As we get up to leave the table-brushing the last of the feathers off of our laps-Lord Montague moves to his left and offers the blue-turbaned woman his arm, so I'm free to lean on Professor Grabiner as we head back toward the room where we'd gathered before dinner. I wonder briefly about Dame Sutworth, but I'm grateful for the time to collect myself with someone who understands how shocked I'm feeling.
We pass into the room where Mrs. Barton is pouring out little glasses of ruby liquid. Professor Grabiner takes one and downs it at a swallow, but I shake my head at both the drinks and the nearby coffee-urn-I don't want to be slowed down or keyed up.
We cross to one of the corners of the room, and watch as Lord Montague begins to move among the guests he'd ignored before dinner, chatting with this one and that. It's not until all the guests have settled into little knots of conversation that Professor Grabiner and I look at each other with mutually dumbfounded expressions.
"How can he do it?" I whisper. "It's forbidden, he could lose everything for doing magic in front of them."
Professor Grabiner just shakes his head, momentarily at a loss for words.
"Do they think he's a-you know, an illusionist? One of them?" I ask.
"My father, masquerading as one of that?" he says, his expression creeping from shock to disgust.
"Well he's right about one thing," I say, indignant.
"You're a horrible snob."
He frowns at me. "In point of fact, my father is worse than I am."
"And how long has it been since you've seen him-ten, fifteen years? People change."
"You see him living in this antediluvian relic and your argument is 'people change'?"
He has a point, but watching Lord Montague chat and laugh with his guests, it's hard to believe that he shares the same disdain of non-magical people that Professor Grabiner so consistently displays.
"It just doesn't make sense," I say. "It would be one thing if he just started this now that he's ill, but if he's been doing this for the past ten years-"
We're interrupted by one of the guests, a very round, bald gentleman with a red face, who looks as though he's had more than his fair share of the wine during dinner. He nudges Professor Grabiner with his elbow, and says "Bet you didn't think your father was capable of that, eh? He's the finest of the lot, you know." One look at our faces, and he backs away with an "excuse me," and retreats to another group of guests.
"We shouldn't go on about it here, just-" Professor Grabiner starts, then stops. "Oh for God's sake just go talk to someone and let me stand behind you and look bored, all right?"
"All right, but you owe me," I say, and walk into the crowd. I notice Dame Sutworth on a sofa, and since she's the only one whose name I remember, I sit down beside her, making sure I keep to her right. "Dame Sutworth, my husband said that you had been telling him the most interesting story at dinner about-ah, what was it, dear?"
"Macramé," he says, acidly.
"Macramé, exactly," I say. "I wish you'd tell me, I'm afraid he's got it muddled." Dame Sutworth gives me a smile and launches into a very detailed description of double half hitches.
Fortunately, given the relative age of the party, everyone decides to go to bed less than an hour after dinner has concluded, including Lord Montague, who has managed to keep on the opposite side of the room from Professor Grabiner and me all evening. I stand and watch the guests trickle out. Even Professor Potsdam only gives my arm a squeeze on the way to the door, saying "I'll wake you for breakfast in the morning, chick, pleasant dreams!" I don't have time to reply before she's swept out in a swirl of pink on the arm of the be-kilted gentleman. I guess his attention to her chest hasn't bothered her much.
"I'll walk you up?" asks Professor Grabiner behind me.
"Yes, thanks," I say, and take his arm once again. As we walk up the stairs to the third floor and the noise dissipates, I begin to realize just how tired I am. It's a relief to get back to my room, and I let go of Professor Grabiner's arm to open the door and go in. He stays just outside the door until I look back and notice. "Oh don't be an idiot, come in," I say, sick to my core of all the politeness forced upon me this evening. He does come in, and closes the door behind him while I sit on the edge of the bed with a sigh.
"That was-" I start.
"A fiasco." he finishes, leaning against the wall beside the door and crossing his arms.
"I was going to say exhausting. I didn't think it was that bad, except for that bit at the end. Food was nice-am I allowed to talk about that now?"
"The last thing I need right now is cheek," he says, but he's smirking a little.
For a moment, I'm not sure what to say. It seems that none of the questions swirling in my head have any satisfactory answers. Well, maybe one.
"How did I do?" I ask.
"If you keep praising me like that, I might start thinking I've done something right for a change."
"Now that would be a change."
"Cheek," I reply, matching his dry tone.
"Fair enough. What did you think of him?"
"Oh, are we being serious now?"
"What made you think I was being frivolous?"
I click my tongue at him in exasperation. "What do you care what I think of him?"
"Interested in what I have to say? Now that would be a change," I reply, exaggerating the phrase he'd used earlier.
"People change," he says, exaggerating my phrase too.
"Fine," I say, and try to put my thoughts about Lord Montague into an intelligible order. "Well, he's interesting, he's very intelligent, witty, and charming," I say, deliberately ending on the one trait that Professor Grabiner doesn't share with his father. He raises his eyebrows at me slightly, indicating he's caught my meaning. "But," I continue, "there was something off about the way he..." I trail off, uncertain about how to put this thought into words.
Professor Grabiner watches me think for a few minutes before asking "The way he what?" in an oddly gentle voice.
"Oh, I can't-I mean the way he... the way he..." And then it hits. "The way he was playing with me."
"What?" asks Professor Grabiner, sounding as though I've caught him off guard.
"Sorry, it's stupid."
"Well, I mean, you saw how he was playing with his food at dinner, right? The way he was pushing his food away from him, then pulling it back?"
"Yes," he says, expectant.
"He was doing the same thing with me before dinner. Saying funny or interesting things to draw me in, then saying something-well-inappropriate. Like he was trying to see how far he could push me."
Nothing could bring me to repeat what Lord Montague said about my "enthusiasm," so I sputter for a moment before saying "Uh, I mean, just comments. About..." I look at the bed coverlet, unable to meet Professor Grabiner's eyes. "About the pair of us."
Professor Grabiner lets out a breath, and when I'm able to look back up at him, he's pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes closed. "I really apologize," he says.
"Don't, it's not your fault."
"I brought you here, and it wasn't so that you could be the subject of ribald comments."
"No, and it's not your standard meet-the-parents, either. I'm here to help. But," I stand, holding my elbows with my hands, "I have no idea if I've actually done anything. I mean, I am helping, right? I feel like I'm more of a liability, somehow."
He lowers his hand from his nose to his chin and looks back at me. "You're not."
"So what have I done that's helpful besides eat with my fork in my left hand?"
"As I said, you're a distraction. He has no idea why I've gotten married after all this time, and he's... intrigued. I imagine he wants to know everything about you, so he can determine why."
"Why you married me?" I ask, and he nods. I guess it's a good thing I didn't tell Lord Montague about the manus, then.
"So, hopefully, he won't notice me trying to figure out what he's doing with all of those-"
"Oh be nice," I say. "They're just a lot of old people with too much money and not enough to do with it."
"I don't suppose they've ever heard of a charitable organization?" he says, acerbic.
"I don't suppose your father has either," I say. "The cost of that dinner alone would feed a family of, like, twelve. Hundred. For a month."
"A little hyperbolic, don't you think?"
"I'm trying to make a point."
"What about Professor Potsdam? She seems to be pretty cozy with Beardy McHaggis already, what's she up to?"
"Professor Potsdam has her own methods, and I've long known not to interfere with them." He pauses, mouth twitching. "Beardy McHaggis? Who's being nice now?"
"Even I have my limits," I say, and we both laugh. I guess we're back to comfortable conversation again.
I take a step forward, then another. "So," I start, "what do we do tomorrow? Is there a-" and I stop, because I'm close enough to see that the hand he has raised to his face has four small crescent-shaped weals, red and raised, on the back. I snatch his hand in mine. "What's that?" And recognizing. "Was that me?" The middle two marks look as though they broke his skin; I must have gouged him when I'd gripped his hand at dinner. "Oh God, I'm really sorry."
He looks at his hand. "I hadn't noticed."
"Let me just-" I cut myself off and start a healing spell, though that's a bit of overkill for a scratch on a hand.
"You don't-" he starts, but I cut him off.
"The only magic I've done for months is to spruce up a bubble bath, let me do something useful for a change."
"Now that would be a change," he mutters, but lets me finish the incantation. I brush the red marks with one finger, and watch as they disappear back into his skin.
As the last one goes, I say "actually I want to call in my favor from earlier."
"What favor?" I look up, but he's staring at the far wall, deliberately avoiding my eyes.
"For talking to Dame Sutworth for you; I said you owed me."
He lets out a breath through his nose. "After I let you claw me to pieces?"
"That doesn't count."
"All right. What?"
"Why were you laughing at me during dinner?"
"Hm?" He looks back at me, and seems genuinely puzzled.
"The snails? And when we were going in? You may be able to fool Dame Sutworth coughing, but I'm not deaf in my left ear."
His expression relaxes. "Well, you took the piss out of him, didn't you?"
I've never known Professor Grabiner to be casually vulgar, and I huff in surprise at his choice of phrase.
"My father's not used to getting talked back to-since I left home, anyway-and I'm afraid you shocked him a little."
I remember the scowl on Lord Montague's face when I'd made my comment about etiquette. "Yeah, well, never underestimate the power of good old fashioned American sassback," I say. "He looked furious."
"It's good for him; I wouldn't worry about it."
"And the snails?"
"You disappointed him; there he was, setting out his most intimidating cutlery just for you, and you go and figure out how to use it immediately."
"He was setting me up?"
"He wouldn't have said anything, he just wanted to see what you'd do. He's a great one for formality and correctness, but only when it suits him. Believe it or not, it actually isn't very correct to intimidate one's dinner guests with the silver."
"I believe it," I mutter.
His eyes go vacant again. "When I was eleven I ate an oyster with a fish fork by mistake, and he didn't permit me to eat with him again for about two years-until I could 'comport myself with the dignity required by our family's station,' as he put it."
I'm struck silent, not by Lord Montague's vindictiveness so much as the fact that Professor Grabiner just volunteered information about his childhood.
"That's... awful," I finally say, but he just shrugs. "Yeah, sorry, dewy-eyed sympathy," I mutter.
He looks back at me, eyes focusing. We stand, looking at each other until he says "I apologize," in a barely audible voice.
"Yeah," is all I can say in response.
"Can I have my hand back?"
"Oh." I hadn't realized I was still clutching it. I let it go, but he lifts it to my hair, touching it lightly, then pulling from it one single white feather, which he holds between his first and second finger before flicking it away.
"Right," he says, and walks past me into the dressing room. I watch him go, suddenly terrified that he's actually going to undress, but he emerges a moment later with his suitcase in one hand.
"You're going?" I blurt.
"Did you want me to stay?" he says, sarcastic again.
"I-I mean," I start, "I just didn't want to kick you you out of your room."
"Remember what I said about my father being correct only when it suits him? It's not polite to put a married couple-magical or not-in the same room, if you have the space. And he certainly does have the space."
"Really? So where will you-"
"I've made my own arrangements. Good night." And with a blithe wave of his hand, he's out the door, down the hall, and gone.
I stand for a few minutes after he leaves, feeling oddly disappointed. But after all, what was I expecting, for him to kiss me? Or another scene like last night? Just the thought of it makes me shiver with embarrassment. I close my door and start getting ready for bed, unhooking and unzipping my dress, washing and brushing. I'd managed to keep from thinking about what had happened last night all day, what with all the anticipation and activity, but now it seems there's no escaping it.
I've never had a boyfriend, only been kissed the once, and I've certainly never been touched in the way he'd touched me last night; it was scary and thrilling, and in a weird way, I think I'd liked it. And if I'm being honest with myself, if I had turned in the other direction, not to leave the room but to graze my mouth against his cheek, I probably would have gone along-enthusiastically-with whatever it was he intended to do with me. But I don't think I would have been very happy with myself afterwards, because I still don't feel like I'm ready for that sort of thing. And I know Professor Grabiner well enough by now to know that he wouldn't have been happy with himself either.
"That's your problem," I say to myself in the mirror, muttering around my toothbrush. "You're reserved most of the time, but then you get impulsive, make bad decisions, and have to run around apologizing afterwards." I stop talking when I realize that I'm pretending to lecture Professor Grabiner in absentia with a mouth full of toothpaste foam-talk about undignified. I spit the rest of my lecture into the sink.
No, I'd definitely made the right decision when I'd walked away last night, and he'd made the right decision when he'd walked out just now. But if that's true, and I know it, why does part of me keep hoping that we'll make the wrong decision?
I turn out the lights and lie on the bed, which is so enormous I can stretch my arms out and not touch the edges on either side. I wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark, and for my swirling thoughts to settle. Whatever happens between us, I think, I don't want it to be the result of too much to drink and poor impulse control. But I can't think of what, if anything, I do want before I sink into sleep.