"How do I look?" Agnes twisted to see her rear view in the mirror and fiddled some more with the collar on her shirt.
"You look very nice, very professional."
Agnes was fairly sure her assistant had not even looked up from her phone. But she felt good, powerful even. She hated the suit and the stupid collar. But she felt good. And powerful. That helped.
The door to her office opened and a deferential head popped through. "Ms Ahlberg, the car is here for you."
Agnes grabbed her bag, a satchel and a portfolio file. She checked her phone was in her pocket and headed out. This was going to be fun. With her boss off ill Agnes had to step in and supervise a days shoot for a big upcoming article. It was one of those much sought after "opportunities" and Agnes felt grateful it had at least arrived without her having to push anyone down the stairs.
Elin laid her head on the desk. It was showing every sign of being one of those dreaded days. She was only here on this damn shoot to help out a friend, who conveniently was now saying they weren't going to be able to make it.
That sounded close by. It was probably for her. "Yes?" Came the muffled reply, spoken directly in to paper and wood.
"The magazine people are on their way. Where is your friend?"
"I don't know. Not here."
Reluctantly Elin raised her head. "She is not here. I need an aspirin." She looked hopefully at the young man stood next to her. But he clearly was not going to get her an aspirin. He didn't seem to care.
"So who is doing the shoot?"
She considered his hair for a while. Clearly he cared very much about his hair. "That would be me."
He seemed to care now, in an upset way. Several emotions played across his face.
Elin waited patiently for him to reach acceptance before standing up decisively. "So. Let's do this thing."
There was some semblance of organisation before the magazine people arrived. Elin wished the suits would back off, give the experts room to do their job. They were always involving themselves, trying to be hands-on, hip and trendy when they stuck out like sore thumbs. She was studiously examining the camera equipment when they came to be introduced, making herself seem busy and serious.
"This is Elin Olsson," someone else, not the uncaring and unhelpful trendsetter from earlier was saying. "Unfortunately our original photographer wasn't able to make it but Elin stepped in, which may well be for the best, she is a very talented new... talent..." he started to trail off. "Miss? Are you okay?" he ended with some concern.
Elin looked up. A woman and a man in achingly fashionable suits were stood in front of her, looking back behind them. Her complimentary assistant stood further back with another woman in a suit, holding a hand up to her elbow in concern. Elin followed his eyes to the woman's face.
Agnes felt as though she had been shot, out of nowhere this cold draining sensation from her stomach right down through her feet. When their eyes connected it came again, a wave of pure surprise making her tremble. She saw Elin stumble back a step, walking right in to a tripod – mercifully empty – that fell to the floor with a crash, almost taking the blonde with it.
For a moment they just stared at one another. Agnes was terrified. And then, miraculously, Elin smiled. It curled over her lips and she gave a little nod. Agnes could breath again. Air rushed in to her lungs, she hadn't even realised she had been holding her breath. Holding her breath waiting for Elin to make some sort of indication. That it was okay. And it was.
"Yes," she said vacantly to the man stood next to her. "Sorry, I was just shocked. I know Miss Olsson, we went to school together, we haven't seen each other for ten years."
Elin was busy righting the tripod she had assaulted. The magazine people seemed to be cooing over this development. Elin took a moment to steady herself, before turning back round. She was introduced to the other two who were then whisked off for a quick tour, their companions seeming to think it would be a nice idea to leave the two reunited school mates alone for a few minutes.
"It's good to see you," Elin offered. She had thought about this moment, a chance meeting, for years. What would happen, how it would play out. If anyone would cry, shout, kiss passionately... if there would be slaps and recriminations, revelations of marriage or seedy affairs... whether it would be in Marrakesh, at a wedding or in the pouring rain... Not that she had put much thought in to it, mind.
"It is so good to see you," Agnes returned with a little more enthusiasm than Elin had.
"You look well."
"You too. So well."
Elin was beginning to feel uncomfortable. "Okay, so," she decided to lay down the law. "Today is already not great and I don't think I can cope with another... distraction. Sorry. So do you think maybe we can pretend you are my client, we are just colleagues, and then I can take you out for a drink afterwards?"
That was more, far more, than Agnes had ever dared hope might happen. "Of course," she said quickly. "Of course."
Elin nodded distractedly and turned back to her equipment before relenting and turning halfway back to Agnes again, but not quite meeting her eye. "It is good to see you."
So later that evening, after the shoot had wrapped, Agnes and Elin were sat in a cheap bar at a high table, sipping their drinks. Agnes had taken her suit jacket off and settled it on the back of her chair. Elin's scuffed jeans hung down over her converse trainers as she let her legs swing free. They began a cautious dance around one another.
"How is..." Agnes realised blankly that she had forgotten Elin's sisters name. That had seemed impossible, at one point, so tightly wrapped up in each other as they had been. But now she was drawing a complete blank. "Your sister?"
Elin did not notice. "Jessica? She is well, very well. I am an auntie! Two little girls, just like us both, seven and four. Serious, serious trouble I imagine." But Elin clearly adored them, her face lit up when she spoke of them.
"And your mom?"
"Yes, she is well also. Looks after those two a lot. She enjoys being a mormor. A lot less stress than being a mamma."
Agnes chuckled a little. Without thinking she started on her next question as seemed only polite. But it came to another faltering end. "So is she still with..?"
"Markus? No!" Again Elin came to the rescue without even noticing.
"Oh." Agnes wasn't sure why she was surprised. Sure that hideous couple had suited each other but she was also a little pleased for Jessica. Markus had been a dick of the highest magnitude.
"She got with Johan after..." Elin stopped herself from saying "you left", it seemed accusatory. So she just abandoned that thought and ploughed on. "Which was good, I mean, I was really happy for her."
"Oh," Agnes said again. Johan? Really? She knew there had been flirtation but clearly Jessica had gone further than that. She never imagined Jessica being happy with that sort of yes man, but then maturity did things to you.
"And how are your family? Where are your parents now?"
"In Berlin, actually. They are well though. No grandchildren or anything. And Oskar is studying in London." The "grandchildren" part had come with a little more jokey levity than she had intended. It was something of a sore point between her and her mother which had spilled out venomously at an unfortunate time, when she was trying to act cool and hold it together.
Agnes feigned enthusiasm, pulling a funny little unimpressed face, rolling her eyes a little.
"Hey," Elin reached over and put her hand on Agnes's arm, shaking her about a bit. "You made it to Stockholm."
Agnes smiled fondly, almost despite herself. Stockholm – anywhere but Amal – had seemed like the only answer, back then. Nostalgia swept over her. When they were so young, so naïve, so sure that the magical answer lay somewhere outside of themselves. Stockholm had been the answer but they hadn't even known what the question was.
Elin smiled back as she removed her hand, bringing it back to her glass. Agnes looked uncomfortable, in a good way. Still Elin tried to mind herself.
"I'm sorry, I always do this. We should talk about the weather. Or politics, current affairs. I'm a little better read than I used to be. But still can't mind my own business."
Elin remembered when that hadn't been needed. Being a teenager had suited her temperament. So immediate and intense. No time for niceties. Straight to the nitty gritty, the heart of things. The complicated dance round other adults, never saying what you thought unless completely obscured in code had never been something she was good at. Always second guessing, pre-empting, it wore her out.
Agnes had always been buttoned up and that had been like waving a red rag in front of Elin.
"No," Agnes felt compelled to object. "It's nice. I like hearing about good old Amal. I..." She wanted to say she had enjoyed her time there, that it held so many happy memories. But that was a bit much, a bit insensitive given that she had fled without so much as a backwards glance at the earliest opportunity.
"How long have you been in Stockholm?" She asked instead.
"Pssh," Elin said, idly playing with her straw. "Nearly a year now."
"Oh," Agnes echoed. She wasn't sure what she had been expecting. That Elin had arrived just yesterday? That they would have immediately been drawn together in such a huge city, fate unable to hold them apart?
"I didn't even know... if you were still here."
"Yes," Agnes sighed, caught in despondency again. "Still here."
"Here is good," Elin smiled. "It took me all this time to get here. I did live in Karlstad for a few years. Then I got this chance. You can imagine I didn't hang around."
At this Agnes had to laugh a little. Clearly Elin was still as impatient as ever to be on the move. "And how do you like it now you are here?"
"Very much indeed. Even in Karlstad," she said, her voice mocking, "You cannot stay out dancing all night."
Agnes nodded. And still the insatiable party animal. "Is that what you do?" She tried to enquire discreetly, lowering her gaze to fiddle nonchalantly with her napkin.
"Yes I'm afraid so. Do I disappoint you? Sorry." Elin was unapologetic though, a little caustic even.
"No, I just... I hardly go out. I'm busy and... my... friends," was the ironic word she finally decided upon, "Don't like it."
"Huh." Elin's gaze was clear and direct and was most certainly not fooled. In an entirely related enquiry she asked "So, is there anyone special in your life?"
Agnes didn't think she had wriggled very well out of that earlier hole she had dug for herself. Smooth work Ahlberg. "Well, yes, well I live with my partner, actually."
Elin nodded, completely unsurprised. "What's her name?"
Agnes coloured. "Kamilla."
"How long have you been together?"
"What does she do?"
"She's an editor. Publishing. Stuff."
Elin nodded. It might have seemed like a bit of an inquisition but she couldn't bear waiting for Agnes to spit all of that out. It would have taken weeks if left to her own devices and possibly had to involve some sort of Chinese water torture to elicit those three simple bits of information.
"That's nice," she enthused, Agnes' complete lack of enthusiasm not lost on her. "Lovely. I hope I can meet her soon."
Agnes' breath caught as she sipped from her glass. She stifled a cough. Elin was just sat there watching her, lips pursed, eyebrows ever so slightly cocked. It wasn't an aggressive stance but Agnes felt under scrutiny.
"Y-y-you?" In a desperate bid to steer attention away from herself and politely reciprocate the question came out without Agnes thinking and she wasn't sure she was ready for the answer.
"No." Elin was matter of fact. She swirled the drink around in her glass with just the slightest pensive touch. "No one can keep up with Elin."
Though very much relieved at the reply, without really wanting to delve in to why, Agnes found herself desperate for more. She had often, well not often, occasionally, thought about Elin's subsequent relationships. It was only realistic to assume there had been. Elin was an inordinately attractive looking girl with a wildly attractive personality to match. Even whilst their relationship had been infamous at school Elin was still being constantly propositioned. Once Agnes had left goodness knows what sort of a feeding frenzy had taken place.
Only now did Agnes consider other aspects and ramifications of her conduct. To go from being one half of the only out teenage gay couple anywhere near their circle to completely alone. She felt ashamed of herself, both for her conduct then, which was a subject she was familiar with beating herself up about, but also newly that she had never considered some of these other aspects in all these years. Elin was the brave one, the rebellious one, the popular one, the one who could bend others to her will by sheer force of personality. Wasn't she?
The Elin sat in front of her was in so many ways so similar to the one Agnes had known ten years before. Deceptively so. It was easy to imagine she was the same person, that everything had gone on just as it would always have. And yet here she was. A little thinner, for the first time since laying eyes on her Agnes thought maybe a little too thin. A little darker around the eyes, not just her distinctive eye make up and not something make up could cover. A little edgier, a little deflated, not just in a trying-to-be-grown-up way.
"I'm sorry," Agnes blurted out, unable to stop herself. "About – about what happened."
Elin looked up at her, in to her, a slight frown on her face. "It doesn't matter," she said simply, as though it were obvious. "It's all passed. In the past. Passed." She can't quite decide. "But anyway, it's best not to think about it." There is no flicker of resentment, goodness knows Agnes was searching so carefully she would have seen it. Elin seemed genuinely not to be concerned.
Agnes felt better now that was off her chest. It had been the elephant in the room the whole time.
"But now, I think I need to get off home. And you, you must be exhausted. It's been a long day."
Elin nodded her agreement. But she wasn't sure how this needed to be left. She knew she wanted to see Agnes again, that there was still more to explore. She liked this new and improved Agnes and wanted to get to know her better.
Thankfully though Agnes took the initiative. "I'd really like to see you again. Here's my card," she produced a robust cream creation from her pocket. "Come to the office, I normally finish at six. I can show you around and we can do this again." Agnes wanted the next step to be Elin's so the younger girl felt in control and that she actually wanted there to be a next step.
Elin nodded, again.
Agnes got up and put on her jacket, picking up her bag. "I'd really like it if you did. But, if you don't, it's been really wonderful to see you again. Take care."
Elin, who hadn't said anything for a while, didn't say anything again. She just smiled and nodded and watched Agnes leave.