Clara found herself inexplicably shy of Nathaniel Drosselmeier.
When he'd stood there at the door of her parents' house, handsome and vivid and above all real, her heart had pounded so quickly that she'd felt faint with it, and blood had rushed to her cheek and throat. She had never looked at anyone with desire before – she was still just a girl, really – but the reality of his warm, dry hand against hers overwhelmed her with sensation.
Before, he'd been courtly and kindly and sweet, and she had been quite entirely in love with him – after all, wasn't it her vow of tenderness that had freed him from his curse? But he hadn't been human. He'd been a fairytale prince, his every movement filled with a stiff, precise, formal grace.
The boy he'd become was real, somehow even more beautiful in his very imperfection. When he touched her she could feel the beating of his heart at the pulse point in his wrist, and his eyes were a warm brown when they caught the light. In that first giddy daylight meeting, she'd been so overwhelmed by feeling that she hadn't had time to be awkward, but in the days that followed she'd found it easier to avoid him, though she hadn't been able to banish him from her thoughts for more than a moment.
But he was her godfather's nephew, and she could hardly help meeting him for long. Herr Drosselmeier's Twelfth Night party was renowned, and the Stahlbaums were regular attendants.
He found her in the library, which, being exempt from the festivities, was quiet and dim. The rest of the house was bedecked with shining white garlands, and strange allegorical figures stood guard over long tables piled high with spun-sugar delicacies. It was lovely, but Clara hid herself away as quickly as she might, withdrawing to the empty room to keep company with her dreams. She didn't know why she was so reluctant to see the object of so many of her fancies; but her attempt was in vain. He was already there, clad in a gorgeous suit of rich brown velvet but looking somehow intensely boyish; her first coherent thought, streaking across her mind in a brilliant flash, was to marvel at how like and yet unlike he was to the sovereign of the Land of the Dolls she'd danced with twelve nights past. His dark hair hung down his back in a long sleek pigtail, elegant and old-fashioned.
“Clara,” he said, voice pitched low in the quiet but nevertheless brimming with suppressed intensity. She took the excuse of a formal curtsey to drop her eyes, but his gentle hand on her cheek raised her face up again, and she found that he was looking at her with dark, passionate eyes. She couldn't speak, but then he bent down and pressed a chaste kiss to her mouth, and she trembled in his arms at the feeling of his lips; he'd been eating oranges, and she could taste the tang of them still.
When the kiss between them broke, he was blushing, blood tracing pinkness across his cheekbones. “I'm sorry,” he said.
“What for?” she asked, dreamy and happy and light, and really truly kissed for the first time.
“I ought not to assume – just because you were willing to be my queen before, I – that is-”
There was something irresistible in his uncertainty. It was so human, and so youthful. She felt herself blushing as well, and something more – a spun-sugar bubble of something hot and sweet and aching and strange swelling in her breast, beside her heart. For a moment, she hesitated on tiptoe beside the revelation waiting for her, unsure whether to dare or flee. But then she looked at him again, and saw again that dear hesitation in his face, and knew what she wanted her decision to be. She leaned forward and kissed him again – and her kiss was much less chaste than his had been.
His mouth was warm against her tongue, and almost involuntarily her foot arched up in pleasure, bringing her onto her toes, closer to him but more unsteady. His arms grasped her waist, holding her up as she boldly kissed his mouth, the line of his jaw, his throat. She could feel the rhythm of her blood beating in her veins, could feel parts of her body flood with a heat that had before now been wholly absent. She longed to do more than kiss him – to engulf him entirely, to press closer to him than breath or thought, and lose herself in that intermingling.
She'd never done this before – never wanted to do this before – but she had a fairly good idea how one went about it, being a sensible well-read girl not above listening from corners. And judging by the way his eyes had gone wide and his breath hitched on the inhale, he knew even less than she what to expect from love. Well, it made sense. He'd spent so long as a doll that being a real boy of flesh and blood, with full human feeling and sensation and desire, must be very strange.
He broke the kiss, this time, pulling back to peer at her. He looked – stunned, as if he hadn't expected this any more than she had. His lips were red and full from kissing, and a lock of hair had come loose from its tie to straggle along his flushed face. His eyes were overwhelmingly dark.
“Clara,” he said, “I want –”
“I know,” she said, laying a finger to his lips, sudden understanding only increasing the heat of her desire. She knew what she wanted, oh, she knew everything. She wanted everything. She wanted him. But she was not so entirely delirious with delight to forget herself completely, or to forget where and who she was. This wasn't the time for everything – but she was sure, in that breathless moment of heat and diffuse light, alone in the library on Twelfth Night, that she would have everything ere long.
“Not now – not so fast!,” she said laughingly. “We have all the time in the world, my Nutcracker.” And when she said that name he sighed, and pulled her close, so that her cheek rested above his pounding heart, and she could feel the beat of his pulse thrumming in time with her own.
“I was afraid that things would be different,” he confessed. “That when we woke up, nothing would stay constant.”
“No,” she said, turning her face up to press a kiss against the curve of his neck. “You see, it wasn't really a dream.”