In Times of Doubt
Nadja did not see Keith for another month after that one night. This time her spirits were not dampened by his absence, however, for he was not quite absent. Sometimes there would be a single rose by her pillow, or a little sweet like a chocolate or a cookie awaiting her when she climbed to the top of the car, placed in such a way that she would never doubt that Keith had timed it perfectly and left it for her to find.
It just annoyed her that he had the time to hover around her, but would not let her see him. How long had he watched her be miserable before he had appeared in front of her the first time? For that matter, had he even wanted to show himself, or had that just been a careless accident on his part?
There was no end to the questions.
But Nadja didn't mind them too much. At least she knew that he was well.
Once, the trinkets came to a halt for three days straight, and Nadja worried more than ever before she glimpsed in the paper the headline, "Lost Harcourt Twin Found!" and put her worries to rest once more.
Did he have to send her mind, heart and soul reeling like this?
It didn't help that she continued to find trinkets at least once a week after that. When did he find the time to seek her out and give her things? Wasn't he busy trying to help his family?
She needed to have a talk with him.
Nadja was granted the opportunity to do so two months after the one night she had seen him. He just came walking up to her by the car, waving with one of his cheeky grins like he hadn't been almost completely absent from her life for nine full months.
"We need to talk," Nadja informed him without missing a beat when he greeted her. She noted with satisfaction that something like nervousness flitted across his face. He was in agreement that he was in the wrong.
She would have begun chewing him out then and there, but Silvy was watching them curiously, under the guise of setting the table.
"Why don't we take a walk?" he suggested, much to her relief. At least they were on the same page. She waved goodbye to Silvy with a cheery smile and told her that she would be back within an hour.
"Keith," Nadja said once they were suitably out of hearing range of Silvy. "What do you consider us?"
"What do you mean, what do I consider you?" He sounded genuinely baffled.
"Not me and them us, you and me us. I mean...after..." She felt her face heating up at the mere memory. "I mean, that night, we...well..."
"Kissed? Hugged? Cuddled? It's not like we haven't done any of those before." Something about his matter-of-fact tone struck Nadja like a slap across the face. She stopped in her tracks and looked at him.
"Keith...be honest. How many people have you kissed?"
He looked at her. "Quite a few probably. Why?"
A chill went through Nadja's blood. It took her a moment to find her voice.
"Nadja? Are you alright?"
She ignored the question, because how could she be alright, when she was just getting accustomed the fact that she preferred Keith over Francis, only to discover that she was just one among many to him?
"Then what am I to you?"
Keith blinked. Then he closed his eyes with a sigh and ran a hand through his hair. "Nadja, be more specific with your questions before you jump to conclusions. I've kissed a great many people: my parents and Aunt Emma on the cheeks almost daily when I was a child, of course. Then there're the kisses on the back of the hands of ladies I found particularly attractive, and who knows how many of those there were, even though I stopped after I met you. And then, of course, there's you."
"Then...I was the first person you kissed on the...on the mouth?" Nadja could not know that her reddening cheeks over so small a matter were testing Keith's self-control.
"Oh." That almost offended him. Didn't she have anything else to say, like he was so good at kissing that she never would have guessed? "Then where did you come up with the idea of the- the tongue thing?"
Keith stared, and felt his own face flushing a little. No doubt Nadja would attribute it to embarrassment over the subject matter—he would not correct that.
In actuality, he was recalling the state of mind he had been in when he had kissed her that second time. It had been an act of desparation. He was the one with her, he was the one she had fallen for to begin with, and yet Francis' name left her mouth adoringly every five seconds. He had needed it to stop—needed her to see him. The kiss had been one to close her mouth and render it incapable of acknowledging anyone else; the part where he put his tongue in her mouth had merely been a furthering of the desire to assert that she was his, damn it, and nothing Francis tried to do would change that.
It was only afterwards that he learned that that was actually a valid and relatively widely used method of kissing.
But this brought on a different matter.
"Nadja," he addressed her, his voice low. She looked at him wide-eyed, instinctively realizing that he was displeased about something. "You're interrogating me about my love life—fine. I have nothing to hide. I never loved a woman before you, and never touched one with beyond what is entirely appropriate in public before you. But you can't say the same, can you?"
He could have phrased that a little more delicately, but he was irritated. He had come to Nadja for the second time in nine months, and she welcomed him with a cool interrogation. They had had a single short-lived cuddle session, but that was it; yet he knew that she had met Francis more than a few times in the last few months.
It didn't help that, judging by her reactions to him when he kissed her the first time and she thought he was Francis, she and Francis hadn't exactly kept their relationship on the fit-to-be-performed-in-public side either.
But what was said was said, and he glared at her defiantly as she glared back.
"I didn't know there were two of you." And it was a perfectly valid excuse—as long as time period under conversation halted at about a year prior to the present.
"So, even though you drag me into your bed without a word when I appear, I'm to trust that you don't let Francis stick his tongue down your throat on a regular basis as well?"
Again, he could have phrased that more delicately if he'd wanted to. It probably would have been wiser to do so.
"How dare you." Nadja's eyes usually were adorable when she was angry. Presently, they were like daggers of cold star-fire. "How dare you imply that I would just-"
"Well, my darling, flattering though it is to be coerced at once into kissing you when I appear at your bedside for the first time in seven months, when one has two full months to think back on it, it starts seeming rather strange. After all, you always choose Francis when the time comes to make a choice. But then what is this? I know that you two have only kissed once, and when Francis describes it...well, it's just a peck! With the two of us—kissing always involves a lot more passion than that, even the time that you slapped me!"
"So what?" Nadja snapped. "That just means that we're more physically attracted to one another! It has nothing to do with the heart!"
"Oh, I see." Keith narrowed his eyes to slits. "So you'll give your heart to Francis, but your body to me, is that it? You'll tell us to share, because we each got what we deserve but no more. You'll spend the days talking and laughing with Francis, and the nights in bed with me, and expect Francis to never desire your body or me to care that you won't feel a thing-"
"Stop it! Stop it, stop it, stop it! Why must you twist these things into such...such..."
"I'm merely translating your own statements, darling."
"Don't call me darling!"
"Then what shall I call you? Shall I go back to skinny little...girl..."
Something about that one little nickname, awkwardly dropped into the conversation, brought both sides' anger and frustration screeching to a halt.
They remembered that night in London, when everything that really mattered about their relationship had begun with a few simple exchanges of name-calling. They remembered their first dance in Paris, and their first attempts to begin to understand each other. They remembered the first night that they had met with all masks stripped from Keith's person, only to discover that they still seemed to be almost perpetually at odds with each other—but each still cared for the other, almost more than before.
There was a brief awkward silence.
"I'm sorry," Keith finally spoke up. "I didn't mean any of it. I was just...frustrated, I guess. I never know where I stand with you—everytime I think I've figured it out, you throw me a twist and turn your back on me."
Nadja looked up at him with those big, clear blue eyes, and for a moment, he expected her to agree and tell him that he was out of her life for good.
Then she smiled wryly. "I was thinking the same." Another pause. Then Nadja spoke. "So...what are we?"
He cast her a long sideways glance as they resumed walking. She was yielding the decision to him. Did that mean that she wanted him to court her...or that she simply could not handle the pressure of carrying that weight herself?
"Well," he cleared his throat nervously. "As we've already established, there seems to be a great deal of physical attraction between us two. But I would like you to know that that pales to insignificance in light of the fact that I, er, love you very much"-was he really saying all this out loud? How embarrassing-"and given your permission, would like to court you. For as many years as you want before marriage. If not—or even if you want me to court you, but want to keep it platonic—then I promise to never touch you aga-"
Nadja stopped again, put her arms around his neck, and pulled his mouth to hers for a lingering chaste kiss.
"I love you too," she told him, blushing and averting her eyes as she looked away. She was so adorable that Keithh couldn't resist a chuckle.
"Once a skinny little girl, always a skinny little girl."
Nadja opened her mouth to protest, but Keith happily sealed it with his own, determined not to release her until he either tired of kissing or ran out of breath.