Over the next couple of weeks we brought the newbies into our space at varsity, and to the Carnarvon. Gillian and Patrick stayed. I’d expected Gillian to stick like a burr, but I didn’t quite know what to make of Patrick. He was around, and always willing to talk and quite fun to listen to, but I couldn’t work out what his agenda was. It was just possible he didn’t have one. On the other hand, there were special-needs squirrels in Scunthorpe with a fair idea of what Gillian was up to.
Laura was still keeping Brian around, and closer than usual. Whenever we packed off to the Carnarvon, he was there. He came to the private parties too, a lot more than he had. Glen and I were both flummoxed: we’d expected her to be easing, or just chucking, him out about now. Maybe it was just because Gillian got on my wick so much, but I really wanted to be able to make sense of what the hell was going on.
Anyway, one night I turned up late to a party. I’d been at a play reading that had run late, as they always do, and there’d been a few drinks afterwards, so it had been well on by the time I made it to the Carter Club do. It was the same place we’d had the party where I met Charles, and by the time it got crowded it was a total shit pushing your way through the hall to the drink mixing and jumping up and down areas, which was why I was coming down the side of the house and round to the back deck in the pitch dark.
There was a couple leaning on the corner of the deck rail in front of me, kissing. Devouring each other. I could feel the force of it from where I was, down on the path. One of them I couldn’t see: back-lit from the house. The other was Peter: I could tell by his hair, and what I could see of the lines of his face.
They turned, and parted a little, their bodies still pressed together. Great gods, it was Laura. I’d never seen them like this, not when they were themselves. There was no play in this, just heat. I stopped so much as breathing, not wanting to break it. She grinned at him, radiant with something that might have been joy, then she lowered her face to his neck, nipping, undoing his buttons. I could see the muscles in his chest moving, as if she was sucking away all the air.
A voice rose above the muted rumble of the party, calling her name. Darren came out onto the deck. “Laura? Brian’s looking for you, I think he wants to go.” I was glad it had been Darren: Richard would have told Brian where she was, just so he could watch the shit-storm.
She nodded, and pulled back from Peter, her fingers trailing over his hips. “I should go then.”
Peter nodded in return, but neither of them had broken eye contact. “Guess you should. Wouldn’t want to keep Brian waiting. He’s a good guy.”
She laughed: an odd dead flat sound. “Just what I need. A good guy.”
“There you are!” Brian came out onto the deck, and Laura folded against his side, her smile bright.
“Right here,” she said warmly, and kissed his cheek. “Were you looking for me?”
“Got work in the morning, babe. Need to head. Stay if you want.”
“No,” she said lightly, not even looking at Peter, “I’m ready to go, that’s okay. See you later, guys.”
In the quiet after they left, Peter’s face showed briefly in the flare of a lighter, and then I watched the firefly tip of his cigarette dancing around in the darkness. His hands were shaking. I didn’t blame him.
I gave him another minute or so, then walked up onto the deck and slapped him on the back of the head. “What did you do that for?”
He was obviously still having problems getting control of his blood-flow, and he looked at me in utter confusion. “What? What did I do?”
“You let her go.”
He grimaced, and shrugged, turning to lean on the porch rail and stare out across the darkened garden. “She chose. She wanted to go.”
“She didn’t choose! Gods, what the fuck is wrong with you people?” It was frustrating, having to talk to the side of his face. “If you actually offered her a choice, if you went after her and said, ‘Listen, leave him, I love you, come home with me and I’ll fuck you senseless and make you pancakes in the morning,’ there’s no way she’d choose him over you. Peter, she loves you.”
He flicked ash out into the garden and shook his head. “I… can’t. How the hell could I do that? It’s never going to be that simple.”
“Do you love her?”
We’d been standing here the last time we’d had this conversation, last year. Then I’d been wasted. Now I was just pissed. “You love her. She adores you. And she’d clearly root your brains out given the slightest encouragement. Maybe it’s easier for me to see than it is for you. One of you has to step across the line. One of you has to take the risk. Jesus, Peter, just tell her you want her. I promise you, two minutes later she wouldn’t be able to remember who Brian was.”
Peter flicked his cigarette butt away and watched it arc through the darkness. “Um… it’s not just Brian. I mean, I’ve kind of… been seeing Gillian.”
“Gillian?” There were times I wished I had more of Laura’s temperament. She’d have thrown something, or broken something, or screamed at someone. When it was Laura, everyone forgave her for it. I took a couple of very deep breaths and tried not to look at him. He was just about cringing, like a puppy that expected to be kicked. It wasn’t a good look for him. “Okay… so Gillian makes your hands shake like that? Does she make you so hot for her you can’t see straight? Does she make you completely fucking crazy?”
He straightened, and while he was still a bit rueful, that puppy look was gone. “No. She doesn’t. It’s quite nice. She’s kind and pretty and gentle. She’s a nice person. Like Brian. I think Laura and I need nice people.”
“For chew toys?” I said bitterly. My anger was fading, though: there just didn’t seem to be any point. It was too late. “Whatever, Peter. Do whatever you want to do. I don’t know why I care.”
“I don’t know why you do either, Hera. Not this much. And you know… maybe you should take a break from other people’s lives and pay more attention to your own. Because there’s stuff right in front of you that you’re completely missing. People’s feelings are a lot more complicated than you’ve clicked to.”
While I was still trying to work out what the fuck he meant, he kissed the top of my head, stroked a hand through my hair, and walked back inside. His scent was warm, and slightly spicy.
I was still staring after him when Patrick came out. “You are here,” he said, settling against the rail next to me. “I didn’t see you.”
I gave him a fairly obligatory smile. “I haven’t actually been inside yet. I… kind of came in on the tail end of my friends having a fight.” That was simpler than the truth, and who knew, Patrick might get upset if knew Peter had been snogging someone other than his friend.
He passed me his drink, which was a pretty nice gesture. “Okay, obviously I’m pretty new round here, but… was that because your friend Peter has been hanging out with Gillian? I figured he was keeping it pretty quiet for a reason.”
I nodded, and took a drink. Dear gods, it was Southern Comfort. “Yeah, I don’t think he’s told many people about it.” Hells. I was going to have to either tell Laura myself, or make Peter do it. That was all a bit depressing.
Patrick gave an odd, diffident shrug. “You know… she might be good for him. She’s caring, and giving, and gentle… At least she won’t hurt him.”
I frowned. I hadn’t actually thought about it like that. And if I was Peter’s friend, and I wanted him to be happy, I should have. I wanted him to have drama and passion. Peter, though, he’d already been through a lot. Maybe Gillian was a better choice for him than Laura. Patrick was right: Gillian was way less likely to hurt him than Laura was. She’d walked away from him tonight, after all, and she didn’t have to.
I settled a bit closer to Patrick, and gave him his drink back. “Thanks. You’re right, too. I’m surprised you’re not more worried about her, though.”
He shrugged again, but he was more relaxed now, and smiling at me. It was quite an appealing smile. “I guess I’m not as attached to my friends as you are. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t. It’s not the end of the world. Unless your friend Laura decides to go for her. She scares me a bit.”
I snickered. My shoulder was resting against his chest now. “Good, she should. She’s pretty fucking scary. You don’t like her very much, do you? People usually do. Especially if they have penises.”
He let out a small, barking laugh, as shocked by what I’d said as I would have been a year earlier. “Um, she’s a bit… full-on. For me. I’m sure she’s great, I just like women who are a bit… quieter. Ones I feel like I might be able to make some kind of impact on.”
Well, that was understandable. It was also promising. “Do you just? How about women who are really straight-forward and don’t play games with your head?”
He grinned, and pushed my hair back from my face, his fingers where Peter’s had been. “That sounds really good. Do you know any girls like that?”
“I reckon I might. Let me have a think about it.”
“Isn’t that playing games?”
“Fair point,” I said, and kissed him.
“So,” he said, a couple of minutes later, “if we’re not playing games, do you want to tell me what it’s all about? All the costumes and shit? You and Peter and the others.”
I smiled at him, quite enjoying the sense of power. “I can’t. I’m not allowed.”
“So there is a super secret secret?”
“Oh yes, of course there is. But the thing is, it’s a secret.”
He grinned at me, and drank the rest of his disgusting alcoholic lucozade. “So Hera, d’you want… would you like to catch a movie or something? Maybe next weekend?”
I eyed him. He was quite nice, and more than that, he was kind of intriguing. First he didn’t fancy Laura, and now he appeared to want to take me out on an actual date. This was all kinds of weird. Maybe he was just trying to get me to tell him about The House, but that was hardly going to work. “Yeah. Yeah, okay, I’d like that.”
The afternoon before my actual date with Patrick, I was with Laura and Marianne at The House. The environment in the cellar was really hard on our props and costumes, and they needed a lot of cleaning and mending. Marianne was in one of her better moods, and was working her way through a pile of paper-mache and beadwork failures with furious energy. I was sat in one of the saggy old armchairs in the lounge window sewing, and Laura had drawn the seeming short straw, and was ironing. That was how she got the Club to keep playing along, though: by working at least as hard as she expected the rest of us to.
“A movie?” Marianne said incredulously, sparing me a glance from her work. “And, what, dinner too? Is he picking you up? Does he want to meet your father? It’s all so quaint.”
“Come off it,” I said defensively, concentrating on the delicate thread-by-thread mending job I was doing. “You and Richard go to movies sometimes, surely? And dinner? By yourselves?”
She shrugged. “Sure, we do now. But the first few months we were together we didn’t bother with much of anything vertical. We certainly never courted.”
“Laura?” I appealed. “It’s sweet, isn’t it? And you and Brian, surely…”
“Nearest bit of floor, second time we met,” she said dismissively. “But not any more, we broke up. And I suppose you could call it sweet. It’s a tactic, anyway, stringing it out. Maybe it’s normal for Mundanes, I can’t really remember any more.”
“You dumped Brian?” Marianne asked, pausing halfway through a string of beads. “About time, too. I mean, what are we supposed to do for entertainment if you don’t keep bringing us new toys? What have you got this time? Boy, girl? One of each? Several of each? When do we get to check them out?”
I was watching Laura’s face closely, and she hadn’t so much as flinched. She hadn’t done anything else, though, either. I’d never found the opportunity or the guts to ask her about what I’d seen her do to Peter, but the timing was a hell of a coincidence.
She turned, putting a linen gown back on a hanger, and shrugged. “There’s a guy I’m keeping an eye on. Too early to tell yet. And I’m certainly not throwing him to you lions until I’m sure.”
“Fine,” Marianne said, and then her mind flittered away again. “Oh, Richard said to remind you about, shit, what’s her name, Dianne? And her job.”
Laura, examining a shendyt in the light from the windows, tutted. “Deborah. I haven’t forgotten, it’s just… If we needed her to lose her job, it’d be much simpler from here. Her boss is a Bishop though-” She caught the look on my face. “Not a bishop-bishop, a First Four Ships think they own the fucking place because largely they do Bishop. I’ll get the Councillor to have a Lunch with him or something. He can pretend she’s a family friend, insinuate it’d be useful to keep her around the place, and I’m sure that little indiscretion will suddenly be far less important. Get her to keep her head down though, okay? Lawyers are handy and everything, but there are limits.”
I grinned. “I thought you said lawyers never made a difference.”
“That’s before they were doing my conveyancing for free and perhaps a teensy bit inaccurately, out of fond remembrance of the days when they had photos taken with whipped cream all over their tits.”
She looked at me, with a little frown. She hadn’t forgotten. “Hera… be careful with Patrick, okay? It’s not that I don’t… he’s just not one of us.”
I thought about how he hadn’t shown any interest in Laura, and how he was good friends with Gillian. How he didn’t like women who were too pushy. “It’ll be fine, Laura. Gods, it’s just a date.”