Alone in a crowd again. At least Clarice was used to it. She wasn’t like Garnet, or even Leona, who seemed to crave social interaction as other Sims craved food and sleep. She could well handle being by herself, especially for an activity like listening to music.
It would have been nice if Freddy had been able to make it — but he wasn’t, and Clarice would not pry or act disappointed. If it had been her grandmother who had just passed on, Clarice would not have wanted to spend an afternoon doing something frivolous. Freddy would have respected that wish, so Clarice would respect Freddy’s.
She respected it so much that she had not even called at the fraternity to ask if he would come. She had seen him a few times since he had returned from his grandmother’s funeral, and she knew that false smile and sunny mien he always put on in her presence had to be wearing. She would give him a break for the afternoon, some time to grieve, or maybe only to catch up on all the studying he had been forced to miss. She could watch Kiena’s performance alone.
Clarice just wished she wasn’t thinking so much about Granny as she did so.
She was amazed, too, that the old woman whom she had only met once was already Granny in her head. Maybe it came from hearing Dannie and Freddy speak of her so often. When the time had come to put a face to the name, the only name she had for putting a face to was Granny. And she had said to call her Granny!
The old woman had been … what had she been? Larger than life, certainly. Clarice’s own grandmother had been somewhat in the same mold; certainly she had never been a “proper lady,” but her impropriety mostly came when she locked horns with her son. In public, insofar as Clarice could remember, she had always been a model of grace and poise. A somewhat outspoken model, to be sure, but a model nonetheless. Whereas the only concession Granny had made to politeness was to mention that she was old — and then go and say whatever technically rude but generally highly amusing thing she had wanted to say. Where did she get the bravery? Was it just that she had spent her store of patience, as she implied? Or was there a sort of courage that came with age?
Or had she simply been born that way?
“There you are.”
Clarice looked up and gasped, well, as well as she could gasp while trying to keep to a whisper. “Freddy!”
“You didn’t even wait for me,” Freddy replied, that worn little smile on his lips. The smile he wore when he really didn’t feel like smiling at all. He collapsed into the chair beside her. “Trying to get rid of me?”
“N-no, of course not! I just thought …”
Freddy’s eyebrows went up.
“I thought …” How on earth did one go about saying, I thought you would be too busy grieving to come to a silly concert? How did one say it, moreover, when one’s betrothed was looking at one with a tiny smile and a pair of eyes that seemed dangerously close to hurt?
Clarice finally settled for, “I didn’t think you’d be interested.”
“Not interested? In being with you?” The smile was a little less worn now, a little more teasing. Then it vanished into seriousness. “Besides, I said I’d go.”
“Well, yes,” Clarice admitted, “but that was …”
Freddy’s eyebrows rose in a mute inquiry.
“… before …” Clarice whispered.
They both stared straight ahead, neither knowing quite how to reply.
Stupid, Clarice thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid! She should have never said anything. She should have claimed that she had gone to the library to study, lost track of time or thought she had lost track of time, and run here so she wouldn’t be late for the concert. And it was all true, except for the losing track of time bit. And the running part. But Freddy would probably assume that she meant running in a metaphorical sense, anyway. Ladies simply did not run, unless the building was on fire or one happened to be Leona.
“… Clarice?” Freddy whispered.
“Yes?” Clarice replied, too quickly. Damn. She really needed to work on that.
“Granny … wouldn’t want me to, to, stop living just because she was gone.” Freddy turned to her with a faint grin. “I’ll still do the things you want me to do with you. You know. If you want.”
“Of course I want. I just didn’t want to … presume.”
“Impossible,” Freddy replied. What would be suave in other men was only sincere with him. Usually. It was still sincere … but he was trying to be suave. Which could only mean …
He was masking something. And Clarice had not the slightest idea how to get him to unmask it.
How ironic, thought Clarice, turning again to watch Kiena. She had spent too much time — far too much time — masking herself from Freddy, hiding behind any obstacle that bothered to present itself. She should have made better use of that time by getting to know him, not denying to herself that she very much liked what she was starting to know despite her own best efforts. If she had done that, she might know how to unmask Freddy now.
Or she could always just respect the fact that whatever was bothering him, he clearly did not want to talk about it. That had, after all, been her intention when she backed away, leaving him alone to grieve. If he wanted her, he would come find her.
But what had he done, if not come and found her?
“I wish –” Freddy began, and stopped.
“Wish what?” Clarice whispered.
“Noth–nothing. Nothing,” Freddy murmured.
“No …” Clarice laid her hand on the armrest of his chair, close enough for him to grasp if he wanted, far enough away for him to ignore if he didn’t. “What?”
Freddy watched her hand with the glassy eyes of a man whose thoughts were far away. His hand, however, belied his eyes by closing over her hand — and squeezing it. “It’s stupid,” Freddy mumbled, a mumble even when one took into account their voices hushed by necessity.
“No, it isn’t,” Clarice replied, not thinking.
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve never heard you say a stupid thing,” she answered.
Freddy stared at her — then he half-fell forward, one hand over his mouth, the other clutching his stomach. “What?” Clarice hissed. “What?”
“Clarice,” Freddy answered when he could finally speak again, “were you even listening to me all of freshman year? Lord! I said nothing but stupid things!”
“Well, I didn’t mean …” Clarice started, then saw the hole in front of her and the dirt-encrusted shovel in her hand. There was no use digging herself in deeper. “You might have said … silly things, but they’re not the same as stupid ones. Trust me.”
His eyebrows momentarily arched up, and he smiled half a smile. It was the half-smile that Dannie smiled all the time, and Freddy only smiled when he was feeling particularly sardonic — which was to say, practically never. Then he sighed. “Well, you’re about to.” He leaned back so far that his head thunked dully against the wall. “I wish you had … been there.”
“When your grandmother passed? Or the funeral? Or …”
“Both,” Freddy replied. “But mostly the funeral.”
Clarice only had one possible answer for that. “I wish I had been, too. I was thinking of you and praying for you, but …”
“It’s selfish,” Freddy replied, as if he had not even heard her. “You had classes. You had more important things to be –”
“I did not. If I could have managed a way to get there in time, I would have. You know that.”
Freddy shook his head. “You were where you needed to be.”
“No, I wasn’t. I should have been with you.” She reached for his hand again, this time not settling for the half-assed compromise of the armrest. Freddy let her take it. “We’re betrothed, or the next best thing to it. I –”
“Aye,” Freddy replied. “Aye. The next best thing to it.” He sighed. “Your parents didn’t come.”
“Oh, Freddy,” Clarice murmured. “I’m so sorry …”
“Why are you apologizing?” Freddy asked. “You can’t help what they — what he does.”
Clarice cringed to hear the emphasis on he — the same emphasis Clarice and her sisters had used all her life. Freddy had only met her father once and already he was using it. Was Bors really that odious?
“And your mother — at least — I think it was your mother — she sent around some fresh game from your family’s larders. That was kind of her, Clarice.”
“My mother is often kind.”
“Like her daughter,” Freddy smiled.
“Maybe they …” Clarice began. “Maybe they didn’t know when the service would be held?”
“How couldn’t they? My father …” Freddy started. He concluded with a shrug. “My father would have told your father, I’m sure.”
In other words, Richard had been sure that Bors would know about the funeral, where and when it would be. And still Bors had not come. He had probably refused to allow her mother to come, either — or, more likely, simply not told her when the funeral would be, so that she could not humiliate him by doing her duty while he did not.
“They’re never going to accept me, are they?” Freddy murmured. “Your — your family, I mean.”
“No, no!” Clarice exclaimed, or at least exclaimed as well as she could in a whisper. “My mother loves you! And so does Lynn!”
Freddy sighed. “My father was asking me about that.”
“How the Crown Princess and I get along. And how you and the Crown Princess get along.”
“But we all get along fine. Beautifully!” Clarice murmured, mystified.
“I know,” Freddy answered. “But I also know what it means.”
“What … would it mean?”
“That my father has given up trying to get anywhere with your father and brother.”
There was nothing else she could think to say. And all she could think to do was look again to Kiena and her playing.
Why? Clarice thought. Why can’t they just unbend and be polite to him? It was Father’s idea that we marry! If I had just met Freddy — if we had just fallen in love — but this whole thing was his idea! Or maybe it had been Richard’s idea — but did it matter? It was Bors’s idea long before it was Clarice’s. As far as Bors knew, Clarice was only wedding Freddy out of duty. The least he could do was be polite.
But no. Freddy and his family were commoners. They did not merit politeness. Or at least, they would not merit it until the papers for the betrothal were finally signed, and the last time Clarice had heard, the papers would not be signed until graduation — and they would marry within a fortnight. Her father did not approve of long betrothals, and Clarice thought she knew why. It made her want to lose her virginity with Freddy the moment the ink was put to the page, just to show her father that making a young couple wait to be betrothed was no more conducive to protecting virginity than making them wait through a long betrothal. The only problem with that plan was that it would only work if her father somehow came to know of her lost maidenhead, and that was enough to make Clarice wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
Well, that was one of the only problems … Clarice sighed and looked to Freddy. Truly, this was getting her nowhere.
“Freddy?” she whispered.
“Can we go?”
“I — what? I thought –”
“I think we need to talk.”
“Oh.” Freddy rose without further protest, extending a hand to help her up. How ironic, Clarice thought as they left the room, that the man her father would be so rude to showed more true politeness in ten minutes’ time than her father would know in his life.
And somehow, as soon as they were safely out of the recital hall, when Clarice meant to turn to Freddy to ask him if he wanted to go out for coffee or if he would rather go back to the sorority or the fraternity house, Freddy’s arms were around her and his lips were pressed to hers.
Clarice couldn’t even gasp — she barely had time to close her eyes, as she knew she was supposed to. And then her world was nothing but Freddy’s lips, and his arms locked around her, one hand on her waist and pressing her closer. She could barely respond, besides following every tiny movement of his lips with her own.
And then he let go.
“Oh, Lord,” he sighed, proving that lung capacity was yet another thing that Freddy had over her — Clarice was still catching her breath. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have –”
“Don’t be sorry,” Clarice replied. “You — you needed that.”
He smiled. “Well …”
“You needed that,” Clarice repeated, grinning a little herself, even as she blushed. “And — and I’m the one who should be sorry. My family …”
“Is beyond your control. Is beyond anybody’s control, as far as I can tell,” Freddy sighed.
“My mother does like you,” Clarice murmured. “And Lynn …”
Freddy’s eyebrows went up.
“Well, she said she sees how — how happy I am with you,” Clarice blushed, “and she says she couldn’t dislike anybody who makes me so happy.” Clarice understood. She could do nothing else than like Prince Tom — even when she had been twelve and he liked to tug on her braids when he wasn’t flirting with her sister, she had grinned and borne it, because of the way Lynn lit up when he entered the room.
“And my father seems — no offense — but he seems to think that’s more important than whatever your father might think, anyway,” Freddy shrugged. “So I don’t know why –”
“Don’t,” Clarice interrupted. She stroked Freddy’s cheek. “Don’t apologize for being — hurt. It — it hurts me, too.”
“All the more reason for me to apologize,” Freddy answered, holding her hand in his.
“Why? For bringing it up? I know how my brother treats you, Freddy. It’s not a … a wild leap to realize that my father probably treats you and your family the same way.”
“True,” Freddy murmured. “But what can we do about it?”
Clarice hung her head. “I don’t know.”
“So then we shouldn’t bring it up,” Freddy answered, “at least until we can think of a solution, because what’s the point of hurting ourselves with what we can’t change?”
Clarice looked up with a sly smile. “I hope that isn’t how you plan on dealing with cracks in the foundations of your castles, Master Ferreira.”
“Just not bringing it up until you find a solution.”
“Heh,” Freddy chortled. “This isn’t a crack in the foundation. This is more …” He brought her hand down and began to swing it to and fro. “This is more like a statue that won’t quite fit in the niche we made for it.”
“It’s … cosmetic,” Freddy replied in the tone of a true engineer, a man who was paid to make sure the castle or the cathedral or whatever it was stayed upright no matter what the Lord and men threw at it, a man who was most assuredly not paid to make it pretty. “It’s not our fault if the damn sculptor can’t follow directions.”
“Freddy!” Clarice gasped, and giggled.
“What — oh! Oh, I didn’t mean to –”
“It wasn’t the — the — damn,” Clarice replied, coloring a little. “I’m used to that.” Used to hearing it, if not used to saying it. One could hardly share a house with Heloise, Garnet, and Leona without swiftly becoming used to every four-letter-world under the sun. “It was comparing my father to a sculptor.”
“What’s so wrong about that?”
“Oh, you know,” Clarice shrugged. “He’s a … a man who works with his hands. My father would be appalled.”
“Rob is a sculptor.”
“I know,” Clarice replied.
“Your father wouldn’t want to be compared with Rob?”
“He doesn’t know Rob. But even if he did … no.”
Freddy sighed. “And your father is a knight and a general. If that doesn’t involve work with his hands, I don’t know what does.”
“I will never understand your father.”
“Nor will I,” Clarice admitted.
“Luckily that’s just cosmetic,” Freddy replied. “And luckily for us, we will be living with my family, which is much more comprehensible. My father is driven by ambition, my mother by her artistry, and –” He started, and stopped. His face fell.
And Clarice realized. He’d forgotten. For a moment, he had forgotten that his grandmother was gone. Then he had remembered.
It was better to have never forgotten in the first place.
Freddy sucked in a deep breath. “Any — anyway, I’m so–”
“Don’t,” Clarice said, again. “Don’t be sorry.”
Freddy managed a half-smile. “You know, if this is how we fight when we’re married, I daresay we’ll never resolve our quarrels at all.”
“We’re not quarreling. We’re having a conversation.” Clarice took a deep breath. “A … somewhat difficult conversation.”
“Aye,” Freddy murmured.
“But we’ll get through it.” She smiled at him. “Somehow. Together. We will get through it.”
Freddy did not answer. Instead, he seemed to lean …
And Clarice caught him, and held him close to her while he rested his head on her shoulder.
Together. Together, they would get through this.