The main characters and Malory Towers itself are the invention of Enid Blyton, and used in loving tribute, not as a challenge to ownership. This is femmeslash, which is not a warning but a recommendation that this story involves girls in love.

For the members of the malorytowers rpg, and especially for Tami, who as Bill's player is responsible for both Ben and Clarissa's horror of 'Macbeth.' Feedback feeds the hungry writer.


Bill came back to Malory Towers with a feeling that everything had changed. There was a queer tight feeling somewhere in the centre of her stomach when she thought of seeing Clarissa again. They hadn't met for the last two weeks of the holiday, and Clarissa's letters had been oddly stiff affairs. Skulking beneath the usual detailed update on what Merrylegs had done that day, Bill had the odd sense that Clarissa wanted to say much more and wasn't quite sure how.

Bill hadn't minded, quite apart from never minding anything Clarissa did. She understood perfectly, and was aware that her own letters had been rather queer.

Only two weeks, even if they stretched into years, and everything would be settled as soon as they saw each other again. Her family left her more or less alone, on the principle that she was of a moody age and if she wanted to waster her hol.s moping, it was her look out. She devoted herself to Thunder, wrote daily scrawls of letters that didn't really say anything, and counted off the days until Malory Towers.

Clarissa was late coming back, but that was normal, even if it deprived Bill of the pleasure of meeting her on horseback. Even if she hadn't written to say she'd be late. (If her parents knew, if they'd guessed - but how could they? She'd turn up in the end.) She slipped into class at last midway through the second day, with a quick smile around at the other girls, slipping into the chair that had by common consent been left empty next to Bill. Their gazes caught for a long moment, and Bill felt the blood in her face rise to match the heightened colour on Clarissa's high cheekbones.

Maybe not just as usual, after all.

* * *

Their leave-taking had been uncharacteristically awkward, half of Bill's brothers still at home having elected to come out to the car when it arrived to take their honorary sister back to her own home. Under their eyes and those of the chauffeur, Bill looked down into Clarissa's miserable face and decided that the event, after all, required more than the usual goodbye and remember to write.

Showing too much emotion would be equally impossible.

She put her hands on Clarissa's shoulders, in an agony of self-consciousness, and then they both moved at once to kiss. It was nothing more than a clumsy, fleeting brush of lips, but unprecedented enough that, when Clarissa has been bundled into the car, Bill's brothers teased her mercilessly about her new soppiness.

"That girls' school is turning you into a real girl at last," Jim told her joyfully. "First comes kissing, next comes sewing and floral arrangements. Would you like to embroider me a tea cloth with your own fair hands, Wilhelmina?"

Bill punched him, the accepted response to something like that, but they teased her all the rest of the holidays. Only Ben, home on leave, had grinned at her with something like understanding, and given her an extra-hard clap on the shoulder. Teeth flashed white in his tanned face, and his eyes were very sympathetic.

There had been a moment in which it might have been possible to ask him exactly what he understood, but she didn't really have the words to frame the question. Besides, she rather badly wanted to be alone.

Long years of being the only girl in a large family had taught Bill never to offer her brothers something else to tease her about. It was fortunate that family code dictated that, while someone in tears was fair game, it wasn't playing fair to comment on red eyes at meal times.

* * *

Bill gave up on all attempts at working - promise to Miss Peters or not, no one expected you to really work on the first few days back - and watched Clarissa with what she hoped was covert attention. She was working steadily herself, her eyes on her books but her cheeks still pink. She had bobbed her hair in the intervening fortnight. The combs were coming out, and at any moment Miss Oakes would say something scathing about neatness and send her back to the dorm, but for now it framed her face in the glossy reddish brown curls that had formerly been pulled by their own weight into mere waves. Even if Bill regretted the loss of the long thick braids, the style suited her, bringing out Clarissa's transient beauty, so much a matter of colouring and so easily and often fading to plainness.

Not that Bill wasn't certain Clarissa at her plainest was far sweeter and more appealing than someone like Daphne with her flaunting golden curls and baby blue eyes, or Alicia with her tall elegant darkness. Right at this moment, Bill suspected her Clarissa would be pretty to anyone's eyes. She wasn't entirely certain she liked the thought.

Her rather thin lips were set in concentration. Bill gave up pretending not to stare, trying to realise that the same small mouth had kissed her in the darkness with such intensity that her lips had been grazed by Clarissa's small sharp teeth, had pressed hungrily against her breast as the small hand now clutching that pen had sweetly, unbelievably dipped between Bill's legs… The blood in her face redoubled, and she hastily dropped her gaze to her own books.

Not quickly enough.

"Wilhelmina, I'm certain we're all overjoyed that Clarissa has joined us again, but it would be pleasant if you could spare an equal amount of attention for your work as for your friend."

"Yes, Miss Oakes." Bill tried to keep the sullen note out of her voice, but she couldn't help thinking that Miss Peters wouldn't risk embarrassing Clarissa like that. Wouldn't embarrass Bill like that, she meant.

When she risked another sidelong glance, Clarissa was even redder, but seemed otherwise unconscious of anything unusual. She looked so very much the pure, well-behaved schoolgirl that Bill was aware of a lurch of panic. It really didn't seem entirely real, that one delirious night before Clarissa returned to her own family… Maybe she'd dreamed it, out of her own hopeless longings, and convinced herself it was true.

It didn't matter, as long as Clarissa was still her special friend. That had been enough in the beginning, hadn't it?

Well, never quite enough. But close enough.

* * *

She'd barely noticed mousy little Clarissa at first, her thoughts caught up in Thunder and riding and the difficulties of readjusting to school after glorious long holidays with her brothers. Clarissa wasn't the kind of girl who forced herself on your attention. Besides, she was Gwendoline Mary's special friend, even Bill had noticed that, which dropped the new girl several pegs in her estimation. It was only when, quite unexpectedly, Clarissa had piped up in class and started to argue with Miss Williams that she paid her much mind. She had missed the beginning of the argument, her mind somewhere out on the cliffs with Thunder, and it was in full swing

"But I tell you, I studied Macbeth with my governess, and nothing like that happened!" Clarissa was blushing deeply, obviously terrified at raising an objection to a mistress, but she plugged steadily on nevertheless, her voice shaking only a little. "There must be something wrong with our copies."

"I assure you, I'm not in the habit of changing deathless prose around for my own peculiar reasons," Miss Williams said dryly. "You're welcome to compare against a copy from the school library. In fact, I would suggest you write the passage out for me in full, three times, until your mind is at rest that I'm reading the correct text. I'll expect it on my desk tomorrow. Can we pass on, now?"

"But -"

"That's enough, Clarissa."

The girl subsided, two angry blots of red still on her pink cheeks.

As they passed out of the classroom, Bill heard Gwen say consolingly, "What a beast Miss Williams is! I wonder that you could endure being scolded like that. I'm sure you're not used to it at home. A governess is far more civilised. Why, Miss Winters -"

"She's not a beast," Clarissa interrupted hastily. "She's awfully decent, really. I shouldn't had contradicted her like that. It's only - horses eating themselves! It's so dreadful I can hardly bear it."

"I always hated that line, too," Bill offered, not really clear on why she was interrupting, except for the passing thought that there was something frightfully likeable about little Clarissa Carter, and she deserved better than always being left to Gwendoline Mary's tender mercies. "I always imagined it was Thunder…"

"Your horse?" Clarissa's worried expression was wiped away by radiance, flooding her face with light. Why, she was quite pretty, Bill realised, and was surprised at herself for noticing. Clarissa hesitated for a moment, then visibly gathered her courage. "Oh, Bill, do you think-"

"Come on, Clarissa. I'll take you to the library and we can get started."

"But -" The light in Clarissa's eyes faded.

"Come on!"

Clarissa let herself be tugged away by her arm, and Bill felt a flash of irritation and hurt, especially when she caught the words, "Let me tell you about Bill, who everybody likes so much," as the girls hurried away. Not that she cared what any of Gwendoline Mary's friends thought of her.

Besides, what good would it be trying to make friends with a timid, overly cosseted thing like Clarissa in the first place? Bill shouldn't know what to say about her. She'd probably be frightened of Thunder, like that silly Mary-Lou and Daphne, in any case.

She forced down the bitter taste of disappointment, far too tongue-twisting for such a minor incident, and went up to the dorm to change into riding gear. A ride should sort things out.

It was difficult, after that incident, to stop noticing things. How isolated Clarissa seemed, how miserable at times, with Gwendoline whispering continually in her ear. Yet she was truly fond Gwen, that much was clear. Sometimes she would look at her with an affectionate, grateful expression, rather like a horse looking at its mistress, that made Bill's heart contract painfully. It must be nice to be looked at like that, by someone gentle and trusting, and it was all wasted on that horrid Gwendoline Mary, who obviously cared far more about Clarissa's parents than her sweet expression.

It had been far more comfortable when Bill really hadn't noticed anything that went on outside the stables and her own head.

When she'd literally stumbled on Clarissa weeping bitterly in the courtyard, her first impulse had been fury at that beast of a Gwendoline for letting Clarissa cry alone. The second was the entirely uncharacteristic impulse to put her arms around the girl and comfort her. She rejected the thought as impossible; even if she had been comfortable with that girlish kind of soppiness towards someone she'd barely spoken two sentences to, she'd probably only alarm the poor girl. Instead, she fell back on instinct, and offered the comfort of a ride, not really expecting Clarissa to accept.

Certainly she hadn't expected nervous Clarissa to have a seat like a gentlewoman, hands like silk and an utterly fearless approach to riding.

When they brought their horses in, Clarissa's face was alight, and she was laughing and chattering gaily about Merrylegs at home, her self-consciousness shed somewhere along the ride. Miss Peters had watched her for a moment, a curious expression on her face, and then asked the girls to please take care of her horse together, as she had work to do inside.

Bill absently agreed, her eyes on Clarissa's face, vivid with the pleasure of riding, spectacles slightly askew on her nose, hair escaping in bright tendrils from her bowler, and wire flashing in her smile.

It was the first time she had been aware of the desire to kiss her.

* * *

Bill sighed and tried to focus on her work. Instead, she transferred her attention to the clock. She needed to speak to Clarissa; she needed, more than anything, to see her friend look at her for more than a moment.

When class was dismissed at last, Bill didn't bother with manners. She pushed aside Darrell and Sally, bent on welcoming Clarissa back, and slipped her arm through her friend's.

Darrell laughed affectionately at her. "I hope you're not intending to drag Clarissa off to the stables already. There's no time before the next class, and you know that jolly well."

Bill forced herself to give a natural grin. "I only want a few words alone with her." She shamelessly begged Darrell with her eyes to understand. "It's been such ages…"

Clarissa's free hand came up to cover Bill's own, where it pressed into her elbow, and Bill felt a stab of relieved joy. "It's just good to see each other again, Darrell. And I was late back."

"Well, go on and whinny to each other for a moment, you queer things." Sally shot them a smile. "Just don't be late to Maths."

"We won't." Bill tugged on Clarissa's arm, the memory of Gwen pulling Clarissa away from her… but never again… floating unpleasantly back to her mind.

The slipped along to the music rooms by unspoken common consent, both silent. With the door closed behind them, Bill released her grip, and they turned to face each other. Except that Clarissa was staring at her own beautifully polished shoes. Terrible awkward silence rose between them, and Bill wanted to break it by screaming. She and Clarissa were never at a loss for what to say to each other.

"Clarissa, I…" She trailed off. "Please look at me, for heaven's sake!" Her voice was gentle despite the words. Raising her voice to Clarissa was something utterly beyond her powers.

"Bill…" Clarissa raised her head. Her eyes were startlingly green, as if they had leached her complexion of all colour to achieve that alarming brightness. "Just promise you're not disgusted by me."

The statement was so utterly ridiculous that Bill found herself at a loss for something to say. The impulse to call her friend an idiotic donkey was almost overwhelming, but she had enough sense to see that would be neither helpful nor kind, and besides, relief was choking in her throat at the same time that the need to comfort Clarissa was making her heart ache. She was altogether in a queer, muddled emotional state.

In the end, she did the simplest and most direct thing she could think of, and held out her arms.

Clarissa flung herself forward with a kind of laughing sob, her arms coming around the taller girl's neck, and Bill caught her tightly around the waist. They held each other close as their breathing began to settle and their hearts to adjust to each other's beat.

"Your letters were so stiff," Clarissa said at last, somewhat accusingly. "You scared me half to death. I thought I was going to come back to school to you saying you'd thought it over and decided Merrylegs wasn't a good influence on Thunder."

"I've never been good at writing," she excused herself. "Besides, yours were just as bad." For all her pious resolution of self-control, she found herself tilting her head to kiss the cheek pressed against hers, and felt her heart pulse at the answering caress on her own cheek. "You might have mentioned something apart from Merrylegs, you know."

"I felt shy, and then I was frightened because you didn't say anything and I started it, after all. Besides… I thought you cared about Merrylegs."

Bill grinned at the hurt tone, despite herself. "Adorable little idiot. I love Merrylegs half to death. But it's not," she explained very gravely and carefully, leaning back to look down into Clarissa's reddened face, "precisely the same thing."

"Oh." Clarissa, obviously deciding commonsense was too difficult under special circumstances, lifted herself up on tiptoe and kissed her. The first to kiss… And it was odd, after two years of loving her desperately, to adjust to the fact that she had indeed been the one to start it.

* * *

As far as she was concerned, Bill had pursued Clarissa's friendship almost shamelessly. Every now and then her conscience pricked her just a little. For all her dislike of Gwendoline Lacey, Bill was not unkind by nature, and where Alicia or Daphne might have found Gwen's obvious frustration at suddenly being part of a threesome amusing, Bill sympathised. She would have hated it, if she had been Clarissa's special friend. She didn't pursue that thought further. After all, she was perfectly polite to Gwen always, and she couldn't help it if Clarissa's face always lit up in welcome when she went to join them, and if the conversation always drifted eventually around to horses. It wasn't Bill's fault that Clarissa was a born horsewoman.

She wished she'd realised before that she had a kindred spirit at the school, someone else to whom riding wasn't merely a pleasure but a passion. Clarissa on horseback was entirely different, secure in her own powers and skills, giving herself over entirely to the pleasure of the ride. And Clarissa in the stables was a secret all Bill's own to cherish, hugging to herself the way her new friend lavished the horses with affection, all traces of self-consciousness swept away by love of the great beasts. Yet there was always something there that Bill had identified and liked in the girl who had argued with Miss Williams, a kind of intrinsic sweetness that Bill badly wanted turned on her.

How, she asked herself, was she supposed to leave the other two to themselves when Clarissa always welcomed her with such a dazzling smile? Dazzling in more ways than one, when the wires caught the sun. Bill decided wires, along with spectacles, were rather endearing. She hadn't been conscious of thinking so before.

Her conscience began to ease, in any case, when she started to realise exactly what Gwendoline had been doing to keep her friend so securely under her thumb. Clarissa was so loyal that it was difficult to drag anything out of her, but she was also fundamentally honest, and it was difficult for her to refuse straight questioning. Bill repressed the desire to apologise and comfort with hugs and pats for causing her such misery, then stormed off to confront Gwendoline.

"What do you want?" Gwen eyed her with disfavour. "As if you didn't already spend all your free time tagging along where you're not wanted."

"And why wouldn't I be wanted?" Bill's hand was curved around Gwen's plump upper arm, and she tightened it just enough to discourage the other girl from trying to walk off on her. She felt a stab of compunction – bullying went against her nature – but this was so dreadfully important. "What precisely have you been telling Clarissa about me behind my back, Gwendoline? And the others?"

"I've said nothing that's not the perfect truth." Gwendoline lifted her chin defiantly, although she licked her lips nervously.

"And put as mean a spin on it as possible," Bill said contemptuously. "Very well. Say what you like about the others – but you're an utter disgusting beast to make your own friend so untrusting of the girls she has to live with – and I'll say what I like about them, and we'll see who she believes." She caught a triumphant lift in the corner of Gwen's full mouth before she managed to control it, and her disgust doubled. Gwendoline was no better than a gypsy fortune teller, twisting the outward signs to meet her own advantage. "But say one word against me to her, and I'll forget how I feel about sneaking and gossip, and tell a few tales of her angelic Gwendoline Mary's activities to her. We'll see if a lying, treacherous snob is a suitable friend for the Honourable Clarissa Carter, shall we?"

Gwen's spite, or maybe some shreds of genuine affection for her friend, overcame her cowardice, and she lashed out. "Better than a tomboy who smells of horses." She pulled free. "If you're so far above caring about her title, then why do you care so much what she thinks in any case?"

Bill watched her flounce off, golden hair swinging in indignation, without attempting to frame an answer. It was impossible to tell Gwen that she did care, terribly much, and that she wanted Clarissa for her own special friend so fiercely that the universe seemed all askew without her.

After that unpleasant encounter , when Gwendoline vanished from school at half term – and Bill did genuinely feel sorry for her if she had a groggy heart, having learned what a difference Clarissa's invalidism made to her life – she gave up on conscience altogether and spent every minute with the new girl. She gave free reign to her infatuation, and no longer cared about the jilted Gwendoline any more than she cared about the suspicion that the other girls were laughing at the unexpectedness and sudden intimacy of the new friendship.

It was enough sacrifice, after all, not to smother the upturned face with kisses after a long ride, not to catch her hand tight at every moment, without making herself spend time apart from her for no reason at all.

No one could survive complete starvation, at least not indefinitely.