~Special Chapter 2~
The kiss was liquid-soft, in its own way as intense with feeling as the fiercer kisses exchanged during that night, but with a quality all its own that was more like being lapped with warm, scented bath water than anything else. Bill caught Clarissa's lower lip between her own and pulled very delicately, made her own answering sound to the sigh she elicited.
When her eyes, closed by instinct, fluttered open, she swallowed her breath. The darkness had robbed her of this, the sight of Clarissa after being kissed, lips slightly parted, lashes slowly quivering open over deep green eyes as they slowly came back into focus. It had robbed her of that glowing look of shameless adoration, loaned poignancy by…
…barely repressed terror.
That shouldn't be there, Bill was certain; it didn't go with the sweetness of the kiss. She frowned, wondering what was causing the other girl's teeth to brush over her lower lips in that uncertain way.
"Don't scowl at me like that, Bill – I'm sorry."
"For what?" She caught at Clarissa's waist as she tried to pull away, her own terror rising.
"For making you do this, if it disgusts you even a little." Clarissa was earnest, but then she generally was, even at her most joyful. She turned a careful attention to life that Bill, honest by nature, understood and appreciated. In this case, though, she did feel her arms tight around her special friend should make it clear enough that she wasn't feeling much disgust. She gave an exasperated, half-laughing snort, which Clarissa ignored, intent on her own speech. Bill had the impression the poor darling had spent sleepless nights working it out. "I can't help loving you, but that's my fault. It would be just like you to forgive me and pretend to care like I do, like the angel you are, but you'd end up hating me for it. And then I'd die." The last was a simple statement, gravely expressed.
"Idiot." Bill crushed her fiercely closer, feeling their bodies adjust and meld through frocks and blouses, as naturally as if they were made to be pressed against each other. "I couldn't hate you any more that I could hate – Thunder." Not romantic, but she couldn't think of any other way to convey the intensity of what she felt.
"Then you don't mind that I – that I – care so much?"
Bill heard the echo of whispered frantic words in the darkness, felt again the reckless caresses and kisses, her timid Clarissa so savagely tender that one night, and knew it was echoed in the desperate question. She forgot they were at school, that wisdom dictated releasing her friend to go down to class, and let her lips find Clarissa's cheek and ear, dropping indiscriminate kisses.
"I love you more than anything in this world, you sweetheart of a complete and utter donkey," she said wetly against the delicate curves of an ear, with far more love than eloquence.
Clarissa shuddered against her, but her small voice was still stubborn. "But, dearest Bill -"
Bill considered the fact that break was almost definitely over, and they would be late back to class, and someone would come looking for them. Somehow she couldn't make herself realise that not being caught like this was more important than conveying to the little idiot in her arms exactly how she felt about her. She pulled her down onto the seat of the piano, feeling the cover press uncomfortably into her back as she settled her close. "Love you… love you… love you…" She punctuated the words with darts of lips and tongue against ear and throat, something in her responding to the tiny sounds she was drawing out. "Are you trying to convince me not to, old thing?"
Clarissa turned her head and kissed Bill's lips, holding the kiss for long seconds.
"Good," Bill gasped out at last. "Did I seem disgusted that – that night, sweet darling girl?"
Auburn curls shook. "No. But you actually didn't say you cared, either, and after a while I was scared."
"Didn't I?" Bill blinked at her. "Oh… but surely you could have guessed!"
"I thought so. But you never said. And you're so generous, always."
Bill looked blankly at her. She knew Clarissa hadn't exactly vast quantities of self-esteem, but somehow it had never occurred to her to extend that to wondering if Clarissa was insecure about her, as well. If she thought about it at all, she would have supposed some of her feelings must have communicated themselves…
She began to grin, despite herself.
"I'm an insensitive, thick-headed fool, but I adore you, and you should know that by now." She kissed the tip of Clarissa's nose. "I'll make up for it, I promise. Just love me, and you won't be able to shut me up, except by kissing me, now."
Clarissa raised her chin, so that she was murmuring against the other girl's mouth. "Now…"
Now they were seventeen going on eighteen. At least on the surface, theses autumn holidays hadn't been noticeably different than any others, a sequence of long rides punctuated by meals, picnics and unfortunate wet days, evenings spent with cards, jigsaw puzzles and plans for the next day. They slid through Bill's fingers far too quickly, in a kind of silver stream, pure as water from one of the springs in the hills.
It wasn't that she dreaded the return to Malory Towers, at least not exactly. She enjoyed school, even if she could never quite adjust to being cooped up in a classroom when the weather was begging her to get out into the wind and sunshine on horseback, but she rather liked the mistresses and the other girls, even if none of the others were as easy to talk to as Miss Peters and Clarissa. When they puzzled her, she tended to simply file them away in the portions of her mind marked 'Women – Not Mother' and 'Girls – Not Clarissa', and viewed their eccentricities with an indulgent eye. She just plodded along in her own comfortable manner, escaping with her best friend to ride or to discuss riding at every opportunity, aware of the spiteful undercurrents that sometimes arose but merely taking care to keep herself and Clarissa well away from them. Clarissa, she figured, had experienced enough in the way of pettiness as Gwendoline's friend, and deserved to be shielded from all unpleasantness in the future.
No one, after her first precarious term, expected Bill to be anything other than what she was; and then, of course, there was Clarissa. She had never missed having a friend, never having known anything but a kind of group living with her best devotion dedicated to Thunder, but a few weeks after her first ride with Clarissa she was wondering how she had failed to notice how lonely she had been. No, Bill was perfectly content at Malory Towers, at least once Gwendoline had surrendered to the inevitable.
School was very pleasant; the holidays were a kind of lovely dream. In her own overcrowded house with the huge stables, or the Carter's home which, even to Bill's uncultured eyes, was mellowed with age and beautiful, with magnificent grounds and the new joys of schooling Thunder to hunt, the flow of days remained sweet and radiantly happy. The house was irrelevant when the days were spent in country rides and stables.
The only flaw marring Bill's happiness was that Clarissa was to spend the last two weeks home with her family. The thought hung heavy over Bill when she allowed it to, but she had a talent for putting unwelcome thoughts out of her curly head.
Perhaps these holidays had been even sweeter than usual, for no clear reason. There had been that moment, on a rainy day spent piled into the same armchair in front of the fire and ostensibly reading rather than dozing, that Bill had looked at their tanned hands looped casually together and then raised her gaze to met Clarissa watching her in an oddly serious way, her eyes even bigger than usual in her small face. Bill had found it strangely difficult to tear her own gaze away, until little Bobby had brought noise and chatter and puppies into the room and Clarissa had laughed and turned to speak to him.
Bill puzzled over the incident later, and decided to put it down to the tendency of an open fire to induce a dream-like, half-awake state. Certainly Clarissa was her natural self afterwards, showing no indication that she had intended to say anything out of the usual. Bill caught a couple of queerly intent glances, that was all.
It was only the night before Clarissa was due to leave for home that matters changed in any substantial way.
Bill was lying awake, feeling stupidly lonely, when she heard her door gently swing open. She rolled onto her side, squinting to make out a slight figure against the faint light from the passageway.
"Bobby?" she asked, pretty sure it was too quiet to be her youngest brother, quite unsure why she was unwilling to call the obvious name.
"Just me. I'm sorry to wake you. I couldn't sleep, and I wanted company." Clarissa shut the door carefully, and padded across to the bed. Bill felt her weight settle on the side, and could dimly discern her outline against the curtained window.
"I couldn't sleep either." She peered more carefully at the suspiciously white figure. "Clarissa Carter, if you didn't bother to put on your dressing gown!" She reached out to grasp a thin arm, feeling the trembling through the linen nightgown. "Don't tell me you didn't wear your slippers either." The figure shook its head. "You precious little ass, you're not fit to dress yourself. Get into bed."
"Oh, but -"
"I'm not having you catch your death of cold." She held up the bed covers. The figure remained motionless for quite an awkward space of time, and for a moment Bill was afraid that Clarissa, sensitive as she was, had resented the scolding, however fond the intent. When she finally stood, Bill was relieved when she turned and slipped under the covers.
She had been right about the slippers; one of her own pyjama legs had become hiked up in her restlessness, and Clarissa's foot was icy against her skin, sending the tiny hairs on her leg bristling. She yelped, and heard a heartless giggle in response as Clarissa took advantage of the difference in their height by pushing her feet between Bill's calves to warm them.
Bill hesitated, but things were somehow easier in the dark, and it seemed only natural to wrap the shivering girl in her arms and try and warm her with her own body heat. There was a worrying moment when Clarissa held herself stiffly away, then she sighed and snuggled into the embrace.
Longing rose thick in Bill's throat, but she was used to it, and she should be, she told herself, blissfully happy to at least be holding her beloved friend in her arms in this cosy confidential manner. She was in a state of bliss, if it came to that, and she knew she would be holding this memory in her heart for the next long two weeks. It was only that she wanted so very badly to let her hands touch further, trace the subtle lines of the thin body pressed against her, find Clarissa's lips in the darkness and kiss them gently… She scolded herself for being a fool, and kept her hands and mouth exactly where they were.
"Warmer now?" Bill asked at last, when Clarissa had stopped shivering. "You'd better stay here for the night, or at least take my things. I won't have you wandering around in the night half-dressed."
"I'm not half-dressed. And you're terribly sweet, but you needn't fuss - it hardly took me two minutes to get here. I'm nice and cosy now." The protest was muffled against the side of Bill's neck, and she shivered herself at the ticklish warmth. It felt awfully nice, but she was almost sure it shouldn't feel quite as nice as it did. "If you don't mind me staying for the night, I won't deprive you of your things."
"Of course I don't mind." She closed her eyes, allowing herself the luxury of tightening the hug just a little. They lay in silence for a while, but Clarissa's breath remained as quick and shallow as Bill's own, and she was certain she wasn't the only one awake. Perhaps she was uncomfortably squashing her. Bill tried to release her grip, and failed utterly. Some things were entirely too much to ask, she decided guiltily, and it was no more sensible to try and force herself then it would be if Thunder balked at too difficult a jump.
It was almost a satisfactory excuse to hold her special friend tightly.
"Hmm?" Perhaps she had nearly fallen asleep, when it had come to it. Her voice was heavy with slumber, or with something else.
"I can't bear to go home without you." She could hear her own desolation echoed in the quiet words.
"I don't want you to go, either. Buck up, dear old thing. It's only a fortnight." She kept her voice consciously light, deliberately giving the lie to her own feelings. Besides, what was the sense in talking about feeling badly? She had no desire to sniffle like Gwendoline or Maureen on a first night of term.
She stroked Clarissa's back with one hand, tracing the faint outline of her spine with her fingertips, more out of the need to give comfort than to touch, however wonderful it felt. "I think Mother's succeeded in fattening you up a little," she remarked with some satisfaction. She took pride in Clarissa's improved health, putting it down to riding and eating well instead of moping around like an invalid. Clarissa with pink cheeks, tanned skin and riding breeches always felt like a personal triumph. "You resemble a half-starved baby bird far less than when school broke up."
"Bill, please!" Clarissa seemed amused and frustrated in equal measure, and the wet tickle of her mouth against Bill's throat as she giggled made her want to cry aloud. "I'm serious."
"So am I."
Clarissa pushed herself up slightly, her head above Bill's as if she was trying to see her expression in the darkness. "I don't know if you realise quite how serious I am," she said slowly.
Bill stayed very still. Even her breathing seemed to become shallow and slight, as if it too was waiting, terrified of being noticed too much and scaring away whatever was about to happen. Her heart was beating too hard, sending echoing pulses through her throat and wrists and somewhere else, deeper inside.
Eventually Clarissa spoke again, so softly and indistinctly Bill had to strain to catch the words. And it was so terribly important she didn't misunderstand.
"I won't see you again until school. This is my last chance for ages to tell you that I… I care, Bill. Too much."
The kiss took her by surprise, although it shouldn't have; but then, one didn't really imagine something from daydreams to turn up in reality. The unfamiliar sensation of smooth cool lips, pressed against hers with what felt like utter concentration, scattering her own self control to the wind. She tried to catch back the pieces, realising in terror that there was still too much chance that she had it wrong, that Clarissa meant nothing more than sisterly love, but her lips were responding despite herself, her hands slipping down to caress and pull closer. Too much, she was risking much too much… But somehow she couldn't feel anything but that the curve and press of flesh through linen under her hands was a natural part of her, as if all the aching love hidden under easy friendship had taken tangible form in the touch of her own hands, as if the lips pressed against hers were part of her own heart.
Clarissa made a small desperate noise against her mouth, legs sliding apart to straddle her friend closer, her hands coming up not to push away but to cradle the sides of Bill's head and kiss her again. Past the lips Clarissa's mouth was not cool at all, but deliciously hot and wet and almost frantic in motion, pushing with her tongue and devouring all at once until Bill was the one who became helpless under the kiss, her mouth responding without conscious commands to the torturing pleasure.
The smaller girl pushed away at last, still pressed tightly enough that Bill could feel the painful heaving of her breast, her breath audibly catching so sharply that anxiety caught at Bill as well. She reached up to stroke satin hair.
"Clarissa… angel…" The endearment came as naturally as if she was accustomed to saying the things other girls tossed out so casually, and that she had sometimes wished she had the knack of, but it was so entirely different when she said it herself; perhaps because she had thought of Clarissa like that so many times without saying the words. Perhaps because the other girls didn't feel as she did. Angel, dearest love, darling… My special friend.
"My Bill." So serious, Clarissa sounded so entirely serious, and there was a gentle ferocity in the possessiveness. "Will you kiss me again? Please?"
Bill decided that, here in the protecting darkness, she needn't worry, at least for the moment, about whether all this was real. She pulled Clarissa's head down to hers again, and gave up on thinking for the time being. She had so much love stored up for so long, and it was enough to let it out.
Somehow in the sweet abstraction of the kiss, Clarissa still managed to hear the knock on the door, and sprang to her feet as it opened. Bill, a trifle slower, was left on the piano stool.
"Miss – Miss Peters." Clarissa, flushed and with mussed curls and tie pushed askew by kisses, looked helplessly at the teacher, the picture of guilt. And neither of them had much of a reputation for haunting the music rooms. Bill felt for the first time the utter terrified realisation that the instinct to keep certain things private wasn't the only reason not to kiss like that where just anyone could open the door. The consequences for herself, for Clarissa, swirled in a confused mass of horror in her head as she sent silent pleadings to her favourite mistress.
"Good morning, Clarissa. It's good to see you're back at last. You brought Merrylegs with you again?"
"Yes, Miss Peters. I mean – good morning. Mother was ill… And thank you." Any fool could tell Clarissa was flustered, and Miss Peters was very far from being a fool.
"I'll have to go down to the stables and say hello. And, Bill –"
"Yes, Miss Peters?"
The mistress let her eyes rest on the closed piano cover. "It's all very well to develop a sudden passion for music. But it might be a good idea not to practice in class time, or when you run the risk of being disturbed."
"Yes, Miss Peters. Er… we have English…"
"You'd better hurry up then, hadn't you? You might explain to Miss Oakes that I kept you, to speak to Clarissa about her horse."
Bill gasped incredulous thanks and fled, seizing Clarissa's arm on the way.
"She's an utter trump!"
"Well, she understands," Clarissa said simply.
"Yes." Bill thought of Ben's sympathetic look on the driveway, and wished she had a chance on earth of writing the kind of letter that would find out what she wanted to know. "All the same, we need to be far more careful from now on." They hurried down the staircase, and under the cover of the clatter of their shoes on the staircase, she dared ask, "So… what now, darling?"
They slid into class very meekly and with their gaze down, as befitted sinners, but Clarissa whispered as they made their way to their seats:
"You know, I always rather liked the idea of running a riding school with a special friend."
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