“I’m leaving,” I’d said as we lay in bed that morning. I’d opted to spend my last night at Jaina’s rather than my mom’s. She was Elske now, not Mami, and I had to remember that. She had to become inconsequential. “Like, I don’t know if I’m coming back.”

Jaina blinked, pushing herself up to lean on her elbow. The strap of her slip fell off her shoulder, but she made no move to fix it. “What do you mean?”

I swallowed. “There are… things I have to do. You wouldn’t believe me if I tried to explain.”

“Cut me some slack. Explain.”

“Seriously,” I sighed. “It’s… not your fault. I just had to tell you.”

She sat up. “Are you trying to break up with me?”

“No!” I sat up, too, crossing my legs. “I already said it’s not your fault.”

Her mouth twisted. “Is it your mom? Did she do something?”

I looked down, away. “No. Yes. Not really. It’s hard to say.”

“Julia. Please. Just because I wouldn’t understand doesn’t mean I don’t care.” She put a hand on my knee. 

I licked my lips. “Not that you wouldn’t understand. It’s that if I told you- I don’t want to lose your trust. It’s far out.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “If I had the choice, I wouldn’t leave you.”

“But you are, anyway.” She took her hand away, leaving my knee cold. Colder than it should have been. “Are you sure you’re not trying to break up with me?”

I let out a strangled sob, surging forward and wrapping my arms around her neck. “Jai,” I choked. “No. Never. Sankte, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“You’re scaring me, Julia.” She stroked my hair. “I thought you knew me. I’ll believe anything you say. I do trust you.”

“You shouldn’t.” 

I didn’t think the words were that loud, but she drew back anyway. “We’ll tell a story, then. If that helps. Make it less personal.” We had been shattered before, by other people, and stories were how we distanced ourselves from the pain. We had told them for two years now, but this would be the last.

Jaina pursed her lips when I didn’t respond and started anyway. “Once upon a time, there was a girl who was both alone and not alone at all.”

I sighed. “This is how all of your stories begin.”

“Shh- it’s because that’s how it is. Once upon a time, this girl grew up knowing that she was different from her classmates. While the girls chased the boys and the boys chased the girls, she watched and wondered why she felt no pull to do what they did. Maybe it was common courtesy that she respected and the others lacked. Maybe she was too young to like boys. ‘Maybe’ was the word of her childhood, until she heard the word ‘lesbian’ and decided that that was who she was. A girl who liked girls. It fit.”

“And then, when she had grown up, she ran into a girl at the bar she frequented- and later worked at- and she fell in love so hard she couldn’t imagine ever not being with her. And they made out and had really great sex, and they thought that that was happily ever after.”

Most of the time, the story ended with happily ever after. Most of the time, there was no ‘they thought’ involved. 

“Julia,” she prompted gently. It was my turn to finish the story.

I swallowed. “Once upon a time, there was a girl beloved by her father.”

Jaina snorted. “That’s some real fairy-tale shit right there.”

“But it’s my fairy-tale shit!” I frowned. “Damn, I really am living a fairy tale. Just… shut up, let me continue.” 

She lifted her hands in surrender. I caught one, threading my fingers through hers and bringing them to my lips. “She loved him deeply, but because of his job, he was away for long periods of time. Her mother was jealous of their relationship, growing cold and withdrawn with every passing year. The only way that the girl and her father could communicate while he was gone was in matching journals that he’d brought back once. These were special journals- what was written in one was also written in the other. She told him about her day- her teachers, the trip she took to Berlin, the cousins getting engaged. He told her about- about missions. Battles. Displaced queens and underground rebellions and, the most interesting bit of all, the magic he witnessed and used.” I stopped. 

Jaina opened her mouth slowly. “Oh. Okay.”

“She never doubted it for a second. Sure, she was a kid and impressionable, but he brought back so many ideas, and stories, and things, and there was a point where she realized that yeah- he had never lied once. He didn’t have a real birth certificate- it had been forged, and he’d always been open about that. Remarkably so, actually.” I furrowed my brow. “Yeah, talking about that with a five-year-old probably wasn’t a great idea, just… thinking in retrospect. Anyway, most of the time he was gone- sometimes for a year at a time- and she missed him so, so, much.

“Then, after telling her about a dangerous mission he was about to go on- something that would stretch his three-month trip a little bit longer and make it so he couldn’t write as much- he didn’t come back. He was delayed, she thought. He would write back any day to tell her about the epic fights he’d been in- perhaps he’d seen a new island, or met a famous general, or fought with a Councilmember. Assassinated one, even. All she knew about this mission was that it was risky and that it was to Lashaar- the seat of an empire about to take over the world.”

Jaina pursed her lips. “Julia, Lashaar doesn’t exist. I’ve never heard of it, and I was pretty good at geography when I was in high school.”

I ignored her, blinking hard. “Three months turned into twelve turned into thirty, and she kept writing him but he never wrote back. Never had he been away this long, and she could no longer keep her mother waiting. If her parents had been married, they would have divorced long ago, and all the comments her mother made… they didn’t help her cope. But eventually, she gave up on his return and they moved to America to try and make a new life. The girl had learned English in school, but not much. Her mother knew enough to get by. And the girl waited, and waited until she might get the chance to run away and get to Iona and find whoever it was who had killed her father because nothing short of death would have caused him to just… stop writing. He’d only projected a couple weeks’ delay, not three years.

“She made a friend. That much was okay, she was alone and wanted- needed- someone else not wallowing in misery and grief. And she fell in love, too, and every time she so much as thought of her beloved- to say nothing of seeing, or talking, or especially kissing- pangs of guilt and sadness and more grief would torment her.”

I caught my breath. “It’s bizarre. I know.”

Jaina only reached for my other hand to hold. I stared at it. “Go on,” she whispered, and I loved her even more for it. 

“Then, she got the chance.” I swallowed. “The girl would get on a ship and jump off where she needed to. She was half-Ionian, after all, the Shift would pull her to her true home. What home had the Mainland ever provided?” I looked up. “The Shift being, in essence, the sentient multiverse and the Mainland being this world. Iona is… on the other side.” 

“Okay…”

“She’d jump off and be in Iona and find the people Dad told me about- Queen Kiernen, and Musia and Beryon and Commander Eklund and maybe even Laren- though he doesn’t go by that name and Dad never told me that much about him but for that he’s important- and I can’t let him just-” I inhaled sharply. “He was all I had. This- and you, honestly- it’s the only reason I’m still alive. The idea that I might not let him die unavenged.” I leaned forward, squeezing my eyes shut. “That sounds cliche, doesn’t it? Stupid? I have never told anyone any of this, Jai.”

“I get it,” she whispered. “But there has to be another way.”

“To avenge my dad?” I laughed a little bit. “Sankte, it even sounds stupid.”

She watched me carefully. “You always say that.”

I frowned. “Say what?” 

“’Sankte’. You’ve always cursed weirdly. I thought it was a German thing.”

I sighed. “If I was cursing in German- which I do quite frequently, if you haven’t noticed- it’d be a lot of ‘Scheiße’ and ‘verdammt’ and whatever. Ionians believe in the Saints. Kind of a weird form of Christianity- there’s a lot of accidental immigration thanks to monks trying to get to the monastery on Scottish Iona in the history of, well, Ionian Iona. Anyway, my dad Germanized ‘Saints’ to ‘Sankte’ and now it’s my favorite curse.”

“You have a lot of favorite curses.” Jaina shifted, leaning back against her headboard. “I can’t stop you, can I?” 

I shook my head, not voicing my answer. Not daring, lest I crack completely. 

“Or convince you to… I dunno, let me come with you?”

“There’s a reason why I wasn’t thrilled to explain what I was doing. Beyond the idea of you looking at me with… disbelief and pity. Beyond leaving and losing you more than I have to.” I whet my lips. “I’m so selfish. So damned selfish, I’d drag you with me and you’d die and it’d be my fault.”

She furrowed her brow. “What about the others?”

“My entire friendship with Melissa was built on the idea that I’d be… gone someday. I knew I’d have to leave. I’ve prepared myself for almost six years. I hardly know Annemarie and Brandon. You, though.” I swallowed again. “You, I didn’t expect.” I exhaled. “You… I can’t stand leaving you. If you came with, I wouldn’t be able to let go.”

 

Quick note: the featured images on my writing portfolio posts have little to nothing to do with the excerpt. The way that they formatted, however, was a bit nicer than they were without any pictures! I’m going to hopefully replace them with more pertinent images in the future, but this may take some time as I am using my own material. 

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