Connie was so happy for the next day or so that she almost forgot to brood on missing Ruth. The nagging ache was surprisingly easy to ignore, except at prayers and meal times, when her sister was forced on her attention and the pain would flare up again, as if her sister had raked her nails over a nagging wound.
At other times, Connie was content, a bright hard contentment that centred around her new friend. Bridget was pleased with her, and showed it in a multitude of ways, from allowing Connie to fuss over her, reknotting and straightening her tie and smoothing her hair several times a day, to openly walking hand in hand with her in flagrant defiance of school custom. Connie no longer had any thought for what the other girls thought, the lot of stupid Fourth formers that they were. Bridget was the only one she gave tuppence for.
They ran into a knot of Fifth formers in the corridor one day, when the members of the Upper Fourth almost certainly should have been at sewing, not wandering aimlessly towards the courtyard. Connie, hypersensitive to her twin as always, noticed Ruth's gaze fall to their linked hands, and the way her mouth tightened at the sight, as her old friends somewhat uncomfortably greeted her. Awkward, having a lower form friend, she supposed.
The other sister concerned, Moira, seemed even more annoyed, her handsome face darkening and her jaw setting as she glared at the lower form girls. Bridget obviously noticed her sister's reaction, her sharp pale eyes darting to Ruth's face and then Connie's. She dropped her friend's hand, and Connie had barely a moment to feel embarrassed and relieved before Bridget's arm slid around her waist instead, hugging her close to her side.
Ruth expelled her breath sharply and pushed past, followed by the others, most of whom looked rather bemused by the display, even if Bill's mouth at least was twitching. Connie made to go after her sister, but Bridget's grip tightened, and she hesitated. So, Ruth disapproved of their friendship, and was jealous. It hurt her to have her sister displeased with her, but the pain was tinged with satisfaction at having provoked that kind of reaction.
Bridget was laughing softly and quietly. "Dear Connie," she said quietly. "You really are a loyal old thing, aren't you?"
Connie looked curiously down at her, and Bridget's free hand came up suddenly and cupped her face, pulling it down and kissing her lips softly and lingeringly. Connie's face flamed at the touch, but Bridget laughed against her lips and pulled away.
"We'll be late for Composition if we don't hurry," she said, and that was the end of the incident.
After all, Connie reasoned, kissing was like holding hands. It was frowned on as soppiness, and not considered good form to do in public, but just as it was an open secret that Bill and Clarissa, and Daphne and Mary-Lou, for four, walked hand in hand whenever they weren't under too much public scrutiny, other girls probably exchanged kisses when the occasion demanded. It was silly to think too much on it. After all, Connie kissed Ruth all the time, or at least she had until this term…
Her mind drifted back to her twin, and she barely noticed that Bridget reacted to her abstraction by becoming more distant by the moment, and shrugged her away when she tried to help her into her dressing gown that night. Connie was a little hurt, until she remembered Ruth doing the same thing and Bridget's coolness faded into insignificance compared to the deeper rejection.
The next day the coldness between the friends was more apparent, and Connie's attempts at reconciliation were brushed away with instructions to go moon after her twin, if that was what she wanted. It was almost a relief to have an excuse to be briefly separated from Bridget, although Connie wasn't sure if that was because of the kiss or because Bridget's temper was even more painful than usual. She snarled at girls and mistresses alike, and seemed almost satisfied to be given lines or scoldings in response.
Forgiveness was only granted to Connie when Bridget needed someone to help her mock Maureen in the forbidden fifth form music rooms. Connie hesitated for a moment, wondering why it was so deadly important to her friend to act against the Fifth whenever possible, then remembered how much she had missed Bridget's prickly, affectionate presence, and fell. Besides… she was bored alone, and Ruth had never wanted to do anything in the slightest bit naughty. Bridget's careless lawlessness was fascinating by contrast.
She regretted it the moment Moira stormed into the room. When the head of the fifth ordered her to get out, she got out.
And then… worse regrets, and guilt.
Connie leaned against the door of the music room and hated herself. Maureen's singing in the next room had spluttered off as Moira's shouting rose, punctuated by Bridget's shriller, knife-edge voice. Connie knew she was probably imagining that the door was shaking under her hands. Or… She jerkily scrubbed her hands against her tunic skirt, trying to rub off the icy dampness, and ignoring their trembling.
This was a nonsensical way to behave. She might have scuttled out of the room like a scolded child, but she wasn't as scared of old Moira as all that. After all, Moira might be head of the venerated Fifth, but she was hardly as old or tall as Connie herself was. Let that witch raise her voice to Ruth in front of Connie, and she would face the consequences.
Connie balled her hand into fists to control the shaking, as another storm of shrieking welled up inside the music room. Bridget was as sharp as a knife and had the temper to match. Connie had only left her in there because Bridget wasn't anything like Ruth, and besides, Moira was her own sister, the quarrel was private between them…
She felt her gorge rise, and choked it down, tears of nausea in her eyes. She had never seen anyone look as furious as Moira had, and over a silly joke. How could Bridget bear it, to be treated like that by her own sister? And how could she bear to hate her back so much? If Ruth had ever spoken to her like that… if she ever felt like that about Ruth…
She blinked hard, and all in all, it wasn't much of a surprise to see her twin, looking at her with finely-drawn brows raised to crease her forehead. After all, they had always been sensitive to each other's thoughts – until a few months ago. It wasn't really so strange, to think she had summoned her. It was only strange that she wasn't constantly around, considering how obsessively she was in Connie's thoughts.
"Connie! What's happening?" Ruth glanced nervously at the music room. "You haven't been provoking Moira, have you?"
Connie looked at her sister, the big eyes in the pale reproachful face, the soft corn-coloured hair framing the fine features. Ruth had always been the prettier twin, but Connie had been too devoted to her to care much. Being broad and solid had only meant that she had been naturally built to be the protector of the pair, conveniently sturdy, that was all. Besides, she'd always taken pleased pride in Ruth's fairness and delicacy, as if it had somehow been her property.
She wanted to throw up again at the thought.
"Your head girl is having a nice sisterly discussion with Bridget," she said, biting off each word. "Maybe you should go in. I'm sure Moira would like to give you a little demonstration in how to treat a sister in the Fourth form – although you're doing rather well yourself."
Ruth's eyes filled with tears. "Connie, how could you say that?"
Connie shrugged a shoulder, staring hard at the carpet runner that protected the corridor. There was dust caught in the thick texture, she realised. The maids were being slack. She registered the change in air pressure that was her sister slouching against the wall next to her, the brush of a sleeve against her own, as she switched her attention to a jar of flowers on a hallside table. They definitely needed freshening, although she supposed that was a second form responsibility, not the maids.
"Why do Moira and Bridget hate each other so much?" she asked when at last she ran out of things in the corridor to think about.
"Oh, I'm sure they don't hate each other. Not sisters." Ruth's voice trailed off. Behind the door, Moira's voice had hissed down into near inaudibility, and Bridget for her part sounded close to hysteria. "I wish Darrell or Sally was still head. Moira's been impossible to get along with all term. She's all right, really, she knows what she's doing and organises everything," she amended hastily, appearing to remember that criticising her head to a lower form member might be disloyal, "but she puts everyone's backs up. It's been a horrid term. She talks to us if we're stupid little children, and she has such a frightfully hot temper."
"So does Bridget." Connie resisted the temptation to finger her cheek where the bruise from Bridget's blow still lingered, because that would look like she was deliberately inviting Ruth to ask about it, and that would be a breach of faith in some way. An odd thought, that she owed more loyalty to her friend than to her sister in the matter. She had always assumed her full loyalty belonged to the twin who was, for whatever reason, talking to her again. Maybe she really was unhappy in the Fifth form, with a bad-tempered head girl and without anybody who cared enough to watch over her.
She could feel Ruth turn to look directly at her, but she kept her own gaze fixed on the wilting flowers. "You're not truly intimate friends with that awful Bridget, are you? Only Moira says -"
"Oh, I care so very much what that beastly Moira has to say. Listen to her – quite the loving, tender sister, screeching at Bridget like a harridan. No wonder you admire her and seek her advice. You've probably been taking tips."
"Connie!" Ruth grabbed her twin's shoulders, and Connie was startled into looking at her. Ruth was weeping openly, making no attempt to wipe away the fat tears rolling down her cheeks. She always cried like a little girl, Connie noted absently, big unrestrained tears. She had the terrible impulse to get out a handkerchief and instruct Ruth to blow. "I miss you so terribly. Do you think I like this, having to push you away all the time?"
"Nobody that I can see is forcing you."
"No… but… but…" Ruth dropped her hands from Connie's shoulders and fumbled in her belt for her own handkerchief. "Darrell's right, you know. I love you, but we need to separate ourselves and find our own lives, or - can't you see the way we were was wrong? That it was turning us into something ugly and twisted?"
"No. I can't see what's so frightfully wrong with being close to my own twin." Betrayal twisted in Connie's stomach. Darrell… Darrell, who she had laughed with and rode beside, Darrell who had sympathised over all the unpleasantness of the last term, who had a sister of her own, who she had thought liked her and understood. Darrell had done this to her, turned her own twin against her and broken her heart. "Go away, for goodness' sake, Ruth. You don't need me now. Bridget does."
"Connie, you can't speak to me like that."
"What will you do? Write my name in your Punishment Book and give me some lines to learn?"
The hurtful words tasted foul in her own mouth. Ruth was so small and dear, crying into her handkerchief and shaking, and Connie had to concentrate on holding her arms still at her sides to prevent herself from sliding them around her sister's waist and pulling her close, kissing away her tears and making it all better. It occurred to her that she'd never heard Ruth say she loved her and failed to say it back until this argument, but then, even the thought of arguing had been beyond comprehension. It was hardly fair, was it? She hadn't been the one to want this, and she was always the one to be loving and sisterly. These holidays, when Ruth had been so queer, Connie had sobbed out her love and heartbreak over being separated for this term, and Ruth had said nothing at all in response, until Connie had felt half mad with panic.
Perhaps if she hugged and kissed her now, it would work. Perhaps Ruth would relax into her embrace and allow herself to be protected, and everything would be as it was. She could smell Ruth's freshly shampooed hair. She had loved to bury her face in it, lose herself in the soft cleanness of it. The twins' hair was the same ripe wheat colour, but Ruth's was straighter and softer than her own.
Connie screwed her eyes up tight against the sight of Ruth, and breathed through her mouth as she waited for her to give up. Eventually she heard the other girl move away.
She sank further against the music room door. She should go in… She should help Bridget. Her friend. She tried to concentrate on her protective instincts, to imagine that it was Ruth being shouted at and then blur her image into Bridget until she had the courage to break into the room, but it was hard to maintain that image with Bridget's own enraged shrieking audible through the door. Ruth was so soft and sweet, where Bridget was angular.
Besides, Bridget probably despised her for obeying Moira. She'd thrown her friendship away as well as her sister's attempt at reconciliation.
The shouting cut off abruptly, as the door slammed into Connie's back. She stumbled forward, and Moira crashed bodily into her. Connie grasped the other girl's arm to haul herself back into balance.
Moira blinked at her. "Oh… Connie." Her lips were the queerest colour Connie had ever seen, somewhere between pink and grey, and her eyes were burning painfully in her blood-drained face. She stared rather blankly at Connie, as if trying to work out why she was standing with her back to the music room door, and then shook her head slightly. Her grey eyes, darker than Bridget's, came back into focus. "Keep away from Bridget, I warn you." Her tones were oddly flat, not her usual dictatorial tone at all, and if Connie hadn't had a better idea of her personality, she would have suspected she was trying not to cry. "My sister's not quite normal."
Connie felt a prickle of heat under her breastbone. How dare Moira… her own sister… Ruth, first, and then… But after all, she had abandoned Bridget herself, she reminded herself with sickening clarity. She turned on Moira at the thought.
"I'm capable of choosing my own friends. You've enough to do, bullying the Fifth form, without bothering yourself over lowly Fourth formers. We can look after each other – Bridget is my business now." She shoved past Moira into the music room, the door banging behind her.
Shutting the entire Fifth form out.
Bridget was on her knees, her arms crossed tightly over her stomach and her head almost down to the floorboards, making high-pitched sobbing sound that ripped through her thin body. Connie dropped to her own knees and put an arm around her, her own desire to cry dissolving at the opportunity to protect and comfort a girl who needed her.
"Don't cry - don't cry like that, dearest, you'll make yourself ill."
Bridget looked up, pale hair falling over her face, and Connie realised her friend's eyes were completely dry and that she was laughing, not crying. Faintly alarmed, she tried to remember what to do for hysteria. All she could think of as a cure was to slap the victim, but she couldn't bear to slap someone who seemed suddenly so fragile. She crushed her tight instead, burying Bridget's head on her breast, rocking her and crooning endearments. It worked, as it had worked the last time Bridget broke down. And Connie was hungry, so hungry, for the feel of another girl in her arms, someone smaller and fragile who needed to be held and cosseted. She ached sweetly as she cuddled and soothed.
Bridget stopped laughing at last, and started to weep instead. She clawed her way up Connie, pushing a face wet with tears into Connie's neck. The gesture felt strange, Bridget's face damp and hot and almost too intimate against her throat, but Connie was incapable of shoving her away. She caressed her friend's hair instead.
"I thought you'd left me. Moira ruins everything - I hate her, I hate her."
"Sssh." Connie rubbed her fingers in the nape of Bridget's neck. "I won't leave you, Bridget. You're my friend now."
"You should be my sister, not that hateful bitch." Bridget's voice was unsteady, broken by desperate gulps for air. "I'd be a better sister to you than Ruth, too. I'd never cast you aside or make you feel rotten for loving me too much. Why can't you love me instead of Ruth?"
"Of course I love you," Connie soothed, the words coming automatically.
"Truly? We'll be each other's sisters, then, and spite the ones we have?" Bridget uncurled her head to look up into Connie's face. She was only an inch away, and the irises of her queer eyes looked even lighter when the actual whites of her eyes were reddened with tears. Connie wanted to flinch away from the gaze, but she didn't dare. Somehow, she didn't like to risk Bridget's temper, after hearing her shout at her sister like that. Her face still ached from the last blow.
She knelt motionless for a moment, held by that burning white gaze, and was conscious of elation beginning to well up through all her other feelings. Bridget needed her love, truly needed her.
"Truly," she said, and meant it.
Bridget flashed into light under her tears – not sunlight, something harsher and stronger. "I love you, too." She pressed her mouth against the other girl's so hard that it almost didn't feel like a kiss, just an almost painful pressure of teeth through lips. Connie stiffened at the touch. This wasn't, she was certain, an innocent exchange of kisses such as might be blinked at between special friends, although she couldn't be quite positive of where the difference lay. Bridget was so fierce…
There was no harm in it, she reassured herself. There was a certain wild fluttering at the base of her ribcage, at the knowledge that she was being kissed, not pressing the kisses on a more passive sister. Bridget really wanted this, was deadly serious in her caress… Connie relaxed, cradling Bridget's face in the palm of one hand while she held her close with the other.
Bridget made a queer noise in response, the pressure of her lips changing, and to her shock Connie felt something hot and wet lapping against her own lips. She opened them in surprise, and felt Bridget's tongue slide into her mouth, flicking against her own tongue for just a brief moment, before Bridget pulled her head away.
Her pupils were very black in the smutty paleness of her eyes, watching her friend carefully, judging her reaction. Connie blinked her own eyes, having no idea what to say. She was shaking again, she realised, and there was an odd tight sensation deep within.
"Does your twin know how to kiss you like that?" Bridget asked, her voice quiet and intense all at once, the air expelled quickly and wetly with each word. She touched the tip of her tongue against her own lips, and Connie shuddered deep inside, not answering. "Did you want her to, Connie?"
Connie dropped her head in her hands, covering herself from the sight of her friend. She felt a gentle hand caressing her hair, soothing her.
"Don't worry, Connie dear. I understand better than you think. And you're not Ruth's now – you're mine, my friend, my sister. And if you kiss her like that, I'll kill you both." Connie felt movement and a sudden cessation of warmth, and looked up to see Bridget on her feet, her hand extended downwards.
"Come on. Queen Moira will have reported me to Miss Williams by now – for all I care. But we'd better clear out." Her manner was completely as normal.
Connie accepted the outstretched hand, and rose to her feet. There didn't seem to be much else to do.