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9. Strawberries and Cigarettes

Isaac didn’t try to hide his impatient expression as he Facetimed with his mother.

“Chờ đã, mẹ… Can we please use English? I can’t…” Isaac grunted and Beau heard a muffled voice coming from the phone as he got closer. When he was standing by Isaac’s side, his friend used the opportunity to interrupt his mother and turn the phone to face him. “Beau’s here, mẹ. Say hi.”

“Ahhh! My darling Beau! Hello, my darling!” She greeted him excitedly. Beau waved at the video chat and gave her a little smile, which she returned eagerly through the camera she was sitting far too close to.

“Hello Mrs. Nguyen,” Beau replied with as much warmth as possible, earning himself a few more thickly accented ‘darlings’ and a kiss blown into the lens.

Beau had been invited to enough family dinners in the Nguyen household to know that Isaac would take every break he could get. So, Beau prepared himself to answer every question his mother had about the trip, about how well he was eating, respond to every compliment about his looks, and fire everything back at her with just as much enthusiasm. Unfortunately, even after all of that, he only managed to hold her attention for about five minutes before she was snapping Vietnamese at her son again.

Isaac listened for a moment, before caving in and interrupting her in a breathless, exhausted tone. “I’ve got to go, mum. Yes, vâng… tôi hứa. I’ll talk to you later.”

Isaac ended the call without ceremony, then immediately dropped down into a squat with his head in his hands. Beau startled when Isaac disappeared from his eyeline, then carefully lowered himself to join him on the ground.

“Another rough one?” He tried.

Isaac blew out a dramatic sigh and pocketed his phone so his hands would be free to comb his hair back. “Yep. I was hoping the trip would give me some space, but apparently she has free international minutes.”

Beau laughed dryly and rested his shoulders back against the bus. He let Isaac sit in silence for a moment, hoping it would help settle his mind and bring some calm after his stressful day. Instead, Beau heard a gentle tapping, and lifted his head to see Isaac drumming his fingers rhythmically against his knee.

A smile pinched the corner of Beau’s mouth as he tried to figure out what song Isaac was playing. Over the years, Beau had come to know Isaac’s many moods and the particular rhythms he would tap along with them. He didn’t know if it was intentional, or if Isaac even realised that he did it.

But today, the tension that drove him to tap was so thick and erratic that it made it difficult for his own fingers to keep up. He abandoned the stim after a few short moments, then wiped his hand against his jeans to try and rid the feeling from his fingers.

Beau opened his mouth to speak again, but Isaac interrupted him by rising quickly to his feet. “I need a smoke,” he announced, his voice strained again. “I’ll be right back.”

Beau frowned and grunted as he scrambled up to follow. He jogged after Isaac, quick to catch up to his stride as his friend paced towards the nearby petrol station. He kept his mouth shut until they reached the automatic doors, waiting hopefully to see if Isaac would change his mind.

“You’ve been doing so well,” he said weakly, hesitant to nag a friend who was also his boss. “And Adelaide will be so…”

He stopped when he saw Isaac’s fist clenching and unclenching at his side, worried that he’d already said the wrong thing. Isaac stood still and glanced back at him, then sighed when he lifted his head and looked upon the rows of cigarette brands lining the wall behind the cashier.

Beau’s heart dropped when Isaac approached the counter, but tilted his head curiously when he pointed out something to the clerk that he didn’t recognise. Beau joined him outside after he finished his purchase, and peered over his shoulder at the box Isaac had already started to pry open.

“What the hell is a… Juul?” he asked, frowning at the box.

“It’s a vape,” Isaac muttered as he stopped to trash the empty box and pocket the pods, leaving one out so he could load it up. “I vape now. Are you happy?”

Beau laughed involuntarily while he walked alongside him, unable to help but watch while Isaac held the slim rectangular device up to his lips.

“If Adelaide asks, it has less nicotine than cigarettes,” Isaac murmured behind a cloud of vapour.

“...Does it?”

Isaac didn’t meet his eye, instead watching the cloud as it dissipated in front of them. “Probably. I think people use them to help quit. I’ll… do the research later.” Beau sighed, but kept his mouth shut as they made their way back to the bus. That was better than nothing, he supposed.

When they arrived back at the parked vehicle, he stopped in front of the door and looked thoughtfully at the steps.

After a moment of consideration, he turned and walked down the length of the bus. Beau stopped at the back wheel to lean his shoulders against the storage compartment with his arms folded over his chest.

Isaac hovered by the doorway, watching him. “You’re not going in?” He asked after another puff.

Beau shook his head and tipped his head back against the tinted window. “Nah,” he murmured. “Mark said he’s going to get us moving tonight, so I just figured I should spend a bit more time outside before we go.”

Isaac chuckled under his breath and dragged his feet over to Beau’s side. “Good point,” he agreed, then leaned his shoulders back to mirror the taller man’s stance. “Better stretch our legs for as long as possible.”

Beau hummed in agreement, then turned his head to look down at Isaac. He wasn’t short by any means, somewhere around 5’9” or 5’10” according to guesses from their Redditers, but Beau had to tilt his neck for most people.

“At least this is way better than the old van,” he reminisced, which immediately had Isaac nodding in agreement, his eyes widened in disbelief for what they used to put themselves through. “I can’t believe that old rental ever made it across a state line.”

Isaac chuckled at that and let out a musical sigh as he exhaled another cloud of vapour. “I’m so glad we have an actual driver now. Taking turns at the wheel sucked; I hope you know I’m never playing rock-paper-scissors with you ever again,” he remembered with a cheeky grin.

It was Beau’s turn to laugh, a soft breath through his grinning teeth as he stepped forward and away from the bus. He hung his head low and started to idly pace around the empty parking space beside them. Isaac stayed put and fidgeted with his new e-cigarette in between each inhale.

“What was the best part, for you? And the worst?” Beau asked as he walked, watching his feet step parallel to the paint on the asphalt.

Isaac tipped his head back as he thought, but it didn’t take him long to come up with a memory. “Worst part: the mattress in the back, on top of all our equipment.”

Beau erupted into laughter as he remembered their ridiculously cramped set up. He murmured, “Sorry,” for interrupting, shaking his head. “Same.”

Isaac grinned and inhaled another lungful. “Best part… Best part was editing sessions, out in the bush.”

Beau stopped walking and tilted his head in Isaac’s direction, smiling to himself. “The bush, really?” he pondered, as he slowly made his way back over to his friend. He stood in front of Isaac and grinned, “I don’t think of you as the outdoorsy type.”

Isaac hummed and exhaled a cloud of vapour between them. It smelt like strawberry lollies and tickled Beau’s nose, making him involuntarily lean in to chase the scent.

“It was so freeing,” Isaac explained. “Sure, there were bugs, and the service was dodgy as hell. But I keep remembering the late nights when I’d sit on the roof with my laptop, oblivious to the world.”

They stood quietly for a moment, Beau smiling as he pictured the scene, before Isaac scrunched his nose up.

“That sounded so cheesy,” he muttered.

Beau hummed in agreement and rested a palm against the wall of the bus beside Isaac’s head. It was cheesy. But it also sounded divine. Around them, the sky had begun to darken, and the nearby street lamps were fighting to glow brighter than the day’s last light. He had the urge to look up and see if any stars were present yet, to see if they were anywhere near Isaac’s lovely memory of a night amidst nature, but he couldn’t bring himself to look away from his friend’s face.

They’d had a long day, and Isaac’s straight black hair was unwashed and tousled in his face. His glasses had slid down the gentle slope of his nose to rest above his nostrils, and his downcast eyes masked his hazel irises from underneath his lashes. He must have skipped shaving that morning, because stubble was already peppering his jawline and framing his soft pink lips. Beau longed to feel the scratch of it against his hands, against his cheeks. Against his mouth.

“Beau?” Isaac muttered, his mouth slightly downturned. “I asked what your favourite part was. What… are you doing?”

Beau jerked his head back with widened eyes, then forced out a quiet laugh. “The, um… Sorry.” He panicked, scrambling for a lie. “That… smells nice, and I got distracted. C-can I have a go?”

Lips that pressed gently around his e-cigarette parted to make way for a soft white cloud. Isaac blew it downwards, out of Beau’s face, and lifted his head to make better eye contact. He seemed a little tense, his eyes narrowed suspiciously, but thankfully he didn’t lean away from him. Beau worried that if either of them moved, it would only accentuate how close he had suddenly gotten.

He held the Juul in front of him and spun it between his fingers. Beau looked curiously at the device.

“It’s got nicotine in it.” Isaac pointed out, which had Beau’s smile faltering. That… wouldn’t be smart.

“Ah…” he mumbled, hoping something would come to mind to end the conversation without sounding totally awkward about it. Isaac beat him to it by pressing the vape back to his mouth.

“Here,” his co-star chuckled as he lifted his head back up. Beau’s confused frown softened when Isaac parted his lips and blew the vapour cloud directly into his face.

A rush of sickly sweet strawberry accosted his senses and sank into his lungs. Their eyes locked as he inhaled, much more sharply than he intended to, and he wasn’t sure if it was the sweetness of the flavour or the intensity of Isaac’s gaze that made Beau’s head spin.

He blinked slowly to try and regain himself, and when he opened his eyes Isaac was shaking his head and grinning.

“Not bad, huh?” He teased. “Want another?”

It took every muscle in Beau’s body to hold himself back from kissing Isaac right there and then. It would be so easy to throw him back and pin him to the side of the bus, while he bit the playful grin off his face and tasted that strawberry from the source. Thankfully, before Beau could accept the offer or fall into his fantasies, he was pulled back to reality by the sound of heeled boots jumping down the bus’s steel steps.

Beau jolted and turned so he was standing beside Isaac again, leaning against the side of the bus like before. Thankfully Isaac was already looking over to see Adelaide swinging from the doorway, and completely missed the way Beau jumped so suddenly.

“Yes! You’re both here!” She exclaimed when she saw them, then beckoned them over with her whole arm. “We’re going to have a mini after-party to celebrate a successful first convention. Come on in, so we can get the first shots rolling!”

Isaac threw a glance at Beau, then shrugged and pocketed his new toy. He walked over to the door without a word, earning a celebratory whoop from Adelaide. She high fived him as he entered, then stuck her head back out to check for Beau.

“You coming?”

“Yeah,” Beau agreed breathlessly. He still felt dizzy. “I’ll be two seconds; go pour me one.”

Adelaide saluted him playfully, then disappeared back into the bus. Once he was alone, Beau let out a shuddered sigh and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. What the hell was he doing?


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