Freddy sighed as he wiped a few stray drops of moisture from his head. Why Kay had seen the need to meet up in St. Pascal’s Hall — and in the alchemy lab, too! — on the rainiest day of the semester, instead of the closer library, or better yet, at the house was beyond his ability to comprehend.
Like a wet dog he shook his head, spraying droplets everywhere. Nobody noticed, though — the only other people present in the vestibule were male, and those who had come in with Freddy were doing exactly the same thing. Those who were going out tried to dodge the water, only to lok at the buckets of it streaming down outside and decide that the fight wasn’t worth it.
Why did he want to meet in the alchemy lab, anyway? Freddy wondered as he ducked past a couple other students and made his way to the stairs. Kay was many things, but a science lover was not one of them. He seemed to regard the mandatory courses he took with the mix of dread and fear that most other students, barring the clinicly insane (Galahad), brought to the table when it came to alchemy.
Oh, knock it off, Freddy. You’re just still sore at him for spiking your ale with llama juice the other night. Freddy rubbed his head again. At least he wasn’t still literally sore. That hangover had been one for the record books. He only had drunk three glasses of the stuff.
He did his best not to shudder. Freddy would have vowed to himself never to touch the stuff again, except that it hadn’t been his intention to touch the stuff in the first place. That was the devil with llama juice. When you drank it straight, it was rancid, burning, nasty stuff; you’d have to be mad not to spit it out directly. Mix it with alcohol, though, and it was odorless, tastless, traceless — until you woke up the next morning feeling like a llama was trying to chew its way through your head. Slowly. Because you never remembered just what you had done the night before, when the juice finally hit you.
Freddy still didn’t know what he had done that night. Rob, who had helped to bundle him off to bed, told him that he had been quite amusing. Will, who had also helped bundle him off to bed, told him that he didn’t want to know. And Galahad, who had assisted by spilling Freddy’s fourth ale all over the both of them rather than find out the hard way that it contained more llama juice, told him that he’d made even less sense than usual, which, coming from Galahad, was quite something.
At least, Freddy thought as he pushed the door to the alchemy lab open, Clarice wasn’t there to see me make a complete and utter ass of myself —
Speak of the devil — angel.
And she was looking at him!
Her gaze snapped back to whatever she was working on, only her unnaturally stiff posture revealing that she had seen him. She was always stiff when he was around. Was he really that insufferable?
“Lady Clarice,” Freddy gulped.
She turned again. “F-Frederick,” she replied. Her stiffness seemed to only increase.
But the smile she gave him … it was smiles like that that still gave him hope. So quick, a little tremble of the lips, gone when you blinked. The flush that crept up her cheeks whenever she smiled like that, even as she snapped her head back to her work and hunched her shoulders, her body collapsed into as tiny a space as she could manage.
Freddy held his breath, watching her — weighing his options — considering his every move. Then he strode forward and grabbed the back of the seat opposite her with a white-knuckled grip. “Mind if I sit here? I’m just waiting for K–Prince Kay.”
“It — that is — no, no, I don’t mind.” Another smile, a longer one and a more trembly one. “You’re certainly welcome to sit wherever you choose.”
From any other girl, or at least any other girl with the kind of bloodlines Clarice sported and a sister engaged to a Crown Prince to boot, those words would have spilled a full bottle of disdain and left it to puddle over the floor. Not from her. If Freddy dared to hope, she sounded shy, unsure, nervous, but also as if she was truly trying to make him feel welcome — she just didn’t know how to go about it.
Freddy could deal with that. His rear hit the chair with a thunk and his face lit up with a grin.
Clarice retreated into herself again, or more accurately, her homework, or lab report, or letter to her sister, or whatever it was that she was working on.
Oh, damn! He’d startled the doe away again when all he’d meant to do was watch her a moment. Or feed her. Or pet her, if she would let him —
Frederick Joseph Ferreira, you’d damn well better knock that off before she starts reading what you’re thinking on your face.
He tried to compose his face into as serious a line as possible.
That being done, there was nothing to do but to not watch Clarice, as difficult as he knew that would be. He trained his eyes on the flickering flames of the candles, the wood of the table, the strange and embarrassingly-shaped plant in the corner behind Clarice’s head … the strange green liquid that threatened to bubble out of its pot …
“Er — Lady Clarice?”
She looked up, her eyebrows lifting.
“Is that, um, yours?”
She turned in the direction of his pointing finger. “No, it’s not.” After a slow shake of her head, she turned back to whatever she was writing.
A bubble popped with what looked like anticipatory glee. Freddy had visions of acid lapping over the sides of the pot, eating through the table, the chair tucked underneath, the floor. “Do you think we should, er, take it off the boil?”
“Huh?” Clarice looked up again and glanced at the pot. “N-no,” she murmured. “No, I don’t think so.” A smile gone almost before he noticed it — only “almost” because he was watching for those smiles now. “It’s not polite to disturb other people’s alchemy experiments.”
“Ah,” Freddy answered, trying to sound as wise and clever as he wanted her to think she was. Meanwhile, his inner voice panicked, Alchemy? She’s into ALCHEMY? I know she’s related somehow to Galahad and Leona — are they all bonkers in this fam–
His mental processes turned on the brakes with a screech.
Oh, Wright. Her mother …
As if she could read his thoughts, she straightened and sighed.
“Is everything all right?” Freddy blurted before his mental filters caught up with the mental brakes.
When Clarice gasped and looked up, her eyes were even wider, more startled — more like a doe’s than any other pair of eyes Freddy had ever seen.
“Why … why …” she began.
“I heard about your mother.” Wright, had Freddy heard about her mother. The whole fraternity had heard of her mother when Lynn had shown up, a letter clutched in her hand and Princess Jessie supporting most of her weight. The Princess’s demand that they get Tom now had been all any of them had been able to make out over Lynn’s gasping sobs.
And after that, well, they still might not have found out what it was all about for a while, for while though Princess Jessie had whispered it to both Tom and Will, neither of them had said a damn thing about it. Tom had taken Lynn into the library and shut the door; Will had only looked grim, even as he went for a walk with Princess Jessie. Luckily, by supper Leona was there, telling — or rather railing — to Galahad all that had happened, accompanied by several things she would do to Sir Bors the next time she saw him. Freddy could only pray that they were as anatomically impossible as they sounded.
In the present, though, Clarice’s eyes never seemed to contract back to their normal size for an instant, even when she blinked. “Oh.”
Freddy probably should have said something — an apology, a further inquiry after her health, a remark on the state of the weather — but someone had glued his vocal chords shut.
Clarice’s trembling hands reached for her books. “I should — I should go –”
Oh, Freddy, you idiot! “Wait!” Freddy sprung from the chair. “Wait, I’m sorry, don’t go — I mean — look, I’ll leave if I’m bothering you –”
“No, no, it’s not you –” She tried to move past him, but he darted in front of her.
“Then let me buy you coffee to make it up to you.”
… Frederick Joseph Ferreira, what the hell did you just say?
Clarice emitted a sound that was halfway between a gasp and a hiccup. “Ex–excuse me?”
Might as well hang for a sheep as for a lamb, as Granny would say. “Um — coffee. You know. In the coffee shop that way.” He gestured. “Would you like some?”
She only blinked at him.
“Er — that is — if you don’t like coffee, we could go for tea — or for a pi–” FREDERICK! NO! You do not offer to take nice girls out for a pint — and certainly not at the Lion and Llama!
“I like coffee. Let’s get some.”
“… but of course I completely understand if you don’t want to, so — wait, what?”
“I — I’d like to go for coffee with you.” Freddy watched her try to smile. “Is — is now all right?”
Somebody had forgotten to glue Freddy’s jaw in its proper place; that was the only explanation he could find for it being on the floor. “Aye! Aye, now’s great! Come on!” All thoughts of meeting Kay tripping merrily from his mind, it was all Freddy could do not to grab Clarice’s arm and drag her bodily to the coffee shop.
She murmured her preference in flavor to him before wandering off to find a table. When Freddy turned around, she was seated at one by the large window. He barely had time to deposit both of their cups on the table before he realized that, having succeeded in his immediate objective of getting her to go out for coffee, he now had no idea what to do next.
Where’s Kay when you need him?
Luckily, Clarice’s smile was every bit as nervous as Freddy’s was sure his was.
Freddy wasted as much time as he could fiddling with the milk and sugar. Maybe the manual tasks would get his brain into gear again.
Suddenly Clarice laughed. That instantly became Freddy’s favorite part about her. “This is so strange.”
He felt the breath whoosh from him. “I know,” Freddy laughed, “I mean, in light of the fact that –”
“Everything,” she murmured.
Freddy stopped short and swallowed. “Everything.”
Clarice flushed and looked to the side. She traced the rim of her coffee cup with a delicate fingernail. Every now and then she stole a peek at him through her lashes. Freddy, meanwhile, wished that he was clever enough to keep a flask in his tunic. A little bit of liquid courage would come in quite handy right now.
A quick, deep breath from Clarice, and Freddy saw her swallow. She looked up. “Look,” she began. “I — that is — my father hasn’t said anything about –”
“Your mother?” Freddy gasped.
“Oh! Oh, Wright!” He smacked his palm against his forehead. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to — my mouth, it ran –”
“No, no, don’t apologize. It’s not … that is …” She picked at a loose thread on her lacy sleeve. “It doesn’t — bother you?” she whispered.
“Bother me? Of course it bothers me.”
Her face turned so crestfallen at that that Freddy had to make it worse by babbling some more. “I mean — that is — well, why wouldn’t that bother me? I wouldn’t wish that on anybody’s mother. Or anybody, period.” Below his breath, or so he thought, he added, “Especially not you.”
She must have heard, for the color, so recently drained, came flooding back into her face with a vengeance.
“Oh, Wright, there I go again — I’m sorry –”
“No, don’t apologize — please,” Clarice added. She squirmed; if Freddy’s mind had been just a tad dirtier, he would have thought that — if one could ignore her obvious discomfort — it was a delicious little shimmy. The part of his brain that had been spending far too much time with Kay thought so anyway. “That’s — awfully sweet of you to say.”
Other men would have taken offense at being labeled “sweet.” Freddy had heard the backhanded insult so many times that all he could manage was a rueful smile.
“What’s wrong? Oh! Oh, dear. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry …”
I just brought up her mad mother twice, and she’s afraid of prying? “It’s nothing,” Freddy replied. With a smile, he tried to turn it into a joke. “You think we guys haven’t figured out that you ladies call us ‘sweet’ when you think we’re nice but you’re still not interested?”
Clarice gasped. “Really? Is that — is that what girls say?”
Freddy could only blink.
“That seems so silly,” Clarice continued. “I mean — you’d think — you’d think any sensible girl would want a sweet guy …”
Freddy’s jaw came unglued for the second time that day. “Really?”
“Of course! I mean, once you’ve seen the … alternative …” Clarice squirmed again and fixed her gaze on the tapestry behind Freddy’s head.
“… Lady Clarice?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Freddy wondered if her mouth had even consulted her mind on that one; it came so quickly.
“Oh. All right.” He scratched his head and tried to think of a neutral topic. “Have you — that is — do you plan to see Mid the Summerdreams?”
Clarice looked at him.
“Er … Dannie says it’s supposed to be good …”
“That’s it?” she whispered.
“You — you’re just going to change the subject?”
“… Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“I, well, yes, but …”
Freddy cocked his head a little to the side.
“… Never mind,” Clarice murmured. Before Freddy could debate whether to press her, Clarice turned her head — her hair spilled over her shoulder in lazy waves that the dirty part of Freddy’s fingers itched to stroke — and said, “So — so Danielle said it would be good?”
“Aye. And she would know.”
“Aye.” Clarice swallowed. “You know — it’s about the — the fae, correct?”
“The Princess has said such interesting things about them from time to time …”
By the time either of them considered listening for the chimes, their coffee cups had been long cleared away and it was past dark. “Oh, goodness!” Clarice murmured, looking out the window. “I should be getting back!”
And I should make up an excuse for Kay, remarked the voice of Freddy’s conscience. It had been hours since they were supposed to meet — Freddy would be lucky if Kay forgave him for this. At least, forgave him without siccing more llama juice on him first.
“Do — do you need anyone to walk you home?” Freddy asked, standing.
“Oh, no — no, thank you. I’ll be fine.”
Clarice smiled. “Aye, it’s not a far walk.” She colored and glanced at the table. “Thank — thank you for the coffee.”
“Anytime.” If plying her with coffee would get her to talk with him, he’d find a way to buy the whole coffeehouse for her.
“And for … well, for listening.”
Freddy blinked. If she thought their inconsequential chatter was something that deserved thanks — how often was she listened to? “Er — you’re welcome.”
Clarice had a tiny dimple on the right side of her face when she smiled, truly smiled — how had he never noticed that? “Well, I should get going. Thank you again.”
As she made her way toward the spiral stairs, a mad thought dashed across Freddy’s mind. “Lady Clarice, wait!”
She turned. “Yes?”
“Well, I was — um — that is, I was thinking — you said you wanted to see Mid the Summerdreams when it came out, right?”
“Well — do you want to go, um, together?” He swallowed. “As friends, of course,” he added quickly. “But still — um — together.”
“Together,” Clarice murmured.
Freddy’s face fell, certain he had lost her —
And then she smiled.
“I think — I think I might … like that.”