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A Whole History

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"What did you get up to at Morrowlea? Hunt much?"
There was a whole history in that question, one that I'd have preferred not to bring up. I tried to keep my voice level.
"We preferred other activities. Sir." - p.23Stargazy Pie

The day was soaked through, all grey sky and pouring rain and the brilliant green grass below. Even the feed room smelled like wet sheep. I turned away awkwardly and fumbled the first attempt to get my trousers back up. Roald, as was his wont, lazed naked and unashamed on the pile of towels we had used.

Things had settled into a rhythm, these past few months. A few days out with Perry, and then an hour to ourselves ‘hunting’ in a convenient thicket or dip in the hills or a shed. Or the Baron’s sheep barn. Convenience was all it was.

We would tear off enough clothes to get at each other, and then afterwards I would button myself up again while Roald sprawled in the afterglow. When he could finally be persuaded to dress, we might go find Mr. Dart, or go out on our own. And then–

I turned to Roald, looking over top of his head to avoid– He was still very naked.

“Shall we go catch up with Mr. Dart?” I tried to be off-hand about it.

Roald stretched. I did my best to keep my eyes on the grain of the wood of the feed bin and not on the muscles of his thighs and chest as they moved.

“Just can’t sit still, can you, Jemis? Never any basking in the afterglow. Don’t you want to cuddle?” Roald held his arms out towards me and then laughed when I ignored him. “I thought we could go ‘round the Green Dragon for a bit, just the two of us. Have a drink, something to eat, maybe play a game or two…”

And without Perry there was always that.

I squared my shoulders. It needed to be said. “Roald, I really don’t think–”

“Jemis.” Roald had started to feel the change in the air already. His voice and stomach were taut and– I wrenched my eyes up. We were teenagers. It was perfectly normal to look.

“Roald, you gamble too much. You’re going to get into trouble at Tara that way.” My shoulders were braced, like maybe Roald was going to hit me.

He staggered to his feet and pulled his trousers up from around his ankles, eyes carefully not meeting mine. It took him a minute to put himself together, buttoning his shirt methodically and straightening his jacket and cravat as he settled them. Normally I tied the cravat for him. I didn’t move to do it today.

All buttoned up again, he looked at me, once more a proper Baron’s son. No longer louche and lounging. “What makes you such an authority, Jemis?” There was an edge to his voice like a dagger.

I slipped my hands behind my back and gripped them together to stop them shaking. Morrowlea. If I could just hold it together long enough to get there, it would be different– We both knew what was coming next. I could hear the resignation in my voice when I spoke. It must have been clear to him as well.

“My father always said, some people get a taste for-”

Roald broke in, loud and angry now.

He was almost tender, when we were together. It may have been (was) a relationship of convenience, practice for when we went to university and found girls we liked, but still – I had to give him this much – he wasn’t brash in this. He watched me like my reactions were all that mattered, and when I touched him in return he was never too proud to pretend he didn’t like it.

We’d gone to the bookstore once afterwards and he’d bought me half a dozen books. That had felt… uncomfortable. I refused to go in with him again.

Our first time had been just the other side of the feed room wall, one bright spring day when all the sheep had scattered somewhere else. He had shoved me up against the wall so I could feel the grooves between the boards against my back and he had run one callused hand under my shirt and we had barely either of us gotten an eyeful of the other (hands wrapped around one another still in our trousers) before he’d gone off and I had followed and we had ended up sitting in the aisle, barely undressed, after our legs gave out from under us.

He always teased me about wanting a cuddle directly afterwards, like he couldn’t let me forget the day he caught me hugging Mr. Dart. (Perry’s parents were dead. So were mine. We were allowed.) That first time, after I turned away and busied myself putting myself back together again (I had recently learned the uselessness of answering that sort of question in words) he’d asked, almost hesitant, if I might want to do this again. Almost sweet.

He wasn’t sweet today.

I balled my fists and spat out retorts to stop myself doing anything I might regret. Like crying over my father yet again in front of another friend. (I wouldn’t cry over Roald’s gambling. He was just a friend. He was just convenient.)

“I’m trying to help you, Roald. Get in over your head at Tara and who’s going to get you out? You lose something you can’t afford, that’s bad enough, but if you’ve got the taste and you keep playing anyway, they-”

“Thank you, Mr. Greenwing.” Roald’s voice was icy when he spoke. I didn’t think I’d ever heard him sound quite like that. “You have made yourself perfectly clear. You would be able to recognize when to cut your losses before getting dragged down in someone else’s reputation again. Not that I realized you’d learned from that mess.”

My protests died on my lips. All this time, and Roald had never- It had been naïve to be complacent, to assume he wouldn’t-

I turned to the door. “Goodbye, Mr. Ragnor.” The drizzling damp sogged through my hat and coat long before I made it home.

***

Walk into the bookshop. Don’t pause when you see him. Don’t wonder how he’s changed in the last few years. Remind yourself that Mr. Greenwing can climb ladders where he likes. Attempt to ignore your ex-boyfriend. Greet Mrs. Etaris instead with a cheerful “Halloo the house!”

Don’t think about his waist under your hands as you catch him. Don’t notice the weight of his back on your chest. Don’t let the scent of wet sheep remind you of– (It came in with you anyway.) Laugh, and tease him, and smile at Mrs. Etaris. Don’t let his unexpected presence sidetrack you. (Don’t let him know that’s why you’re muddled.)

Remember your game. Be as vapid as you can stand. It’ll serve him right too.

Pretend ignorance when she calls him by name. Pretend amazement.

Pretend it doesn’t hurt when he calls you sir.

Make a jab about a pretty girl, to show how unaffected you are. How much you don’t care. Poke your dagger at the pie and pretend you’ve never heard of it. Notice his horrified stare as you prod. Try to carry it off like it never mattered anyway.

Say something, so that he looks at you, and while he’s watching (castigate yourself later for craving his eyes on you), pry out a fish eye.

Eat it loudly, so he hears the crunch over the noise of his sneezes. Enjoy the wince.

Prod at him. When he turns down the proffered eyeball, ask “Gone squeamish, have you?” Don’t remember him refusing to cuddle you when you were dating. Don’t tell him he’d never hesitated to put things you offered him in his mouth before. Remember that lashing out will only make you feel guilty later.

Don’t think of how sweet he was, and don’t remember the look on his face when you brought up his father. Remember instead the way that he ignored you every time you asked him to cuddle. Remember the way that he accused you of having a problem (he may have been right, but that doesn’t make the way he said it any easier to stomach) and the bored look on his face when he implied that his father had seen it too. Keep your hands steady. Just because it was obvious to him and to his father who barely knew you doesn’t mean everyone else in Ragnor Bella knew.

Don’t resent him for being right about the gambling, or for refusing to cuddle to try to protect your heart. Definitely don’t think about what it might have been like, that day. Don’t allow yourself to imagine again how he might have come back to your arms instead of fighting and nestled his back against your chest as you lay on the towel.