The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it.

Beauty, Beasts, Etc.

Miranda hangs out with Orcs.

Oh, Miranda’s cool. She’s sound. Everyone likes Miranda. And, after all, it’s not like Orlando’s bothered. It’s more like he’s hyper-sensitive to it, or something. He'll suddenly feel compelled to turn his head -- and there's Miranda, sitting at a trestle table, playing cards with this bunch of misshapen creatures. And she's, like, laughing and looking all floaty, with the hair and the dress and stuff.

He thinks he should go and say hi, maybe. See what's happening. See what's going down.

"Hi!" He holds up a hand in greeting. "Hi, Miranda. Hi, guys."

"Hey," says a guy.

"All right?" says another one. He's got a face like something that shouldn't have been put in a microwave, but was.

"Hullo blondie!" says Miranda, cheerfully.

There's a faint memory of laughter hanging over the table, like Orlando turned up just too late for the punchline.

"So," he says. "Um. What's going on here then? What's happening?"

"Not a lot really, mate," says the non-microwaveable one. Orlando wishes he could remember the guy's name. He wishes he could see what kind of expression might be going on underneath the latex.

"Just Saruman's evil hordes, stealing my cash again." Miranda sighs, and fans herself with the seven of hearts. "Listen, would you be a sweetie and get me a bottle of water? I think I'm fucking dehydrating or something."

"Sure!" says Orlando. "I'll, um, be back in a bit then." Miranda smiles.

As he walks away, another flurry of merriment drifts after him. Evidently he just missed another punchline.

* * *

The levels of light and noise in this bar are not just wrong, Miranda decides. They're about as wrong as you could get. It doesn't matter, though. It feels okay to sit in here by herself and watch reflections wink like ghosts in the chrome and frosted glass. There's a lot of that stuff going on in here. Obviously, someone thought it would lend the place an air of sophistication. Someone miscalculated.

Miranda pulls a sodden chunk of lime from the neck of her beer bottle and looks at it sorrowfully. Then she drops it in an ashtray, where it chokes to death among the cigarette butts. She holds the green bottle up in front of her eyes and tries looking through it. Maybe it'll give her a different perspective on things. But she can't see much, really. Just a bright greenness with darker green shadows floating in it. And a big black shadow, coming closer, blocking out the light...

"Hi, Miranda," says Orlando. "On your own? Where are your Orcish mates tonight?"

Miranda removes the bottle from in front of her face and puts it down on the table.

"Hullo, little boy. Isn't it past your bedtime? What are you doing here?"

Orlando blinks at her. "Shall I go away again?"

"Oh, for goodness' sake, Orlando. Joking, I'm joking! Sit down, and stop talking in questions." She waves a hand at the seat opposite her, and he slides in, lining up his own green bottle of lager on the table so that it mirrors hers exactly.

Miranda yawns.

"D'you think this is the kind of place they'd sell nuts?" asks Orlando. "Like, peanuts? Or cashew nuts. Or pistachios? They might have them, they're a bit more classy, aren't they? I've always thought they were. I fancy some nuts, or..."

He taps the flats of his nails against the condensation-pimpled green glass.

"Can't hurt to ask," says Miranda.

"Yeah..." Orlando taps his bottle and jiggles his feet under the table. "Miranda?"


"Are you by any chance fucking one of those Orc guys?"


Miranda leans back in her seat and stares. She's really not sure what the appropriate response is in this situation. Perhaps she ought to take it as a sign to just go home and get something approaching a decent night's sleep. She shakes her head at him slowly.

"What? I just wondered, that's all."

Orlando doesn't give the impression of being a socially maladjusted freak, she reflects. He actually looks deceptively normal on the surface. She closes her eyes for a second, and when she opens them again, he's still there, looking normal. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed normal, that's Orlando.

"Just -- How -- how could you possibly think that was any of your business?"

He shrugs. "Sorry."

"Uh-huh." She looks at Orlando, and then around the bar, with its shiny surfaces, and its matte surfaces, and its brushed suede seats, and its neutral colours, and its subdued lighting.

"Right," she says. "Well, I think I've probably done this place. I'm going to get some fresh air." She gets up.

"Right," says Orlando. He's examining the label on the back of his beer bottle. He puts it down and picks up hers instead, and examines that.

She waits until she's halfway to the door before she turns and says, "Are you coming?"

* * *

Why did he say it? At this point he has absolutely no idea how it happened; he's stumped, basically. It just seemed to say itself. Orlando stomps on ahead of Miranda (although he's not sure where it is they're meant to be going), hands shoved in his pockets. He wonders silently at the bizarre workings of his own brain.

"Orlando," says Miranda. "Stop."

He turns round and realises he's left her behind. She's standing in the shadows, looking at him. Behind her, the blank side of a high, windowless building broods darkly. It's as though it's threatening to block her out with its weight and its emptiness.

"Stop ...?"

"Just stop."

He goes back. He retraces his steps until he's right in front of her, close enough to see the tiny creases around her eyes, and the curious, elastic vulnerability of her mouth. There's a kind of stretched look to her, he thinks, like she could go at any moment. Just let go -- ping! -- and hit someone in the face over the other side of the room. He puts a hand to the wall, and the bricks feel cold and solid and rough.

"I'm not -- I'm not like you think I am," he says.

Miranda's lips twitch a little bit. "How do you know what I think you're like?"

Orlando shrugs. "I'm just saying that you don't really know me."

"And whose fault's that?"

He shrugs again. Bits of Miranda's hair catch and spark on the rough wall as she leans her head back. It wriggles snakily around her face and over her shoulders. He imagines the soft weight of it, like a cushion between her and the bricks, and her bare white scalp underneath.

He kisses her. And he didn't really mean to do that, either. It comes out brief and slapdash. It's more like a greeting than anything else. She looks at him -- examining him, he thinks -- and he tries to touch her face, but she catches his hand before it gets there.

"Listen," says Miranda. "Let me tell you what I'm going to do."

She takes his hand and draws it down and puts it on her, pressing it against the thin cotton of her skirt until it finds a natural resting place. His thumb slides into the warm fold where the inside of her thigh joins her body.

"In a minute," says Miranda, "I'm going to go home. I'm going to go home, on my own, and I'm going to go to bed, where I'm going to get some sleep, so that I'll be able to get through tomorrow without totally fucking everything up. Okay?"

"Okay," says Orlando. He wonders whether he should take his hand out from between her legs, but she's holding it there, and anyway, he doesn't really want to. The pads of her fingers slide up into the shallow depressions between his knuckles. He swallows. Somehow, his mouth got full of spit.

"So," she says.

She's not looking at him. She's not looking at anything. Her head's tilted upward, towards the night sky, but her eyes are shut. She rubs at them with the heel of her free hand, and Orlando stares at her: the stretching pale expanse of her neck, the side of her face, the little light hairs that bleed off the edge of her eyebrow.


"So, what are you doing tomorrow?"

"Um, I." He tries again; all the spit is stuck halfway down his throat. "Just, you know, cool Elf shit. Why? What are you doing?"

"Oh, I dunno." She looks at him -- smiles at him -- and she's just Miranda, really. And everyone likes Miranda.

"After a while," she says, "a girl can get a bit sick of cards."