Scars on the
A story inspired by The Vision of Escaflowne
By Sarah Dove
Celena wore her own new dress at dinner. She felt distant, still; her senses were sharp and clear, but seemed to operate at one remove. So she was aware of the orange glow of the candle flames, the shine of crystal and silver, the gentle chime of cutlery on china, the smell and taste of excellent food, but felt as though she were sitting back from it all. Chid was a fine-looking little boy, with a strong resemblance to Allen. Once he got a few years older an explanation would almost be unnecessary. He behaved with remarkable maturity, making polite, sensible conversation about the business of his duchy, describing the rebuilding work in process while sitting boosted up on two cushions. Celena watched him and said little.
'It's Boris I miss the most,' Chid said at one point. 'He could manage everything. I'm having to learn most things for myself, to get them done right.'
It was about midway through the main course that Allen, after a series of increasingly meaningful looks from Millerna, began to speak to the purpose. Celena's feeling of detachment increased, and she watched the movement of his lips with a sort of hypnotic fascination. The sound of the words and the movement of the mouth seemed to bear little relation to one another in her mind. She turned to look at Chid, who sat with a piece of meat forgotten on his fork, and listened wide-eyed, and increasingly white-faced. As Allen finished his story, a sort of tremulous smile appeared on his lips.
'You're wrong,' he said. 'My father is my father. I mean, Duke Freid is my father.'
'Duke Freid always loved you as his own son,' Millerna said, reaching over the table to pat Chid's hand. 'But Allen is your father by blood. I know it isn't easy to accept at first. I was stunned when I found out.'
'No, you don't understand, that's not what I'm saying. He was my father. He looked after me and taught me things. He was hard on me but I always knew he loved me. That's who my father was.'
'Chid,' Allen began, but he was cut off by the boy.
'Now, you're not my father. You're an old friend of my mother's, or a knight in a story she told me, or a visitor when we were going to war that's all you've been in my life. You've got no claim on me.'
'You have a claim on me,' Allen said softly. 'And I'd hoped I was at least a friend to you, Chid.'
'I had a perfectly good father. I don't want you,' Chid said.
'Chid,' Millerna said, 'don't be rude. This is difficult for all of us.'
'I don't want you!' Chid said again, louder. 'You didn't want me, did you? I expect Mother didn't want me either. But Father loved me. I want him to be proud of me. I'm my father's son!'
Celena noticed his hands were shaking. Abruptly, he put down his knife and fork, and slid down from his chair. 'Scuse me,' he said, and ran out of the dining room. A moment later, he put his head back around the door. 'My father was twice the man you are and he didn't sneak around and he died for his country and I don't care what you say. And I don't believe it anyway and you're all big fat liars.' With that parting shot, he vanished again. The three left at the table sat in silence for a moment.
'Well,' said Celena, 'that went as well as could be expected.'
Allen put his head in his hands.
'He can't run off by himself,' Millerna said. 'Not in this state. I'll go after him.'
'Can I go?' Celena asked, a little surprised at herself. 'I think he's probably upset with both of you, but he might listen to me. I'm not involved.'
'Oh, I don't know. No. Yes. Go on,' Millerna said. Her attention was really on Allen. As Celena left the room, the princess got up and put her arm around his shoulders.
Aruetta was just outside the room, having been persuaded that it would be all right this once. Celena suspected by now that her heart was not in her job, and this was confirmed for her by the fact that the cat girl had fallen asleep in her chair, her mouth slightly open and her needlework spilling out of her lap. Very cautiously, she slipped by. The only way to go from here was down the corridor, and as she passed a door that led out onto a cloistered balcony, she heard a distinct sniff. She pushed the door open and stood for a moment breathing the cool night air. Outdoors air. I could tuck up my skirt and go over the balcony, clamber down the wall, get out of the garden somehow But she could see Chid, sitting with his back to a pillar. She knelt beside him. He was hugging his knees, his face buried in his folded arms, making the sort of snuffling noises you make when you are only just not sobbing.
'Do you want a handkerchief?' she asked softly. Chid raised his head and looked bleakly at her.
'I p-promised him I wasn't going to cry any more,' he said. 'I promised him right before he died.'
'I think he'd understand this once,' Celena said. She was not sure if this was the right way to talk to a child. But Chid seemed so grown up that maybe it would be all right just to speak normally.
'I've got a handkerchief, anyway,' Chid said, and brought it out and blew his nose. Celena waited for him to speak again, and was beginning to think he would not, when he said 'I suppose you want to say you're my aunt now.'
'Not if you don't want me to be,' Celena said. 'Aunts are optional. I just wanted to make sure you were all right. Isn't it horrible? I bit him when he told me.'
Chid gaped. 'You bit him?'
'I'm a hellcat,' Celena said lightly. 'I don't advise you to do it.' She shifted position, sat down properly with her legs crossed under her skirts. She had been surprised to learn that petticoats like this were not, in fact, fashionable; Allen seemed to have a bee in his bonnet about making her dress in a slightly old-fashioned way.
'So you don't think I should accept it?' Chid asked.
'I just think you're right to be upset about it. We all knew you would be. Allen didn't want to tell you at all, and Millerna talked him into it.'
'Of course he didn't want to. I'm his mistake.'
'It doesn't have to reflect on you,' Celena said. 'And he didn't want to tell you because he thought you would be ashamed of him, not the other way round.' There was a little pause. Chid folded his handkerchief into halves and quarters.
'I didn't really have a father,' she said. 'Not one I knew. He went away when I was little and never came back. Some people would say you were lucky to have two.'
'I bet your father wasn't anything to be ashamed of.'
'Well, he abandoned his wife and family to pursue a dream. Allen and I have talked a little now, about what happened. I understand he had reasons and apparently he was coming back to us, but he died on the way. I still don't know how I feel about the whole thing. I think he was wrong. But I also think it's a shame he didn't get a chance to make amends. Come on, haven't you heard the stories about crazy Leon Schezar? Allen's very thingy about him. I think he feels worse about being your father because of it. As though he repeated the failure.'
'If I have children, I'm not going to be like that,' Chid said firmly. 'If what they're saying is true, the Duke chose me for his son. And I'm choosing him for my father. I'm not a Schezar. No offense.'
'Oh, none taken. I hardly feel like a Schezar myself. I'm out of practise.' Celena leaned back against the pillar and put her hands behind her head.
'Is is it really true about you? That you used to be a boy?'
'What did it feel like to change over?'
'I can't remember very well. I think it hurt.'
'The boy you were might have been one of the soldiers who killed my father.'
Better level with him. 'He was. Well, he was trying to. Allen interrupted the fight before Dilandau ... that was his name ... could finish it. In the end it was archers who killed the Duke. I want you to know that it wasn't just me with a different body. Dilandau was a whole other personality. No relation to you or Allen. I would not have done what he did.' I have to believe I would not have done it.
'Your name's Celena, right?'
'Do you think everything will be this messed up? Always?'
'It's hard to tell. I think well, there was a war on, and that always unsettles things. And all our lives got caught up and involved. So maybe as the kingdoms settle down, this stuff will too. Like mud settling in water.'
'I think when I rebuild my father's duchy, I'll feel better,' Chid said. 'You should come and visit.'
'Thank you. Maybe I will, when I'm allowed to.'
'Why aren't you allowed to?'
'They're keeping me here. They want to try me for Dilandau's war crimes. Of course, I told them it wasn't me, but that didn't cut very much ice.' She smiled wryly.
'But that's unfair!' Chid exclaimed. 'You said Dilandau was different from you! Boys and girls are different anyway, girls are gentler. A girl wouldn't have done all that.'
'Want to tell your grandfather that for me?'
Chid rose to his knees and looked earnestly into Celena's face.
'Would you like to run away to Freid? I'll take you with me if you want. You can hide in one of the monasteries. We can both get away from Allen. You can be my aunt if you want. We can choose our family.'
'Chid, you know you can't. That's the whole point.' Here I wanted to be rescued, and a little boy is offering to do it I'm so helpless and cowardly, and he's got all these problems on his plate, and he still thinks of how he could help me. And he believes what I tell him he believes in me.
'Well, I want to change the arrangement. It's stupid. If I could choose, Boris would be my grandfather, not that fat old King Aston. Families should be people who want to be together.' Chid was looking teary-eyed again. Celena realised just how small he really was. Following an impulse, and hoping it was the right one, she held out her arms to him. He half-fell forwards, and hugged her tightly.
'I like you better than Aunt Millerna,' he said, slightly muffledly, into her shoulder. 'She's on Allen's side.'
'What a pair.' I'd have lots of children if I thought they'd be like Chid. Such a wonderful little guy. How can someone so nice come out of people being so stupid? I won't let them muck him about.
Chid lifted his head, stepped back, trying to resume self-control. 'Will you be on my side?'
'I don't think it helps to have sides in this. You do have to accept that Allen is your father, because it's true. That doesn't mean it's good, and you have a right to be upset. Don't let them make you feel like you should be grateful or anything. But try to be fair to him. Your father would say so too, wouldn't he? Duke Freid, I mean.'
'I suppose so,' Chid said. 'I try to listen for him in my head, and hear what he would say about things, but I can't. Sometimes I can't remember his voice.'
Celena kissed his cheek. 'You are one of the bravest people I've ever met. I know you can manage this. All right?'
'All right.' He paused. 'I suppose I should go back in and talk to them.'
'That would be a very good idea.' Celena got to her feet. She took one last look out at the night-time garden. The air was cool and a little bit damp.
'Do you want to stay out here?' Chid asked.
'Well, it would be nice,' Celena said, surprised at his perception. 'Just for a little while. I haven't had any fresh air for a few days, and it's a beautiful night.'
'I'll go in first, then,' Chid said. 'It's the least I can do for you. If I can't give you asylum in my country, I'll give you five minutes in the fresh air.'
'Thank you from the bottom of my heart,' said Celena; she said it jokily but she meant it. She watched the little boy walk back to the door, reach up to open it and walk through. Then she turned and rested her arms on the balustrade of the cloistered balcony, and pillowed her head on them. It was so quiet out here, with only night noises like the song of crickets. The wall below her was thickly overgrown with ivy, some kind of hybrid with white leaves scattered among the glossy green, bright stars in a dark sky. She closed her eyes and just let herself breathe.
There was a sharp rustle in the ivy below her. With a gasp, she opened her eyes, and looking down, saw a dark figure climbing up towards her. Before she had time to be afraid, she recognised Gaddes. If she called out to him, someone would hear; she was on borrowed time anyway until Allen or Aruetta came looking for her. In an agony of suspense, she reached down towards him, her arm straining out until he caught her hand, and she helped pull him up. He scrambled over the balustrade and put his arms round her.
'What are you doing here?' she whispered, giving his shoulder a little slap. 'It's stupidly dangerous! But I'm so glad you came.' She looked up into his face, wishing the light were better. Moonlight took the colour out of him. She supposed she must look like a ghost.
'I was just walking around in the garden wishing I could get to you when I saw you. I couldn't believe my luck. I wasn't even supposed to be down there, but I got in while the guard was changing and no-one seemed to notice me. I wanted to be somewhere near you, even if I couldn't see you.' He looked embarrassed to be saying it, but happy at the same time.
'Please,' Celena said, and put her hands on his shoulders, 'please help me get out of here. I don't care about being good for the trial. I've got to get away. I'm so afraid here, all the time, and I know dealing with it is the right thing to do but I can't! I just told a boy who can't have been seven years old to accept a situation I don't want to face. I just need a break from it. You'll help me, won't you? We could get away now! I wouldn't be afraid if I was with you.'
Gaddes looked at her closely, and his face was a little grim. 'They're breaking you here, aren't they?'
'I don't think they mean to ... not Millerna and Allen ... but they are.'
'Get on my back.'
'You'll have to ride on my back ... you can't climb down in that dress. We're lucky it's strong old growth ... I think the ivy will hold our weight together. You'll have to trust me.'
'You know I do,' Celena said, clambering up on his back.
'I won't have my arms free to support your legs ... you'll have to hang on for yourself, all right?'
'Right. Big hug, arms and legs.'
'That's a good way of looking at it.' It certainly put a more innocent wash on how he felt with her clinging to him. She was strong for a girl; she could certainly squeeze. He tried to concentrate on the climb; on getting back over the balustrade without tipping her off; on making his way down the wall slowly and carefully, feeling for the strongest vines, avoiding any that semed loose or flimsy. It was not easy, and every minute they were both convinced that someone would see them, from above or below, and they would be caught halfway.
'I can't believe we're really doing this,' Celena breathed in Gaddes's ear. 'I can't believe something is happening.' Her breath was very warm and ticklish. Gaddes closed his eyes for a moment. Do I make her feel this way? I remember her asleep beside me when I woke in the night and felt her head on my chest... The ivy he was standing on ripped away from the wall, but they were only a couple of feet up now and he made the drop without hurting either of them. There was a breathless hush after the rip and the thump, and it seemed certain that someone would have heard, that there would be lights and voices and dogs and big trouble. Their miraculous luck held, though, and when they judged it was safe, they ran for the far garden wall.
'I saw a little gate back here,' Gaddes said, casting about for it. He found it behind a topiaried tree, a wicket gate in the wall.
'We are too lucky tonight,' Celena breathed, when a push proved it to be unlocked.
'Do you think we'll have to pay for it later?'
'Maybe we've already paid for it, and everything will be good from now on.'
'I hope so.' They were out, unbelievably, on a crumbling footpath that ran along the edge of a silted-up canal. It didn't look as though anyone had been here recently. The water in the canal was only a trickle, and the bed of it smelt bad. It was beautiful anyway; it was out.
'That was so quick,' Celena said, feeling it safe to speak in a normal voice again. 'Twenty minutes ago I was with Millerna and Allen at dinner. I don't know what's going to happen now.'
'That is a point,' said Gaddes, taking her hand and beginning to walk away from the palace. Distance was the main thing. Distance, and looking as though they had a perfect right to be where they were, doing what they were doing. He wasn't really dressed right to be walking with a lady in a court dress, but hopefully they wouldn't meet anyone who felt inclined to ask questions. At least he didn't have his bits and pieces of armour on, nothing to make him seem threatening. Of course, if they met people with inquiring minds he might be sorry about that.
'We have to get to a safe place, obviously. I just don't know anywhere around here. I'm pretty sure I could survive if I were dropped anywhere in the world, but it's much harder in a city.'
'Well, I don't want you to just survive,' Gaddes said. 'I want you to be comfortable. I've put you in danger bringing you out here, and I'm damned if I'm not going to look after you.'
'I've put you in danger getting you to help me,' Celena corrected him.
'And you probably don't want to be looked after, right?'
'No, I quite like being looked after. It's all right if you know you don't need it.'
'I've got it,' said Gaddes, 'I know where to go. Come on. We can get there in fifteen minutes if we're quick.'
'They've got to be looking for us by now,' Celena said as they huffed their way up a hill at the rear of the city. 'Or just me, because they wouldn't know about you.'
'They'll guess you had someone with you ... two sets of footprints. We had to walk through the flowerbed at the base of the wall, remember?'
'Of course. I keep forgetting things! It's like all the things I know are leaking out.' There was a note of dismay in her voice.
'Don't get sad now ... we're nearly there.' He pulled her on, round a stand of trees, and flung out an arm. 'Look there!'
Moonlight shone on sails.
'Air boats. They'll only carry a couple of people, but they're fast. This is the Aviary ... we call them birds. And this ' he led her along a row of grounded boats ' is mine. It looks like they took pretty good care of it. I had to leave it here when we all got posted out to the swamp borders.' The boat was about twenty feet long, with broad fan-like wings. Painted on the side in blue was the name 'Crash Test.' Gaddes noticed Celena looking at this dubiously.
'It is meant to be a joke,' he said. 'I've never had an accident, I swear. If you don't count near misses.'
'It happens,' Celena said. Gaddes found a key in his pocket, opened the door to the cockpit and handed her in, then went round the boat loosening the guyropes that held it down against the pull of its floating rocks. It was inefficient to leave an energist heater running the whole time just to stop it drifting off. She sat down in the pilot's seat without thinking about it, and gazed out of the front window.
'The palace is all lit up,' she said. 'I think it's safe to say they've noticed I'm gone.'
'Then we'll light out of town before they get near us,' Gaddes said, and swung up into the cockpit, holding the last guyrope, loosely looped through a peg in the ground. 'Hey ... I'm supposed to sit there.'
'I ... I didn't think,' Celena began, but he shifted into the passenger seat.
'Do you know how to fly it?' he asked, a little smile on his face.
'I think I do. The navigational system isn't as advanced as what you'd have in an Oreades, but it has to work on the same principles. I mean, floating rocks are floating rocks. You steer with this yoke, right? And this dial's altitude, this one is attitude, and so on?' She bent over the control panel, quite eagerly.
'So go on and fly it. I'll be co-pilot. You need some fun, right? And this would be fun for you? Go on. Take me away from all this.'
Celena gazed at him for a moment, then beamed as she made up her mind. 'We don't have time right now, so just remind me when we're safe that I'm going to kiss you, okay? Now let go that line.'
'Roger!' said Gaddes. The rope whipped out of his hand and the bird rose in the air, almost straight up, because there was only a slight breeze.
'We want to head for the coast,' Gaddes said, 'way out to the southeast, past the river.'
'The wind's with us, then,' Celena said. 'And it'll be stronger higher up; look at the clouds.' They were moving swiftly, and getting closer. She turned the nose of the boat, just slightly, enjoying the control. Gaddes watched her; her eyes were brilliant with excitement and colour was diffusing through her pale cheeks.
'We're getting away,' she said, only just above her breath. She engaged the directional controls and the boat began a smooth, accelerating glide forward.
I can only pray she's safe. I can only pray she's safe. Allen sat on the divan that had been Celena's makeshift bed. He was forbidden to help the search parties; although Millerna had vouched for him, he was suspected of aiding in the escape. The cat girl, Aruetta, had been given her notice and had fled upstairs to pack her things before they were thrown out by the housekeeper. With his head in his hands, he covered his eyes, trying to block out the world. He felt a hand on his knee, and looked up. Chid stood there, his head on one side.
'You have to be brave,' he said.
'This is an outrage! She was supposed to be guarded! And she must have had an accomplice ... how did anyone get into the garden?'
'Dumb luck,' said another voice bitterly.
'We cannot assume that luck is a random force in the natural state. It can be directed.'
'You're suggesting other people have access to this technology?'
'We cannot tell. No-one knew of Basram's ultimate weapon until it was deployed. Who knows what else the other nations have been developing?'
'What would another nation want with her?'
The room of anonymous concerned citizens simmered with uncertainty.
'And touch down on the flat behind the beach.' Gaddes pointed.
'Here I go,' said Celena. She brought the boat around in a smooth low sweep, the energist heater hissing as the steam weakened the rocks' antigravity, and Gaddes dropped the anchor. Once it had caught in the turf he wound them down on the rope, turning a crank.
'You would not believe how much fun that was,' she told him. 'A totally routine flight, just smooth going, stars above us, sea below us for part of the time, just beautiful.'
'I know, I was there too,' Gaddes said, jumping down to moor the boat to a tree. 'And I was very impressed. You're lucky to have kept those skills.'
'I can spit really well, too.'
'Don't show me that.' He took her hand and swung her down from the cockpit. She put her arms round his neck and rested her head on his shoulder.
'There's something I'm supposed to remind you about.'
She kissed him on the chin.
'What, not even on the mouth?'
'But I like your chin. It's exactly the right shape.'
'Just being your personal chin. Are we going to stay here? Sleep in the boat?'
'No ... no, I have something planned. Nothing fancy, but it's all right.' He took her hand again.
'You just keep leading me around tonight like a little dog.'
'Can I help it if I know where we're going? And you are not like a little dog in any way I can think of.' He led the way over the grassy flat to where the ground dipped down to a little creek, which they crossed by a plank laid from bank to bank. On the far side was a cabin, painted pale yellow.
'This was my uncle's house,' Gaddes said. 'He was a painter who liked doing seascapes. He left it to me because well, because he was a pretty weird old guy, and we're not really sure why he did most things. It's only by chance that I left the key on my chain, but it's a good thing I did, right?' He unlocked the door and tried to push it open. It stuck.
'It's our luck again,' Celena said. 'Does it need a shove?'
'I think it's just swelled up with damp,' Gaddes said, and put his shoulder against it. Celena shoved with both hands as he pushed, and the door jerked open.
'After you, Celena-hime.'
'I'm not walking in there, it's pitch black. At least there's a moon out here.'
Gaddes went in and almost immediately cracked his shins against a stool, which fell over noisily. He swore.
'Are you all right in there?' Celena called from the door.
'Yes, yes. I'm pretty sure there'll be matches on the mantlepiece.' He found his way to the fireplace, and groping above it found the matchbox and a candle. He got it lit and held it up.
'The place doesn't look too bad,' he observed.
'I've never seen anything like it,' Celena said.
Each wall was painted with sand, sky, white-flecked ocean waves and fizzing shore breakers. The cabin had just one large room, the fireplace on one side, a wide bed, sagging in the middle, opposite it.
'What did he do for stuff?' Celena asked.
'Well, he cooked in the fireplace. He got his water from the creek outside and there's a long-drop out the back of the house. He ate sitting on the bed. Anything he needed was in those big boxes.' Gaddes indicated three trunks along the other wall; the one opposite the door. 'He used to say he didn't want things around him, just images.'
'There are stars on the ceiling,' Celena said, in tones of wonder. 'You know, I think he's painted the wall facing the beach so it'll match up ... the view through the window is part of the picture.'
'As I said, a pretty weird old guy, but we all liked his paintings,' Gaddes said. He was laying a fire, hoping the kindling in the basket by the grate wasn't damp as well. 'There won't be anything but tinned food left, but most of his stuff is still around. I let my cousins use the cabin and the only rule is leave it as you found it ... replace what you use up.'
Celena sat down on the edge of the bed, then changed her mind and crawled into the middle of it, where she sat in the middle of a puff of skirts. She was feeling highly nervous now, not knowing what to expect. There was definitely only one bed. Of course, it might be just like the last time they'd slept in the same place. Do I want it to be? Escaping was exhilarating. It felt as though she was free of rules and limits now. She could do just what she wanted, so the only problem left was to determine what that was. We can't hide forever. Sooner or later someone will find us, or we'll have to go back. I can't leave Allen and everyone not knowing what became of me. This was hopeless from the beginning. So it would be a crying shame not to enjoy myself Gaddes had the fire lit now, and was feeding it with small sticks. She watched his back very closely. Is it weird to like someone's back so much? Just because it's warm and strong and broad? I feel like he's a wall, and I can stand with my back to him and hold the world at bay. I want so much for him to be there with me, whatever happens. And I know I want to do more than kiss him, but I don't know whether I can.
'That'll keep us warm,' said Gaddes. He turned and looked at her, huddled in the middle of the bed, the fire reflected in her eyes. He leaned back against the wall beside the fireplace and folded his arms, feeling strangely shy.
'Don't stand all the way over on the other side of the house,' Celena said. 'At least sit with me.' Just look at him; let yourself think about the possibility. It was so much easier when it was just kissing; why in the world was I so confident then?
He sat beside her, and picked at the crocheted bedspread. It was a pretty ratty thing; he thought his uncle had made it himself. Squares and flowers of different-coloured yarn. 'Are you tired?' he asked.
'Not so very.'
It was so important to know how she felt, what she was expecting, and it seemed completely impossible to ask. If he was overstepping the mark, if he was presuming too much, if he frightened or offended her, well, regressing again, he would just want to die.
Celena stirred beside him. 'I'd rather sleep with my head towards the fire ... does it matter if I move the pillows to the end of the bed?'
'No ... no, you can do anything you want.' We may only have tonight. It might be the only chance in her life. People try to say it's not as important as spiritual love but I know I don't want to lose her without ever ... I shouldn't think about losing her.
She moved the pillows and untucked the blankets at the end of the bed.
'Get off,' she said, nudging him. 'I've got to retuck this and make it straight. I can't sleep in an untucked bed, it's my peculiarity.'
He got off the bed. 'Let me help you with that.'
'You don't know how I want it.'
'Just say, then.'
'Tuck the ends in at the head, then.' She made her side shipshape, then stood looking at the bed, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. 'So. There's no way I can sleep in this dress, I know that right now. The question only remains, is there any point in asking you to turn your back while I take it off?'
'Sorry,' he said, hugely embarrassed, turning round. She doesn't want to, I'm an idiot, I should sleep on the floor.
'Seeing as I can't undo the back by myself.'
'Oh.' He risked a look over his shoulder.
'Dresses like this are designed to keep women helpless, I'm telling you.' She sat back on the edge of the bed, her back towards him, very straight, a little nervous, if you could read that from just a back. After a deep breath, he crawled across the bed to her, and started to unpick the fastenings. He was trying very hard now to breathe quietly, not to pant down her neck. I must wait for her to make some sign, to show some interest, I can't just assume
Celena looked down at her hands, clenched together in her lap, and bit her lip. Isn't he going to do anything? Doesn't he want to? Doesn't he realise I can't? I just can't. This is as much as I can do. Of course it's not enough. Oh God. He's taking so long. What if he's worried about what I'm like under here ... what if someone told him about the blood, if he knows how disgusting I am?
He separated the last hook and eye, down at the small of her back, and wondered what in the world to do now. Would she want help taking the dress off? Would it bother her if he tried to help? She was shaking ... what was wrong?
Celena tried very hard not to start crying. The only result was that instead of sobbing normally she made a sort of high-pitched 'eeeeeeeuuuuuuuuuuuuur' and choked. I can't believe I'm crying again! I'm so pathetic. He'll think I'm insane as well as disgusting.
'Celena, what's the matter?' He dodged round her, trying to see her face, almost overbalancing. She fell back on the bed, hid her face in the cover and cried in earnest.
'I'm so sorry ... if you didn't want me to touch you - I mean ... are you all right?'
'You don't want to touch me!' she wailed. 'I don't blame you. I'm a complete freak.'
'That just isn't true ... you have no idea how much ... Celena, look at me, you don't need to be upset.' He caught her shoulders, pulled her up, tried to hold her. She twisted away and flopped over to the pillows, covering her head.
'I'm such an idiot, trying to flirt with you or something,' she said bitterly. 'For all I know you were always just putting up with it so as not to hurt my feelings. Or you think it's cute but you don't take me seriously.'
'I didn't understand any of that,' he said. 'Get the pillow off your face, for goodness' sake.'
She didn't move. Her dress was gaping open at the back, a tangle of silk and lace overlaying her fair skin. It was mesmerising to him, and before thinking about it too much, he bent down and kissed her between her shoulderblades. A sudden watchful silence from under the pillow.
'Now, I would have kissed your mouth, but you're hiding it from me, so I just went for the best bit available. Come out from there and I'll kiss your mouth or your chin or whatever you choose.' She kept still. He felt a joyful glow of certainty now; he just had to get her to look up.'Or I'll just burrow up under your skirt, does that sound better?'
She slammed the pillow down and sat up. 'Are you serious? Are you really serious?'
He kissed her just as he'd said, pressing close to her, sliding his hand inside the back of her dress, down into warmth and darkness. She thought she could feel his heart beating. His tongue touched her lips, then it was in her mouth, startling in its otherness, warm and quick and alive. This was new. She did her best to respond, feeling slow and awkward. He drew back. 'Is this all right for you?'
'Of course it is ... am I doing it properly?'
'There's no official proper way ... are you enjoying it?'
'Yes, definitely.' Please don't stop; don't decide I'm not ready. Or not good enough.
'Then you're doing it exactly right.'
'I can get the rest of the way out of my dress by myself,' she offered. I have no idea if I'm ready but I can't let this go.
'I'd like to help, though.'
'While you take nothing off?'
'Anything you want! Name it!'
She rested her forehead on his shoulder again. Her shoulders shook again, gently.
'Well, thanks for laughing at me when I'm offering myself to you body and soul.'
'Not at you. Just because life is funny, I suppose? Do you mean it about body and soul?'
He slid one side of her dress off her shoulder and down her arm, and traced his fingers back up. 'If it's an equal swap, yes.' It is. I promise you it is. Maybe I can stop trying so hard I can just say it
'I think I love you.'
'I think I love you, too.'
'How do we check?'
'Just keep going and see if we feel the same way after fifty years?'
'Any time you want me to stop just say so.'
'If you stop I'll give you such a smack!'
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