Nocturne (NaNoWriMo 2009)
FULL BORE, GRASS SCOURING HER CALVES, HER THIGHS, HER HIPS, Elizabeth blazed across the unmown field, smashing through pockets of warm air cold air hot air like invisible walls. She pushed for speed, racing for the woods ahead. It was critical. It was fire. It was blood, honor, and joy. Her hair flew like the tail of a comet, snagging on thistles as she refused to yield. Her nose filled with the smell of wildflowers and black earth. And her feet struck with thundering force. She felt it through her bones to the top of her head, burning so hot she felt the only other step was flight.
Forget the library. Forget studying. She was alive, alert, and hungry for battle.
The boulder! Shifting the momentum of her sprint, she clambered atop, rising to the balls of her feet, scanning between home and the woods, watching wind tide on the open field, feeling it wrap her hair around her waist, her arms. She ignored the sting of cuts and scrapes, ready for signs of Him, the fiendish boy next door.
She’d just turned her back on the woods when he sprang, no more than a few yards away, blue eyes narrowed, triumph in his smile. The terrible boy crouched, lean and muscular as a wild cat, pale hair falling over his face, sweat shining on his bare chest, hands digging into the ground. He was danger, he was cunning, and he was dying to take her down.
But she’d been ready, hand at her oversized pocket, and as he lunged, she threw an apple, striking him on the shoulder. He recoiled, and she powered another toward his knee, striking just where she’d aimed.
One glance at his delight, and she was off through the grass again. She felt him on her tail. Felt herself move in and out of his sight as if it were a straight beam of turbulence, magnetism.
No other girl would run from this boy. For him, it was all toward and never away. A different boy might have been offended by her scorn for his beauty, by her irreverence, might have kept a haughty distance. But he was a nineteen-year-old who refused to grow up, and she was an eighteen-year-old who’d never had a real childhood.
So they played.
Now the woods loomed ahead. Relying on intuition, nothing to lose, Elizabeth grabbed a pine cone from her pocket and spun just long enough to throw it in the direction of her invisible foe before leaping into a sprint once more. His yelp satisfied her to the core.
She entered the shadows and ran for her favorite places, knowing it was her best bet. He disappeared, all traces lost. More than anything, that raised the hair on her arms. In battle, she preferred the trampling, galloping chase of the fields. The woods had been her haunt since arriving at her new mountain-top foster home months earlier, but he’d haunted them since birth. Every tree was his for the strategizing. Most bore runes he’d carved. And he moved among the branches as though gravity had no power over him. It was no wonder she’d had fancies of angels and elves when she first met the luminous boy in the great chestnut tree he called Aslan’s Nest.
Reluctantly, she admitted he was a beautiful creature, this wild boy of the woods. Better than his goofy knight-jester persona back at the house. Definitely better than the Ivy-League heartthrob who blasted Beach Boys from his convertible in Stonebriar Village, the town below. His socialite admirers would scream in horror at him now – sweaty, filthy, twigs in golden hair that was twisted and standing on end, and, of course, that blood-thirsty smile.
Elizabeth clenched her jaw. He wasn’t going to use it on her. She’d destroy him before letting him win. The only smile she hated worse was the one he used on town girls – sweet and affectionate, but somewhat detached, expecting no challenge, no fire. When he used that on her, she turned into a spitting cat. And he knew it. And used it well.
A bird cried in a nearby tree.
Abruptly, Elizabeth crouched. The wind couldn’t penetrate the mighty trunks, but it roared overhead, and the swollen creek did its best to match the volume. She strained to hear anything more.
Rising, she slid along a tree trunk, facing outward. She managed not to break a twig, made no sound. That concerned her. If even she was that undetectable by ear, hearing him would be impossible. Elizabeth looked up and blinked to adjust her eyes to the high contrast world of the overhead branches, scanning for movement that was more animal than vegetable, but she found only infuriating amounts of nothing.
She hadn’t abandoned her studies to serve as prey to an invisible fiend. Time to go back to dusty textbooks and the dreary real world, continue the fight later.
Elizabeth turned and screamed. He’d been behind her – now in front – mouth pressed tight in suppressed mirth. How she’d missed that combination of aftershave, wild grass, and overheated boy, she couldn’t say.
He clucked his tongue. “Poor training, My Lady. Always guard your flank.”
At the word “flank,” he grabbed for her, but she ducked and ran.
Running in the woods was far better than creeping. She heard him clearly now, hot on her heels, both snapping scores of leaves and twigs. Her foot slid on loose mulch, and she barely maintained her bearings. His fingers brushed her arm before she outstripped him again.
With only the slightest hint of breathlessness, he called, “The Nest is out of your reach, Dragon! You know the prize. I can almost taste it!”
Taste it! He’d told her many times that if he ever caught her before she reached the tree, he was going to hold her down and kiss her. He thrived on the outrage that produced. Elizabeth was tall with a narrow, boyish figure, tangled Mars-colored hair, and perplexingly Oriental features, courtesy of a few Siberian ancestors. She wasn’t a bit like the Barbie Doll town candidates for this Prince Charming’s glass slipper.
He called her his lady, his princess, his queen whenever they were in public, but it was a tease. He’d wait for her temper as though he couldn’t bear its deliciousness. He’d ignore other girls’ outrage at his use of those titles on her. At home, he called her his dragon and ruffled her hair. He taught her how to play chess, climb trees, and battle with medieval weapons. He made faces when she wore makeup or miniskirts. He thanked her – frequently and ardently – for telling him he stunk, that he was awful, and, best of all, gross. He loved being gross.
When Elizabeth first arrived at Bastlemort Mountain the previous fall, she was a timid, friendless bookworm. He’d delighted in kindling her ferocious side, coaxing her to show him rudeness and aggression. As much as the beautiful boy loved to be gross, Elizabeth loved to be fierce.
She’d reached the great chestnut now, its mammoth limbs twisting and curving in all directions. The kraken, the gorgon, the octopus. And, to her and this incorrigible neighbor, a place away from the world.
She barely slowed before leaping at the tree, groping for now-familiar hand- and footholds. Victory was within reach when arms seized her around the waist and plucked her off the tree like a kitten. Landing, she found herself pressed to his chest, encircled by his arms, shaken by his laughter.
She did her best to do damage with her knee. “Robin Oliver Bastle! Let me go!”
He lifted his face, crying with the laughter he held between closed lips. His skin was hot, the fair hair on his chest tickled her nose, and his arm lock was steel. Leaning his forehead on hers, Robin caught his breath and shook his head. “I want to hold you down and kiss you now.”
“I was at the tree! I was on it!”
“You’re in my clutches now, My Lady.”
She twisted her face away from his mouth – so stupid and soft, always looking upturned and flushed, ready to be kissed. It mocked her, threatened to turn her into one of the inconsequential crowd of girls he’d kissed and dismissed – what his sister Amie called his discard pile. Amie said one kiss from Oliver, as he called himself in town, and you had no more than forty-eight hours before you were done, gone, mist and memory, no more. Oliver’s kiss was poison. At home, he went by his first name, Robin, but she suspected that persona’s kiss was no better.
He pressed that mouth to her forehead now, then her ear and her cheek, grinning at her struggles. The first time he’d kissed her hand, she’d been a wreck, waiting to lose his friendship. She didn’t. The first time he kissed her cheek, she’d punched him, doing more damage than she’d done before or since – she didn’t really want to hurt him – but it failed to kill her. So she knew it was the mouth kisses, the passionate kisses, that killed his interest in a person.
She’d kill him if he ever endangered her like that.
Besides, she knew her kisses were more poisonous than his. One love-filled kiss between her and Robin’s best friend, James – at first an adoring stranger at a party – and James turned cold, offering her nothing but hostility until he returned to Berkeley for college. Months ago. Turns out James was her foster brother and second cousin, although she’d thought she had no living family. James had thought the same of himself – but he’d been glad. He hated his birth family, and their kiss only convinced him his loathing was right.
Her lip wobbled. Robin was insanely loyal toward James. They were like brothers. Maybe all this teasing was just to avenge James. To humiliate her. But she didn’t think Robin knew about the kiss.
She went limp, lowered her face, and muttered into his chest, “You cheated. I was on the tree.”
Robin let go and nodded. “I did. Of course.” He kissed the top of her head before ruffling her hair. “Not becoming conduct for a knight of my rank. My apologies, My Queen.”
That made him smile. “Dragon, you’re a mighty foe.” He pointed at his shoulder – a red welt darkening where she’d struck him with the apple – and he grinned. “To The Nest!”
She followed him. At the junction between trunk and limbs, there was a natural basin. Half a dozen people could sit in it, but since she’d learned of it, only she and Robin had.
Robin knelt and looked at the trio of carvings on the side: a chessboard’s knight atop crossed swords, a spiky wolf, and, on the other side of the knight, fresher, a tiny calligraphic E. Above this letter there sat a small silver thimble. Nothing sat above the other two figures.
Robin lifted the thimble and hopped it back and forth between the initial and the knight, at last sighing and replacing it above the E. He twisted his face to look at her, a hint of wild cat flickering in his eyes. “You’ll see. One day.” Then he flopped back against The Nest wall, legs outstretched, yawning.
Elizabeth watched him. “Where’s your shirt, Tarzan?”
He twisted his mouth, and dimples bloomed before he opened sleepy eyes. “Dunno. Don’t care.”
He slid his arm around her shoulders and raised his face to the boughs overhead, closing his eyes. She felt him relax, heard him draw a happy breath.
How often had he done this? Did town girls know how to climb trees? Had he taught them?
“Have you brought many people here?” she asked.
His eyes opened, the lattice of branches reflecting in his deep blue before he turned to her. A long scrutiny, and then he shook his head. “Only you. And James.”
More than anything else he’d ever claimed, this impressed her, made her head spin from the honor of that fellowship, and she felt her cheeks heat.
Robin leaned closer, peering at her. “You’re blushing, aren’t you?”
She couldn’t bear his gaze, turned her face, but he slid his fingers beneath her chin and turned it back toward him. His eyes were soft, warm, surprised. Then, not saying a word, he slid closer, tilted his head, and leaned in.
The sound, the world – they compressed through a wringer of pulling, rough-edged, deafening panic.
And then his mouth moved straight past hers and pressed itself warmly to her left brow, leaving her gasping from surprise. Disappointment?
Robin let go of Elizabeth’s face and fumbled in his back pocket, hand re-emerging holding a red-enameled pen knife. He held it aloft, blade closed. “Formal indoctrination.”
She closed her hands and pulled them to her body, fearing a blood brother ritual, but Robin just flipped open the knife and twisted, facing the nearest edge of their nest. Glancing at her first, he scraped the blade across the wood, twisting it, pressing, lightening his touch. Elizabeth forgot to breathe, watching the boy work. She already knew who the creator of the runes was, but to watch him in action made them seem more magical, not less. Like catching elves making shoes in a fairy tale.
At last, he sat back. Her E was gone. In its place, a sinuous, fire-breathing dragon shone golden next to its elder companions – Robin’s knight and James’s wolf. She ran her finger over her dragon, noticing Robin’s pride from the corner of her eye. Then she touched his other symbolic companion.
He said, “James,” and put his finger over hers. “His stepfather really beat it into him that he’s a dastardly wolf.”
“But he’s not.”
“No.” Robin smiled at her, pleased. “But I’m surprised he hasn’t got you convinced otherwise. Sometimes I think he takes all those language courses just to find one where he can communicate without putting his foot in his mouth or coming across as a ghoul when he’s emotional…” Robin bumped her with his shoulder. “He’s lucky you’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“I’ve seen his scars,” she said. James had been badly abused as a child.
A shadow passed across Robin’s face.
She hurried on. “Anyway, dragons just know things.” Overhead, the wind set the branches swaying and dappled their nest with spots of light. “Like that when summer comes, you won’t fight me anymore because that not-wolf will be home from Berkeley.”
Laughing, Robin stowed his knife, shook his head, and reached for her. “Dragon. Lap. Now.”
“I’d rather bite you or burn you to cinders.”
Pulling her onto his lap and wrapping his arms around her, Robin said, “You wouldn’t be a dragon, if not. I like that about you. Need it.”
Elizabeth fought her way free.
They kept a metal footlocker in The Nest. She opened its creaking lid and pulled out a book and one of James’s old shirts, although the day was warm. Tall as she was, the sleeves still puddled around her wrists and the hem fell to her thighs.
She read, but a noise startled her after a while, and she saw Robin peering down at her from between the branches, strangely intent, sober.
She stared back.
At last, he said, “There’s a tree like this in Nordic mythology. A giant tree of life. It was made by the gods and holds all the world within its branches.”
He pursed his lips and puffed air upward, trying to clear his vision as he resumed his climb. She saw he’d found a shirt – also one of James’s castoffs, but it nearly fit Robin.
All the world…
Elizabeth said, “So which part of this world do I belong to?”
Robin curved one arm around the trunk and pointed upward with his other. “Up there, where the sun touches the branches.” He tilted his head, smiling. “But not yet. Each man must earn his perch through hard work and good deeds.”
She scoffed. “And which perch have you earned?”
“All perches are my perch.” He pulled himself to a higher branch, feet swinging loose for a moment, just like he’d taught her not to do. “This is my tree.”
“Then you admit you really are a Norse god, like Cathy said.”
“Oh, don’t you start that garbage, too.” He pelted her with leaves and twigs.
“…Or are you just a liar?” she said, ducking.
“Lost your fire so soon, Dragon? Is that why you cower below?” A snort. “Hurling insults instead of battling like a warrior?”
“Pig!” She leapt to her feet, hurling chestnuts, bark, and debris up at him.
“Can’t catch up? Ready to surrender the thimble?” He laughed, ducking behind a limb, although he was out of range.
Elizabeth rolled up her sleeves, took one last look at the rune-carved nest, and then studied the upper branches. She didn’t need to remember Robin’s path; the tree remembered for her — more than a decade of passage polished darkly into its limbs.
The air was damp in The Nest, but it lightened as she climbed, dappled sunshine adding ribbons of warmth. It was intoxicating, scaling such a majestic tree, invading the secret world of Robin Oliver Bastle.
She was just beginning to feel like an immortal, invincible, when her foot slipped off its branch. Her body clenched, and she spun into an eternity of pounding, hot-scented confusion, unable to tell up from down or feel her legs. She waited for impact.
Slowly, she realized his training saved her. Her hands were tight on their separate branches, and her other foot had slipped but not lost its hold. In her relief, she wanted to cry, go limp and unconscious right there, forget, but, clearly, that was impossible. What seemed liberating a moment earlier now felt like a trap.
She looked down — a maze of branches funneling into darkness. She looked up and found Robin’s face, astonishingly close, pale, his posture that of a jungle cat about to spring. Had he thought he could leap down and catch her?
As Elizabeth watched, he inhaled and squeezed his eyes closed until his face wrinkled. When he exhaled again, both jungle cat and Peter Pan were gone. His eyes were sad, and there was a glaze of distance that looked an awful lot like regret, like the loss of every inch of respect she’d earned. Just a dumb little girl after all that he’d have to babysit instead of roughhousing. That felt worse than the near fall – worse, she imagined, than actually falling. At least she’d have fallen a warrior instead of a pathetic damsel like the rest of them.
Summoning the dragon Robin claimed dwelled within her, she shot him a dirty look and resumed her climb. Every inch was terror, filled with certainty she’d slip again, dreading that shock, despite her idea that falling hurt less than the loss of Robin’s respect.
A branch shivered beneath her hand; a mossy patch made her foot shift; she cut her forearm against rough bark; a dead leaf stuck in the hair that fell over her brow, and she was suddenly sure there were spiders everywhere.
Up and up she climbed until her legs and arms ached and she could no longer look up at Robin without getting dizzy. But she heard him. He was laughing under his breath, murmuring words like fearless and dragon and heir to the wolf, making her feel warm and proud again, easing her aches and pains.
The tree was moving now in a way she could feel, adding to the difficulty of the climb, making her palms sweat.
“Robin.” She was close enough to hear him breathing. “I’m surprised you didn’t build a platform up here to stabilize –”
It was small. About six feet long and three planks deep – lord knew how he’d brought those up here – but it had a shallow rim and bridged a semi-circle of outward angled branches. That was where he crouched, smiling with a breathless anticipation she didn’t understand.
He held out a hand, and she saw the platform sway, rise, and fall. It was moving with the tree.
“It can’t hold us both!”
Robin laughed, patted the wood beside him, and held out his hand again.
“Why doesn’t the tree tear apart the platform when it moves?” She hadn’t expected a platform to be more frightening than clinging to the branches beneath.
“My lady doubts her knight?” Robin pointed. There was some sort of rigging with chains and large screws ending in loops.
“Only that he’s in his right mind.”
He rolled his eyes and extended his hand with exaggerated slowness. This time she took it and scrambled to crouch on the platform.
Robin pointed upward. “Look.”
She did, and she whimpered from vertigo. It was sky. Clear and blue and speckled with tiny bits of pollen from the tree.
“No.” He touched her knee. “Look.”
Tearing her eyes from the treetop, she saw him raise his palms impatiently. He wanted her to stand.
It took every ounce of courage she had, but she stood and put her hands on a horizontal branch at chest height. Robin stood beside her and parted the foliage.
Elizabeth lost her ability to breathe, lost her place in the murky world below. Every story she’d ever heard about paradise, every symphony’s swell, every fairy tale, every happily ever after – they all belonged to the world she looked out on now.
They were surrounded by woods but not among them. Not deep in a forest but soaring overhead, a tower on a cliff overlooking Narnia or Middle Earth. Below were the sloping tops of a sea of trees. To the left and curving to a position opposite their own, there were sheer rock cliffs lit tawny by the sun, more trees clinging to their sides, topping them, and an endless sparkle of birds swooping, diving, and wheeling through rosy golden air. The fresh breeze lifted her hair, filled her lungs as she learned to inhale again.
Beside her, Robin positively glowed, savoring her reaction. He said, “Elle?”
“This is heaven.”
He smiled. “No, this is The Roost. Out there is heaven.”
Speaking as though he were proxy to the trees and the birds and the sky, she said, “I love you, Robin.”
When he finally answered, his voice was strained. “You’re everything fierce, My Lady. And the only other person to ever lay eyes on the sight.” A pause. “My sign. Proof.”
“What about James?”
Robin’s voice fell. “He just called me a reckless fool and refused to climb. I dragged these boards up here just to spite him. Made him watch. He may have cried.”
She finally heard what he’d said. “I’m proof of what?”
Robin paused. “We’re different, you and I. From the rest of them, I mean. Two of a kind.”
“Anyone else would say, ‘Oh, the Masons’ property,’ or, ‘I think I see Millhook,’ but we know better. We know that’s not the point. We know that’s a different world out there.”
She kept her eyes on the golden Eden. “I want to go there.”
“Help me, then.”
Right then, they were Adam and Eve, the only humans in this new world, and that was surprisingly good.
Robin didn’t answer. He just buried his face in her hair and held on, shivering although his face felt quite hot. When she lifted her hand to his cheek, he caught it, held it to his chest, then raised it to his lips and kissed the inside of her wrist. The world changed color. Went orange. His mouth moved up her arm, and he slid James’s shirt off her shoulder, kissed her neck, still clutching her hand in his. At last, he raised his eyes to hers. They were full of tears. He said, “Together, Elizabeth. Only together. Only with you.”
She suddenly didn’t care if she died, if he was fatal. Suddenly realized how much she’d been lying to herself about her motives.
He said, “Please take me seriously.” Then, cupping her face in his hands, Robin leaned in and pressed his mouth to hers. The Roost, the tree, and the view disappeared, drew inward. If he was fatal, at least she was on the doorstep of heaven.
Robin whispered, “Rescue me, dragon.”
He felt warm and sweet and strong and safe.
She nodded. “I promise.”
“Then you have my oath.” He kissed her hand. “Everything for you. Always.”
“You’re still smelly and gross.”
His kisses tickled from his laughter. “Thank you.”
DEFYING ALL FAIRY TALE LOGIC, Prince Charming’s kiss resulted in neither death nor Happily Ever After. Whatever Happily Ever After even was. Elizabeth always imagined it as a smooth golden path to eternity, unbroken, without stress or strife – and definitely without questions and uncertainty.
She was supposed to be living happily ever after. So why didn’t she feel that way? All she felt was restlessness and a spiraling descent back to Earth.
Right now, it was breakfast time. She and Robin sat in the kitchen, talking about their plans for the day: glorious things like swordplay with a friend from Cornell and boring responsible things like getting gas and making dinner reservations.
She scarcely heard him. She held his hand but didn’t feel it.
They hadn’t gone through death after that first kiss. Forty-eight hours passed, and Robin remained devoted. Then they told the others, and his sister, Amie, insisted on another forty-eight-hour test, celebrating with ferocious glee when Elizabeth proved she’d broken the curse, glad that when her brother finally fell for a girl, it was one who knew what a mutant he was.
Their woodland battles continued at first, albeit with a new twist, and Robin caused controversy by all but moving out of the Bastle home in favor of Elizabeth’s room. The parents, as always, scarcely noticed. The three Bastle siblings already spent most of their time at the Mortimer house, and both sets of parents spent most of their time in Manhattan.
Then the battles dwindled – from the rising summer heat, perhaps. She and Robin found other pursuits, spent more time talking, napping, reading. Despite what the others thought – Robin thrived on scandalizing them – nights were uneventful. The two former insomniacs got really good at entwining and falling straight to sleep as soon as the lights went out. Luxury. The lack of other activities didn’t matter to Elizabeth. Much.
Three months had passed. They were happy, but Happily Ever After happy? If so, maybe life on the far of sunset was overrated.
She wasn’t sure, but, that morning, she did her best to eat her breakfast and be good. Normally, listening to the radio could make her feel better, but it wasn’t helping right now. The song hit too close to home.
Within the prison walls of my mind
There’s still a part of you left behind
Robin’s voice broke through her fog. “…Do you? I mean, you liked that godforsaken cherry tart last month, but their steak…”
Elizabeth nodded, hoping that would serve as an answer and disguise what she could only think of as her illness.
Sinking her chin into her hand, she leaned on the table and watched James the Dastardly Wolf — Robin’s best friend and her supposed cousin. He closed a drawer, raising one plaid-covered arm to hide his face as he yawned. His sleepy breakfast preparations were more riveting than any movie she’d ever seen. Right now, he was shuffling around, yawning, eyes mostly closed like a kitten. A warm kitten. In flannel pajamas. Cheeks flushed and dark hair sticking out in spikes.
“…I mean, you agree, right?” Robin said. “After what we talked about the other day?”
“Oh. Sure.” It was a struggle to keep the uncertainty out of her voice. She managed to twist her face most of the way toward Robin and smile, but it made her so tired. At least he was watching James, too, so he didn’t notice her distraction.
She didn’t know where to look. Then a flash of red plaid entered her peripheral vision, and she was drawn back into helpless orbit. James glanced up and caught her watching. She blinked and shook herself into a smile. He frowned at his pajamas then back at her, suspicious. At last, he relaxed and offered her half a wobbly smile before turning away, ears pink.
Elizabeth forced herself to focus on breakfast, but James remained in her thoughts. Their parents knew nothing of each other. Their grandparents knew of each other only by name. So flimsy, that so-called “cousin” link. But it stood between them like a brick wall — and probably for the best. She didn’t need this madness.
“Well… You look beautiful today, My Dragon.”
She hadn’t realized he’d gone silent. For how long?
His warm hand slid off her arm, so she turned and found him grinding his fists into his eyes. “Sorry. Guess neither of us got much sleep last night.”
James grunted. “Don’t make me sick.”
Robin said, “You’ve always been sick. That’s not what I meant. I was studying in the library.”
She peered at James as he stirred his coffee with unnecessary vigor.
He glared at Robin. “Studying paper and ink?” Then he saw her looking at him and froze, blushed. He turned his back to them, leaning against the window to drink his coffee.
From this angle, she could see only his profile and one sideburn. He was tall, elegant, classic – except for the adorable plaid and little boy sulk.
Robin said, “Actually, it was vellum and ink, knave.” His eyes went distant. “I read the story of Cupid and Psyche in that old mythology book.”
James said, “Sounds like you. Psychotic in love.”
“Takes one to know one.”
Robin stole a berry from Elizabeth’s plate and flung it at James’s head. He missed, but James turned and flashed a smile – boyish and dimpled. It transformed him, lit green in eyes that were normally black.
“No,” Robin said. “Psyche was a beautiful mortal who won the heart of the god Cupid. All quite scandalous, so Cupid only visited at night, and Psyche wasn’t allowed to light a lamp or speak. Wasn’t allowed to know who shared the bed. When Psyche did peek, things really went to hell.”
“You mean went to Hades,” said James.
Robin threw another berry. “You would know.”
That made James laugh, although he swallowed such unruly emotion immediately. She caught him darting a glance at her sidelong. “Nice day, Devil,” he said. That was his pet name for her. “You’ll be breaking eardrums later, I assume.” He turned to face her. “Serenading hapless knights as they battle for your hand and their doom.”
She could only stare, throat tight, not in the mood for their usual game of insults. Things had been getting out of hand since his return two weeks earlier, and this morning was the worst. She didn’t want to feel this way.
James winced as the expected retort didn’t surface.
Robin filled the awkward silence. “You besmirch my lady’s reputation, both in character and skill. Don’t make me get my sword.”
James ducked his head, flinching. “Just… We… I mean… She’s supposed to fight!”
Elizabeth wondered if his mouth was as warm as she remembered. She shook herself from her reverie and found him staring at her, perplexed.
“Um, okay then.” Robin’s voice again split the fog, bringing back mundane morning. She looked at him, and he squinted. “You gonna be okay?”
She nodded, cheeks burning.
He said, “See you in a few hours,” and kissed her with a mouth much prettier than the one she’d been contemplating. She just wished her main feeling wasn’t impatience and then relief as Robin released her and stood.
Had they both aged decades since spring? Lost their fairy tale, altogether? She hated herself for even thinking it.
Robin raised a brow to James. “Be good, Hades.”
“Hades” dropped into an exaggerated bow, and Robin ruffled his dark curls as he passed.
For a few minutes, the kitchen was silent. James went back to facing the window. At last, she stood and went to the coffee pot, one cup shy of her daily quota. A shadow slid between her and the light, radiating warmth. James. Right next to her.
He waited as she poured, then took the pot from her, watching her scoop sugar into her cup as he filled his own. He handed her a spoon, still not meeting her eye, still not speaking. She handed it back, and the side of his hand touched hers. Lingered.
“Did I–” He cleared his throat. “Back there. The teasing. Are you…mad?”
Talking with him was new – something Robin forced upon them. It was always tense or awkward unless they were trading insults. And it affected her far too much.
Her mouth tried to shape itself into all sorts of inappropriate words as she looked up at his profile. He’d meant angry, but she blurted, “Completely out of my mind.”
Startled, he looked at her, head tilted. Time and air turned to caramel – golden, thick, flexing. She bit her tongue to ground herself, slow her heart, and she saw his gaze drop from her eyes to her mouth. That was the worst. And the best. He’d been doing things like that all week.
“Stop fighting over the coffee. It’s not like you don’t know the recipe.” Amie slouched onto a stool.
James jumped, hurrying to his spot by the windows and turning his back. Elizabeth stayed by the pot, drinking coffee and listening to Amie complain about the day ahead. James ignored them both, and, after a few minutes, he slammed his mug down on the counter and left the room.
[SKIPPING A BRIEF CHAPTER SHOWING THE ROBIN/ELIZABETH ROMANCE COOLING. BITS OF THE REAL WORLD THEY’D TRIED TO AVOID SEEP INTO THEIR MAKESHIFT FAIRY TALE BUBBLE. ROBIN GROWS DISTANT AND AVOIDS ELIZABETH FOR UNCHARACTERISTIC PURSUITS LIKE WATCHING NEWS ABOUT RIOTS IN A MANHATTAN BAR. SHE CAN’T FEEL PASSION FOR ROBIN AND BLAMES HERSELF.]
ROBIN ROLLED OVER in bed and looked across Elizabeth’s sleeping form at the clock, brightly lit by the moon. Four o’clock. The worst possible time to come to such a place, but he had. The desperation, the pressurized panic attacks – they’d kill him if he didn’t get this over with. Now.
So much for stoicism. So much for his knight’s vow. No more pretending or turning a blind eye. This was the moment. He hesitated, but his gut was always right, had been the one nagging him since puberty, had let him know that Elizabeth was his only chance for a normal life. But chance was different from success. He had to take a different chance now – and give her one, as well.
How long had it been since he’d seen her running and laughing, since she’d called him teasing names? He’d considered egging her on a few times, but he lacked the energy. This was good for neither of them.
He touched her arm. “Elle?”
To his surprise, there was none of the usual struggle to wake her. She sat up and sighed, eyes closed. Said, “Get it over with.”
That threw him. Was she waiting for this? Did she know? No. Impossible. He powered on. “You know I love you, right?”
“I do. I love you. We have fun, we kiss, and it’s all great.”
She nodded, so he continued.
“But it’s not great. And it’s not right. I–” He froze, paralyzed. Too quick. Too soon. He’d never said it at all. How could he just come out and say it now? To her, the girl he’d tried to grow up for, the girl he thought he’d marry, the girl whose name was on his lease in Ithaca?
She whispered, “I’m sorry, Robin.”
“I can’t help it,” she said. “I’m…broken. Filth. It’s the same problem I had when I was dating David. Same flaw.”
“David was g–” He caught himself. “What do you mean?”
“I got closer with you. A lot closer. You’re better to me than I deserve. But…” She stopped. “But I’m a terrible person.”
“Not even close.”
“Yes. I am. What else can you call a girlfriend who’s in love with someone else?”
He’d been right. He’d sensed her distraction. He’d seen her starry-eyed daydreaming end in so much frustration when he interrupted her that he knew it hadn’t been about him.
She crumpled, began to cry. “What kind of monster has you and wants somebody else? You’re perfect.”
He took a deep breath. “Not perfect, Elle.”
“Why? Because you snore? Because I call you smelly and gross? Or because you were stupid enough to take up with me?”
He said, “No. Because I was stupid enough to let you take up with me.”
“How could you know?”
“I tried not to know. Told myself it was all a bad dream, that you could wake me up. Thought you could be the princess to my frog.”
Elizabeth pulled her hands from his and hugged herself. When she averted her face, he realized she’d taken that as her failing.
“No princess can change this frog, Elle.”
Her voice grew low, muffled. “Dreams, spells, frogs. You’re making up fairy tales again.”
Elizabeth turned back to him, eyes wide. Robin had heard the terror in his voice. She had, too.
He had to get it over with. “Elizabeth, I’m in love with someone else, too. Always have been.”
The room grew still. Was she breathing? He touched her hands. They were cold. She yanked them away. Ferocious to the end.
He hurried on, losing his courage. “It’s the only thing that kept me from jumping off a cliff when I realized you were in love with someone else, too. When I noticed how much I annoyed you.”
She jumped, pulling the sheet up to her mouth. “What?”
“I’ve known for a while, Elle.”
She moaned. “Oh god oh god oh god. And you still kept talking to me, treating me like a human being?”
“Well…yeah…of course.” He was perplexed.
Robin shrugged. Why was that the issue here?
“What about him?”
“James,” she said. “Does he know?”
“I–” He stared. He hadn’t gotten to that part yet. Had he? Did she know him that well? Panic struck. “About what?”
Her eyes widened, and she covered her face entirely, shook her head. He heard her keening into the bunched sheet and cold washed over his body. He could almost hear an audible click as everything fell into place.
She didn’t mean James and him.
Vindictive joker universe.
It was right there in front of him. Her tension whenever her cousin entered a room. The way she’d watch James so fixedly when they were together that Robin teased she was afraid he’d lunge the moment she turned her back. Their bickering. Their entire twisted relationship.
And that something inside that he’d always felt they shared… He’d told everyone they were two of a kind.
When she looked up at last, eyes wet, chest hitching, Robin said, “James. It had to be James.”
Silence drew out, stunned, horrified. Through her open window, he heard the wind chimes, too cheerful for the hour, too cheerful for his life. He buried his face in his hands.
At last, he forced himself to speak, although it came out as no more than a whisper. “Too much. Too much alike. And who to avenge?”
“We aren’t,” she said. “We’re not alike. Barely share blood.”
He shuddered, still unable to fathom that. “I mean me, Dragon. You and me. Same boat.”
“The impossible thing? You have a cousin?”
“I swore I’d die for you.” Goddamned oaths. Did it have to mean this? It felt like death.
“Who’s the girl?” Elizabeth lowered the sheet. “Where’ve you been hiding her?”
He snorted. “The closet.”
“Don’t laugh at me, Robin.”
“I’ve never felt less like laughing.”
How could he? It was too much now.
“I’ll never guess. You’ve been with every girl in the galaxy.”
It wasn’t going to end. It was just getting worse. This was as good an entry as any.
“I have,” he said. “Exactly. Wearing out my glass slipper. Stupid when I knew all along whose foot it fit.”
Her voice wavered. “Once, you said it fit mine.”
He took a deep breath. “I also said you and I have too much in common.”
“The shoe fits your foot?” She laughed in a way that sounded more like madness.
“How many girls would it take you, Elle? How many feet would you have to try before you found your true princess?”
“It’s a stupid question,” she said. “I’d have to search forever or not at all. I don’t want a princess.”
Vertigo. He teetered at the edge of a cliff. Suicide.
“Robin, I’m tired. Please help.”
He floundered. “How?”
“Who do you love?” The bed shook from the force of her angry fist.
“I’ve never told anyone. Barely told myself. Thought this would be easier.”
“I’m scared to death, Elle.”
“I told you I’m in love with my cousin. What makes you think you’re so much more tragic?” She was up on her knees now, eyes blazing.
Robin couldn’t breathe; his mouth went dry. Maybe he was wrong. All worked up because of the riots in the city.
Stonebriar Village. Stonewall Inn.
He closed his eyes, made the leap. “Because I’m in love with your cousin, too.”