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Continual State of Inelegance

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For all the bustle of the Pump Room during the day, for all the stories about it, for all the "chilly mists of legend" (as Isabella says) that cling to the waters of Bath, Catherine finds herself disappointed by it. The man who hands her and Isabella their glasses looks nearly as bored as Isabella, only there is no way of knowing with Isabella whether it is real boredom or merely the affectation of it. Catherine, having become all too painfully aware of her own deficiencies in affecting looks of much of anything she is not genuinely feeling, must fight hard not to wrinkle her nose, partly at the water itself and partly, she must confess to herself, in disappointment.

"I would think," she finally says to Isabella, when she thinks she can keep the disappointment out of her voice, "that it might at least be a little chilly itself."

Isabella laughs at that, and drinks the rest of her glass in one long draught. Catherine envies her the ability to do it; she sips at her own doggedly, on the off chance that maybe it will improve, and anyway, an odd kind of pride rears up in her and she is determined not to give up. Isabella needles her, asking for her thoughts on it, but mercifully Catherine distracts her with talk of novels before Isabella can guess at the truth of her disappointment. For when all is said and done, the simple fact of it is that the water tastes stale. And it's warm, yes, but not in the same way as the whiskey Isabella slips her on the way into the tea that, for some reason members are eternally left to speculate on, precedes the Club every afternoon.

"Oh -- " Catherine manages, but even coughing and sputtering over the stuff that's burned her throat all the way down, she manages not to let the Lord's name slip past her lips. "Oh," she says instead, and then adds, her voice weak, "I could do with some of that awful water now."

Isabella only laughs, and takes another swig of the awful stuff for herself. "Dear Catherine," she says, "I don't know why I still bring you; you do embarrass me so!"

Catherine does not speak to her for the rest of the tea, even when they have to slip off to the gardens together amongst the rest of the young ladies, Isabella's hand on her elbow. "Oh, don't be so dull, Catherine," Isabella laughs, and her face is rather too close to Catherine's ear -- really, it's not like Catherine couldn't hear her, she doesn't need her to draw that near.

Isabella's eye is red, it will be gloriously purple later, but it's nothing to how Catherine must still spit a bit of blood out every now and then. They and the other young ladies are straggling back up to the house, stumbling drunkenly through the gardens, giddy not only with the whiskey and gin and all sorts of other stuff they've been passing round but, even more, with the thrill of ungloved hands, sweat- and grass-soiled muslin, and bloodstains.

"I think," Catherine chances, and in spite of herself she cannot help smiling, "I think, Isabella, that perhaps this is why you still bring me?" She cannot manage the coyness that Isabella would; it is too much of a real question, with too much of her actual pride hanging on it. Isabella must, at least, grant that Catherine does this well.

Isabella flushes a little, and Catherine finds the hunger in her belly grows all the greater at the sight of it, so that when Isabella tries to kiss her she responds in kind, digs her fingertips in their soiled and bloodstained gloves into Isabella's wrists and even stops Isabella from reaching for Catherine. She won tonight, after all.

They remain like that as the evening grows darker and the lights inside come on, buttery yellow spilling out onto them in the gardens.

On her second night at the club, a Miss D--- suggests drawers under her dress instead of petticoats. "You'll thank me for the tip, miss," she says.

Mrs. Allen is somewhat shocked when Catherine, only blushing a very little, inquires about them in the shops. But she is not shocked overmuch, which is itself a shock, and she insists upon taking Catherine out for tea and recalling (for that seems the word for it, as though she had long forgotten about them) some of the stockings she wore as a girl. They find that she can recall the colors of the ribbons on them, and there is a sparkle in her eye as she breaks off on telling Catherine about the pair she wore the first time she danced with Mr. Allen.

Trying to work out how to begin telling it all in her journal later, Catherine hits upon it at last. Something is changing, she writes. Oh, of course I knew I was changed by it--but to find that others are, as well! It is contagious -- Oh, but "contagious" makes it sound so much like some illness, and this is so much better than that! It is catching, she tries again, but that is not much better. It is a fashion -- She hits on it at last, and is off again. Perhaps not one out of Town, I do not know, but it sweeps through young ladies and even our mothers are not immune to it!

The drawers do make moving easier, when she's hitched up her skirts enough to at least bend her knees a bit. Catherine is surprised how few of the other young ladies wear them, and indeed she finds that she cannot help suggesting them to a few others.

"They do have their disadvantages, however," purrs Isabella when they find themselves quite alone in the garden for the moment, the other ladies' calls a hedge or three distant. Catherine's hair is in her eyes, stuck there by the blood from the cut over her left eye. But she can make out enough of Isabella to hang onto her.

"Like what?" Catherine asks, laughing, and then gasps when Isabella presses a hand against the warmth where her thighs meet, the thin linen of the drawers not nearly enough to protect her hand from Catherine's heat, nor that spot from the heat of Isabella's hand.

"Well," Isabella says, "this is not so easy, for one thing."

Catherine's breath is still coming with difficulty, but she finds something in herself -- a bit like when she's fighting, she manages to think, before (as in fighting) all thought is gone again and she's merely moving. She turns them, somehow, and though Isabella has matched her quite well in fighting, she doesn't even try now. In moments, it's Isabella against the wall, and Catherine kissing her, Isabella's hand drifting back up to Catherine's hair and Catherine's...she would be shocked with herself if she were thinking still, but as when she's fighting, thought is gone, carried away by the sweet country breezes.

"A fine solution," Isabella murmurs, when Catherine's hand slips up <em>her</em> leg, instead -- for Isabella hasn't yet taken to drawers. But her voice is a little higher than usual, and she sounds nearly drunk, though Catherine knows for a fact she's not brought her flask this time.

There's a great cry back amongst the other young ladies, and it covers for them well, the way they laugh as they fall together into the soft grass.