fix this. He’s upset, but I know why. I’ll help. It’s okay.” She reminded Avery of a mother, but she didn’t know if it was because of her need to take charge or her cane.
She brought them back to Cameron’s den. She offered Avery their bed, which she took to better hide her face. When Cameron and Basil finally arrived—they dawdled a few seconds behind—Maywood sat Basil in the hole next to Avery.
Avery squirmed into the corner of the bed. Why next to her, his number one most hated person above and below the surface? She hadn’t heard a lot of what he’d spat out at her near the gondolas, but she’d heard enough. The spit that hit her face made his opinion of her clear.
Maywood squeezed in beside Avery. “Apologize.”
Avery went to open her mouth, but Maywood silenced her and waited for someone else to speak.
Basil scrunched up his nose in defiance. When Maywood reached for her cane, he said something in Arkeh:nen, then said in English, “I’m sorry for yelling, but not for what I said.”
“What was that last part?” Maywood asked. “Be sincere.”
“I was. I said I’m not sorry for what I said.”
“Why’re you so mean to her?” Cameron asked. “What did she do to you?”
“I think I know,” Maywood said.
“What do you know?” Basil asked. “You don’t understand.”
“She’s a sister,” Cameron pressed. “She knows things. Feels things.”
Basil slouched against the wall. He stared into the blankets and pillows, unblinking and stern.
Breaking their tension, Maywood said something without hesitation and without malice.
Whatever she said stabbed him in the heart. He accidentally kicked a piece of rock out of the wall and sputtered out ridiculous questions.
“What did she say?” Avery dared to ask.
Cameron picked at their head scar. Discomfort reddened their face like a rash.
“Don’t,” Basil warned. “Wait—”
“He likes me.”
“Liked!” he corrected in English. “Past tense! You’re a friend now. Just a friend.”
Avery’s stomach turned. “You like them, too?”
When “too” left her mouth, Cameron lifted up their head. Sweat started forming around their hairline. Now they just looked ill.
“No!” Basil said, raising his voice. “As kids. School kids. They…We’re friends now, right? Only friends.”
“I don’t think so,” Maywood said.
Basil looked between all of them, desperate to stay above water. “Why’re you doing this to me? I just hate Autreans. I want to protect Cameron from them.”
“You don’t have to,” Cameron said. “What she and I have—”
They argued back and forth, breaking between the two languages. Basil raised his voice. Cameron’s face reddened. Maywood played peacekeeper.
Avery had pegged down Basil’s frustrations on things she didn’t understand, but the holdback in his tone to be both accepted and ignored, she understood that perfectly. It didn’t excuse the way he treated her, but she knew how different she acted when this’d happened to her.
When the conversation broke into silence, Avery mustered up the courage to say out loud, “I’m the same way.”
The den quieted. Maywood rested her hand over Avery’s back.
“I don’t have friends,” she continued. “I only keep my phone on me to talk to my parents when they’re not busy. It’s been hard to make friends.”
“Me,” Cameron said. “Me, too.”
Even though she wanted to, she kept her eyes on anything but Cameron. “I had one friend back in middle school—from the past, when I was younger—who I liked.” She pulled up a picture of Bridget on her phone. “I liked her so much that it hurt to keep those feelings from her. One day, I told her how I felt, and she…”
She stifled back a few tears before they fell. She looked so happy in those pictures. “She didn’t like me back. She said it was wrong to feel that way and to never talk to her again. She was my best friend. Now I have no one. I have no friends, my parents are always working. I have nobody I can go to for help. But then I found Cameron.”
The tears sunk her head into her knees. “I’ve never felt so happy to be myself around someone before. I feel safe. I feel happy. They like my art and don’t make fun of me for what I do. Basil, you remind me so much of myself back then, so scared and alone, unable to figure out what was wrong with me. I’m sorry I was the one to put you through that kind of pain. I didn’t know.”
Maywood fully embraced her, allowing her to cry into her shoulder. Basil kept staring into the same direction. Avery didn’t know what Cameron looked like or was feeling or if they’d understood half of what she’d gushed out, but she had to say it.
Basil leaned over and took the phone out of her hands. He stared at Bridget’s picture with a solemn expression, then clicked through more photos, likely finding more of her. “It hurt.”
She nodded into Maywood’s shoulder.
With Bridget’s rejection still rotting inside of her, she kept nodding. “I’m sorry. If I’d known you and Cameron used to have something…”
“Don’t,” he said, interrupting her. “I never had it in the first place.” He handed her back her phone. He’d turned it off for her. “I’m sorry.”
He picked a scab off of his cheek. “Honestly, I don’t know many Autreans. I think they’re bad because of my Moeder. I think they take away Arkeh:nen and break families apart. From what they do in the mountains, they cut trees and cut animals. I don’t like that. I didn’t want that for Cameron, but now…” The scratching deepened. “I get it. I understand. I was…too mean, to you. I shouldn’t be. You are good for them. Too good.”
He spoke to Cameron in their language, then crawled out of bed. “I’m sorry I say you don’t belong,” he added to Avery. “I think you do, with Cameron, with us. You belong.”
She didn’t know why, but that made her ugly-cry into Maywood’s shoulder for almost a minute. Out of all people, it was Basil who finally made her feel accepted by this group of people, her friends.
When she finished, Maywood said, “Sorry about this. I hope you can forgive him.”
Avery sniffed. “I already have.”
With a nervous bow, Basil left with his sister. Avery had just enough time to return his wave before Cameron collided into her and hugged her.
“Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry. No sad, no do that more.”
“Sorry, sorry, don’t cry.”
Avery patted their back like a baby. Their eyes looked glossier than before.
“Hey.” She wiped their eyes with her thumb. “You’re not supposed to cry, too.”
“You…sad. You are sad.” They switched to Arkeh:nen. “I’m sorry about Basil. I never knew. If I had, I would’ve said something to him. He should’ve said something to me. My Moeder was right. I’m not very intuitive.”
“I had a feeling he liked you, just not so much.”
Shaking that off, they hugged her again. Even though they stood under five feet tall, in this moment they felt taller.
They held each other that way for minutes acting as hours. It could’ve been more; she didn’t keep count. She longed for a moment like this with someone like them. She didn’t expect to cut through so many brambles to reach it, but she wondered if everyone needed to when they opened their heart up to someone they trusted.
“Is this okay?”
“More than okay.”
They lifted their head and gave her that look again. Eyes half-closed, their injured one closed entirely. When they moved forwards, one hand on her leg, the other on her hip, Avery moved back to give herself more time—Was she doing everything right, did she smell, was she misinterpreting this as something more or less than what it actually meant? But when their breath kissed her parted lips, her brain fogged over.
The kiss came slow. Neither of them seemed to know how to kiss. Avery had only practiced so much with her pillow before she embarrassed herself, and Cameron had this need to push out their teeth and dance their hands over her arms like clumsy spiders.
It was more than she ever imagined. She didn’t want it to stop. She thought she was weird because she never crushed on celebrities or singers, but this was the reason why. None of them fit her standards. None of them loved her like this.
When she pulled back, she allowed herself to fully indulge in her feelings. She didn’t feel guilty about it. For once in her life, she let the butterflies in her stomach flutter eternally, hoping that they’d never land on the branches encasing her heart.
Cameron led her back to the corridor where the Rivière narrowed into a smaller river. The long boats bounced between one another, absent of a steerer, leaving them alone with the sound of calm waves.
“What’s this for?” she asked in Arkeh:nen.
“Nothing but a ride,” they said, and unhooked a firebug lantern from the wall.
Avery steadied herself as she stepped into one of the wet gondolas. Cameron stood in the middle. Her and their combined weight did sink it down a bit, but it managed to bob in the water without capsizing.
Cameron kicked off the rocks. They didn’t have an oar with them, but as soon as they were about to hit the wall, they grabbed hold of a wooden peg near their head and steered them away. A few feet ahead and another stuck out, illuminated by blue and purple rocks. Cameron caressed them before steering the boat back into the middle of the river.
Avery watched them without fear. She didn’t care where the river led her or what she and Cameron had just become. With a newfound smile, she let the river guide her down an unexplored path.