Candy had a perfectly reasonable reason to hold her hand, but Serena had no excuse for why her cheeks were so warm. Maybe she could blame the hot chocolate. She took a hasty gulp, hiding as much of her face behind the ceramic mug as possible and burning her tongue in the process. The other woman dipped her tiny paintbrush into an antique inkwell, stirring up a storm of dark, shimmering clouds within the glass. Candy s grin suggested she enjoyed creating a little chaos. Tapping off the excess ink, she carefully added another curving line to the design she was painting on Serena s forearm. What seemed like random curlicues was rapidly becoming a pattern as delicate and elaborate as lace, moons and stars and flowers subtly connecting into a silvery webwork that trapped and held the light.

The shining ink fascinated Serena, and so did Candy. It helped her forget the iron bars of guilt and failed expectations that imprisoned her mind.

The Jewel Bean Cafe had become a place of refuge for her over the last month. She d fled here after her final meeting with The Mechanic. He d brought out a bicycle that had no lingering scars to remind her of malicious pranks. Diligent work had been put into filling and buffing out even the smallest scratch. Serena had been grateful, but couldn t conceal how underwhelming the grey paint job was. The Mechanic just shook his head and wheeled it out into the sunlight. Hidden rainbows shimmered into life across a painted silver lining and her exclamation of delight was the only sincere moment between them.

Her hand had caught his impulsively, their eyes meeting over a wall built brick by brick from their mutual shyness and a crime Serena couldn t bring herself to confess. The space between one heartbeat and the next was both an instant and eternity, giving her too much time to see the brightness of hope fill The Mechanic s eyes and too little to enjoy how soft and sweet that expression was before reality caught up. Shame was the cloud that darkened her happiness and she looked away from the disappointment casting a shadow across his. Serena stammered out a few disjointed words of gratitude and his fingers slipped out from between hers. They parted ways with a brief exchange of agonizingly correct politeness. Her offer of coming back sometime was answered by a funereal wave.

Cherry didn t know why she arrived upset that day and didn t pry, but that was the beginning of a new chapter in her life story. The proprietor always welcomed her with a bone crushing hug and loaded her down with more drinks and snacks than what little money she pushed across the counter could have paid for. Harmless gossip and sugar filled the emptiness in her heart, but Serena was always careful with what she shared. She wanted to believe there was an adult who looked forward to seeing her and who wanted to know what she was doing. If that was the truth, then she wasn t going to risk changing it. If it wasn t, at least it felt real.

Instead, she would bring her class work and study material or just pick a novel from the shelf. The overstuffed leather chair that Cherry had first dropped her in was always empty and ready for her to curl up in. A tradition quickly formed, with the proprietor s amused approval: she rubbed the little metal dragon s nose for good luck before she left. It gazed up at her with a Cheshire grin - a round, red cherry creature lounging on top of a fools gold and crystal heap - and she smiled back. It had been a lucky day when she d found this place.

The patrons themselves were kind too. The boring looking man in the suit was one of Steel Moon s high-powered accountants. When she told Cherry that she was struggling in Statistics, a class she d taken only because she needed the math credit and had foolishly thought graphs and charts would be easy, the older woman had called Steve over to help. He d rambled about feeding pigeons in the park and Frank, his red-eyed favorite that looked like a badly used feather duster, until she wondered about premature senility. Then he had taken her textbook, put it back in her bag, and explained the concepts to her with such simplicity that Serena believed she might actually pass her next test. She d told him so and Steve had just smiled absently and adjusted his tinted eyeglasses. When he said it was no trouble, it sounded like he meant it.

She d met the owners of the aromatherapy store down the street were a cute pair of hobby writers who spent their time bent over laptops and laughing together. When she d asked about their store, Serena had been given some good advice on soothing herbal teas and ended up buying a conditioner that was slowly putting a soft, healthy gloss in her hair. A redheaded young man, with so many freckles that he appeared tanned, often ran across the street from the second-hand bookstore and fled back just as quickly with a thermos of chai latte. Sometimes he d toss more books on the shelf on his way out. The couple from the aromatherapy place made a game of finding the trashiest, weirdest novels from the stack. Sometimes Serena would hide in her corner and listen to the dramatic readings.

Then there was Candy. The other woman began to magically show up on the slowest evenings. After turning over an armful of boxes and tins to Cherry, she would drag a chair over to Serena and throw herself into it with careless ease. This had made Serena anxious at first, not knowing how she could possibly make conversation with a stranger, but Candy didn t really ask her to try. She would spread out her own notebooks and fill page after page with designs. It turned out that she was a crafter who took pride in being able to embellish any surface. One day, Serena discovered skin counted as a surface.

Even when she was speaking, the other woman was never still. Painted nails flashed as she continuously fidgeted with pens and brushes. During an enthusiastic lecture on handmade inks that was punctuated by several dramatic gestures, the other woman s sleeve pulled back to reveal a fuchsia gladiolus blooming around Candy s bicep where none had been before. The sword lily was an example of the other woman s skill with temporary body art and Serena s curiosity was immediately captured. The permanency and fear of her parent s reaction scared her away from tattoos, but to appear bold in front of Candy and to experiment without commitment was irresistible.

Serena s arm was twisted and turned at all angles as silvery abstract patterns grew down her forearm and coiled on the back of her hand. She jumped as a fingernail dragged down her palm and Candy caught her fingers firmly as they straightened out. A few quick strokes of the brush finished drawing vines down to her nail beds and her hand was released. The artist was watching her patiently, chin now propped on her free hand and making no effort to hide her smirk. Serena s face felt as red hot as one of the copper kettles on the stove. She had a sudden insight into why the overheated vessels were known to scream.

You look hot, Candy pointed out, grin spreading as she brandished her paintbrush like a conductor s baton. She traced a half circle into the air between them, like the upward curving of a smile. And bothered. Want to go for a walk when we re done? You could cool off.

Cherry interrupted by coming over to admire her daughter s dermatological decorating skills. She also waved a scolding finger. Candy s answering laugh and shrug was eloquent. Without words, an entire dialogue was played out between Mama Cherry and her errant child. The parent pointed at the door and Candy spread her hands. A frown rejected the appeal. Inspiration struck. Candy jabbed her finger at an unused jar of ink and sighed like not being able to finish would break her heart. Cherry flicked her daughter s nose and turned a softer smile towards her guest before leaving them alone again.

The remaining jar was filled with ink the color of peacock feathers, an iridescent blue-green that sparkled with flecks of gold and purple when the light hit it just right. Serena would have sworn the design on her skin was finished and that any further detail was unnecessary, but the new ink dripped life into the silver framework. Color blossomed with deft flicks and dabs, an even smaller paintbrush being used to make the most delicate shadings and accents. Finally, a thin layer was spread across the nails of both hands to leave the faintest of tints behind.

It s exciting, right? Make-up. Dye. Jewelry. Clothes. Body art. You decorate your home until it feels right. Your body isn t any different. You live in it and you want it to reflect who you are. I don t think you know who you are yet, but I wouldn t worry about it too much, Candy said, laughing and already back to doodling in a sketchbook. She flourished the brush in the air once more, playfully adding, Experimenting until you figure everything out is half the fun, anyway.

Serena held out her arm to the light from the window, admiring the artistry and feeling hopeful excitement bubbling up in her chest. She traced the curve of a vine cradling a half-opened flowerbud. The inked image wasn t real, but some part of her could imagine it blooming and showing it s true colors to the world. How amazing that would be - something that was allowed to grow freely and watched with anticipation instead of expectation.

She had not been given that opportunity. The rigid structure and high goals of boarding school had filled her life starting at the age of seven. After that, she d been put into a finishing school that had failed to make her charming or accomplished. Now it was the college's chance to force her into an acceptable mold.

One of her earliest memories was of the first day of boarding school. She d never been away from home and the safety of her nannies, but her parents had not hesitated to leave her with a small suitcase and an order: Make Them Proud. Serena had struggled to be brave in an unknown place filled with loud strangers, but barely three days had passed until someone had knocked her into a mud puddle and she d ended up in the housemother s sitting room. Her small, muck splattered body cowered away from the towering ebony shelves filled with spotless porcelain figurines. Shame whispered to her between heaving sobs, pointing out that she had ruined her new uniform and that she was dripping on a freshly waxed floor. Years later, the smell of Old English wood cleaner would still make her stomach lurch and prompt an anxious check for mud or shoe scuffs.

By the time the housemother had been found, Serena was hysterical. She addressed her apology to the woman s unbending knees. A younger teacher arrived minutes later to take her to the bathroom and it was this woman who had finally knelt down to her level. Kindness had been in the woman s eyes and in the hand that patted her head, but the words that fell from her smiling lips murdered the hope in Serena s heart so thoroughly that the stiffly formal room should have been labelled a crime scene. A pretty little girl like her didn t need to cry over a silly bit of mud. It was time to calm down now and lift up her chin - didn t she want her parents to be proud of her?

Serena never cried in front of witnesses again. Once the young and admittedly uncreative bullies exhausted traditional methods like hair pulling and name calling, they experimented with shutting her in a linen closet overnight. The silent, stiff backed child was let out in the morning and the bullies found someone less boring to torment. The truth was that she had never been bad enough to attract the vigilant eyes of school discipline and never good enough to excite special attention from her teachers. Serena was obedient, self-controlled, and knew more about what cutlery to use during a formal dinner than she knew about who she was as a person. Her parents never did end up being proud of her.

Cherry was humming behind the counter and her daughter kept time with the tapping of her toes. How different Candy s relaxed slouch was compared to Serena s perfectly straight and practiced posture. Candy looked up when Serena focused on her, fearlessly meeting her eyes and flicking her paintbrush in a way that communicated both inquiry and impatience. Serena ducked her head and whispered, You re confident, talented, and your mother loves you. I wish I was that lucky. I envy you.

The first hint that something was wrong came when Serena realized Candy was sitting perfectly still. The paintbrush hovered motionless over the paper, a drop of ink building up at the tip. It swelled bigger and heavier by the second, trembling on the edge of falling and forever blotting out the design it had been forming. Serena held her breath, but the anxious vibration of her heart threatened to shake it and her nerves loose. She never saw where it fell, because in the next moment the brush was thrown down on the table. Serena leapt to her feet at the warning screech of a chair being pushed back across the tiles, ready to run or or play dead, because when did she ever fight?

Mama! We re going for a walk. Candy s voice rang out sharply, her anger a footnote just beneath the meaning of her words. Be right back.

Before Serena could protest, Candy had caught her by the elbow and dragged her outside. Her feet found every crack in the sidewalk, tripping over themselves in an attempt to follow in the other woman s steps. Her effort to keep up was desperate and hopeless. If she hadn t been out of breath and afraid that she d somehow lost the closest thing to a friend she had, Serena might have appreciated the metaphor about trying to be someone else.

I really like you, Candy said, letting go of Serena s arm and raking her hands through her short hair until it stood up like an irritable cockatoo. She bit off her syllables like they had offended her. It s really cute that you re going through gay puberty and breaking out in glitter. I ll help you out, but don't envy me. Don t. I mean it.

Serena was nodding before Candy even finished speaking, but the other woman only looked more annoyed than ever. Confusion was fertile soil to grow a field of blooming fears. The brighter flowers Candy had painted pressed into her chest, her arms hugging herself tightly, and a few seeds of comfort took root. The other woman was slowing down, quieting, until they could trudge along at the same heavily burdened pace. Candy s normally expressive face was alarmingly neutral - a mask of stiff lines and dark, distant eyes. Mechanical, methodical steps and stillness had replaced the casual swing of arms and the self-confident saunter.

"My stepfather threw my ass out at fifteen and my mother let him, Candy said, so abruptly and tonelessly that Serena s stomach began to squirm. This woman was barely recognizable as the creature of bright colors and animation that she had been growing attached too. Serena scolded herself for trusting too fast and assuming far too much. With the same mesmerized horror that one watches an oncoming car wreck, she hid in the dark shadow the other woman cast behind her and waited. "Lucky for me that my mother didn't give a damn about me, because otherwise I might still be trapped there with her. What's a daughter's worth against hanging onto the latest abusive bastard, right? Cherry s my foster mother - all the girls she calls her daughters are fosters. Think she's lucky too? If anyone was born to be a mother, it was her. Her children were murdered. Now she loves the children that other mothers threw away."

Such words should have been screamed with enough feeling to bring the sky crashing down upon them, but the sun continued to shine up above, and Candy's indifferently spoken words faded away without a single shard left behind. Her hand hovered over her friend's elbow, reeling from the emotional impact and wanting to help but afraid some of the jagged edges hidden beneath the surface would cut too deeply if she held on too closely. Candy sidestepped the gesture and turned to face Serena.

Everyone around you is dealing with more crap than you will ever know about and most of them aren t going to spill their guts for your benefit." Candy neither whispered nor cried, but Serena knew you could hurt without showing it. She knew that truth but somehow she hadn't connected it with anyone but herself before. Candy s hands closed on her shoulders just a little too tightly, but a bit of life was bleeding back into her face. Life - with both pain and humor openly given to the world.

So, Lit Major, here s one for you to figure out. You re not in Kansas anymore and that s exactly what you wanted. Great! Welcome! Whatever shiny golden road you thought you d find is a lie and any wizard who tells you there s a quick fix for anything is a dangerous fake. The only thing you need is what you already have - yourself. Go find a Toto somewhere and enjoy the adventure, Dorothy.

The harder lines of Candy s face softened into her usual teasing smirk. She gave Serena s shoulders a gentle shake. There was no hugging, like she d seen girls do in movies and read about in books, but the other woman did lean in until Serena s eyes crossed. You can think of me as the Good Witch.

Cherry s eyes narrowed suspiciously when they got back. In that sharp glance, she saw the teachers who had noticed every speck of lint on her uniform and every scuff on her shoes. She felt the headache of hair pulled into tight pigtails until she d cut them free one day. Her penmanship was smudged and she d missed the bonus questions on the last test. She was failing to meet expectations. Candy bumped her hip and Serena remembered to breathe again - just in time for Mama Cherry to sweep her up and bury her face in a more than ample bosom. Smothering but safe. Safely smothered. Breathing was overrated.

When she stepped back, she was dry eyed. A smile she hoped was pleasant and serene was forced into place, but the pressure in her chest threatened to crush her heart to dust when the motherly woman cupped her face in gentle hands and pressed a kiss to her forehead. She d learned, painfully, that there were broken pieces inside Candy that could hurt them both if she touched them. Serena starred up into Cherry s worried face, desperate to see if she could find the sharp edges hidden beneath the soft features and compassionate eyes. She couldn t. She hadn t seen them in Candy either, because the bright colors had distracted her. She was an idiot. She wasn t worthy of being loved.

Serena s knees hit the floor hard enough to bruise. For the first time since that long ago group of teachers taught her to be ashamed, Serena began to cry in public. Once the tears overflowed, there was no stopping them. Deep, heaving sobs shook her apart and she tried to hide the ugliness of her tear blotched and snot dripping face. Serena cringed from the arms that closed around her, knowing the moment had come where someone would tell her to stop being a crybaby or drag her away to some back room where no one had to look at her disgraceful behavior.

Instead, Serena found herself carried to the nearest armchair. Cherry settled them both comfortably, holding on firmly when Serena tried to escape her lap. It was a battle the older woman won in seconds, armed with superior strength and facing an opponent who had been waiting a lifetime to find kindness she could surrender to. Cherry rocked her, slow and steady, kissing the tangled fluff of blonde hair. The motherly woman was humming tunes her own children must have heard in that once upon a time that never got it s happily ever after. The thought was a knife in Serena s heart, yet even that pain began to fade as the young woman grew exhausted. And calm.

Peeking out from Cherry s arms, Serena immediately saw Candy. Her friend was sitting on the arm rest, resting her head on Mama s shoulder. Serena had a Plan to cut ties with her family, but only after she d safely secured a home and a job somewhere too far away for them to harm her. Her worst fear was being discovered before her Plan was finished and being cut off before she was ready. Candy had survived being thrown into the street. Serena admired her for that strength, but more than ever it made her determined to avoid that fate. She was a coward. She couldn t be that strong.

Serena hiccuped, a fresh sob rising. Her skull throbbed painfully with every breath, so she didn t resist when Cherry clucked scoldingly and pulled the young woman s head back down onto her chest. She dozed off for a few moments, inhaling the fragrance of tea, spices, and the bakery sweetness of the Mother. The scent of burnt earth and the metallic bitterness of minerals seemed to linger beneath the more sugary odors, reminding Serena that she too often focused on superficial things. Like herself.

Cherry s voice was a soft murmur with a single refrain - all would be well in the end. She wanted to believe that, but her mind rebelled against the audacity of hope. It preferred to taunt her over how she had made herself look ugly and weak. It fixated on how gross and slimy Cherry s blouse was where she d been crying into it and how disappointed in her Candy must have been. The strong imagination that had lifted her childhood to above the daily nightmare bent itself to thinking up all the reasons why her new friends should hate her. Except that they were beside her still. Right now. They hadn t left. But they didn t know everything.

The bell over the door rang, interrupting her mental game of pingpong. Steve shuffled in, using his briefcase as a tray to hold a box of pizza and two large bags of garlic knots. He seemed vaguely conscious of having created an awkward situation, which translated into him putting one of the pungently smelling bags into her left hand and his handkerchief into the right. With that matter settled in his mind, Steve retreated to his usual table for the daily crossword. Serena clutched the warm back close, looking from the consternation in Cherry s face to Candy s twitching lips. Laughter, strained and a bit hysterical, won out and Mama could only sigh, kissing them both on the cheek. She suggested her children existed to make her go grey before her time and then, catching Serena s eye, asked seriously if her little one was feeling better.

Her hands shook only a little bit as she gathered up her books and waved goodbye. Cherry had accepted that she couldn t talk right now, but had made it clear she would be there when Serena was ready. She would always be there, right where Serena could find her. They liked her. It was all going to be okay. Candy walked her to the bus stop and, despite Serena s protests, sat beside her on the bench to wait for the bus.

Nothing s changed. You know more about us now, but we re not different people, Candy muttered, trying and failing to catch Serena s eye. The other woman s leg was bouncing itself into early-onset joint pain. Serena didn t look up until a small but ornately painted paper bag was placed in her lap. Curiosity revived her enough to peek in, finding it full of brightly colored rock candy on string. I made those myself. I like you. A lot. Are we still good?

Serena leaned sideways until her shoulder rested against Candy s. Slowly, the other woman leaned back until they were propping each other up. The leg bouncing slowed to a stop. There was more than enough candy in the bag to share, so they split a string between them and watched the clouds roll by. Candy suggested one looked like a plump dragon. Serena countered with a galloping unicorn and the bag of garlic and butter dipped calories. The laughter that followed felt like a shared sigh of relief. The Good Witch s voice was unusually soft as the bus pulled up, but she heard it even above the screech of brakes.

Mama wasn t lying. Life hurts, but it does turn out okay in the end. We created the life we wanted and so will you. Get going, Dorothy Gale. The bus won t wait.