Serial fiction. Updated at 6.00am UTC on Monday and Friday.

16: Toni

Despite being hungover on Sunday, Toby and his minions – Toni had quickly come to realise that they revolved around him – had not been calmer. They had spent the early part of Saturday evening after they had returned from the game trying to look presentable, part of which meant doing bicep curls, and then had gone out, returning home in the small hours. At least their 4am gaming session was punctuated by them exaggeratedly shushing each other. Then, somehow, they were up and crashing about only a few hours later, and hadn’t let up for the rest of the day. Toni had stayed in her room as much as she could.

Now, though, she was in a place where she could relax. She was between lectures, and was sat on a bench outside the students’ union, drinking an oat decaf latte she had bought there. It was nice to sit while she waited, and to watch all of the other students going about their lives. Who were they? What were their stories? Who were they going to be? She liked the fact that she didn’t know, and they didn’t know her; she could sit there, among them, without anyone caring who she was. Here, that didn’t matter; no one knew anything of her, and she didn’t have to be who anyone thought, she didn’t have to bend to the weight Father or Mother, fit herself around someone like Toby, let Maddie… Maddie… she loved and how relentlessly up she was, but sometimes felt as though parts of her were lost in her girlfriend’s brightness, that she was somehow thrown into shadow.

‘Toni!’

She turned, and saw Jack hurrying towards her from across the square, smiling his usual sweet, goofy smile. She stood up, and they hugged.

He sat down alongside her, and pushed his hair out of his eyes. He did this often.

‘Isn’t it time you got a haircut?’

‘Always! Sorry I’m late. Dr. Katz was being… well, Dr. Katz. Overran, and then insisted on me staying behind so he could lecture me… actual lecturing, that’s a first… lecture me on my latest – how did he put it? – ignoble effort.’

Toni giggled.

‘I did tell you not to take his course. “Freeborn John: Rights and Radicalism in 17th Century England”? That’s so not you.’

‘I know, I know, but as soon as I heard Megan was taking it…’

‘Oh, Jack. I thought you’d got over her. You know she has a boyfriend.’

‘I do not acknowledge his existence.’

‘Have you even managed to talk to her yet?’

‘I’m working up to it. The next step is to try to sit next to her.’

He paused.

‘Wait, I already did that, and she didn’t really see me. She’s usually too busy sucking up to Katz. Or checking her Instagram for likes. Hmmm… there’s no way she’d let me friend her on her holy Instagram, so – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – perhaps I should start answering Katz’s questions.’

‘Answer questions? In a tutorial? You’re going a bit too far now…’

Jack’s expression of mock outrage made Toni burst out laughing.

They went on like this for a while and, as they did, the rest of her life melted away. She didn’t know what it was with Jack, but it had always been like this with them, ever since they had nervously sat next to each other on their very first day at university, two strays that didn’t seem to fit any of the groups that were already coalescing. He fitted her in an easy, uncomplicated way, like no-one else in her life, and she knew that when she was with him she felt seen and… well, safe.

In the past some, particularly some of Maddie’s friends, had questioned Toni and Jack’s closeness, but Toni had never been able to understand that. Why was it wrong for a gay woman and cis straight man to get so much from each other’s company? Couldn’t people just like each other, without having to first declare who they were? Didn’t people see that not having to deal with sexual yearning was beneficial, that two human beings could be friends without desire spoiling what they had, as it always seemed to do? As they sat there, in the midst of the swirl of all the other students, she felt again, as she did each time they met, how much he meant to her. When Toni was with Jack, when the two of them were together like this, she could, simply, be herself, whoever that was. Where else did she have that?

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