Things were going well. Every time Freddy thought of that, he had to smile. Things were going well.
He sipped his coffee and looked around the shop as he waited. Clarice had suggested meeting here, which made him so absurdly happy that he didn’t want to think about it too closely, for fear of embarrassing himself. But Clarice usually was not one to suggest outings or where or when to meet next. It was a dim spot on his sun, to be sure. Because she was never one to set up a time or a place, there was always a niggling doubt in the back of his mind that maybe she was just meeting with him because she felt she had to, or because she didn’t want to break his heart, or something.
But that doubt, though niggling, was very small and generally stayed in the back of his mind. It was generally the kind of doubt that only came out when it was past midnight and sleep, for whatever reason, refused to come. It certainly never managed to rear its ugly head when Clarice was with him.
And really, more than that niggling doubt, the real inconvenience of Clarice’s reluctance to name places or times was that Freddy couldn’t always be sure what she would enjoy. She was very agreeable — almost too agreeable — to most things that he suggested, only refusing if her coursework or a prior social commitment interfered. Then she always looked so disappointed that even the most niggling of Freddy’s doubts did not attempt to convince him that her disappointment was anything other than genuine.
If only he and Clarice had managed to come to this more permanent understanding before Dannie’s graduation — then he could have (somehow) prevailed upon Dannie to pump Leona or Clarice herself for information or suggestions. As it was … well, he supposed he could swing by the university chapter house of St. Pascal’s to ask Galahad to pump Leona, but … no. Not that Galahad didn’t mean well, but Freddy could only half-trust information of a romantic nature that came through Galahad’s hands. Add to that Galahad’s seeming squeamishness whenever anything to do with the opposite sex, and he was not a good source of information.
Asking Leona directly was also out of the question. Leona was scarier than Dannie. Freddy had already read far too many “You break my best friend’s heart, I’ll break your legs” looks on her face to address any inquiries of her that went more deeply than how she was liking the current weather.
The little shop-bell tinkled, and Freddy sat up, ready to toss his coffee down his throat in an instant if it was her. But no — not Clarice, not yet. Well, he was early, and she had given him fair warning that her class sometimes let out late. He could wait.
And people-watch — he was not the only person who had looked up when the shop-bell tinkled. A young woman in blue, book in hand, had frozen to the spot when the young man stepped in.
Ah, young love, thought Freddy without any hint of irony to disturb his reflections. The girl seemed to blush and stare at her feet, while the boy watched her with an expression of hungry yearning just shy of actually salivating. She sat down on the nearby sofa, her book ostensibly open and being read in her lap. But her eyes stayed on the page for scarcely an instant, and she was perched so near to the edge that a passing sneeze might send her tumbling to the ground if she wasn’t careful. She was not being careful, either: her eyes kept finding the boy’s, flickering between his and the couch, the invitation “Sit with me” so blatantly obvious a blind man could have read it.
So did the boy. He walked to the sofa — slow as a man wading through mud — rested his hand against the back, and leaned close to whisper something to the young woman. She nodded. He sat, every bit as gingerly as she had. The two of them smiled at each other for a second that must have seemed an eternity to the two of them, then they looked away. Freddy thought he could even see a blush on the young man’s face.
When he looked away — with his attention if not necessarily his eyes — the young woman’s book was still open on her lap, but she wasn’t even pretending to be paying it the least bit of attention. Her eyes instead drank in the young man’s every word.
Clarice had looked just the same the other day.
It was that look, more than anything, that had emboldened Freddy to offer to put his arm around her.
He didn’t remember, not clearly, how he had excused it. Clarice could have moments of startling passion — the first time she had kissed him came to mind — but when she was not in that mood, she was still skittish and shy. She was a wild pony, willing to be ridden at times, but scared to be broken.
Freddy’s heart had been pounding too loudly in his own ears for him to hear his own words. That was probably for the best. He would only be embarrassed if he remembered whatever lame excuse it was. Knowing him, it was probably some nonsense about her looking cold (it was the hottest day in months) or lonely (she had been chatting and giggling, never before looking so thrilled to just be in his company).
But he did remember her startled wide eyes of surprise, the way she’d caught her lip between her teeth. He remembered the way she had looked over her shoulder, to open archway that left them in full view of the door, the stairs, the dining room even if you were at the right angle. Freddy remembered being about to give up.
Then Clarice smiled, so slowly, and shifted her weight slightly toward him. Freddy was only too happy to meet her at what was, for her, one-quarter of the way.
He remembered especially the dazed smile she wore when she settled next to him. She seemed surprised to be feeling so good, even when she looked up at him with a little grin. Freddy had squeezed her a little closer, shocking himself with his own boldness.
Then, after a few minutes — seconds, really — of just enjoying sitting that way, they had started talking again. About his engineering classes, of all things! Clarice seemed to be quite interested in the mathematics of castles and cathedrals. “How fascinating,” she kept saying, and following it up with intelligent questions, too, leaving Freddy to flatter himself that she truly was interested and not just trying to please him. (Though, how could he be upset if she was trying to please him?)
She had questions, too, about more than castles and cathedrals — she wanted to know about roads and bridges, too, and the best ways to connect one part of the fledgling kingdom they called home to another. And she seemed to take it for granted that he would have thought of such questions, and if he didn’t have a way to answer them, then he at least ought to have ideas. Freddy had not thought of them.
“But if you’re going to be a lord …” she had started, and stopped.
“Well … if you’re going to be a lord … the other boys are studying such different things — doesn’t it seem natural that they’d ask you these things?”
Freddy had never thought of it that way. Even if he was going to be a lord, he would have considered himself lucky to be allowed to design a simple fortification or a cathedral. Not the roads for the entire kingdom!
Even so, now that he had thought of it that way, he’d written to his father to ask him to send him a few copies of the most recent maps of Albion. There was going to be a lot of sketching and planning in his future.
But still, at the time, Clarice was stammering and biting her lip and staring at him as a doe might stare at the dogs that brought her to bay. So to change the subject, Freddy had asked her how her studies were going.
She’d changed the subject and all too soon had announced that she had another appointment to get to. Freddy might have been disappointed, or wondered what he had said, except Clarice had let him kiss her at the door and even returned the kiss with a healthy amount of feeling.
Then she had asked him to meet her at the coffee shop this afternoon. So here Freddy was, ready to meet her whenever she came in.
The bells chimed the hour and Freddy began to fidget. She should be here by now, he thought, even though the classroom was across campus and Clarice was not a fast walker at the best of times. Come on, Clarice, you’re making me crazy here —
The shop-bell tinkled. Freddy sat up. And there Clarice was.
In that moment, she hung by the doorway, hand reaching out for the handle even as her eyes darted around the room. When she saw him, she smiled — really smiled — a grin so quick and so true that Freddy did not have it in him to doubt its sincerity.
Then the smile vanished.
But Freddy was already up and moving, able to lightly clasp her shoulders and kiss her on the cheek. “How are you?” he asked before pulling away.
Clarice blushed and smiled. “Well — you?”
Never better was the answer that bubbled to the surface, even though he wanted to say that every time she asked him that question. Either Clarice only got better with time, or his mental veracity left something to be questioned. So he only answered, “The same.”
Clarice smiled. Freddy grinned back at her. They carried in that slightly foolish manner for Freddy didn’t know how many minutes, at least until the door opened and Freddy had to shepherd Clarice out of the way before she got hit. Clarice looked at the hand he laid on her elbow with a soft, tender smile.
Then the smile vanished.
Before Clarice could speak, though, Freddy blundered in. “Would — would you like some coffee? I can order it for you. Cream, no sugar, right?”
She flushed and shook her head. “Actually, I’d — I’d — well, I’d much rather talk first.” She wrung her hands together, and if Freddy hadn’t known better, he would have sworn the look on her face was pleading.
“Oh. Well, of course.” He tried to lay a hand on the small of her back, but Clarice struck out first, back as straight and head as high as a queen, to one of the chairs by the fire.
Chairs. Separate chairs. This couldn’t be good. Freddy gulped, but even as he swallowed that air, his mind raced ahead and his behind gingerly took the seat.
“Well?” he asked finally, as Clarice seemed content to twist her hands together and straighten her skirt — all the while shooting him glances that were definitely pleading — until kingdom came and went. “What — what is it?”
Her mouth opened and closed repeatedly, gasping like some poor fish caught and tossed to dry on the hard-packed earth. When she finally blurted something out, though, it was not what Freddy had been expecting. “I — I’m really liking my classes.”
… All … right … What exactly was he supposed to reply to that? Other than the brainless reply that he gave, of course: “That’s good.”
“I’ve moved onto more serious things, now,” she started. “Not — not just the introductory classes in anatomy and herb lore and obstetrics. Real classes, now. Medicine-mixing and epidemiology and the balancing of the humors, and such.”
“Which — which means,” Clarice stammered, “that I have to — to be serious about my major, now. I have to really declare one way or the other.”
“You haven’t made your decision yet?” asked Freddy.
“I — well, I want to …”
Freddy tried to make his face as open and confidence-inviting as possible. His grandmother did this all the time. There had to be some kind of trick to it, and maybe it was even hereditary.
“But … but I don’t think I can do it — that is, Professor Beauchamp …”
“Is she giving you a hard time?” Freddy heard himself ask, even as he tried to strangle the tiger that suddenly leapt up in his breast. And what will you do if she is, Frederick Ferreira? Beat up a little old lady? … Couldyou even beat up a little old lady?
“Yes,” Clarice spat out, with what looked like a sigh of relief. Then she tensed. “That is — well — and she has very good reasons for this, space in the medicine department is limited, and they only want to be training people who will, well, pay dividends in the future, so to speak …
Does she think Clarice isn’t good enough? How could she not be? He’d heard Clarice talk about her studies. Even if she wasn’t the smartest Sim in the room — and that was a bet Freddy would not make — she was passionate, and she worked hard. How many evenings had she refused to spend with him, to her apparent regret, because she had to study?
That, however, was not what Clarice finally said, “… and at the end of the day, Professor Beauchamp says she only wants to educate Sims who will go on to be doctors.”
Clarice stopped. She twisted her hands in her lap, and after a couple of agonizing glances, looked away from Freddy, at least until he spoke.
“Do … do you not want to be a doctor?”
“Oh, no! No, not at all! I do want to be a doctor!” But no sooner had the words tumbled from her mouth than Clarice gasped and slapped her hand over her mouth. The look she gave him must have been a close cousin to the one he gave to his mother, the first time he had uttered the word “shit” in her hearing and she had gasped and intoned, “What did you say?”
Freddy could only watch her, and wait for her to explain herself. But she said nothing, her eyes above her hand becoming more and more wide and panicked. Freddy had to say something, he couldn’t let her just sit there and stew! But what?
Unfortunately, the only thing he could think to say, and what he eventually had to spit out, was, “Then — then why don’t you just declare your major in medicine?”
Clarice’s hand fell away from her face. Her jaw fell open. She gasped. And she whispered, “What?”
“Why … don’t you just declare your major?” Freddy tried again.
“You — you — that’s it?” Clarice gasped.
“Er … yes?”
“Nothing — nothing about — I mean …” Her eyes wandered away from him, the better to address the stonework slightly to his left. “If — if we do get married — if I was a doctor, I’d be distracted — away from home — not, not …”
“Being a lady,” she whispered.
Clarice? Not be a lady? Impossible. She could not more stop being a lady than she could stop being adorable. It was that much a part of her.
Unless … “Er, what do you mean, being a lady?”
“I — staying home, and running the household, and doing sewing and hosting parties …”
“Well, that’s part of it,” Clarice shrugged.
“If you say so …”
“It’s just, that, well, I’d be away from the household a great deal — more than just occasional visiting, and that could … well …”
Freddy frowned. “Well, if you wanted to stay closer to home … my father is having a rather large manor house fixed up. We could set up a surgery in there.”
Clarice’s jaw dropped.
“Er, that is, if you’re — if you’re not against the whole marriage thing –”
“Of course I’m not! I mean …” Clarice blushed. “If — if our parents deem it wise.”
His parents would. Somehow or other. Freddy would beg on his knees if he had to.
“It’s just …” Clarice began, “you would … do that?”
“Write to my father? It wouldn’t be any trouble. I can do it in my next letter if you like.”
“No, not that — well, yes that, but — but have a surgery? In your house?”
“It’ll be our home, won’t it?”
“And — and not mind me …?”
“Not mind you …?”
“Being a doctor?” Clarice whispered.
Freddy could not answer, not at first. Then he could only give a shrug and two words: “… Should I?”
Clarice blinked. “I — I don’t know.”
That was helpful. “Well, you — if our parents want it and all that — you still want to marry me, right?”
Clarice’s flush spread from her pale cheeks to her neck to the top of her chest. Freddy did his very, very best to keep his gaze focused on those cheeks, but it was more than hard with her breath coming faster and her chest starting to heave on top of everything else.
Finally, though, she nodded.
“Then … then what’s the problem? If — if you still want to marry me, and have children and all that …”
“Of course I want children!” Clarice gasped.
Well, that was a relief. “How many?” Freddy pushed his luck.
“Five,” Clarice said without a second’s hesitation, even if her blush went deeper in the second that came after.
Well, that was a relief. “That sounds workable. And if you have a surgery in the house, it’ll be easier for you to be with them.”
“So — so why should I have a problem with it?” Freddy asked.
Now it was Clarice’s turn to shrug.
“I — I suppose — my father …”
Freddy tilted his head to one side.
Clarice shifted and stared to the side. “He wouldn’t like it.” It was barely a whisper. “He’d never permit his wife to do that.”
Freddy felt, rather than willed, his teeth to set on edge and his fists to clench out of Clarice’s sight. He may have been thick — appallingly thick — with some things, but he was not stupid. It would be a very stupid man indeed who did not notice the way Clarice seemed to fade and wilt whenever her father was mentioned. It would be an extra stupid man who would ignore his Crown Prince’s advice, delivered a bare five minutes before he left Camford for good: “I see you and Clarice have made up. Good. If she starts going off and acting skittish on you, don’t worry — er — too much. Chances are, it’s something her father told her or the way he acted toward her that’s making her do this. Trust me, I’m still going through the same thing with Lynn.”
Freddy stood, grabbed Clarice’s hand and helped her, wondering, to her feet. “Come on.”
“Where — where are we going?” Clarice asked as she followed, their hands still linked.
He poked his head into the little corridor by the chambers with the privies in them. Good — empty. There was, of course, always the chance that somebody might come out, but he would risk it. This wouldn’t take more than a minute.
Even as Clarice was looking about her and at him, eyebrow raised in mute inquiry, Freddy seized his moment and pounced.
She was surprised — he could feel that — but sooner than he had hoped she began to respond. Slowly, tentatively as she always responded when passion or something didn’t get the better of her and make her kiss him. She was quiet, as she always was, but her hands were busy — and her lips —
Too soon, though, they had to burst apart for air. Clarice was grinning. “F-Freddy!”
“Clarice,” Freddy gasped. “Clarice, I have one question.”
“Will being a doctor make you happy?”
“Then be a doctor,” Freddy replied. “If — look, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I just want to see you happy. If you want to be happy and with me, then that’s more than I would ever ask for.”
“You — you will?”
“Um … not mind if you be a doctor?”
“No — well, yes,” Clarice admitted. “But — but will you say it again?”
Freddy blinked. “Of course. If — if you want.”
Clarice only nodded. Then she wrapped her arms around him. “Oh — oh, Freddy,” she said when she finally could speak. “Oh, Freddy!”
And Freddy could not see her face — but it would have been a block of stone that could not feel her smile.