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Chapter 3 : Three.
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“Eng,” he started, “I don’t know if it means anything, but in this light-your shoelaces look fine.”
I ducked my head slightly, my eyes admiring the two neat bows adorning my boots like peacock feathers, proud and pretty. Like Felix, and Hestia, my own two bows. I felt a small, sad smile grace my lips, “Yes, they’re lovely.” His brown eyes met mine, and I found myself explaining without hesitation, “Someone else did them. Double knots. I can’t seem to get at them. And it’s sad, because they really are lovely-but, I can’t wear my boots forever.”
With a breath, he sank to the ground, his fingers methodically freeing the tension of the ties. I’d never loved my childhood friend more than in that very instant, his easy, silent way seeping through me like something warm and snug. I didn’t doubt he wanted something, everyone did, but I trusted he knew well enough not to ask it; it hurt more to get answers usually, anyway. Wondering always left hope, and I wanted Reg to keep that lovely soft hum for as long as he possibly might. Hope was what made the two of us so different; I’d learnt not to.
“E?” Hestia cried, giggling at the sight of me as she neared, “I haven’t seen you all night-” Her face gained a ghostly flush when she glanced back at my companion, scrambling to his feet. “Oh wow, look who you’ve found. How bizarre.”
I blinked, pondering at her tone’s odd, empty strain. She seemed defeated. “He found me, really.”
“Alrigh’ Hes?” Reg moved forward a tad. And I thought Hes almost replied, but a pretty hand snaked through the crook of her arm, almost squeezing the air from my lungs as it grabbed her. In an instant, a few of her group slipped out of the crowd to materialise her. She had nothing to say now, not to me, not to Reg; they had their own games to play and she had rules to follow. I smiled ruefully, taking Reg’s hand and bending to leave a kiss on her soft cheek as I led him away.
My laces clacked against the floor as we went, sending small, reassuring vibrations through me. Every one of them reminded me vaguely of a poor man’s courage, fighting for a tiny freedom no one else would care for. Felix would disapprove, never understanding why I’d rather trip than keep my boots on. I doubted Reg understood either, but he was willing to pretend, and that was plenty.
“That lot are somethin’ else,” he murmured, as we slid free of their airish giggles across the room.
“It’s all changed, really. We-we can’t be us, even if we want to, sometimes. She might have wanted to, I’m not entirely sure.”
“What about the twin thing?”
I glanced up at him, “You called it bullshit yourself. I know when I have my Hes, and when I have theirs. I love them both, that’s enough.”
“Who fucked you two up?” His whisper seemed a little awed, his hand running through his hair as he contemplated my words. I didn’t answer, my attention flicking to the sight of Felix leaning against a nearby banister. His eyes weren’t on me, but I knew he was watching. I wondered how long he’d been waiting.
“That’s me, Reg.” I squeezed his hand and dropped it, weaving my way through the crowd without him. Each footstep feeling both freer, and guiltier than the last.
“Took your time,” Felix remarked, finally turning to acknowledge me as he pushed a few dark curls from his eyes.
“I thought you might be busy a while longer,” I murmured teasingly, adding another careless coat of red to my lips before tugging a smoke free from the pack. I watched him as I lit it, leaning my shoulders against the corner just opposite him. “Happy ending, or no?”
“I could ask the same of you,” it came as an almost growl. My lips quirked, but I caught the bottom between my teeth to cease the movement. It was in an instant, and he’d closed the space between us, his fingers plucking the smoke from my fingers as he leant in to me, a threat in his voice, “Should I ask?”
I exhaled my last lungful as I pressed my mouth against his collarbone, “What would you want to know?”
His hand found my cheek as he gently pressed me away. A strange look had darkened his eyes, and I almost shrank in surprise as he rubbed his thumb against the red I had just painted on. I wondered if it were disgust I saw, but it seemed too sorry of a movement to match it.
“Fuck,” he whispered, his coloured finger tips carrying the cigarette to his mouth. “Why the fuck do you do this?” He didn’t want a reply, and I’d known as much, willingly returning his sudden kiss with a fervour to match his own, partly vicious approach. I could almost feel myself bruising under his desperate hands, my heart pounding in my ears as his fingers hungrily danced across my body as though distrusting the truth of my presence entirely. He didn’t understand he always had me, more so than anyone. I couldn’t disappear while he wanted me, not even if I wished it.
A careless whistle pierced my ears, “Merlin’s nads, I love seeing E all frisky.”
“Go and find your own pants, Hughbert,” I threw him a grin as Felix towed me down the stairs. I tripped after him, not caring how puzzling his mood seemed today, or how hard his fingers clung to me.
I was steered through the night, wordless and unseeing, my mind teasing me every so often with the gentle threat of thought. I hushed myself each time though, trying to breath the wonder away. It didn’t matter so much where we were going, and for once I needn’t worry about being the one to lead two souls astray. Nor did I really mind about being led that way; I wasn’t even sure if Felix and I had enough soul between us to compare to Hes. I liked following, I promised myself; coaxing my eyes to the star strewn blanket above us.
The night itself was beautiful, warm and sweet. I dreamt for a moment that we might belong in it, but Felix’s taught shoulders argued with such an idea. I reached forward with my free hand and gently losed his grip on my wrist, slipping my hand into his before he had a chance to argue it. He glanced back at me, seeming surprised at my presence. He pulled me to his side, and pressed his lips to my forehead.
“We’re nearly there.”
I daren’t ask where there was, and he didn't speak again. When his steps finally halted our destination still seemed vague. I sighed, realisation sinking in as I watched his tense form, his arm stretched between us as though he was still towing me along.
"Go home," he said, ordered maybe, but his voice lacked anything close to steel. He was angry, I knew it, but prising my hand from his seemed too cruel. Instead, I stepped forward, bridging the gap quickly so he had no time to react. My arms wrapped around him; our entwined hands across his chest, tying him to me for once. Every part of him remained as taught as ever, but I hadn't expected any different. Only one thing helped him when he was like this, and it was never me. I pressed my lips between his shoulder blades, breathing him in, "Do something about your laces, you'll be too noisy like that." I nodded, and he dropped my hand as I stepped away. That was as close to an apology as I could expect, his voice said enough, and the game never asked for them anyway. I never asked for them.
He glanced skyward for a minute, and then, without looking back crossed the road and slipped into the passenger seat of a waiting car. I didn't move as it pulled away, just incase he needed to look back and know I was still here; not that I could play the role of reality well for anyone, not even Felix. Once the taillights were gone, I slid my boots off, one after the other. It hadn't been what he'd meant, but tonight, I couldn't bare any knots. I didn't want to be tied to anything. It was one of my rare chances to be free, or at least, as much as I was able.
I glanced back in the direction we'd come from, the noise of the party now well out of earshot; the safest way to be sure no one suspected anything more than us going for an alfresco romp together. I was glad of it, I was tired of parties; they made me feel dead and cold all over, as though I were somewhere different to everyone else there. Disjointed, out of place.
I turned away, relishing in the action, and began walking towards my house without much commitment to ever get there. The uneven road dug into my soles as I went, and images of things I'd long forgotten began dancing along in my thoughts. Overly pretty versions of us, when we were young. Free. All bare feet, blonde hair and laughter, as though there had been nothing else. Standing behind Reg on his bike, flying with arms and dress swooping in the wind as he peddled for my pretence. I sighed and pushed it all away, begging our glowing faces to quiet. I reminded myself Hestia's glow was different now, tainted and strained, and mine? I'd lost mine altogether, some time ago, although I couldn't say when. I chose to avoid any thoughts of Reg, watching me in the dull glow on the roof; his eyes haunting me, the same as they'd ever been. There was no point dwelling on such things, not tonight, not ever.
Almost home, I left the road, making my way to the dark expanse of park I'd once known inside out. It felt strange to me now, but it wasn't a particularly terrible kind, just an echo of something, not loud enough to make me uncomfortable. I dropped my boots and pulled a spliff from the top of my shift, lighting it as I made my way over to the roundabout. Tonight, I had every intention of flying. With my free hand, I started spinning it, my bare feet running in time. Then I jumped, my arms open wide as I twisted, wind tugging at every part of me in hidden invitations. Forget what you know. Come. Just let go. I couldn't of course, my feet still connected all too humanly to the steel beneath me. But still, I wanted to call out that I would soon, I'd learn to fly properly.
Footsteps, and the trees blurred again as the roundabout twisted faster, suddenly all I could see clearly was Reg; opposite me, glowing in the way he always had, with the wind tugging at him like it recognised an old friend too. I stared for a second, taking a desperate draw of the spliff between my fingers. I didn't need this; I was too weak, too strong. All wrong. I was terrified I'd break him, and he was too wholesome for that, in every sense of the meaning.
He grinned, and thrust a bottle of wine into my hand, jumping off to spin us further, faster. I closed my eyes and pretended my feet felt the same as every other part of me; that nothing tied me to anywhere, that everything was air, dancing and weightless. I pressed the bottle to my lips and it felt like I was breathing it in, rather than drinking. I was more lost, and closer to being found than I had been before. I was terrified, or something close to it. He was here again now, beside me, spinning on a different axis to the rest of the world. I could almost feel his warmth, even from where I stood.
He nicked the spliff, almost forgotten in my hand, and I took another sip of the red dangling in the other. I had no idea what I wanted, or needed, and a small part of me realised that wine wasn't it. It was all I had though, so it would do; making do was second nature. Making truths out of pretence, love out of need, perfection in being fucked up; whichever way it was. I made myself look at Reg, trying to imagine what he saw, what small parts of my shell he recognised. What made him think he knew me, when I didn't have a clue myself. I was annoyed, and lost. One more than the other, but I was barely able to separate the two.
Wordlessly, we switched; spliff for wine, wine for spliff. He drank deeply, passed it back, and jumped down to save the sluggish momentum before it stopped; I found myself breathing relief. I dreaded the moment it stopped; seeing clearly, thoughts catching up with me, relentless and angry that I'd run. Everything. I took a final heavy drag, and threw the butt from my fingers.
Before I knew what I'd done, I'd closed the gap across the roundabout, forcing skin to skin and my lips to his. I needed him to know what game I played, even if I didn't quite myself. It was a strange desperate swell inside me, eager to prove I was too far gone for helping, to scare him, and teach myself a harder reality. I would fuck it all up, beyond repair, and it wouldn't hurt as bad. It would still sting, but there would no longer be a dangerous option to go back, no more invitations; no more whispered lies of second chances. I pushed him, harder this time, and we thudded to the ground as one, the roundabout circling slowly behind us. Forgotten.
"Engie-" Reg gasped, it was a protest I realised, almost hating it. His hands had found mine, fingers firmly prising mine from the buttons of my dress. My insides froze, but I pressed forward, promising myself I wouldn't regret it later. Self-preservation. I hovered, my eyes flicking to his before pressing my lips to his again. The response was hesitant, but I reminded myself it was all the same.
"I'm not your first, am I?" The teasing whisper left my lips, but I felt nothing but cruel.
"Of course not," he said in a way that made me believe it. Relief was hardly a word for what washed through me as I blindly kissed him again; chest, neck, lips. Anything I did from here would fuck me up more than him, at worst he'd have a lasting impression of his Engie, something to overpower what he'd thought I was. Because I wasn't Engie any more, I couldn't be. He couldn't want it of me, either. "Engie-" he said it again pushing me back, almost angry, almost.
But I wasn't Engie. So it didn't matter. It was almost a mantra inside my head.
He rolled away, forcing me beneath his weight instead. My breath caught as his hands dropped to my chest, carefully redoing the buttons I'd attacked earlier. His hand smoothed my hair, but it wasn't a caress I wanted, not at all. Where the fuck was his lust? I didn't want affection, if anything, I hated it. He still straddled me, and I fancied it was to keep me from disappearing. I refused to look at him; his face could say anything, whatever it was though, I knew would be too much. And wrong.
"Don't do stupid things like that, Eng." He said it easily, as though it were nothing. His weight lifted as he shifted to sit beside me.
"I'm not the one that's stupid."
"Ya had me fooled." I felt him stand, still not brave enough to open my eyes to face it, or him. I lacked bravery in all parts, usually it didn't bother me, but now? I had no idea what to do. I imagined bravery would have helped, but what did I know about it, really. "C'mon, I'll take you home."
I looked then. He towered over me, hand outstretched to pull me up and I took it. "You don't live there any more," I said, meaning nextdoor. His family had left years ago now.
"It's not far," he shrugged, passing me the overly welcome wine bottle before leading me home with a contented lope, the bewildered glare I shone at his back failing to act as any sort of deterant.
Wordlessly I passed him on the doorstep as he paused to say goodnight, leaving the doors open behind me as I ascended the stairs, my mostly forgotten boots in one hand, and token wine dregs clutched in the other. I took a last sip as I tripped into my room, leaving the empty bottle on the corner of my old dressing table. As I heard the door downstairs shut, my fingers worked at my buttons for a second time that night. I tried to ignore how much easier they came away now, my dress dropping at my feet with a friendly breeze. I wiggled out of my shift, feeling much calmer without it, although I wasn't sure why.
"Mm?" I turned. He was in the doorway, watching me in a way I wasn't used to.
"I won't fuck you, not like that."
I wasn't sure what to say, so I just nodded so was sure I knew, slipping my pants off as he pushed away from the doorframe and stepped towards me. Hesitantly, I reached out, undoing his shirt until it could be slipped over his head. He let his trousers drop, and wordlessly we slipped into my bed. Instantly, he pulled me to him; arms around me as I had for Felix earlier, his skin firmly against mine sent it humming, as though it had dreamt of such a thing without me knowing it.
He held me, utterly motionless, and I took it as a silent lead to do the same, fighting to measure my breath to his. His hands stayed with mine. They didn't roam, or even twitch to do so. Understanding enveloped me as tangibly as our nakedness, and yet, I was entirely bewildered too. I knew his intentions but I didn't understand them, or perhaps it was the other way about. I was more than close enough to feel he was hard, it pressed against me; undeniable. He wanted me, but he didn't want me. Not like that, he'd said, or like this, it seemed. Maybe he didn't want me at all, maybe he wanted Engie.
I felt my eyes prick, a treacherous tear finding it's way free. I didn't dare acknowledge it, not when our breathing was the only whisper of movement between us.
"Sorry," he whispered, his voice echoing it a thousand times over. I felt more tears join the first; I didn't want him to be sorry, or sad, not for this, or for me. I thought of Hestia, Clara and her clutching fingers, Felix and his demanding need I stay. No one had ever used anything close to this, the way Reg so simply tied me to reality was all sorts of beautiful to me, I didn't care why he did it, even if it was as destructive to me as the rest of them. He wasn't asking for anything, although, he probably hoped I'd turn back into the girl he wanted-I don't think he expected it. I wanted to tell him I'd stay, that for once I was happy to, without any remorse. I silently begged him to be anything but sorry. I sunk into him, drinking in the sad loveliness I felt as I danced towards sleep, lonely but safe, all at once.
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