My leg was shaking, and I couldn't stop it. We were gathered outside Dr Bertram's office, Ned and Mary and Mireille and Julia and me, listening to Tom and Dr Bertram yell at each other at top volume. As a guest, Mary didn't have to be there, but she'd stayed with Ned while Henry had disappeared into the night.
My chest felt like someone was squeezing it from the inside, and I had to remind myself to breathe. Little spots danced in front of my eyes whenever I forgot. I couldn't stop my knee bouncing, but I clamped my hands together between my knees to try to control my tremors.
Dr Bertram's hand landed on his desk again and again, bang bang bang, and even through the door it made my ears ring. If Tom was in this much trouble, how much trouble would I be in?
Mireille and Julia both looked worried. Julia, who had the more expressive face, was almost crying, while Mireille was a shade or two paler, a tone or two more reserved. Tom had been in trouble before, of course, we all knew that and we'd all seen that. This might be the first time that Mireille and Julia were in danger of being in real trouble themselves.
And then there was Ned. He leaned against the wall, his arms folded across his chest, eyes down on the floor. Dr Bertram had said, when he'd left, that he counted on Ned. Would Ned be in trouble, too? Would Dr Bertram yell at him, too? Would he send him away?
My chest started to hurt, and I breathed in, shallowly. Would I be sent away, for joining in? Anyone could tell Dr Bertram that I'd been part of it. I was eighteen now. Would he send me away?
"Fawn?" I jolted in my seat as Ned crouched down beside me. I could hear my heart beating in my ears as I looked into his serious face, now just ever-so-slightly shadowed with scruff. "Are you okay?" His hands came up to rest on either side of my thighs, fingertips brushing the seat cushion.
"How much trouble are we in?" I barely moved my lips.
One side of his mouth twitched for a moment, then fell back. "I'm in a lot of trouble, I think. And Tom. I think I'll be the next one in that room." On the other side of the door, Dr Bertram hit the desk again, bang bang bang bang bang, and Ned dropped his head for a moment before looking back at me. "You, though, you're not in any trouble."
"How do you know?"
"Because I know, Fawn," he jiggled my knee with his hand to get my attention. "You weren't even a part of it, you never even agreed to do it. I'm in trouble. You are definitely not."
A lump in my throat appeared suddenly and without warning, threatening to choke me. "What if he kicks me out?" My voice was no more than a whisper.
His face changed from concern to sorrow to sympathy to something I couldn't place, and he tilted his head to catch my eye. "He would never kick you out. Never. He knows you have nowhere to go."
A tear slid down my nose and landed on my lips. Ned followed its path with his eyes. "But what if he does, though?" It took an effort, but I managed to close my lips before the sobs got out. I swallowed them whole.
Ned caught my hands in his, a powerful double grip. "Then you get to pick the place, and we'll go there together, okay? Just you and me." Another tear fell, and splattered on our hands, then another, then another. "But he'll never throw you out. He likes you too much." He leaned in, pressing his forehead against mine, then pulled back to look me in the eyes, smiling a little. "You don't have to wait outside here with the rest of us guilty ones, Fawn. Go on, grab some ice cream from the kitchen or something." I hesitated, and he hit my knee lightly. "I'll be here in one piece when you get back. I swear," he held out his pinky for me to shake. I shook it, feeling like an infant and a fool at the same time I felt a sweeping wave of gratitude and love.
Mary was watching us. I could feel her eyes on me, but I avoided looking at her as I stood up and walked down the hall as fast as I could without running.
The freezer was full of ice cream, and the cold air it wafted against my skin was as comforting as it was uncomfortable in the air-conditioned house. There, buried somewhere in the middle of the various pints was nearly-full container of peach. For a moment I fantasized running upstairs and kissing Ned for his thoughtfulness.
The thought made me feel even more nauseous than I had felt before. I closed the freezer with a resounding thud. The kitchen breathed around me.
I still felt jittery. I could go outside, maybe run around the house a couple times, just to calm myself down. Get the energy out. But I didn't want to leave the house, not after I'd been so worried that Dr Bertram would make me leave. I walked around the kitchen a few times as a compromise, unable to make up my mind.
On the third go-round, the door to the outside opened and Guy Fearsome breezed in, opening a cabinet and pulling out a glass, then another to take out a bottle of Dr Bertram's scotch. He poured half a glass-full, then leaned against the counter, taking me in.
My eyes flicked to the door. Hadn't he been thrown out?
He grinned a little. "Don't think he'll mind me taking it, do you? House like this? Probably has more in the basement. Or do you folks call it a cellar?"
It was the cellar. And there was more scotch down there.
"Oh, don't worry about me, sweetheart. I'm just here to finish up some legal things. Signed a contract, owner of the house, rights to release, you know. Don't know what we'll get out of it, since it's sure as hell not an episode of Party Castles! Not that you care. You were never too keen, were you, babe?" He moved so that his back was to the fridge. I could make a break for any of the doors, but he might beat me there first. I leaned back against my counter, attempting nonchalance as well. I wondered if I needed scotch to be nonchalant.
"Can I tell you something?" He took a swig of his drink, made a face like he was in pain, then gasped, "Jesus, that's good. Can I tell you something? You don't mind, do you?" He paused for a moment, and I didn't move. He laughed. "Of course you don't mind. Well, I just wanted to say that you, babe, you are a whole lot of interesting to me. The silent thing? I mean, where does that even come from? I mean, it's brilliant, it's totally cool. Totally cool in a secret, sexy kind of way. You don't mind if I tell you that." He saluted me with his glass. I tried not to look for the doors. "But it does make me wonder what's going on in that head of yours." He set his glass down on the counter between us, the scotch rising to kiss both sides, first halfway up, then lower and lower until it lay still. "Like, what are you thinking? And how do you even say things to people?" He leaned on his hands, putting his face as close to me as he could, on the other side of a counter, backed into a corner. It was close enough.
He watched my face for a moment. "Can I ask you something?" Again that chuckle, as if he'd said something amusing. "Why do I keep even asking your permission?" He shook his head, then leveled his gaze at me. "If you wanted to talk to me, could you?" He took a step to his right, edging his way around the counter toward me. "I mean, if you put your mind to it?" He took another little step.
My eyes flicked to the outside door. Would I be able to reach it before he did? My throat was tight, my breathing shallow. Little spots danced in front of my eyes.
What did he want from me?
"You look like you'd have a lot to say," he went on, cocking his head. "What would you say to me, if you could?"
My mind and my throat and my mouth were full of the things I would say, if I could. I knew I'd never get the chance, not now.
"Can we try something?" His hands came out, one propped on the island, the other on the counter attached to the wall, with which he was now level. He blocked my path to both house doorways. "How about if I take a stab at what you're thinking, and you tell me if I'm right?"
I started to edge away, trying to be subtle about it. He raised his eyebrows in a way that reminded me uncomfortably of Aunt Nola. "Oh, you don't have to be worried about me, baby. I'm not going to bite." He smiled then, a little. "Has anyone ever told you how pretty you are, sweetie?" He tilted his head toward me, clearly waiting for a reply.
I stood perfectly still.
He chuckled, a deep, sandpaper sound, a Styrofoam on Styrofoam sound. "No? Well you are. Pretty, I mean. Crazy pretty. Those big eyes of yours, those cheekbones, those lips, I mean, you're a fucking goddess, did you know that? I could get you a modeling job, like that," he snapped his fingers, "if you want me to. If you ask me to." He took one more step toward me, close enough to smell the scotch on his breath. "If you ask me real nicely." And his hand reached up, gently, to stroke a lock of my hair out of the way. "So pretty," he crooned, rubbing a strand of my hair in between his fingers and thumb, "so very fucking gorgeous." He tucked my hair behind my ear.
His touch set off any alarm bells that hadn't already been ringing, and deep under the shock and panic that paralyzed me, I felt a bubbling surge of anger rise up. It wasn't strong, not really, since the fear of being hurt was stronger than anything else, but it was enough to make me move.
Billy had told me, once, when I was eight, right before we were split up, how to deal with people who hurt me or were mean to me. He'd scrunched up his sunkissed, freckled face to look at me where I had been sitting, a step or two above him on the front stairs. My knees had been bloodied from the kids who'd pushed me down at school, and my hands had borne the scratches and pockmarks of an acquaintance with asphalt. "Don't take it," Billy had advised, drawing in the dirt with a stick. Drawing a superhero with big boots. "Just stomp on 'em, Flan, 'kay? Just put on some big boots and when they try on stomp on you, you stomp on them back. Okay?"
Guy Fearsome took one more step closer, his body inching closer to mine. My gaze locked on the floor, I saw his foot come right into my line of vision.
I screwed up my courage, Billy's voice in my ears. I stomped. Guy Fearsome howled and grabbed at me. I stomped again, and again, then broke free of his hands and made my way for the door. At the last second I changed my mind, decided not to run outside, since there was nothing to stop him running after me. I switched tack, running for the door to the rest of the bottom floor, I'd be there in two seconds, I'd be there in one, I'd-
I ran right into a tall body standing in my way, and bounced off. I knew Guy Fearsome hadn't beaten me, since he was still behind me, cursing me at the top of his lungs. I raised my eyes, praying it wasn't one of the camera crew, praying I'd be able to escape. My vision connected with sandy blonde hair, dark brown eyes, and freckles before my mind settled on a name.
Henry Crawford. Henry Crawford, who looked from me to Guy Fearsome behind me, and swept me back without a second glance, so that he was standing between me and and the director. I tried to sneak out the door, but Henry had caught hold of my right wrist, and wouldn't let me go.
"You okay?" Henry asked Guy, though he sounded barely interested.
"Bitch broke my foot!" Guy leaned back into my spot old spot now, gasping for breath, favoring the foot I hadn't smashed.
"Really. I'm so sorry."
"I'll fucking sue you!" He pointed a shaking finger at me, "This is assault! I'll have your ass!"
I tensed, but Henry shrugged. "Cool. Go for it."
"I fucking will!"
"I'm saying you should, man. You want to sue the only niece of the maharaja of the world's second-largest pharmaceutical company? Good for you, buddy. Go for the gold," he leaned in conspiratorially. "Who knows? The judge and jury might all be predators, too, so..." He trailed off, straightening. "You knock yourself out with the lawsuit thing. Really." He paused for a split second. "Or you could get out now and not get sued for assault yourself."
There was more cursing, this time louder. Maybe he was hoping he'd bring the rest of the house in, but I could only guess they were all occupied with being yelled at by Dr Bertram upstairs. Something along the lines of Henry having no proof. Of Guy Fearsome being the injured party.
Henry shrugged again, so relaxed. So calm. "Yeah, maybe, but everyone in this house can testify that you were weirdly fixated on Fawn from day one. And this might not be a house full of people you want to go up against. Call me crazy."
Guy did. And a few other things at that. I shrank back at his voice, convinced he would bring the whole household running to see that the matter was. It was the first time I was glad that I lived in a mansion. Well-insulated eons between rooms.
When Guy Fearsome did leave, after several minutes, he hobbled out the side door with a difficulty that I was horrified to discover I took intense satisfaction from. The door slammed, and I made as if to leave. Henry turned toward me, but didn't let go of my hand.
"Hold on, wait," his eyes were on the ceiling; he was clearly listening. A few minutes later there was the crunch of tires on gravel, a car pulling away. Henry leveled his eyes to mine.
"Did he hurt you?"
I shook my head.
"What did he say?"
I cocked my head. Henry had the grace to blush, which surprised me. "Well, I never know when you're going to talk to me, you know."
It's always when you make me angry, I thought. I wasn't angry. And even if I were, I wouldn't be angry at him.
"Are you okay?" He bent down a little, looking me straight in the eyes. He didn't seem particularly concerned, really. His voice hadn't changed since the last time he spoke to Guy Fearsome.
I nodded. Paused. Nodded again. Pulled on my wrist, raised my eyebrows.
He looked down at his hand as if he'd never seen it before, then released me. A hot pink ring ran around my wrist. "Don't know my own strength," he said, by way of apology. He watched my face again, expressionless.
My heart was still beating fast, and I could feel a bout of panic coming on. I needed to get out of the kitchen, but I needed to know something first. I looked up at him, with no hope whatsoever of him being able to understand what I wanted.
He looked down at me, frowning slightly. Blinked twice. His face smoothed out. "I won't tell anyone if you don't want me to."
Now I blinked. Once. Twice. Three times. I nodded, and turned around to dash myself up to my room. The chair against the door wasn't enough. I sat with my back against, gasping for breath, feeling fingers in my hair, a hand against my cheek, hot scotch breath on my face.
I was spending too much time in my room.
What would I say, if I could? If I could choose only one thing to say to everyone, what would it be?
I didn't want to replay Guy Fearsome's questions in my head, but as I stared at the carpet in Mrs Bertram's parlor, I couldn't stop myself. I dug my toe into the corner of a particularly vivid flower woven into the plush rug, not even trying to hear the conversation going on around me.
Tom was gone, again. We were all pretending that was fine. Again. No one mentioned him, or Yates, or the camera crew that had driven off mysteriously in the night. What would happen to all that footage? What would they do with it?
No one asked those questions. Instead, it was polite, how-do-you-dos from Dr Bertram to the Crawfords, do-you-know-such-and-such, what part of Los Angeles are you from, which schools did you attend. Dr Bertram's trip had been fine, thank you for asking. So very much more productive than even he had been anticipating. They drank coffee from beautiful cups with quiet, sophisticated slurps.
I dug my toe in deeper. I could be a model like that. If I asked. If I asked nicely. The very thought of him standing so close to me gave me shivers. I wanted to tell Ned what had happened. I wanted to tell him desperately. But what if he blamed me? Or worse, what if he told his father, and his father told everyone in the house? It was better if nobody knew. It would have been better if no one had seen at all, but Henry Crawford knew now. He didn't look at me, not once, and after a few minutes I stopped watching him. Maybe he wouldn't tell anyone.
There was one part that gave me satisfaction, though, and that was how hard I had stomped on Guy. I probably had broken his foot, actually. He'd probably need to walk in a cast. Take that, I thought. I hadn't been frozen completely solid. Not quite.
It felt good. Better, maybe, than it should have, seeing as how I had just broken someone's foot with my heel.
What would you say to me, if you could? Why do I keep asking your permission?
"Fawn?" The room had gone silent. I looked up quickly, meeting Dr Bertram's eyes. He waited a moment, then repeated himself. "How are you?"
It was the first time in a year that he'd asked me a direct question about myself. I got over my initial shock and smiled, nodded. My lips felt tight. Ned, on the other side of the room, narrowed his eyes a bit, but Dr Bertram didn't seem to think anything was amiss.
"Didn't cause too much trouble while I was gone?" He was teasing me. Dr Bertram was teasing me. What was going on?
I smiled again, shook my head. Breathed in, breathed out. "No, sir. N-not too much t-trouble. "
He raised his eyebrows. "Ned, you weren't lying." Ned looked from me to his father and back, then crinkled his face in apology to me.
I was right not to tell him.
"Remind me when your birthday is, Fawn. It's coming up, right?" The fact that he even knew I had a birthday floored me. I shook my head, breathed in. Breathed out. "No, sir. Few weeks ago."
"My God," he set his coffee cup down authoritatively, as if forgetting my birthday were a travesty, not a near-yearly occurrence. "We should make it up to you, then. Beautiful girl like you with not birthday party. It's obscene."
I looked down at my knees. He was joking, I knew. He was teasing me again, maybe. So fucking gorgeous. I didn't want anyone telling me I was beautiful, not anyone. Not ever.
"Henry," Dr Bertram went on, "don't you think beautiful girls deserve better for their eighteenth birthdays?"
"I think someone as sweet and lovely as your niece deserves the best of everything," Henry answered with a casual cocked eyebrow. Dr Bertram chuckled.
"She's not actually our cousin," Julia whispered, leaning conspiratorially toward Henry. Henry nodded but didn't respond, didn't, in fact, seem interested.
I stared further into the carpet, mortified. What was this, now? I could feel Mireille's eyes digging into the back of my neck, sharp as claws. Henry should say those things to her, not me. Really, he shouldn't say them to anyone. Really, he should keep them to himself.
"Henry, please. You're embarrassing her," Mary put in from across the room. "Fawn doesn't like being noticed and complimented. She hates it as much as I hate being ignored. Leave her alone."
That was wrong. That was so wrong. She was terribly, terribly wrong. But Ned was nodding next to her, and Dr Bertram conceded. He turned back to me. "How would you like to have a birthday party? We could make it fancy for you, a real ball, if you want. My daughters both had princess balls at one time or another, do you remember? We could do the same for you, if you want."
I did remember those occasions. Aunt Nola had confined me to my room the whole evening, and I had watched the lights flickering out of my window. Mireille's party had happened when I was still in the first bedroom, and I had been on the wrong side of the house to see anything going on, but for Julia's I had been in the attic, with its almost panoramic view of the grounds, and I had been able to see people coming out onto the lawn, the front doors thrown open onto the spring nights. Even when I'd considered having a party to myself, I'd never imagined it would ever happen.
Mireille scoffed from behind me. Dr Bertram raised his eyebrows. "You don't have to come if you don't want to. But I figured Fawn would want to celebrate the occasion, what with her brother coming in a week."
I shot straight up in my seat, bolted to my feet. Belying the electric trembling running through my body, my voice was very quiet.
"Do you really mean that? He's coming here?"
Dr Bertram smiled again, a real smile that I would have to get used to. He'd never smiled at me indulgently before. "Yes, Fawn, really. I contacted him last week. He'll be here in a few days. Soldiers on leave should always have parties waiting for them, don't you think?"
I crossed the sitting room in three strides, not even sure myself what I was doing. Dr Bertram knew, though, and stood up, holding out his arms to embrace me. I wrapped my arms around his waist and, daring for just a moment, buried my head in the dark cotton of his suit jacket. I had never hugged this man before, had never hugged anyone in waking memory except for Ned and Tom and Billy, and it should have terrified me, but he smelled like clean laundry and sweat and his shaving soap, and it felt safe to hug him and have him hug me back.
Dr Bertram was home, now, I told myself. I would never feel unsafe again.
A/N: So I don't like doing so many authors' notes, but I wanted to apologize for being an entire month later than I promised. I thought I'd be done with my papers, but this is the semester that just won't die, and I'm still working on one as I type. Thank you for being so patient- I'm just sorry that I haven't rewarded your patience with anything resembling punctuality.
Thank you as well for all the people who private messaged me with ideas and feedback. You're amazing, and your ideas are amazing, and thank you for sticking with me. I'll be back soonish, since I should be done with this paper soonish (cross your fingers), but I'll keep my author page updated so you know where I am with chapters.
Thanks again, and Happy New Year!