Zoe had mixed feelings about university.

On the one hand, it was a comfort to be one part of a faceless crowd, all of them with their own personal end goals. It felt good to have a purpose, and be surrounded by people with a similar purpose.

On the other hand, she wished Danny was here with her. Or if Cai was a year older (and cared about higher education, which he didn’t) or even Rachel, just to have someone to hang out with between classes. Through high school she’d gotten used to being on her own, then in her final year Rachel had attached herself to Zoe and now it almost felt like Zoe didn’t know how to spend the day on her own without missing anyone.

That was probably the reason why, when she ran into Ellie Hollingberry one day, she didn’t protest when Ellie said she must join her friends, even though she used the word must, which usually made Zoe want to do the opposite. She had her last lecture at four, which was still over an hour away, and she could use the distraction of other people.

Ellie had always been nice to her, and had helped her to the sick bay one time after she had a vision at school without making a big drama out of it. And she was friends with Merry, who wasn’t nice, exactly, but Zoe and Merry had been on the same side when it came to horrible people like Rhys Spencer. Besides, Zoe wasn’t going to give people a hard time for not being ‘nice’.

Ellie led her to the Margaret Damer Dawson lounge, one of the social areas that Zoe normally avoided on principle but didn’t seem as bad as she’d expected once she was there. It was a sprawling common room with a TV on mute on the wall (football), lots of low chairs and tables and windows and art, and sliding doors that led out onto a courtyard with picnic tables that were shared with one of the university’s pubs.

She followed Ellie to a table near the window where an attractive boy in a wheelchair was sitting, book spread out on the table in front of him. Zoe didn’t recognise him, and he smiled at her in a way that set off a tiny warning signal in her stomach. “This is Tarique,” Ellie said, kissing him in what Zoe considered a really unnecessary display of affection, even though it was short. Tarique held out his hand and smiled warmly at Zoe. “Charmed,” he said, without any irony, and Zoe felt oddly compelled to shake his hand, despite the warning. His hand was large and warm and firm in a way that made her think instantly of Cai, for no reason – really – since Cai’s hands were rough from use and Tarique’s were soft, scholar’s hands. Zoe extracted her hand from his slowly, feeling like her hand wasn’t quite hers any more, and not entirely sure she liked it.

“Zoe went to LC with me,” Ellie was saying. “She’s really smart. What are you studying, Zoe?”

“Hm?” Zoe’s fingers had been brushing her lips as she watched Tarique, who hadn’t noticed, his own attention on Ellie.

“Chemistry,” Zoe said, as Ellie’s question caught up with her. “And a Psychology paper so I can get into Criminology later.”

“Intense,” Tarique said. “I’m second year Environmental Studies. We’re both into saving different parts of the world, yeah?”

“I guess so,” said Zoe, who hadn’t thought about it in those terms before, and was still feeling oddly flustered. She excused herself to get a coffee and slap some sense into herself as she waited in line. The thought of Cai’s rough hands, warm fingers twisted in hers, crept unbidden into her mind. It was a relief when she returned to the table and its additions of Merry and Joss, who she didn’t recognise till Ellie asked if she knew him.

“You used to have hair,” Zoe said.

“And less of a head wound,” Joss added, turning his head to show her the scar which was starting to heal, though his hair was growing in a lot slower around it.

“What happened?” Zoe asked, and felt the atmosphere in the group shift, almost imperceptivity.

“Love,” said Joss, oddly chipper, and chugged back the rest of his can of energy drink. Merry rolled her eyes and Ellie smiled thinly, and Tarique gave Zoe a look like he didn’t know the full story either but he’d come to terms with that and was sorry that his friends were being a bit elusive.

After the first few afternoons they spend together, it wasn’t so awkward. She didn’t see them every day, but most weeks she’d wander past the common room to see who was there. It never seemed to be quite the same combination of people. Zoe came to understand fairly quickly that no one in this group had any energy for facades. Everyone had their own shit, great deep pits of it, but university gave them bridges to meet on. Zoe didn’t feel like a freak for the constant weight she carried with her, constant thoughts of Danny, constant memories. Merry had it too. Joss had it. Ellie and Geordie had it in a different way. April, who joined them sometimes, pretended she didn’t but was clearly drawn here because she’d shared something with them. Hayley was often there as well, and since she had been at LC then obviously she wasn’t exempt.

Zoe wasn’t sure where Tarique fit in, other than next-to-Ellie. She tried not to pay any attention to him. He seemed friendly enough but there was just something… And if he was the only one in the MDD room then Zoe would pretend she hadn’t seen him and go to the library.

Joss she quite liked. He was dry and bitter and always reading something interesting. Oxford Studies in Metaethics one day, Perceptions of Death the next. Zoe joined Joss and Merry on the couches one day as the rain hammed down against the windows, as Joss was telling Merry a story from a book about conventions of madness in Middle English literature. Zoe raised her eyebrow at the title, but Zoe raised her eyebrow at a lot of things.

“So there was this guy Merlin, right,” Joss said, catching her up with the story instead of saying any kind of greeting. “His two brothers were killed in battle, and his grief is so intense that it drives him mad. This book’s all about how the causes of madness lie in morality; madness as a punishment for some kind of sin, you know. So Merlin’s sin was grieving too much, so God send him mad and he turned into a wild man- an Unholy Wild Man, if you want to use the trope, and he fucked off into the wild.”

"His sin was grieving too much?" Zoe asked, incredulous but curious.

"Mm," Joss said. "Well he couldn't do his king-ing."

"He'd lost three brothers," Merry said. “Wasn’t that Gods fault too?” Merry had no patience for a God who punished followers for reacting to events that God also sent.

“Hey I didn’t write it, take it up with Mr of Monmouth,” Joss said. He looked like he agreed with her, though. "So, Merlin was punished with madness like Nebuchadnezzar was punished for being a cocky bastard.” He shared a look with Merry; they’d talked about Nebuchadnezzar’s story before. “He lived on berries, his only friend a wolf, suffering through the winter as his excessive grief drove him madder - you gotta feel for the guy, but a wolf is pretty sweet - till his sister found him. She cured him," he said to Zoe. "With music. She sang him back to sanity and he remembered what he used to be, and he wondered at his madness, and hated it. A wolf might be sweet but they’re shit musicians. Anyway, he decided that he was ready to accept the pain of civilization, where your brothers die and it isn’t fair, so he returned to the city."

Merry snorted, and Joss raised his eyebrows.

"It's okay, he doesn't accept it for long - the sight of his courtiers drives him mad again, he finds wickedness of man is intolerable, so he flees to the woods again and survives on frozen moss, in the snow, in the rain, in the cruel blasts of the wind,” Joss read directly from the page, enjoying the flow of the words. “It was all better than humanity, always, madness and frozen moss is better than the evils of the world..."

“Joss," said Merry, carefully.

"You'll like the next bit, Merry," Joss said, ignoring the you-okay question in her voice. "See before he left he gave his wife Ganieda permission to remarry, but even in the woods he hears when she finds someone else, and that they're getting married."

"If he kills her, I'm losing all pity," Merry warned.

"Better. He rides into the wedding on a stag, surrounded by a herd of goats, and stabs her new husband with the stags torn off antlers."

"What the fuck?" Merry said, and Zoe started laughed.

"Yeah," said Joss, an odd light in his eyes. "Proper medieval Unholy Wild Man behaviour."

“Y’all have some freaky literature,” Zoe said, shaking her head. Joss looked pleased.

“Okay, so you’ve done the Unholy Wild Man thing in the woods,” Merry said, reaching forward to take the book off Joss. “Is it a helpful metaphor? Does it inspire you to return to your kingly ways?”

“You’re mocking my trauma and stealing my library book?” Joss was offended.

“I just don’t know what you’re trying to say with this story,” Merry frowned.

“I just like the crazy bit at the end with the stag,” Joss quipped. “Okay, no, it’s just, it’s kind of nice to know that grief has always been driving people mad, grief and, what’d it say, his ‘rebellion against the pain and apparent injustice of the world’, that’d drive anyone to eat frozen moss, right?”

“Nice is an interesting word to choose,” Merry said.

“Comforting,” Zoe suggested. She’d picked up on bits of the story about what happened to them over the summer. She knew the ghost of his ex-girlfriend was involved, that he’d run away for the whole break, that it had ended nastily. At some point, Merry must have told Joss that Zoe already knew about the supernatural, because he started to mention ghosts in the same, disaffected, casual way he mentioned everything else.

Zoe was also intrigued by Merry’s attempt to bully recovery out of Joss, and Joss’s attitude that everything horrific in the world was a little bit funny.

“Yup. Comforting. Merlin’s crazy moss eating tendencies make me feel like I’m wrapped up in a big fat quilt,” Joss agreed. “Stabbing marshmallows in my hot chocolate with shards of stag antlers.”

We all deal with recovery differently, Zoe thought.

She knew that already, of course. But knowing it was different to being surrounded by it. And it was a comfort, knowing more people near her age who’d dealt with some pretty nasty shit and still managed to live a life.

Zoe didn’t count them as friends, exactly, but they were becoming an important part of her university life. She liked them, though she was wary about getting too close, and she definitely hadn’t shared any of her own stories with any of them.

She was wrong, though, in her earlier judgment that they were too exhausted to put up facades. She was really, really wrong about that.
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