It started, of all things, with a sneer. Just as she was enjoying Gwen receiving the best of Mam'zelle Rougier's acerbic wit, Alicia noticed that Daphne was apparently enjoying herself as well, judging from the wild sneer on her face that slowly changed into a vicious smile.
The next time Daphne looked her way, Alicia smiled at the girl, attempting to make absolutely clear, that while no one else may have noticed that expression on Daphne's face, Alicia did. To her surprise, Daphne smiled back, looking every single bit as innocent as if there was no place for malice in her heart. However, Alicia now knew differently and she was determined to either use that knowledge somehow or at least to find out more.
The question was, did Daphne know? Maybe that smile was just an attempt to throw Alicia off the track and to make her think that Daphne really was only the sweet girl that was Mary-Lou's friend and nothing else. Still, if there were any hidden depths in Daphne's character, Alicia wanted to investigate them.
As soon as she had a free moment, Alicia sought out Betty in order to confer with her about Daphne. Just as expected, Betty was reading in their study, poring over a book of French poems that Mam'zelle Rougier assigned them as homework that very day.
"Betty, do you have a moment?" said Alicia.
"Mm," said Betty, but did not put the book away.
"Say, did you notice Daphne lately?" said Alicia.
"Can't say that I did," said Betty, "Why, is something happening?"
"You could say that," said Alicia and then described what she saw during the lesson.
"So?" said Betty, "That's interesting, but I don't see why would you make such fuss about it."
"I'm just interested, that's all," said Alicia, "Daphne is always keeping to herself, so I was surprised when I saw it."
"I can't help you in this," said Betty, "Sorry, but I'm not curious enough to snoop around."
"I don't want to snoop around," said Alicia, "If I really want to know something, I'll just ask Daphne directly."
"That might be the best idea," said Betty.
While the talk with Betty did not offer any new insights, it made Alicia determined to confront Daphne directly. However, ever since they advanced to the Sixth Form and got their own studies, Daphne spent most of her free time with Mary-Lou in their study. Waiting hidden outside the study door until Mary-Lou left was once possibility, but Alicia did not want to spend hours waiting in front of a door. No, there must be another way. Finally, Alicia decided for the simplest and the most obvious way.
The next day, Alicia approached Daphne as soon as the lessons ended. "Daphne, can we talk for a moment," she said.
"Sure," said Daphne with the same charming smile that she had shown yesterday, "Your study or mine?"
"Neither, actually," said Alicia, "I want to talk with you, not you and Betty or Mary-Lou. What do you think about the courtyard?"
"I have nothing against it," said Daphne, "Shall we go?"
The courtyard was mostly deserted, as most girls clearly preferred to spend the late summer days outside the school. Daphne and Alicia found an empty bench and made themselves comfortable.
"What did you want to talk about?" asked Daphne.
"I saw your face when Mam'zelle Rougier was scolding Gwen yesterday," said Alicia.
"Oh," said Daphne, "I though you might have."
"I never figured you could be like that," said Alicia, "So I became a bit curious about you."
"Then it's all good," said Daphne, "You know, you really are rather pretty when one gets a closer look."
This took Alicia by surprise and she didn't like it. Combining this with yesterday, it might turn out that she might have to start taking Daphne as someone capable of surprising her on regular basis. Daphne was still smiling, but the smile's charm did not work on Alicia. Mary-Lou might be weak to Daphne's pretty face and prettier smile, but Alicia was far too smart for that. She smiled right back and noticed that for a fleeting moment, Daphne looked taken aback. "Are you trying to flatter me, so I won't reveal your secret?" said Alicia.
"Nothing like that," said Daphne, "It just crossed my mind, that's all."
"Are you always in the habit of saying everything that crosses your mind?" said Alicia.
Daphne shook her head. "Not at all," she said, "I just wanted to tell you that."
"Oh?" said Alicia, "And why is that?"
"I am interested in you," said Daphne, "I figured that with you suddenly taking an interest, there might be an opportunity to get to know you a little better."
"I'm not interested in you that much," said Alicia, "Besides, what would Mary-Lou say?"
"Why bring Mary-Lou into this?" said Daphne, "Although I'm quite sure she wouldn't mind."
Daphne's attitude started to get on Alicia's nerves. It was silly to think this after what she had learned yesterday, but Daphne was not acting like anything Alicia had imagined. She was not in control of the situation and she did not like it at all. Of all people, Daphne was one of those she wouldn't expect to do that. Maybe Darrell or Bill, but not Daphne. No, she was not humiliated by that, but it did make her feel irritated.
"Be straight with me," said Alicia, "What do you want?"
"I don't want to anything," said Daphne, "You called me her, don't you remember?"
"You didn't have to come," said Alicia, "So you clearly want something."
"In that case, I've already told you," said Daphne, "I'm interested in you."
"You're going in circles," said Alicia, "Are you getting anywhere?"
"Of course I am," said Daphne, "I would like to spend a little more time with you, if you don't mind."
This was not particularly surprising, considering what Daphne said before. Daphne was still smiling at Alicia who was still vaguely disconcerted by that smile. If it weren't for that, Alicia would once again return to the previous state of her relationship with Daphne, but the irritating smile made Alicia want a little payback of her own.
"Very well then," she said, "I'm going to the pool tomorrow after lessons with Betty, Darrell and Sally. Would you want to come too?"
"The pool?" said Daphne, "Isn't it a little late for that?"
"Maybe for babies," said Alicia and smirked, "But we can handle it. Sally even asked the Matron and she permitted it."
"Let me guess," said Daphne, "Matron actually said that if she forbade it, you would sneak into the pool at night and catch your death from cold."
"Among other things, yes," admitted Alicia, "But she also said that we can go during the day."
"Then I suppose I can join you there," said Daphne, "I'm no baby, after all."
"See you tomorrow then?" said Alicia.
"Yes, tomorrow," said Daphne with a smile.
They went their separate ways, Alicia returning to her study, lost in thought. Something was off with Daphne today, though maybe Alicia was just more sensitive about her since yesterday. Maybe it was that the first opportunity in quite a long time that she was able to talk with Daphne when Mary-Lou was not present. The two girls were not exactly joined at the hip, but with Alicia not paying much attention to Daphne, she never talked with just Daphne or just Mary-Lou. A lone Daphne was a rather remarkable sight.
Betty did not ask anything about where Alicia went. Unlike Sally and Darrell, Betty and Alicia trusted each other and Betty was not prone to fits of jealousy for trivial reasons, like Sally used to be. They just nodded at each other, going about their own business and knowing that if something important were the matter, they would immediately tell each other.
A few minutes passed, but then Alicia spoke. "I talked with Daphne today," she said.
"Hm," said Betty, interested, but noncommittal.
"I invited her to the pool tomorrow," said Alicia, "She said she'll come."
"Really?" said Betty, "I wouldn't have thought that she'd do that."
"Do you mind?" asked Alicia.
"No, not really," said Betty, "I just didn't expect that."
They said nothing more on that subject and the rest of the day passed without any incident. The next day, Alicia couldn't wait until the lessons ended, paying even less attention to the teachers than usual, only the bare minimum needed to avoid trouble Access to pool with little restrictions was one of the privileged given to the Sixth Form, but that privilege could be easily revoked.
Afternoon finally arrived, with only quarter of an hour before Alicia had to go to the pool, so Alicia rushed to pick up her swimming suit and head to the pool. She was the first to arrive there and quickly walked over to the changing cabins to put on her swimsuit.
When she returned to the pool, Daphne was already there, sitting on the pool's edge and splashing her bare legs in the water. "You're not going into the water?" asked Alicia.
"No, I don't quite feel like swimming," said Daphne.
Alicia shrugged. "Suit yourself," she said and jumped into the pool. The day was uncharacteristically warm for early autumn and Alicia longed to cool herself in the water.
She didn't pay much attention to Daphne, not until Darrell and Sally arrived. When Alicia heard footsteps and looked out of the pool to see who had come, she also noticed that Daphne was watching her. It was a perfectly natural thing to do, there was not much else to look at near the pool, but Alicia couldn't help feeling self-conscious.
"Get in," she called to Darrell and Sally, dismissing the thoughts of Daphne once more, "Have you seen Betty?"
Both Darrell and Sally shook their heads. "I thought she went with you," said Darrell.
"No, I was here first," said Alicia, "Now stop gabbing and get in. Daphne doesn't want to get wet, so it's a bit boring here."
As soon as she said that, Alicia heard a splash as Daphne withdrew her legs from the water and when Alicia turned around to look at her, she saw Daphne gathering her belongings and leaving without a word. Well! If Daphne wanted to get all huffy over something both trivial and true, she was welcome to do so.
Neither Darrell nor Sally referred to Daphne's sudden departure; they just changed and joined Alicia in the water. They enjoyed a swim together, until footsteps could be heard once again and they could se Betty arriving and Daphne returning to the pool.
Soon enough, Daphne and Betty left the changing cabins, both in swimsuits. "What kept you so long?" Alicia asked Betty.
"Sorry," said Betty, "Potty caught me and asked about my last Math test. I almost got extra sums to do, since I bungled some in the test."
"What happened?" asked Alicia, swimming to the pool's edge, "You never botched Math so badly for Potty to give you extra work."
"Oh, it was nothing," said Betty, "I just overlooked a little detail. I showed it to Potty and explained myself, so she let me off with just a warning."
"What about you, Daphne?" said Alicia, "What made you come back?"
"I thought I'd join the fun," said Daphne, testing the water with her foot before lowering herself into the water.
"Is it because of what I said?" asked Alicia.
"No-Yes, actually it is," said Daphne.
"Oh," said Alicia, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that."
"It's fine," said Daphne, floating in the pool on her back, "The water's nice, isn't it?"
Alicia didn't get a chance to answer, since just then, Betty splashed some of the pool's water on her. "Don't you go forgetting that there are others here beside Daphne," said Betty.
"Sorry," said Alicia and grinned at Betty, "What are you up to?"
"Darrell and Sally are having a race, so I figured we might join in," said Betty, "Daphne, do you want to join too?"
"Not really," said Daphne, "I'd come in last anyway. Besides, you need spectators for this to be a proper race."
Alicia followed Betty to the side of the pool where Darrell and Sally were already waiting for them. Just before the race started on Sally's signal, Alicia noticed that Daphne had returned to the pool's edge, remaining in the water and watching them. Again, she felt self-conscious, even though, again, it was only natural that Daphne would be watching them.
Determined to get the race over with, Alicia swam with all of her might, leaving first Sally, then Betty, and finally Darrell behind, reaching the other side in what must have been her personal record time. Tired, almost exhausted, Alicia climbed out of the pool, lying on her back on the sun-warmed ground, resting after the strenuous exercise. She closed her eyes to protect herself from the sun's glare. Soon, the sounds of splashing ceased, the others being apparently just as tired as she was. Even the hard ground underneath couldn't prevent Alicia from getting comfortable. She wasn't sleepy, but the thought of napping a little was enticing.
"Congratulations," she heard Daphne say.
Alicia opened her eyes, seeing that Daphne was standing over her and smiling. She got up and looked around. Darrell and Sally were sitting on the opposite side of the pool, talking to each other in voices low enough to be impossible to hear from so far away. Betty was just floating in the water, her eyes seemingly closed.
"You tire out quickly," said Daphne, sitting down next to Alicia, "Were you going to fall asleep?"
Alicia shook her head, "Of course not," she said and stood up, offering her hand to Daphne, "You haven't been in the water that much. Come on."
Daphne took the hand and together, they walked over to the water's edge. They were on the deep edge of the pool, so Alicia jumped in, knowing that there was no danger. Daphne was a bit more hesitant, not jumping, but carefully lowering herself into the pool, making Daphne impatient.
"Get in," she said to Daphne, who was only halfway into the water. When Daphne continued at the same leisure pace, Alicia took hold of her hand and dragged her into the water with a big splash. To Alicia's surprise, when Daphne returned to the water's surface she was not cross at all, but laughing and spitting the seawater from the pool all around. Still laughing, Daphne dunked Alicia's head into the water. In the resulting struggle, Alicia's swimming cap somehow slipped off her head, leaving her hair to become completely drenched. When she saw that, Daphne started to laugh even harder.
Alicia fished out her swimming cap and tossed it to the poolside, as it was pointless now. However, Daphne was still helpless with laughter and Alicia took full advantage of it, robbing the girl of her swimming cap, unleashing a torrent of golden hair to fall into the water. Despite being surprised, Daphne defended herself, splashing around enough water that some of it landed on Betty, who was finally roused enough to check what was going on elsewhere in the pool.
"Just what are the two of you doing?" she said upon seeing Alicia and Daphne's state.
"I don't know, things just ended this way," said Alicia, "Do you want to join?"
"No, I'm fine," said Betty, "I don't like the thought of being scolded by Matron. Besides, I've heard that seawater can harm your hair."
Upon hearing that comment about seawater, Daphne attempted to get out of the pool, but her and Alicia's hair were hopelessly tangled, and once again, Daphne collapsed into giggles. Unable to untangle themselves, Alicia and Daphne carefully moved to the pool's edge and then climbed out. Sitting down on the ground, they tried to separate their hair from the tangles created in their struggle, but in their current damp state, it was difficult to tell apart Daphne's golden hair and Alicia's dark blond. A minute or so later, Alicia was already fed up with the difficulty of picking the hair strand by strand, but she just sighed to herself and kept going.
Soon after her sigh, Alicia noticed that Daphne stopped working on her hair. She looked at her. Daphne seemed sad somehow, but perhaps it was just the contrast with Daphne's merry expression mere moments before. "What's wrong?" asked Alicia.
At first, Daphne didn't react and then she slowly shook her head, as if she had just heard Alicia's question. "Sorry," she said, "I just drifted away a little." She gave a little smile.
"Any other girl would be fooled by this, but Alicia knew that Daphne had just lied to her. "Stop lying," she said, "Tell me what's wrong."
Daphne furtively looked around and then she leaned in closer and gave Alicia a quick kiss before retreating and acting as if nothing had happened at all.
Panicked, Alicia looked around. She hoped that nobody - least of all Betty - saw what had just happened. "What are you doing?" she asked Daphne, trying to keep her voice calm and level.
"I'm sorry," said Daphne, blushing furiously. "I just wanted to. I-"
"Sorry," said Alicia, cutting her off, "We'll talk later?" She gave Daphne a smile, attempting to reassure the girl that she did not think any less of her. Although she did, in a way. What Daphne just did was inexcusably reckless.
With Daphne on her mind, Alicia took a better look at the other girls to determine, whether they had noticed anything. Darrell and Sally were still talking with each other and Betty was still seemingly inattentive to her surroundings. No one present was prone to gossiping, so even if they saw, there wouldn't be much trouble, but Betty would still probably have some very pointed questions.
She no longer felt any interest in going back into the water, when she and Daphne were finally untangled. Instead, she walked back to the changing cabins, drying herself as much as possible, even though her hair was still a little damp. By the time she was finished, the other girls were getting out of the water themselves. Not wanting to confront Daphne just yet, Alicia waited for the other girls, keeping together with Betty until they got to the privacy of their study and Alicia could relax a little. She started to study, in order to distract herself from thoughts about Daphne.
"What's wrong?" said Betty suddenly, "Did something happen to you?"
"What?" said Alicia.
"You never pick up a textbook, unless you absolutely have to," said Betty.
"Oh, that?" said Alicia, "Yes, something happened, but I don't want to talk about it just yet."
"I… I see," said Betty.
"Sorry," said Alicia, trying to smile at her friend, "I just want to first think it over by myself."
Alicia saw Daphne again at the dinner and Daphne looked as if nothing had ever happened that afternoon, her hair as immaculate as in the morning. She was chatting pleasantly with Mary-Lou and otherwise keeping to herself. After that, Alicia did not see much of Daphne until morning.
There was no opportunity to talk with Daphne in the morning or during the lessons, but the time, when matters would have to be sorted, was quickly approaching. Alicia knew that she was nervous, that was clear because she hardly remembered anything from the lessons, which had almost never happened before.
After the last lesson ended, it was Daphne who had sought Alicia out. While Daphne was usually reticent, even standoffish, she seemed… worried this time, almost apologetic. Was it really weighing on her mind that much? If nobody saw them, then there would be no rumours and if there were no rumours, there was nothing to worry about. However, if Daphne wanted to be so nonsensically silly about something so minor, it was hers and Mary-Lou's problem, not Alicia's.
However, Daphne seemed to have found her courage, as she looked Alicia straight into the eyes. "I like you, Alicia. Like you very much," she said, "Maybe even love you. Not like I love Mary-Lou, but I do. That's why I kissed you."
While she was impressed with Daphne's courage, Alicia still felt a little annoyed. All of a sudden, Daphne had to come out with something like this. Why did she have to do that? Not to mention that, embarrassing as it was, Alicia did not really know an answer to what Daphne just told her.
The silence was making Daphne worry, since, although she stood her ground, her lips were beginning to tremble and a tear or two glinted in her eyes. For a passing moment, Alicia wondered whether hugging the girl was liable to be misinterpreted, but when one of Daphne's tears escaped and rolled down the cheek, Alicia decided that she could always explain later.
Daphne was now crying unabashedly and Alicia did not know how she should react. She wished that she could shake that soppy nonsense out of Daphne and make her behave like a Malory Towers girl should, but Daphne was no longer one of the kids. Maybe sometimes, girls like Mary-Lou and Daphne needed to cry. Maybe, and Alicia shuddered at the thought, what they were taught at Malory Towers wasn't absolutely right in all cases. Maybe, thought Alicia, remembering Daphne's laughter as they played in the pool, it was fine to indulge a silly impulse once in a while.
Gradually, Daphne stopped crying and while she was still shaking and sobbing a little, there were no further tears running down her cheeks. Assured that Daphne was once again calm, Alicia drew back from her. Daphne's face was still wet with tears, but she was smiling and in spite of her reddened eyes, she looked happy.
Alicia would give an entire pound out of her allowance to know what was going on inside Daphne's head, but at the moment, she wasn't sure what was going on inside her own. Maybe she was going mad, but she wondered what it would be like to kiss Daphne. Would it be any different than when Daphne kissed her? Perhaps, perhaps not.
She resisted the impulse, but when Daphne began to turn away, Alicia lost control, stopped her and then gave Daphne a kiss. No, she realised, she did not lose control. She did all this quite deliberately. Alicia could taste the salty tears on Daphne's lips, so similar and yet so different from the faint taste of seawater in their previous kiss.
Sometime during the kiss, Daphne began to cry again and Alicia gave up on trying to understand her. There would be, Daphne willing, more time for that later and besides, Alicia felt a tear or two stinging in her own eyes.
The kiss ended and the two girls were looking at each other. "Does that mean-" began Daphne.
"Maybe, I don't know," said Alicia, "But I'm willing to try."
Daphne nodded, wiped out the tears from her eyes and gave Alicia what Daphne must have thought to be a brave smile. There was no need to pretend, but Alicia smiled back, took Daphne by the hand and while they were walking to the common room together, Alicia wondered how would Betty handle the news.