ALL MANNER OF LOVE BUT THE OBVIOUS
A young woman meets a young man. They don't fall in love. And nobody minds. (Nothing here belongs to me. Sigh.)
But first, a short explanation:
The premise of this fic is that George and Caroline are something very rare. Hot boy meets hot girl, and they don't fall in love, and that doesn't stop them caring about each other. George doesn't treat Caroline like a lady. She's the only female of his acquaintance for whom that is the case. She's just a friend - not belittled, nor put on a plinth by her non-feminine status in his social life, just there. And by the same token, Caroline lets George off without the violent feminist scrutiny she gives Aubrey's, Darius', etc actions - because she knows better than to think he needs it.
And the relationship between them is something we rarely see - they're always seen from Aubrey's point of view, so that's only to be expected. But I wanted to celebrate the moments we aren't shown, where we see them as each other's friends as well as Aubrey's co-conspirators, as a team, and an impressive one at that.
Hence the drabbles.
"How, for example, would one say, 'Delighted to meet you'?"
"Je suis ravi de faire votre connaissance."
"I say -"
"Go on, then. Jesuisravidefairevotreconnaissance."
"Couldn't say it a little slower, could you?"
She shook her head. "If you ask a Gallian to speak slower, you shall lose their respect forever."
"Very well then. Jesuizravydefairevotconyiznce." Pleased with himself, George sat back, only to see her eyes glinting with ill-hidden amusement. "Good grief!"
Caroline's expression sobered. "Sorry. That was awfully good, really. For a first attempt."
"Excellent. Let's move on. What about 'I like your dress'?"
"Is this exercise solely in the interest of impressing members of the opposite sex?"
"Ah." She raised a quipping eyebrow at him. "You might at least pretend to be curious about m\the language itself,"
"Oh, I do." He crafted his best expression of academic interest and pointed it at her.
"Ta robe est très joli".
"I beg your pardon?"
"Ta-Robe-Est-Très-Joli. Not a literal translation, I grant you."
"That was a considerable improvement."
"Ah, excellent. And what about 'Shall we dance?'"
"Je suis gros cochon Albionais sans aucune grâce."
Caroline made a funny noise in her throat and covered her mouth briefly, refusing eye contact.
"I beg your pardon, what did I just say?"
She stared at him squarely for a moment, then her lip wriggled and she began to laugh. "Sorry. It was just irrestisible."
"What was it?"
"Nothing at all. Honestly. Well, not much."
"Yes?" she countered sweetly.
George couldn't help his eye wandering towards Aubrey's prone form, and wondered what his friend had got himself in for.
The carriage rattled across the paddocks, several times teetering near the point of overturning. Crossing his arms, George stared directly down his nose at Aubrey. "I wonder if Caroline knows anything about taming jungle creatures?" he asked, in tones tailored to suggest that he was already quite sure of Aubrey's answer.
Aubrey gazed unseeingly out of the window as the carriage swiped past a stunned-looking horse. "We can't just arrive at her door and drag her off to the Royal Menagerie on Christmas Eve, you know, George."
His friend raised an eyebrow. "That's not what you were thinking."
"Oh, yes? Dazzle me, then, with your paranormal knowledge of my inmost thoughts."
"Well, these zoological garden places are bound to be simply bristling with locks in need of picking. So things don't get out - lions, giraffes and so on."
"And that's what I'm thinking?"
George steepled his fingers professorially. "That's what I'd hazard, at any rate. Could be wrong, of course, but I'm fairly confident."
"Being, as you are, an expert in extra-sensory communication."
Wagging a finger, George chuckled. "Hardly. But you two are like watching clockwork. I can't make out what the cogs are doing, but I can see which way they turn."
"A horribly overextended metaphor, is what. Just turn down here, cabby."
Aubrey started as they pulled up outside Caroline's Morstonville townhouse, which dripped picturesque icicles. George opened the door and leapt out, offering the middle seat to Caroline, who
stood on the pavement tapping her foot. "I thought you two would never show up," she snapped, but her eyes were shining.
Aubrey gaped at George over Caroline's head. "Extra-sensory communication?"
George climbed back into the cab, grinning. "I telephoned."
"A national emergency, in the King's private zoo?" Caroline was clearly elated. "This is the best Christmas present ever."
"I aim to provide satisfaction," replied George easily.
They found Aubrey by the simple means of Kiefer tripping face-first over a pair of sprawled legs. A muddy figure, face down and unmoving, cricket whites now cricket browns.
Caroline reached him first, turned him over, hovered a businesslike ear over his face. Then she looked up at George. "He's not breathing."
He had, in spite of all past experience to the contrary, been expecting hysteria. Alarm. Uncertainty, at least. Given the sheer number of females he had observed in such situations, he didn't consider such an expectation to be ungrounded. But all he could read on Caroline's face as he leant over and met her gaze was a reminder that she was, despite their year-strong friendship, and the double bonds of weathering certain death and the frustrations of Aubrey's enigmatic behaviour, a complete stranger to him in so many respects. Her face showed blankness. Not even cold cloakative lack of emotion. She seemed empty.
The sight was frightening.
He knelt to check Aubrey's state for himself, ignoring the fact that Caroline, biologist in training, would presumably be able to tell the difference between a breathing Aubrey and a non-breathing one.
Flicking rain-dripped hair from his eyes, George bit his lip. "I've seen this before."
"Last year. There was-"
"-an accident. Of some sort. He never went into details with me, but..."
"I was with him. He died."
She quirked an angry eyebrow. "Temporarily, I presume?"
"Sort of. Not completely. Or something."
"I see," Caroline responded, in acid tones that made it patently evident that she did not. "And he camebacktolife?" He was both amused and mildly affronted by her scornful tone, but attributed it to the fact that she was probably in shock. As was he, if he was honest with himself. He wondered what to say that would both calm his friend and impress upon her the urgency of getting Aubrey medical help, but was interrupted.
"Impossible!" coughed a voice from the periphery. Kiefer had raised himself from the ground, neatly laminated in mud, and was kneeling in a puddle, watching their discussion eagerly. "Only the greatest attempt death magic. How he is alive, then?"
"Barely, it would seem," George answered. He hadn't meant the words to come out as a growl, but they did. Kiefer appeared unaware of this, looking at Aubrey's prone figure with every sign of respect.
George saw his chance and pounced: "You're a magic student. Can you help him?"
He spread his hands, the image of bedraggled woe. "I know nothing of death magic. I only-"
Then an expression of wonderment spread across his face. "Otto, what is it?" snapped Caroline sharply. She had a hand at Aubrey's throat, apparently trying to feel a pulse. Her hair was in a state of
high dishevel. She ground her teeth at Kiefer, now apparently distracted by searching his pockets, and looked at George. "Can we get him to the matron?"
"No need!" cried Kiefer, bounding up. His sudden movement caused a huge displacement of mud that sprayed across the four of them. "Ach. I beg your pardon. I think I can help your friend."
Caroline's eyes were polished bayonets. "Seeing as he's been dead for nigh on five minutes, I believe we'd all appreciate it if you explained yourself. Rapidly."
The Holmlander held out a spangling object to her, grinning as though he were handing over a prize trophy to a favourite virtuoso tennis player. She took it, exchanging a doubtful look with George.
"What is it?"
"No time! No time! Put it on your friend!" Kiefer was dancing with eagerness. George raised an eyebrow at Caroline, who shrugged back, and looped the bauble - a fine silver chain with something
dangling from it - over Aubrey's head.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then Aubrey's chest contorted spasmodically, and he began to cough.
Kiefer actually collapsed with relief, falling bodily back onto the mud with a soggy noise. He sneezed extravagantly. George was less delighted. And, by the looks of Caroline as their eyes met across Aubrey's twitching form, neither of them was much ravished by the thought that their friend's life was in the sole protection of a piece of jewellery bequeathed without explanation by a man of evidently unsound body and potentially unsound mind to match.
The first thing Caroline said as she swung from her still-skidding bicycle - to a certain degree of appreciative heckling from passing Mire inhabitants - was "That bloody idiot!"
He flapped a hand in greeting, trying to get his breath back. "Yes, I know. He's over in that rat-hole now - buying firearms, if this is like his last few stops."
The second thing Caroline said was, "I can't believe he manages to be so stupid and so utterly brilliant at the same time. I think that might just be what makes him so irritating."
"And intriguing," George added, popping his folded edition of the Argus into her bicycle's front basket since he knew better than to offer to wheel it for her.
"And irritating," she retorted.
There was a crunch of gravel, and they crouched simultaneously behind a many barrow as Aubrey came out into the open.
"Please tell me they aren't revolvers he's waving about like that."
"I'm sorry, I can't. Irritating, you see?"
He chewed his lip. "I'm afraid I do."
Dimness, rumbling. Caroline and Sophie slid inelegantly to the edge of the boiler as it gathered momentum.
"Caroline," came Sophie's voice, high but untrembling. "I don't –"
She interrupted herself with a stolid silence.
Caroline felt for a hand that wasn't her own, located one and squeezed it. "Nor do I."
"Good God," said George. "Jolly good show, Caroline."
Then he gulped and said "Good God" again.
The church door stood open a little way. This did not overly worry Caroline - weren't they supposed always to be left unlocked? - but the darkness of the gap was completely silent.
It was the kind of silence that only comes from extreme, focused attention to making no sound whatever.
Caroline pushed the door back, waited a second, stepped into the vestibule and twisted the prybar poised over her head from its wielder's hand. There was a startled cry.
"George. I should have known. Whatever possessed you to try that old chestnut?"
He jumped down heavily from the chest on which he had been perching, sending up a dense splash of dust. "Old it may be, but it's done for me enough times."
Caroline had to bite her tongue very hard indeed to prevent herself from saying, Yes, but that is because you are an overtrusting ignoramus.
"Just goes to show what a gullible idiot I am," George said.
"Nonsense," she huffed, handing him back his prybar and favoring him with a pat on the shoulder. "It's very effective if your opponent is off her guard. I'm just excessively cautious to the point of paranoia."
"What rot," he retorted.
She struck out at him with a baleful glare, which he returned blandly. Somewhere, a bird repeated the word twit dolefully to itself, presumeably as castigation for some foolish error on its part. She
sympathised with the poor little beast. Now that the mysterious aggressor in the church had turned out to be George Doyle, she was bored. It might be terminal, she hoped gloomily.
She hmphed. When George didn't take the bait, she re-hmphed, slightly louder.
"Caroline, I'm listening."
"Do you suppose Sophie will have found her parents yet?" she asked after an appropriate pause to indicate that the hmphing had not, in fact, been a ploy to gain his attention.
The Houses of Parliament dominated East Green Street, furrowing their stone brows imperiously over the frivolities of passers-by. Caroline was impressed despite herself. Momentarily, she considered what it must be like to visit this edifice daily in the service of the nation.
As opposed to demanding that the Prime Minister disown his son.
George lashed his bicycle to a lamp-post, where it was sniffed enthusiastically by a passing lady's dog until she called it to heel. "Have you been here before?"
She shook her head. "Have you?"
"No. But I suppose this is not the time for intimidation."
Intimidation? She cocked her head. "George, does any aspect of my manner indicate intimidation?"
"Not in the least. Sorry. Shall we? Cometh the hour..."
"Cometh the lieutenants," she finished, with what she hoped what was a confidence-inspiring air.
The officials in the main reception area had refined over centuries the art of looking bored and high-strung without actually descending to perform their function and offer assistance to those who had entered. Caroline approached an operative at one of the foyer's mahogany desks, George trailing behind to provide a generalised smile of goodwill.
The woman looked up; Caroline judged that she was in her late twenties, perhaps slightly younger and very overworked. "Lieutenant Caroline Hepworth, emergency message for Sir Darius
Fitzwilliam," she said bluntly.
The secretary flustered. "He's gone to his club –"
There was a pen in her hand and a blank sheet on the desk before she could finish.
"Do you think you could please tell us the address?" George smiled beguilingly.
"That was rather infra dig, wasn't it?" Caroline asked as they marched off to the Lexington Club.
George scratched the side of his neck. "I felt that time was at a premium. And knew I could rely on your discretion, not mentioning that particular tactic to Sophie and all." He put a hand on her arm and directed a charmingly trusting look into her eyes.
She shook his hand off. "Don't you dare try that on me, George Doyle."
He laughed. "I know better than to imagine it would work."
"Exactly." Caroline cut precipitously across his path, and he followed her as hastily as possible without any feet being tripped over.
The Lexington was tall, narrow, and ivy-covered. It stank of exclusivity. There was a suitably ancient-looking brass plate by the door: The Lexington Gentlemen's Club. Evidently it was too old to require a date of establishment. Caroline stopped at the second-top step to the door.
"What's the matter, old girl? Giving you the collywobbles?"
She brazened. "George, cease and desist from addressing me as 'old girl', and look at me. Stare deep into my eyes and tell me, do you detect so much as the remotest glimmer of a solitary
"No, Miss." The words shot out of their own accord.
"Thank you," Caroline snapped archly. She reached for the obnoxiously high and weighty knocker and put it to use.
The door was opened by a man whose chin, by deformity or severe injury, stretched down to his chest. He was supernaturally tall and wore a tailcoat with bad grace. "You want somefin'?"
George was on the point of raising his hat when Caroline rammed an elbow into his ribcage with winding force. "I beg your pardon, Willis," she barked, clearly implying that she begged nobody's pardon at all, for anything, under any circumstances, ever.
" 'Snot Willis -"
"Watkins, Wallace, I don't give a damn. Stop blustering about and take my coat. I shall require a copy of the Argus and a fresh box of top Gallian small cigars. Where is Sir Darius?"
The man's eyes crossed slightly in confusion. " 'Mafraid I don't –"
"Oh, blast it all!" Caroline pushed past the hapless man. "Hang the Argus, where's Fitzwilliam?"
"Oi! You can't come in 'ere!"
She wheeled. "And why's that, my good man?"
The man's face reddened in humiliation. "Yer a woman!"
Caroline glared a chilling glare to end all chilling glares. "Prove it."
Leaving the man brandishing a hand in vague desperation, she stormed into the bowels of the establishment.
George patted the doorman on the shoulder and smiled chummily at him. "Don't mind old Hepworth," he muttered jovially. "Silly rotter. How about something to eat while we wait?"
"Il y a une demoiselle ici qui veule vous parler."
He was already in motion. Caroline spared a moment for amusement at the fact that George's knowledge of Gallian was precisely sufficient for him to understand what demoiselle meant.
A shadow appeared in the butter light from outside, a silhouette whose shape was unmistakable. She acknowledged George with a swaying of her head, and a slow blink.
He cleared his throat. "Couldn't leave you alone up here. My mind's eye kept conjuring up visions of you, dewy-eyed and -"
"What was that?"
"- dry-eyed and wan, hunching over your work. Completely erroneous, of course. Mind if I sit down?" he asked, already taking the seat opposite her.
All of a sudden there was a tin cup of cocoa on top of the map of Fisherberg she'd been scrutinising. She picked it up to shift it away, then decided that its warmth could be helpful, and kept hold of it.
"Caroline, you need to sleep."
"Says the one who just gave me sugar and chocolate at -" she checked her watch, taking a minute to compute the position of the hands and extract actual meaning from it. "Two thirty-eight AM."
"And warm milk. Plenty of it. Proven curative for all known strains of insomnia, heartbreak and anxiety."
"Hmm," she snapped thickly, raising her eyes to see him. He'd propped his elbows on the table and regarded her solemnly from behind his own mug. "And which of the three am I, George?"
A smile, for some reason. George's mouth was hidden as he took a swig of cocoa, gesturing for her to do the same, but his eyes sparked annoyingly, even when she consented to take a sip in the hope that it would shut them up. "All three, I'd say."
"With your immense ream of psychiatric qualifications."
"Precisely. Drink up."
She complied, more out of thirst than obedience. "So I'm a heartbroken, anxious insomniac, am I, George?"
"In the nicest way, of course. And tired. Very tired."
"How on Earth can you say that?" She gestured at him with her mug. "You're trying that hypnosis stuff now?"
He gave a small laugh. "Didn't work, eh?"
"You have a milk moustache."
"Cocoa moustache," he corrected. He reached for his upper lip. "Good heavens, I have, haven't I?" He managed, after several fruitless attempts, to catch her eye, making the grin she was holding split at the seams.
She found herself hiccupping a chuckle. "Looks terrible."
"I'm sure it does." George swiped off his cocoa moustache with his sleeve, then took another drag of cocoa that left a new childish rim of milk froth on his face. "Caroline, you spent the last week raging through the upper echelons of the nation. Not to mention commandeering a lorry and driving hell for leather -"
"- learning to drive a lorry -" she added out of stubborn pride.
"- and driving hell for leather across Gallia. Without stopping." He gave a small yawn, which she felt oddly like emulating. "And you were angry at every single person who got in your path. Even me."
Caroline shifted her gaze down to her mug, a handy distraction from the guilt seeping in. "I'm sorry, George."
"I don't mind. It's just that that amount of anger takes a huge amount of energy. Without giving you any peace to gather your strength. To continue, you then shouted down both Commanders of the Security Intelligence Directorate, having recently pushed a sloop through Channel weather that most sailors would swear off whiskey rather than face. And before that, you pitched a fight with a man who turned out to be a perfectly harmless cheesemaker. And before that, you decided to abandon - in enemy territory, by the way - one Mr. Aubrey Fitzwilliam, and while I realise it would be insensitive and possibly fatal at this juncture to insult either of you with the usual euphemisms, it is as clear as the day is long -"
"It's getting on for winter, you know, George."
"- that he is somebody you are particularly fond of."
"Of whom you are particularly fond, you mean." The correction was easier than making a relevant argument. Easier seemed better, right now. Why?
"Caroline, you're deflecting the point." He drummed his fingers on the side of his mug, which made a pleasant, low ringing sound.
She rubbed her eyes and stared at him dimly between spread fingers. "There was a point amongst that barrage of sentimental claptrap?"
George drained his mug, wiping his mouth again. The film of cocoa at the edges smeared, causing him to resemble more than ever a particularly compelling six-year-old."No, there wasn't a point, at
least not one I expected you to concede."
"Then this would appear to be a -" she was seized by a racking yawn, which she barely covered, "-a, a thankless mission, George." Her hands slid from under her chin.
"Not quite," he said, catching her head before it hit the tabletop. "I drugged your cocoa."
Caroline tried, not without considerable effort, to hold a straight face when George jogged out of the building to hail them. "You do know that the faster we leave, the sooner we'll be back, don't you?"
He gave her an awkward glance. "Sophie?"
The Gallian's eyes darted from George to Caroline, and back again. "Yes, George."
"Be careful in Fisherberg, won't you?"
There was a sufficient amount of subtext in that phrase to force Caroline's hand. "Let me just go and speak to the driver. I'll be right back." On the point of darting away to the automobile, she was surprised to find George's hand on her arm.
He was staring her in a manner that would, even a fortnight ago, have been deeply disconcerting. She'd seen it before, on her parents and their friends, and once or twice on Aubrey, but it played
oddly with George's easygoing nature. It came straight from the business end of the stare spectrum. Caroline assessed it coolly.
Softening was undesirable, but she did it anyway. "George, don't make an ass of yourself telling me to take care of her."
Sophie bristled. "I do not need taking care of!"
Neither of them was having any truck with that. "You're getting taken care of anyway," muttered George, and that appeared to be that.
"You'll have to take care of me, too," Caroline told her as they rolled off. She caught Sophie's look of alarm. "What?"
Jerkily, Sophie shook her head. "Nothing."
George Doyle was surprised. When he'd been informed that a young lady was asking for him on the telephone, he had assumed naturally enough that aforesaid young lady would be Sophie. He turned to peer at the receiver as though he might be able to see the caller and confirm her identity through it, so Caroline's huff came to him faintly: "I'm sorry to disappoint you, George. Now, I require your undivided attention. Are you listening?"
"I am," he said, pulling himself together and brushing the last crumbs of his lunch from his waistcoat, "as a direct result of which, I can tell that you're using your Aubrey voice, which means that you need to calm down."
"My what voice?" This was followed by an expectant silence. George toyed with the possibility of pretending he hadn't heard, specifically to observe Caroline's undoubtedly entertaining reaction.
A graphic vision of what might eventuate were he to do this came to him. George snapped to attention, wiping his grin hastily away. "Your Aubrey voice, the voice you use when you are either frustrated by Aubrey or pretending that you are. Or when another male is behaving in a manner similarly irritating to you. Or when you're irritated by Aubrey but actually addressing somebody else. Or when you are very much peeved."
"I see," said Caroline. Her voice was like steak knives.
"Just like that, yes."
"And when I use this voice, have you generally found it prudent to make smart remarks?"
George stuck his fingers through his hair vaguely. "Yes. It tends to take the edge off the situation rather nicely, don't you think?"
The disbelieving grunt that met this was spoilt by the following muffled laugh. George waited for Caroline to speak, prompting her when she didn't. "Better now?"
"Marginally," she growled, but it was a well-meaning growl and George took no offense.
"So what was it you dragged me from the typing pool for? I do have report deadlines, you know."
"Ah." There was a rustling silence, as of awkward shufflings. It ceased. "George, I need you to come and rescue me."
A feather would have knocked him clean off his pins. "I say," he exclaimed blankly.
"I know," replied Caroline, her voice dark and boding. "Don't make me say it again."
"Rescue you from where, may I enquire?" he asked, trying to behave as though this were a normal conversation. "I thought you were still confined to quarters at the san, broken legs and all. How are they, by the way?"
"Still attached to me," she said shortly. "And you've just demonstrated what I need rescuing from. A dozen times a minute, people insist on knowing how I am. It's enough to make me quite ill." He must have chuckled, because her voice grew more urgent still. "I can't get a single thing done. The bloody nurses won't even let me read the paper - 'You need to rest, Miss Hepworth'," she mimicked badly. "The only way to stop me going utterly mad is to escape, and evidently I shall have trouble tying the bedsheets together and abseiling from the window."
"And you want me to help?" George was uncertain. "Look, old girl, I don't wish to - allright,Caroline,then - don't mean to be argumentative or anything -" he ignored her tut "-but if anyone's going to be doing rescue duty, oughtn't it to be Aubrey? I'd hate to step on his toes, what with engagements and whatnot."
"George, the and whatnot means that Aubrey won't hear of my exerting myself so much as to answer my own mail," Caroline groaned. "The only reason I haven't thrown something at him yet is that every projectile in the damn room is covered in these flowers he keeps sending. It's insufferable."
George tried to imagine Aubrey sending flowers to St. Michael's and prevented himself from laughing thanks to a dental quasi-amputation of his left index finger. "Seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do," he said, and reminded himself to relate this part of the conversation to Aubrey as proof of his continued support for his friend in the face of Caroline Hepworth's temper. "He's worried about you. We all are."
"Exactly! I haven't the strength for all these people worrying over me. I'd be much better off closeted away in a Lattimer Hall office somewhere, getting on with things."
George ran his tongue over his teeth, mulling. On the one hand, it would be a bad idea to refuse Caroline's request, particularly as it seemed quite reasonable. On the other hand, doctors and surgeons were doctors and surgeons, while he was a reporter and as-yet-unpublished novelist and knew nothing about whether it was realistic to expect Caroline to heal without further medical attention. It was a dilemma. As he ran it back and forth, George realised it was his turn to speak. "Why me?" he asked, to fill the gap. "Surely Sophie would be better for that sort of job. Or Lady Rose, I'm sure she'd sympathise. Or your mother. She could bail you out, couldn't she?"
Caroline's sigh was rendered flat by the telephone, but expressive nonetheless. "Admirable though those options are, George, they lack one quality. A vital quality, which you alone of my friends possess, and which makes you the only man for the job."
"And what might that be?" George was glad he was in a telephone booth. Being seen so pleased with himself could do no good for his reputed character.
"The ability to charm large numbers of uncommonly pretty nurses."
George grinned again. "Cab for Miss Caroline Hepworth, St. Michael's Hospital. I'm on my way."
Thus far, Aubrey was reasonably sure that he had been keeping up with the social dynamic, which made the following exchange even more baffling than it would have been anyway. Caroline cocked an eyebrow at George, who shook his head a fraction, and was then elbowed minutely by Sophie, at whom he directed a wide-eyed stare that was innocently reciprocated before being interrupted when Caroline cleared her throat and rolled her eyes in Aubrey's direction.
Then the three of them dissolved into choking laughter.
Aubrey gave up. "I'm sorry, I know I should be getting the hang of this diplomacy affair by now, but what on Earth is going on?"
Footsteps in the corridor, and a sharp double-tap at the door, clicketty-clicketty.
"Come in, Caroline," George called lazily.
There was a moment's rattling as Caroline's lockpicks were put to work, then she let herself in. He could tell from her face that she was forcing herself not to be impressed by, nor comment upon, his deduction. He settled back into his armchair. Why ruin his mystique?
Caroline put her hands on her hips, evidently trying to ignore the mystique. "Aubrey sent me," she said. "He needs his notebook."
"I was bored and volunteered."
"Ah." He craned to look to the door of Aubrey's study. "His notebook, you say?"
Caroline crossed the room and entered the study. "Oh."
A pause. "What on Earth does he fill them all with?"
"Deuced if I know, old girl. I stopped paying attention once he got Professor Bromhead in for help with a bit of stabilizing magic to stop the shelf coming down. It took three attempts," he added.
Caroline's horrified laugh summed up both their opinions to perfection.
She cleared her throat. "He...I suppose he has one working volume at the moment, though? You must have seen the one he's been using lately."
George shook his head. "He has different books for different things. Apparently it's easier to construct spells in Inorian on cartridge paper, and so on."
"Really? My father always said thin paper was best for him."
"I wouldn't know, old girl, I'm out of my depth. But the volumes currently in circulation are probably those on his desk."
"You're not suggesting I lug along every notebook on Aubrey's desk on the off chance that I hit the jackpot, are you?"
"George, I'm not an octopus."
He snorted. "Dashed annoying, that. The notebooks, I mean," he ammended hurriedly - and untruthfully.
Clearly Caroline decided that silence was the best retort. George returned to his paper.
"Do you know," he called presently, "there's a chap in Helvetica who says he can undo handcuffs, blindfold and underwater?"
"George, what's this newspaper?"
He looked around with a sigh from his own broadsheet. "Rather a broad question, that. Could you narrow it down a bit?"
"This." She flapped it at him. "Marked. Red ink."
George took stock for a moment. He recognised the page immediately, but was unsure how to handle the situation. He wondered if Aubrey had meant for Caroline to find it. It wouldn't be out of the question, Aubrey being Aubrey. And I suppose the fact that Caroline is Caroline might also contribute, he reflected. George could usually read Aubrey's intentions as though his actions were a printed page, but where Caroline was concerned, there were liable to be typographical errors.
He feigned ignorance. "Ah, congratulations. You've mastered the art of deciphering Aubrey's handwriting? Tricky skill, that."
"It's not in Aubrey's handwriting," she said slowly. "It's in yours. And that makes me very suspicious indeed."
He clapped a hand to his heart and feigned falling from his chair in shock. "Miss Hepworth, I can assure you that your suspicions are misplaced. My intentions, and Aubrey's, are honourable as ever, I swear."
"Was that meant to allay my concerns?" Caroline asked with eyebrows aloft.
George sniffed. "Yes," he admitted, resting on the top of his chair and meeting her look with an open gaze. "Did it work?"
Further silence. "Cup of tea?" he offered eventually.
A cautious "Thank you."
George strolled to the kitchenette. Caroline glanced from the newspaper to him and back, then took a breath to make an inquiry.
"Number Eight, Grainger Houses, Grainger Square, Crozier, Trinovant Central, AL003," George called, after a short and sharp argument with the rusted kitchen tap that culminated in dramatic if soggy victory.
She came to lean in the doorway, folding her arms. "It's circled."
"It would be," said George. He rummaged for teabags and shrugged away his doubts. "It's your new residence. Aubrey asked me to do some investigating for him while he's overseeing this Magical Studies flagship carry-on. All mod. con.s, two stories, small but fully furnished, all ground-floor windows barred and a grille on the chimney. Perfect for two blooming political figures like yourselves."
"Not to mention being positioned directly outside our current workplaces," Caroline observed. Her face was illegible, so he concentrated on finding that tin of delicious strawberry biscuits he'd pilfered from the Lattimer Hall tearoom. They had been his by rights, he'd reasoned. He was a taxpayer, after all.
"Always handy, that," he pattered breezily. "Means you can sleep in before dashing about saving us from disaster of a morning. Have marmalade on toast, do the Argus crossword together, that sort of thing." He found the tin, still half-full or close to it, and proffered it.
Caroline took a biscuit, biting into it with intent. "And you thought this all up by yourself, did you?"
"A chap does his best to be helpful." He waved the milk bottle expansively between dollops into the two mugs. "Now that you're the one responsible for convincing Aubrey not to jump off farmhouses to see if it's really true he can't fly, I've got my work cut out to keep my hand in." He handed over her tea. No sugar for Caroline Hepworth.
"George," said she, "I do declare you are a veritable angel in human form."
He chuckled, dropping two sugar cubes into his own mug and helping himself to a third, which he ate. "It's the scourge of my existence, but I try to keep it in check." There was a moment's quiet, while the tea took effect. "Well, go on, old girl."
"Ask me about the flying thing."
Caroline Hepworth had never known there were so many kinds of pain. Muscle pains and bone pains. Toasting pains and stabbing pains. Pains that flitted away when she thought about them, and ones that her gut told her would become unbearable if she dared admit their existence to herself. Internal pains and skin pains.
She cursed the moment when she had decided it was unnecessary to bring firearms to a garden party.
"How may I help you, Miss..."
Caroline's eyebrows rose slightly. George tried to pretend he wasn't watching from behind his book as the hapless lackey ground to a halt.
A further tweak above an impassive expression. The novice twitched. "Er..."
"Commander," said she, in a tone that would have scoured clean every window in the Crystal Palace.
"Hel-lo," said George. He put a finger to Josephine's newborn palm and kissed the clenching hand in gallant fashion. "What a charming young lady you are." He straightened, chuckling. "Good job, old girl."
Caroline glared cheerful daggers at him across her writhing daughter. "I think she's taken a liking to you," she observed as Josephine made a particularly violent attempt to grapple a hold on George's lapels.
Aubrey appeared at the end of the narrow hallway, neatly dressed but with telltale uncombed hair and a suspiciously patchy teatowel in one hand. "Of course she has," he joked blithely. He clapped his friend on the shoulder. "George has always been a hit with young women of all shapes and sizes."
"Speaking of young women with whom I am a hit," George added, sobering somewhat, "Sophie's tied up with Embassy business. She said she'd 'phone ahead when she's finished."
"In the meantime," Aubrey said, and left what must be assumed to be a meaningful pause. Caroline and George exchanged baffled frowns. Josephine had fallen asleep.
"Yes, Aubrey?" answered George at length.
Aubrey's gaze flickered indecisively between them. Eventually he reddened, made a slight shoving motion as though tossing shame to the wind and turned to George. "Help me prepare dinner, would you, George?"
That is cheating, Caroline mouthed to him as he helped George off with his jacket and shepherded him down the hall. Then she followed. This would at least be entertaining.
It was almost spring again before Lady Rose and Sir Darius could make it to Number Eight to see their new descendent in situ.
"Rose," asked Caroline critically.
She frowned. "Do you understand the meaning of the word 'boofle'?"
Lady Fitzwilliam looked up from her teacup, momentarily puzzled. "Why do you ask?"
"Josephine used it earlier this evening."
"Ah." A contemplative light touched Rose's face. "It is held, I believe, to be the standard expression employed among infants when they wish to intimate that something is beautiful."
"I see." Caroline tilted her head sidewards in thought.
Rose smiled benevolently, coming to her side to look down on the shapeless white figure in the cot. "Yes, I suppose that between the three of us, we fine Fitzwilliam ladies must qualify for booflety."
"I don't think so."
"She used it - quite precisely, I mean - about George."
The two of them pondered this in silence, providing a gap for the echo of an exchange to drift from the kitchen:
"I say, George?"
"Yes, old man?"
"What does a meat tenderiser actually do?"
Sir Darius' head appeared around the door. "Ladies, I think dinner may evade us a little while yet."
Caroline and Rose exchanged mute glances of amusement across the cot and turned back to study the latest fine specimen of Fitzwilliam ladyship.