She is sitting in Celia’s tea shop.
It’s such an innocuous thing, really. Annabelle does this several times a week. It is the favorite haunt for St. Trinian’s alumnae, and especially for the personal friends of Celia. In the evenings, sometimes Annabelle will drive to Celia’s, usually to meet Polly. They’ll share a cuppa, and then Annabelle will drive her and Polly back home, to greet an exasperated Kelly, who has been keeping their supper warm.
Polly works in London most of the time these days. Annabelle still isn’t quite sure what Polly does now that she isn’t operating from afar for Kelly and herself, now that she isn’t intercepting and decoding a vast network of Trinian’s messages. She thinks it has something to do with hacking, but she doesn’t ask. Polly just goes off in the morning, walking to the train station, and she’s gone until Annabelle picks her up or she returns home at night. She thinks Kelly might know more about what Polly does. But Polly has never offered, so Annabelle has never asked. What she does know is that Polly usually returns home weary and stressed, which is why Annabelle makes a point of meeting her at the tea shop. It calms Polly, allows her shoulders to slide down from her ears, and Annabelle enjoys their own little private time. It’s a refuge of sorts. It’s routine, and it’s normal, and that is why it’s such a surprise that the world falls down around her ears there of all places.
She’s sipping her tea and reading student papers (her aunt subscribes to the belief that just because one is in charge of running the school does not preclude them from teaching a course or two), a red pen in her hand, when someone sits down across from her. Annabelle smiles to herself, not looking up just yet.
“You’re early,” she says, and circles a stray comma. She looks up, ready to tease Polly, and then she freezes.
Roxy is sitting there, in Polly’s spot, looking slightly nervous and too confident all at once. Her hair is longer now, falling over her eyes, and she’s thinner. More tan. Annabelle catalogues the differences quickly, staring at her in shock.
“I’d say I’m actually late,” Roxy replies, a smirk twitching her lips upwards. “How’ve you been, Annabelle?”
A thousand answers well up, ready to trip over her tongue: I spent two years traveling the world, searching for Trinian’s girls and hoping to catch even a glimpse of you; I got shot, did you know that?; my world ended when you left, what you see now is what I managed to rebuild; I’m married, I’m married, and now you return?
Instead she says, “Oh, you know. Working.”
Roxy’s nervousness seems to dissipate. She leans back in her chair. Annabelle notes that she isn’t wearing her ripped skirts and loose ties anymore. She’s dressed simply, in jeans and a t-shirt. She doesn’t look like the Roxy that Annabelle knew, except for that damned smirk. “Joined the masses, then?”
“I’m the deputy headmistress at St. Trinian’s,” Annabelle says, and it’s so easy to tell her. To act as though they’ve seen each other every day, instead of not at all for six years.
“Wow, that’s- not at all what I saw coming,” Roxy confesses.
Across the room, Annabelle sees Celia come out of the backroom and pause, just for a moment, an infinitesimal second that no one else in the room notices except for her. Annabelle wants to look at her, to wave her over, but she can’t take her eyes off Roxy.
“What did you expect, then?” Annabelle asks.
“Oh, I don’t know. Either some sort of superspy or a fastidious snit of an editor. Given how you ripped my essays apart.”
She doesn’t say, I did become a sort of superspy, but you weren’t there to see it. Instead she says, “Your essays were atrocious, Roxy.”
“I see the students are still the same caliber. Guess you are a sort of editor,” Roxy shoots back, nodding at the stack of papers in front of them, covered in red as they are.
“Apostrophes are a bitch,” Annabelle agrees.
“I missed you,” Roxy says suddenly, apropos of nothing. Her smirk fades into a serious expression, and she lifts her hands and rests them on the table. They have scars on them, old faded things. Relics of the road, Annabelle imagines.
“I- yeah,” Annabelle says. “Yeah.”
“I didn’t- I couldn’t stay, Annabelle, and I wanted to, but I just couldn’t. Not then. But I thought about you, and I missed you, and somehow, my feet led me home,” she says. “I never wanted to leave you.”
Annabelle wants to say, I never wanted you to leave, but she doesn’t. She can’t. The words are all stuck in her throat because here she is, here’s Roxy, the girlfriend she always loved, endlessly, and she’s alive and here now, and-
- and Annabelle is married.
“I’m not asking you to forgive me,” Roxy says. “But maybe give me a chance? I’m staying at a hotel. This is my phone number. Call me. Please. If you want.”
Roxy stands up, and Annabelle stares at her, feeling like the world’s biggest fool. Roxy smiles, brief and real, and then leans down and brushes a soft kiss over her lips. Annabelle doesn’t have a chance to respond, to think, before Roxy is gone, disappearing out the door and onto the streets of London.
Annabelle stares down at the slip of paper Roxy had slid across the table and, without thinking, slips it into her handbag.
Minutes later, Polly is dropping into Roxy’s- into her seat, looking pale and worn and stressed, and Celia brings over a teacup.
She tries to ignore the concerned look Celia gives her.
Annabelle loved Kelly first, before anyone else at St. Trinian’s. She fell in love with her confidence, with the way she seemed to know who she was, in a way that Annabelle has never known in her entire life. She fell in love with Kelly’s conspiratorial smiles, and her bright laughter. She fell in love with how Kelly moved through a crowd, and how she sat so still in her classes, and it was all the trademarks of first love, that all-encompassing wash of warmth and devotion.
Two years on the run with her swept away her illusions about Kelly. She’s seen Kelly bloody and unwashed, she’s seen her terrified, furious, and half mad with nightmares and dreams that boil to the surface. She’s seen that some of Kelly’s confidence- some, not all- is just a mask, a curtain for the indecision that sometimes shakes her down to her core. She doesn’t see Kelly as a perfect, untouchable woman anymore. She sees Kelly as she is- imperfect, but lovely in her imperfections.
She loves Polly, too, but it’s different between them. Her love for Kelly is overwhelming at times. What she feels for Kelly is passion that has been tempered by years together. With Polly it’s a constant thrum of contentment, respect, and trust. It’s quieter, less earthshaking, but real nonetheless.
She loves them. Annabelle knows this with terrifying certainty, the only thing she’s ever been certain of in her entire life.
But she knows, equally certain, that she loves Roxy.
When they get home that night, Polly still looks like a wreck. Usually, after an hour or so at Celia’s, Annabelle can bring her home relaxed and calm, but given the state of her own nerves, she’s not surprised that Polly still looks like she got hit by a lorry.
Kelly is in the kitchen, mixing something in a large pot. She looks up when they walk in, Polly holding her coat over her arms, Annabelle dragging hers behind her. She keeps her handbag clutched close, unwilling to let it go.
“Evening,” Kelly says, smiling. She gives whatever is in the pot a quick stir and then leaves it, walking over to take Polly’s coat and then lean over and give Annabelle a swift kiss. “Good day?”
Polly smiles vaguely and waves a hand in the air before disappearing into the living room. Kelly frowns and looks at Annabelle. “No?”
“I don’t know,” Annabelle answers honestly. If Polly spoke at all at Celia’s, she didn’t hear her.
Kelly sighs and runs a hand through her hair. “Did you two fight?” she asks, exasperated. Polly and Annabelle rarely fight, but when they do, it tends to bring the cottage down around their ears.
“No,” Annabelle says. “I think she’s just tired. And I’m a bit distracted.”
“Why?” Kelly asks, and walks back over to the stove. Whatever she’s cooking smells good. Annabelle follows her (like she has always done…) and leans one hip on the counter.
“Oh, you know. St. Trinian’s mess, as usual.” It’s not a lie, not really. Roxy has always been categorized as a St. Trinian’s mess in her head.
Kelly shakes her head and grins. “I ought to give your boss a piece of my mind.”
Annabelle can’t help but snort. “Please, try it. If the Prime Minister can’t deter Aunt Camilla, I doubt you can.”
“Oh, but Annabelle,” Kelly teases, “I’m Kelly Jones, beloved student and infamous alum. I think I might hold a little more sway than some Prime Minister.”
It’s good, this. It’s normal. Light-hearted banter, their shared history, a mutual concern for Polly, food cooking on the stove- this is their life. It’s been their life for years. Annabelle loves this life. She loves that if she walks into the living room, she’ll find Polly sitting in front of the coffee table, poking away at the puzzle she and Kelly are currently putting together. She loves that if she goes up to their bedroom, she’ll find her clothes tucked between Kelly and Polly’s, bookending her, just as they do in reality. She loves that they’ll sit down for supper and Polly will set the table, and she will pour the wine while Kelly sets out the food. They’ll eat and discuss their days, and tease each other, and it will be perfect.
Except for that scrap of paper in her handbag.
“I think I’m going to go lay down for a bit,” Annabelle says, interrupting Kelly in the middle of an anecdote about the one time the Prime Minister did visit St. Trinian’s (it involves a car being blown up, but Annabelle isn’t really listening).
Kelly frowns. “Are you all right?”
“Just tired,” Annabelle says, smiling faintly. “Just yell when supper is ready.”
She walks out of the kitchen, passes Polly staring at her puzzle pieces as though they hold all the answers to the universe, and walks up the stairs to their bedroom.
She sits down on their bed, and pulls out her mobile and that scrap of paper. She dials the number quickly, before she can change her mind.
“Hello?” says Roxy, sounding almost as distracted as Annabelle feels.
She smoothes her hand over her skirt, feeling the wrinkles disappear beneath her hand, if only for a moment. “It’s Annabelle,” she says.
“Annabelle!” Roxy says, sounding delighted. “I didn’t think you would call.”
“I’ll always call,” Annabelle replies before she can stop herself. It’s true, too. She would have called everyday for the past six years if she had known that number.
“Still,” Roxy says. Annabelle can hear the sound of a bed creaking in the background. At her hotel, then. Probably laying down, but sitting up now. Or propped up. Annabelle can see it in her head, can imagine the long sprawl of Roxy’s legs and her ever present smirk.
“Want to grab breakfast tomorrow?” Annabelle asks. “I have to be at St. Trinian’s by ten. I have a class.”
“You teach, too?” Roxy asks, sounding amused.
“Advanced self defense techniques.”
“So you’re the new Miss Cleaver?”
“No, I’m the self defense teacher. It’s an addition to the curriculum. Miss Cleaver is still mowing down ceramic duckies with her various weapons. Breakfast?”
“Seven, then. My hotel?”
Annabelle jots down the information on the pad of paper they keep next to the bed, in case Polly has an epiphany in the middle of the night, and then clicks off from the call, Roxy’s amused voice still ringing in her ears.
It’s just breakfast, she reassures herself. What’s a meal between old friends?
“Annabelle!” Kelly shouts from downstairs. “Dinner is ready!”
Annabelle smoothes her skirt again. The wrinkles are back. She takes a deep breath, lets it go, and then goes to have dinner with her wives.
Annabelle can’t help but check over her shoulder as she walks into the hotel at 6:55 in the morning. She knows that Peaches randomly assigns bodyguards, protective and paranoid in equal measure. She also knows that Polly sometimes hacks the CCTVs, because she’ll drop a random detail into dinner conversation that she couldn’t have known unless she was watching Annabelle. But she doesn’t see anything suspicious, and she’s not doing anything that should make her nervous, she’s just having breakfast with a friend, catching up, she needs to remember this.
Except Roxy is still beautiful in the morning light, and Annabelle can feel her heart clench when she sees Roxy sitting at the table, casually flipping through a menu.
“Hey,” Annabelle says, sitting down. Roxy looks at her and grins.
“Hey yourself. You look good.”
Annabelle looks at herself dubiously- she’s opted for a pantsuit this morning, something more functional than fashionable, but Roxy is grinning, her eyes glowing, so she lets it go.
“You too,” she replies, fumbling for something to say. Small talk has never been something she excels at.
Roxy laughs. “Good to know you’re still a liar, though sweet.”
She’s not lying, actually. Roxy does look good. A simple button down shirt, her hair falling gently over her eyes, it’s perfection. She’d never disliked Roxy’s look at St. Trinian’s, with her hair gelled and her clothes always tousled just so, but this look feels more natural, more real. Annabelle wants to touch her.
She keeps her hands firmly in her lap. “Have you ordered yet?”
Roxy hasn’t, and they flip through the menu. Annabelle picks something simple, random, and orders quickly. Roxy gets Belgian waffles, clearly excited about them. She remembers, now, that Roxy always did like anything she could douse in syrup. She wonders if she’s had a lot of syrup over the years, given her clear anticipation for her meal.
“So,” Annabelle says, picking at her napkin. “Where have you been?”
Roxy’s smile is almost infectious. She hadn’t smile this much at St. Trinian’s, preferring her scowl and disdain over everything else. Annabelle finds that she likes the effortless smiling. It’s like she’s been unburdened. “Where haven’t I been would be a better question. Oh, Annabelle, I’ve been everywhere, you can’t even imagine.”
She starts with a detailed description of places around the world, and Annabelle nods along, trying to look as though she’s a cloistered academic, a quiet deputy headmaster, but when Roxy starts talking about a souq in Marrakech, Annabelle can’t help but say, “Did you ever hear Layla sing?” and she wants to hit herself, because no. No, she wasn’t going to let Roxy know.
“Yes,” Roxy says, suddenly suspicious. “I did. How do you know about Layla?”
Annabelle wants to tell her about Layla and Najoud and Hadja and all the other women at all the souqs she had met, but she doesn’t. She just shrugs and says, “Oh, you know.”
Roxy’s eyes narrow. “No, I don’t know. How did you come to be a souq in Marrakech?”
“Business,” Annabelle says. She wishes she hadn’t said anything.
“You’re a deputy headmistress for a public school. Somehow, I doubt it.”
Which is how Annabelle winds up telling her about her two years on the run with Kelly, working as her field operator; about learning how to fire a gun and Judo from Fatima; about learning first aid from Sergei. Krav Maga from Akiva in Buenos Aires. Hacking from Magritte. She tells her about killing that man in Toronto, and keeping a woman from bleeding out in Ho Chi Minh City. Weeks with very little sleep, days of not eating.
“So I know the souq,” she finishes. “Marrakech was a frequent destination of ours.”
Roxy stares at her. Annabelle wants to shift uncomfortably under the weight of her gaze, but she holds still, staring back at her. She is not ashamed of those two years of her life, no matter how terrifying and difficult they were. No matter how much they haunt her sleep. She saved lives. She could never regret saving lives.
But she knows that she is little Annabelle Fritton in too many eyes, the girl who could never get a handle on herself, who always shaped herself to fit the people around her. She still is that girl, in a way. But she’s better now, at knowing herself, even if she isn’t always sure who that self is.
But then Roxy smiles, slow and sad. “Well. I always thought you were rather unpredictable.”
Annabelle smiles back. “It’s all right, you know. You needn’t look so sad.”
“It’s just- it doesn’t seem like you got to see the beauty of the world. I wish you could have seen what I’ve seen.”
“I wouldn’t give it up,” she replies. “It was important work.”
Roxy reaches across the table and grabs Annabelle’s hand, holding it in hers and squeezing gently. “Someday, Annabelle, I’m going to take you back to that souq. And we’ll just listen to Layla sing all day.”
It sounds like a promise. Annabelle holds on.
It becomes a routine, of sorts, much like the rest of Annabelle’s life. She meets Roxy for breakfast in London, then drives back to St. Trinian’s. She works, sometimes she goes back to London to meet Polly, and then they go home. She calls Roxy before she goes to sleep. Sometimes they talk for hours, catching up, but other times it’s just a quick, “Sleep well,” and “Sweet dreams,” before they retreat to their respective lives.
Annabelle doesn’t ask Roxy what she’s doing back in London. She doesn’t want to hear that it’s just a brief stop on the never ending road. Oh, she knows what Roxy said, about being led back home, but she likes to think she knows Roxy, too. Roxy calls her a liar; Roxy has always been worse. Annabelle never lied about anything important.
Breakfasts occasionally become dinners, often enough that Kelly starts making noise about complaining to Miss Fritton about Annabelle’s long hours (Annabelle hasn’t told them that Roxy is back yet; she doesn’t examine why) while Polly frowns at her and looks away.
Breakfasts and dinners become weekend meetings, and she can’t explain those as work. She goes to bed early one night, and Kelly comes in and lies down next to her.
“You’ve been preoccupied,” Kelly says, tossing a careless arm over her waist and tugging her closer. Annabelle smiles and closes her eyes. Kelly has always been easy with her affection. It’s one of the things she loves about her.
“Yeah,” she admits.
“Everything all right, then?”
With Kelly behind her, and her staring at the wall, it’s easy to say, “Of course. Just been moody,” and have that be the truth.
“Well, cut it out,” Kelly says, pressing a kiss to the back of her neck. “I miss you.”
Annabelle rolls over and kisses Kelly, swift and sure. “I’m right here,” she says. “I never went anywhere.”
The problem is that while she may have loved Kelly first, she loved Roxy best.
If Roxy had stayed, Annabelle would never have gone with Kelly. But no, she corrects herself, she may have gone. What Kelly had been doing was important, necessary. Life-saving. If she hadn’t gone, Kelly probably would have been dead somewhere, and all her friends from St. Trinian’s would be right there with her, sacrificed upon the altar of politics and fear. So Annabelle might have gone anyway.
But she wouldn’t have stayed. She would have returned home, hugged Polly, grinned at Kelly, and then gone to Roxy.
Because if she loved Kelly because she was so confident and comfortable with herself, she loved Roxy because she made Annabelle feel that way at a time when she was more comfortable with the idea of shedding her skin than being in it.
And while Annabelle may have long moments where she isn’t entirely sure who she is nowadays, it was far worse when she was seventeen and so scared of not being good enough. Roxy always made her feel good enough. Even now, she looks and Kelly and Polly and wonders…
Which is ridiculous, of course. They love her. All of her, even the weak moments when she frowns at her hands, unsure of who they belong to, or when she points a gun at shadows, suddenly certain she is back in Estonia and being hunted before she returns to reality and can’t figure out why she has a gun, why she ever had a gun. Even when she looks at Kelly and blames her for putting the gun in her hands, or at Polly and wishes it had been her there, that Kelly had loved Polly a little less and been willing to bring her into the danger…
But they love her, Annabelle reminds herself as she stares at Roxy’s lips. They love her, and they’ve been there for her for five years now. They know everything important about her.
She loved Kelly first, Roxy best, and Kelly and Polly longest.
Roxy kisses her.
Annabelle freezes for a moment. They’re standing on a bridge, in full view of everyone walking by, and she can’t help the instinct to duck, to hide, to runaway. But Roxy is kissing her, and despite six years absence, her lips are familiar and warm, generous.
Polly rarely kisses her.
Kelly kisses her so much that it seems almost pointless. Like a simple hello.
She hasn’t kissed Roxy in six years, and it’s too much. She pulls back and closes her eyes. “I’m married,” she tells Roxy. She hasn’t told her yet. She hasn’t had the courage. She wants too much from her, and it’s all wrong, she shouldn’t want it, and yet she does.
“So?” Roxy asks.
And there it is, right there, the beginning of the end. Annabelle can see it all right there before her. She can see herself tumbling into bed with Roxy, loving her again, and ending it with Kelly and Polly. It’s easy to imagine. Too easy.
“I need to think,” she blurts, and walks away.
When she gets to Celia’s teashop, Peaches is sitting at the table Annabelle regularly sits at with Polly, looking for all the world like she sits there all the time, just waiting for people to join her. She’s holding her teacup in one hand, tapping something on her mobile with the other. Annabelle looks at her warily before finally going to sit with her.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Annabelle says. Celia hands her a teacup almost immediately, looking angry and disapproving.
Oh, yes. Peaches had been waiting for her.
“I think you know perfectly well this isn’t a coincidence,” Peaches says smoothly, setting down her mobile and fixing her full attention on Annabelle. It’s unnerving, really. Peaches is so often distracted by something else, handling phone calls or bodyguards or minions, that few get her full attention. To her knowledge, Polly, Chelsea, and Chloe are the only ones that manage it.
“Who was it following me?” she asks, raising her teacup to her mouth. Despite Celia’s clear irritation, the tea is still lovely.
“The first time? Her name is Henrietta, I don’t think you’ve met. After that, I assigned John to you.”
Annabelle sucks in a breath. John is Peaches’ personal bodyguard. He’s been with her since she was a small child. He isn’t so much a bodyguard now, as he’s in his late forties, but Peaches and he have always had a special relationship. He is always at her side. To know that she’d assigned John is- disturbing, to say the least.
“Nothing has happened,” she says, not even trying to pretend that she doesn’t know what’s going on.
“Yet,” Peaches says. She sets down her teacup and gives Annabelle a steely look. “This is a preemptive measure. John has already let me know that she kissed you today.”
“I walked away,” Annabelle reminds her.
“This time. What about next time?”
Annabelle scowls. “Who says there is going to be a next time?”
Peaches’ smile is small, and mostly sarcastic. This may be one of the longest periods of time that Annabelle has ever seen her without her wide, cheerful grin. “I know you, better than you think. You don’t let people go, Annabelle. You never have.”
“I let you go,” Annabelle snaps without thinking.
Peaches gives her a long look. “You never loved me, Annabelle. You loved her. You love her still.”
Annabelle wants to deny it. Wants to tell Peaches that she did love her, to begin with, even though it isn’t true. Peaches was fun, but she wasn’t anything more than that, really. She wants to tell Peaches that she doesn’t love Roxy anymore.
But there are some lies Annabelle isn’t willing to tell. She’s never lied about the important things.
“What’s wrong with that?” she asks instead.
“Nothing, on the surface of it,” Peaches says. “Loving someone is never wrong. Acting on that love, though, when you’re married? Annabelle.”
Annabelle purses her lips. “I know, Peaches.”
Annabelle wants to give her a straightforward, simple answer. But what she has to settle for is, “I don’t know. Honestly, Peaches, I don’t know.”
Peaches looks at her for a long time, just looks at her. Annabelle resists the impulse to fidget, and instead looks back at her. She has never been particularly close with Peaches. She likes her well enough, and they’re friends, but they don’t share secrets and confidences. Peaches is Polly’s friend, and Annabelle’s connection to her is really through Polly.
“Please be aware,” Peaches says finally, standing up and gathering her things, “that if you persist with Roxy, I will inform Polly. She is… a dear friend. I won’t just watch her get hurt. And you know this would destroy Kelly.”
Annabelle winces. She knows. God, how she knows.
“If you are unhappy,” Peaches continues, slipping into her coat, “then walk away from them. But don’t. Just- don’t. Don’t do that to them. They deserve better. You’re better than that.”
She nods cordially at Celia, and walks away. Annabelle sits there for a long moment, staring at her tea.
Celia walks over and leans casually against the table. “I never took you for a fuck up,” Celia says, voice casual and cruel.
“You’re one of the only ones,” Annabelle says dully.
She calls Roxy that night.
Kelly is attending the symphony with Polly, a new work by Harriet that Polly has wanted to hear for ages. Annabelle had pled headache, which was actually somewhat true. Her head is throbbing, swirling. Her head is a mess.
“I don’t want to be that person,” she says as soon as Roxy answers the phone.
“That person?” Roxy asks. She sounds as though she’s simply curious. There isn’t any judgment or disapproval in her tone. Just honest curiosity.
Annabelle swallows. “That person who cheats on her wives with the ex she’s never really gotten over.”
There’s a pause on the other end. “Wait, wives? Plural?”
Annabelle explains, as quickly as she can, about Kelly and Polly both. How she’d fallen in with Kelly when they were on the run together, the only port in the storm. How they’d returned to England to Polly, who’d been waiting for them. Forever, in some ways. How Polly had suggested that they would work, all together, and no one could ever doubt Polly when she used that tone of voice. Three years of the three of them.
“I love them,” Annabelle says helplessly. “I can’t just say ‘so’ and be done with it.”
“Sometimes,” Roxy says slowly, as though she is repeating something she’s said many times before, “love isn’t enough.”
Annabelle sucks in a breath, fighting back tears. “But I love them. Hopelessly. Endlessly. Roxy-”
“I know,” Roxy says gently. “You think I don’t understand hopelessly and endlessly? Annabelle, I haven’t set foot in England for almost six years. There is one reason I came home. One.”
“You can,” Roxy says gently. “If you want.”
Annabelle lies in their bed that night, staring at the cuddled mass that is Kelly and Polly.
Annabelle needs her space when she sleeps. She abhors people touching her, crowding her, when all she wants to do is close her eyes and relax and not worry if she’s accidentally going to squash someone’s hand or stick an elbow into someone’s eye. Kelly has always understood of her need for space, even when they were running around the world together and didn’t always have the option. Polly less so; she’s the one who curls up against Kelly, and Annabelle knows she would do it to Annabelle too if she would permit it. Polly needs contact at night. Annabelle has never asked her why.
She stares at them, and remembers Kelly telling her that Polly has curled up that way even when they were children, and for a moment, she’s so blindingly jealous that it takes her breath away.
She knows that they don’t explain anecdotes, stories from childhood, because they forget that she wasn’t there. That it’s a compliment of sorts. But it makes her angry, sometimes, because they have their own little world that she isn’t privy to, that she’s locked out of forever. She sometimes wonders if they need her there at all, if they even want her there, because it’s well known that they’ve loved each other since they were children and were just too scared to do anything about it until they were adults.
Annabelle looks at them in the night, how close they are, how happy, and wonders.
She doesn’t call Roxy for a week. Roxy texts her from time to time, little things, but doesn’t press. Annabelle devotes herself to her work, grading papers (she doesn’t just teach self-defense; she teaches a personal memoir class that is extra, optional, and extremely popular) and scolding students. She goes home at night and drinks wine with her wives, laughing at their stories, snuggling up with them on the sofa while they watch movies. Polly holds her hand, and Kelly presses soft kisses to her jawline.
But then one evening she returns home, tired and irritated with her students, and finds Kelly and Polly curled around each other on the living room floor, working on one of the damnable puzzles together, and her rage and grief are so overwhelming that she turns around and walks out. She takes the first train to London and walks through Roxy’s hotel until she’s pounding on Roxy’s hotel door.
Roxy opens the door, looking surprised. “Annabelle. I didn’t-”
“I missed you,” Annabelle says desperately. “I missed you, and they never miss me.”
Roxy pulls her inside and shuts the door.
The next morning, a text message is waiting for her.
Remember she left first is all Peaches has to say.
Annabelle stares at herself resolutely in the mirror.
She hates herself, sometimes, for all of this.
She doesn’t see Roxy again for a while after that, too angry at herself for slipping up, too scared of what Peaches might tell Polly. What Polly might tell Kelly.
It was a mistake, she knows. She loves Roxy, but she’s married, and she loves her wives.
(She ignores the sound of Roxy’s voice saying, like a mantra, sometimes love isn’t enough, because that is wrong, love should always be enough, love should conquer all, but she can’t ignore herself, constantly pointing out that she loves her wives, but she also loves Roxy, and which love is supposed to conquer, anyway?)
She takes a small vacation from St. Trinian’s. She tells her aunt that she needs to spend some more time at home. Aunt Camilla doesn’t say anything, just stares at her with those too-wise eyes and grants her the time without complaint. She spends the time with Kelly, mostly, as Polly still disappears into the city for her job and has children to take care of. Kelly is thrilled to have her home.
“What do you want to do today?” Kelly asks her every morning, kissing her awake.
She scenes with Polly, something she hasn’t done since Roxy returned to England. She hasn’t felt like she could trust herself. She lets herself go, enjoying the intimacy of it all.
Peaches doesn’t contact her at all. Celia serves her tea without comment. It’s almost like things are normal again. Annabelle thinks she can forgive herself one mistake, one night of screwing up, but then.
She doesn’t mean for it to happen, she doesn’t. Things are good at home, she feels comfortable again. But one night, Kelly murmurs “Polly,” in her sleep, and Polly instinctively wraps her octopus arms around her even tighter, and Annabelle is so far away from them in that moment that she gets up and drives herself to London and Roxy.
Roxy’s eyes are distant when she opens the door, but she opens the door all the same.
“Why do you come here?” Roxy asks her the next morning, tracing patterns over her skin. It’s eerie, the way she and Polly share similar habits. They are nothing alike except in their love of making exact triangles on her skin.
“Because I love you,” Annabelle says automatically. And it’s true, she does.
Roxy’s smile is wry. “You love them, too. Why are you here instead of there?”
She doesn’t say, because they don’t need me or because I’m a wreck. She sighs and grabs Roxy’s hand. “Do you really care?” she asks, echoing words long since spoken, when they first kissed in a closet. Hidden, even then. Secret.
Back then, Roxy had decided it didn’t matter. Now, she draws her hand back and says, “I’m not going to be a mistake, Annabelle. Been that too many times before.”
Annabelle closes her eyes. Too late, she thinks.
Peaches has begun to text her again. Not threats, but sad little things about how what Annabelle is doing is wrong. As if she didn’t know that herself.
Celia serves her cold tea.
And Polly’s eyes become too knowing.
“I need you, you know,” Roxy says conversationally one evening. They are playing poker, of all things. She hasn’t played in years. Polly counts cards and Kelly hates the game. Annabelle is fiddling with her little stack of pretzels, trying to decide if she should fold or try her luck with a pair of fours.
Annabelle looks up, surprised. “Oh?” she asks.
Roxy smirks. “Intelligent, Fritton.”
Annabelle rolls her eyes. “You need me?” she presses, and Roxy shrugs haphazardly, as if what she said is of no consequence.
“You always bring me back home. You remind me that when I’m out there, I still have a place here.”
Annabelle doesn’t try to analyze it. She just smiles sadly and nods. “Pair of fours,” she says instead.
“Annabelle, really? Pair of fours? You’re shite at this, you know that, right?”
“You’re making a mistake,” Celia tells her one day.
Annabelle sighs. “I don’t think I ordered my tea with a side of moral condescension,” she says irritably.
Celia’s eyes are remarkably focused, in a way that they rarely are. Annabelle remembers, suddenly, that despite Celia’s eternal spaciness, she’s an operator, like Polly. Like Annabelle was for a time. Operators are good at detail and nuance. They’re also intensely loyal to their operatives, and while Annabelle doesn’t know if Celia considers Kelly or Polly her operatives, they’re certainly her friends.
“This isn’t moral condescension, Annabelle. St. Trinian’s girls aren’t renowned for their fidelity. We’re crap at it, actually. But Kelly and Polly are- they’re worth it. They deserve it.”
Annabelle grips her teacup so hard she thinks it’s going to shatter. “And what about me, Celia? What am I worth? I’m so sick of hearing about Kelly and Polly all the time. Don’t I deserve-”
“What?” Celia snaps. “Their love and devotion? Because they’ve never shown you anything different.”
Yes, they have, Annabelle wants to say. She wants to scream that their love and devotion are reserved for each other, and they added her because they had to, because they couldn’t politely ask her to disappear after they finally owned up to their feelings.
“Don’t presume anything,” Annabelle says instead, and she bites her lip so hard that tears sting her eyes.
But then it falls apart, as it should have from the beginning.
Annabelle is leaving Roxy’s hotel at a reasonable hour, five in the evening, and when she enters the lobby, Polly is sitting there, coffee in hand, looking completely at peace with everything around her. Annabelle’s footsteps falter only for a minute, but then she forces herself to keep walking.
“Not here,” she says as she walks by. Polly stands and follows her.
They wind up settling at an outdoor café that Annabelle has frequented upon occasion with Andrea and Taylor. It’s chilly out, but this isn’t one of her usual haunts, and she can trust that Peaches is probably scrambling to secure her surveillance. If John is nearby, he’ll have to struggle very hard to overhear them.
“So,” Annabelle says, crossing her arms.
Polly has always had an uncanny ability to stare through a person and seem to see all of them. She rarely uses her technique with Kelly or Annabelle, but she does it now, her gaze almost dead, completely flat.
“So,” Polly parrots. Annabelle doesn’t say anything else, so Polly continues. “You couldn’t honestly think I wouldn’t notice.”
“How long have you known?” Annabelle asks, knowing it’s nearly the exact same thing she said to Peaches nearly three weeks ago.
“Peaches let me know a week ago. Celia four days ago,” Polly replies. “I knew since she arrived in town, though.”
Annabelle starts. That’s longer than even Peaches. Celia maybe saw something that first day, but she didn’t suspect that Polly…
“How did you even-”
“I saw her leave the teashop. You were a mess that night. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together,” Polly says, shrugging one shoulder.
Annabelle rubs her eyes. “You never even met her.”
“Just because I couldn’t talk to you for your last year at St. Trinian’s doesn’t mean that I didn’t keep tabs on you, Annabelle,” Polly says softly. “I loved you even then.”
Annabelle swallows, her throat constricting tightly. She wants to cry, but she forces the urge away. Crying would be an insult to Polly.
“We didn’t, that night. It’s only been four times, really,” Annabelle tries to explain.
Polly’s gaze sharpens instantly, her mouth twisting into an angry frown. “Even once was too much. I don’t understand it, Annabelle. I don’t- what did we do wrong? Why weren’t we enough?”
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. It’s not enough, of course it isn’t. Apologies don’t forgive everything, especially nothing as monumental as this.
“You’ve always loved Roxy,” Polly continues, as though she hadn’t said anything, and she pulls the fork out of the rolled napkin and taps it restlessly against the table. “I know that. But I would have thought that Kelly, at least, was enough to make you stay.”
“It isn’t that easy,” Annabelle says, feeling sick all of a sudden. Anyone else would yell and scream and cry, but Polly has never been a yeller. And she’s never been comfortable with emotion. When she’s upset, she becomes distant and clinical. She dissects situations.
Much like now.
“I’m just curious, really, what we did to force you away. Did we treat you badly? Did we not love you enough? Did we love you the wrong way? Really, Annabelle, I’m curious. In what way was our love not enough for you?” Polly asks. Her tone is even, except for that last bit. Her voice cracks, and for one moment, Annabelle can see the depth of hurt there. If Polly is losing her vaunted control, then things are truly a mess.
“You love each other more than me,” Annabelle says. It’s the honest, terrible truth, and she just says it.
Polly opens her mouth, and then shuts it again, looking smoothly furious. “I’m sorry?”
“You just- you have all this history, and you love each other so much, and it’s like you just added me on, and Roxy, Roxy is everything I ever wanted and could never have, she just left one day, she left me, and- and you wouldn’t understand,” Annabelle finishes pathetically, one hand fluttering uselessly in the air.
“I- I wouldn’t understand,” Polly says. Her voice is flat, colorless. “I wouldn’t understand being left behind. I wouldn’t understand two people having history that I know nothing about. Really, Annabelle. I wouldn’t understand?”
Annabelle starts to say something, she wants to say something, because Polly angry is scarier than Polly hurt or betrayed or sad or anything else, and she can see the rage swelling up in her. But Polly gestures sharply, effectively cutting off anything Annabelle could have even thought of saying. “You left me first. Do you understand that? You both left, and you didn’t say a word, just sent me all this fucking information, and I had no idea what was going on. You left, Annabelle. You and Kelly both. I loved Kelly for six fucking years, and she left. I began to fall in love with you, and then you disappeared too. You think I don’t understand what it’s like to watch people you love disappear?”
Polly’s face is flushed, and her voice is soft and harsh. Annabelle clenches her hands in her lap.
“And don’t you dare complain that Kelly and I have stories. Don’t you dare,” she hisses, “Because you and Kelly will look at each other and say Guatemala or Portland, and you’ll smile, and I don’t know what you’re talking about. You have stories too. Things I don’t understand and could never understand and-”
“She protected you,” Annabelle blurts, ending Polly’s rant with three swift words. Polly stares at her, shocked. “She sent you away because she didn’t want you to get hurt. She wanted you safe. Me? She dragged me into the middle of it. She cared more about keeping you safe than she did about me.”
Polly starts to laugh, a low, chilly sound. “No, no, Annabelle. She sent me away because she couldn’t trust me to do what she needed. She trusted you. More than she did me.”
“I don’t,” Annabelle begins, stopping almost immediately.
Polly’s eyes turn sad, so sad. “You think I don’t understand, Annabelle, but truthfully? I’m possibly the only one who could. But you did this instead.”
Annabelle chokes back the tears threatening to overflow. She can’t cry, not now. “I’m sorry,” she whispers again. A pathetic attempt, she knows.
“The real question,” Polly says softly, “is whether or not she’ll stay. She left once before, Annabelle. Do you really think this is forever?”
“I don’t know,” Annabelle replies, choking on the words. Roxy has never talked about forever with her. She still talks about her travels all the time, makes references about visiting cities and towns and people, and maybe Annabelle has always known it isn’t forever.
“We love you,” Polly says. “So much. We’re forever. Please, come home.”
When she tells Kelly, it doesn’t go well. If Polly does quiet, righteous fury and guilt trips well, then Kelly has a handle on pure rage and disappointment.
“How could you?” Kelly shouts. She’s standing and pacing, looking absolutely destroyed. Polly is sitting in the armchair that they keep for guests, staring at her knitting with a fierce concentration that Annabelle hates.
Annabelle runs a hand through her hair. “I fucked up,” she says desperately. “I fucked up, and I’m so, so sorry.”
“You think saying sorry is going to fix this?” Kelly asks incredulously.
“I- no. No, I know it won’t,” Annabelle says.
Kelly sits down suddenly on the sofa, wiping tears away as quickly as she can. It doesn’t work. Her mascara is smudging something horrible. “Why, Annabelle?” she asks quietly, the rage draining out of her as swiftly as it came. She looks up at Annabelle, her eyes dark and sad.
“This isn’t always easy for me,” Annabelle replies. “I wanted something easy for once. I’ve loved her for a long time, and I thought she might be easier.”
Kelly looks over at Polly, who is studiously avoiding everyone’s gaze. Kelly stares at her for a moment, and then looks back at Annabelle. “You love her?” she asks, sounding scared.
Annabelle sits down next to her and wraps her arms around Kelly, feeling the weight of her mistakes. “Sometimes,” she says, “love isn’t enough.”
“No, it isn’t,” Kelly says. Her voice turns cold. “Get out. I can’t- I can’t even look at you right now.”
Annabelle looks to Polly, desperate, but Polly doesn’t even look up from her yarn. “Kelly-”
“I get to be angry, Annabelle,” Kelly snaps. “So please, get out. We’ll call you. Or something.”
She goes to Taylor and Andrea, who take her in without a word. At this point, Annabelle imagines everyone has to know. If Peaches, Celia, and Polly knew, it had to be obvious to everyone.
“Who was she?” Andrea asks finally, handing Annabelle a plate with a sandwich on it. She sits down next to Taylor on the sofa, leaning her head on Taylor’s shoulder.
Annabelle stares at it listlessly. “Her name is Roxy. She was an ex of mine.”
Taylor sighs. “Always the worst sort, those.”
“They’ll come around, Annabelle,” Andrea reassures her.
“How can you be so sure?” she asks, feeling desperate. “I made a huge mistake. How can they forgive me for that?”
“Because,” Taylor says easily, “you know it was a mistake.”
Annabelle keeps her mobile with her at all times. She holds it even while teaching the girls to throw people over their shoulders. She holds it while lecturing her students on the importance of truth in their narratives. She holds it while eating dinner with Taylor and Andrea, Chelsea and Yvette, Chloe and her girls. She sleeps with it, curling it close to her chest.
It rings while she’s sitting with the Bursar, trying to figure out where 10,000 pounds went. She answers it immediately, ignoring Bursar’s irritated look. If he dealt with Aunt Camilla ignoring him all these years, he can deal with ten minutes of her.
“Hello?” she answers, aware of how desperate she sounds.
“You fucked up,” Kelly says.
“I really did,” Annabelle replies, and then she’s crying. Bursar gives her an appalled look and almost runs out of the room. She drops her head into her spare hand. “I really, really did.”
“Are you going to do it again?” Kelly asks.
“No,” she says immediately. “God, no. Never again.”
“Then we’ll work it out. Come home, Annabelle. We miss you.”
She hangs up, and Annabelle lowers her head to the desk, letting herself cry in a way that she hasn’t allowed yet.
She’s going home.
She has one thing she has to do first.
“We’re done,” Annabelle tells Roxy.
They’re at Celia’s shop, where Annabelle knows she’ll be watched by a horde of St. Trinian’s girls. She doesn’t trust herself, not yet. Not when Roxy is sitting two feet away and looking vague.
“Sense finally caught up with you?” Roxy asks.
“Love,” Annabelle replies. “They love me. They- they miss me. But I forget, sometimes. We don’t always speak the same language.”
Roxy nods slowly, and her smile turns sad. “I’m sorry, for what it’s worth.”
“For what?” she asks, despite herself.
Roxy sighs. “For leaving to begin with. For… for encouraging you when I came back. Are they angry?”
She doesn’t know how to answer that. She hasn’t been back home yet. Her car is packed, ready to go, but she had to do this first. She doesn’t know what to expect.
“Not at you,” she says finally. “It was my choice, Roxy. I could have said no.”
“When I was younger,” Roxy says idly, sticking her finger in her tea and swirling it around, “I used to say that if my partner cheated on me, I would never take them back, not ever. I guess I’m happy that they don’t subscribe to that policy. For your sake.”
“Did you ever love me?” Annabelle asks before she can stop herself. “I mean, really. Really love me. Not just- not just as a good screw.”
Roxy stands up and grabs her knapsack. She’s leaving again, Annabelle knows. She can feel it in her bones. She could feel it weeks ago, when Roxy began staring out windows and counting footsteps under her breath.
The difference between Roxy and Kelly and Polly is that they stayed, in the end. They made a home and stayed.
Roxy reaches over and tilts Annabelle’s chin upwards, so she’s staring up at her. “You’re the only one I ever loved,” Roxy says, one corner of her mouth tilting up in a smile. She leans down and kisses Annabelle’s forehead. “But I’m glad I’m not the only one that loved you.”
And she leaves.
Her homecoming is almost anticlimactic. She unlocks the back door and slides inside. She hangs up her coat, her handbag, and then turns to look at Kelly and Polly, standing so quietly in the kitchen.
“Hi,” Annabelle says.
She sees Kelly swallow, sees Polly shift her weight. And then Polly walks over and kisses her lightly. “Dinner will be ready soon,” she says. “Come work on a puzzle with me?”
Kelly’s smile is small, but it’s there. “We’re having chicken. Hope you’re hungry.” Then she reaches over and tugs Annabelle into a tight hug.
“I’m sorry,” Annabelle whispers, again, into Kelly’s shoulder. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever stop saying it. It will never stop being true.
“We forgive you,” Kelly whispers back.
“I have moments,” Annabelle tells Kelly and Polly at dinner, “where I’m not sure of who I am.”
Kelly and Polly exchange glances, brief and almost insignificant except that Annabelle knows that everything they do together is significant, in the same way that every look, every touch that she and Kelly exchange is significant. They have years of history between them, but Annabelle and Kelly have the weight of holding the life of the other in her hands.
“We know who you are,” Polly says, reaching over and taking her hand.
“Let us show you,” Kelly adds, and places her hand on Annabelle’s thigh.
They’ll work it out, in the end. They’ll fit together again.
Sometimes, love isn’t enough.
But sometimes it is.