It is that ungodly hour of the night where the world stands still, blanketed in a sheet of white and the silence is broken only by the call of a bird or the howling of wind against the window pane. Richard’s tired eyes flutter open, adjusting to the soft pink light that filters through the curtains and hits the wall. It takes a moment for him to realise where he is, pulse pounding in his temples and eyes running over the books that line the haphazard shelves on Ned’s walls. Political biographies, brief introductions to international relations and guides to ideologies from Marxism to capitalism, as well as some of his teenage favourites; a tattered copy of David Copperfield, Adrian Moles with broken spines and a well-thumbed 1984.
It takes another minute to try and recall how exactly he’s found himself on his brother’s sofa at the crack of dawn, marked by his stifled yawn and the half-darkness. It isn’t until he turns his attention to the empty bottles that litter the coffee table and sideboard that the hazy memories of the warm library, the snow falling on the path to Ned’s flat and the orange glow of the streetlamps come into focus but remain just out of reach.
The arm he’s been leaning on is numb, tingling from his elbow to his wrist until he shifts himself round, feeling the rush of blood to his fingertips. Bringing a hand to his face, he traces the lines the squishy brown leather of the sofa has left on his cheek and rubs his dark eyes until he sees stars. With a hmph, he slumps down into the back of the sofa, content to stare up at the ceiling blurred at the edges with sleep. The inside of his mouth tastes like prosecco and mint and he wonders what they’d been celebrating to have brought out a bottle of “the good stuff”. The fairy lights are still up though, he thinks with a languid smile, glowing feebly and supported by Anne’s sellotaped framework. Then all at once it comes back to him, heart thudding and adrenaline shooting through him. Tilting his stiff neck, he glances over at the sleeping figure on the other side of the sofa.
He wonders how he could have forgotten, even for a moment. Catching sight of himself in the squint mirror on the opposite wall, Richard takes in the unruly mop of jet hair that tickles his ears and stares back at the dark brown eyes that see more than he lets on and then towards Anne. She truly is the day to his night, her face the sun, all light and red-gold hair that falls about her shoulders like a lion’s mane even in the half-light of the morning. She is all talk, and he is more than willing to listen, but now she is quiet, dozing. Her face suddenly scrunches up as if she were having a quarrel in a dream of hers and then she sighs quietly, content that she has delivered the final jab. Looking at her he feels a warm sense of protectiveness, hot and proud all at once. He’d felt it years ago when George had tugged too hard on one of her plaits and made her yelp and he feels it now that he’s finally played his hand. He would do anything for her, he decides, but upon reflection, the corners of his mouth upturned, he realises he knew that already. Perhaps he always has.
As he found out last night, his lifelong truth was apparently blindingly obvious to everyone. Ned knew something had happened when the pair of them rang his doorbell dusted with snowflakes, flustered and radiating boundless joy. He managed to keep his mouth shut, content not to tease his brother in front of company and besides, he had his own interests to pursue. It wasn’t until the noise had started to die down and Richard thought he’d gotten away with it that Ned couldn’t hold it in anymore, muttering “So you finally did it then?” as he passed Richard another glass. He nearly choked on his drink, spluttering “What?” while Ned just laughed at him, the deep hearty laugh he made when he found something incredibly funny. George too was grinning at him like an idiot, knowing exactly what Ned was on about.
“Come on, we’ve all been waiting for it. You’ve been mooning after her for how long Rich?”
He grumbled something inaudible in response that made Ned howl, reaching out a hand to mess up Richard’s already untidy hair. “Cheer up little brother! This, amongst other things,” he said, flicking his blue eyes towards Lizzie Woodville “has made my whole night”.
He was glad his embarrassment made his brothers so happy but it was a small price to pay to hold Anne in his arms, twirling a strand of her red hair in his hands while he kissed her neck and Anne giggled (Anne was never one for giggling) the two of them basking in each other – in awe that they had done what they never though they could. Richard didn’t regret many things, he was never one for looking back and squirming, but this was one thing he did regret – that he hadn’t done it sooner.
He loves Anne Neville. It isn’t a concept he needs to wrap his head around or come to terms with like something out of his law textbook. No, she has been a constant for as long as he can remember, the golden threat that binds his life together. It was something that had never been exposed to light, a feeling that bubbled away beneath the surface. With the two of them, it wasn’t so much a question of if, but when. It wasn’t something he’d ever tried to hide – the opposite really – but he had never spoken it out loud, only acknowledged it in the smallest of ways; giving Anne an extra shaky crossed kiss in old birthday cards, despising Edward (the boy she’d briefly gone out with in secondary school) for no good reason and lending her books he’d once loved.
But Christ it’s too early for all that, it’s only what? – he fishes his phone out of his pocket, tapping the home screen until it glows – 5:45. And besides, he can’t be telling her all that this morning, they’ve only had one kiss for God’s sake (well maybe more than one) but it’s always been difficult for Richard to hold his tongue.
He’s tempted to curl back into the warm spot on the sofa but he fights the urge and opens his eyes wide, stretching his arms over his head and curling his toes. It is then he notices that someone must have thrown a fleecy blanket over the two of them at some point and it almost like the sleepovers they used to have at Middleham when they were little, huddled beneath a blanket canopy and holding torches to their faces. There is no need for a torch now though as the light through the window fades into a mauve and he carefully peels the blanket back, conscious not to wake Anne.
He hisses quietly as his feet touch the icy floorboards, goose bumps shooting up his arms and he curses Ned’ dodgy central heating. A warming cup of tea suddenly sounds perfect and he heads to the kitchen, taking out two mismatched mugs with a quiet clink. Filling up the kettle and letting it boil, he steals a glance out of the smeared window, rubbing his arms in an effort to warm up. The garden hidden beneath a sheet of white reflects into the kitchen, washing it in cool light. Snow from the night before lies frozen on the windowsill and he is oddly comforted by it. It was not a fleeting, freakish storm but meant to stay, to lie, to cover everything it turned its attention to. It is truly winter then he thinks.
It'd be Christmas soon and he, Ned and George would be shoving their belongings into the boot of Ned's temperamental car and heading back to Middleham to spend the holiday with their sisters and their mother who missed them more than she could ever admit. They were her world, even more so since the death of their father when Richard was only eight. He wondered what she would think when he told her about Anne but something about her all-seeing grey eyes told him she would probably know before he even stepped inside the house. Am I so obvious? he thinks. Shaking his head, he stirs sugar into Anne’s cup and milk into his own and heads back into the living room.
When he returns, he is surprised to see Anne awake and sitting on the window seat, huddled beneath the blanket and knees tucked beneath her. Seeing him in the doorway, she abandons the textbook she has propped open and breaks into the most gorgeous grin Richard has ever seen, all white teeth and pink cheeks. In the soft light, her hair is luminous, red wisps escaping her half-up do and brown eyes twinkling. On the floor below he sees the destruction that dragging such a heavy fleece across the littered floor has wrought and he smiles.
“That’s not the most elegant seating arrangement I’ve ever seen, I have to say.”
Her smile takes over her whole face and she tugs the fleece round herself.
“It’s bloody freezing in here, Rich. Is that tea?”
“Only the best. Favourite mug and all,” he answers, holding her mug out to her outstretched hands and she cups it gratefully, taking a graceful sip.
“Two sugars, just the way you like it.”
“It’s lovely Rich. Can’t believe you remembered.”
She takes another sip and signs contentedly. She pats the space next to her on the seat with her free hand and he scoots next to her as she folds some of the blanket around him.
Outside the window, the violet sky spangled with the last of the night’s stars is shifting into something warmer, a white moon hanging overhead as an orange glow spreads behind the houses opposite. The bay window at the front of the room is perfect, never mind the peeling paint at the corners or the cold air that sneaks through the gaps. Richard often wondered how Ned had struck it so lucky with this flat, and ignoring its slightly crumbling exterior, it was reminiscent of their family home in Middleham. Ivy clings to the walls and creeps up to frame the glass in a web of greenery. It was perfectly picturesque when it wasn’t covered in forgotten essays or empty glasses of whatever they’d all been drinking. Anne adored it, often preferring to sit on one of the window seats and freeze than one of the sofas.
This morning the grass outside was covered in a thick layer of snow that sparkled and the white roses in the pots were frozen in mid-wilt. The two of them clutch their mugs in one hand as they look out into their Eden, the gentle rise and fall of their chests the only whisper of sound. She moves to rest a warm cheek on his shoulder, a little hesitantly at first because she knows his shoulder can be stiff at times from a childhood fall but his relaxed posture assures her it’s the “good shoulder”.
“Hope I didn’t wake you,” Richard mumbles into Anne’s hair and her shoulders shaking tells him she’s laughing.
“Well you did. You’re not exactly subtle.”
“Is that right?” he quips, a smile dancing on his lips and she tilts her head to look up at him, her cheeks burning that familiar red he loves so much. She moves all the closer until her head is tucked under his chin and she can feel his heart beating, her back curled into his chest. She fingers the edge of the blanket, tracing the wool pattern with her finger.
“It’s silly but… this almost feels like those sleepovers we used to have when we were little. D’you remember?”
It is easy for them to look back on their yellowed Middleham memories and they flicker before Richard like a photo reel. Anne, Isabel and George and his childhood best friend Francis all camped out in the garden, scaring themselves stupid with the stories Ned had told them about the ghosts of the nearby Middleham Castle – the knights who had fallen nearby at some battlefield or other. Richard thought them heroic, Isabel was distinctly unimpressed, George wore a guise of bravery when he secretly trembled and Anne wanted to know more about the men beneath the armour. Ned insisted with a shrug that he couldn’t tell her anymore than what he knew – that there was definitely a dragon beneath the castle and the soldiers had perished beneath its scorching blast.
“It does, doesn’t it?” he muses, mouth pressed against her temple. “This is much better though, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know about that. There’s no dragons here,” Anne says, gesturing with her free hand to the cluttered and untidy living room, utterly devoid of dragons.
“And thank God for that! I don’t know if you can say that for certain though. You’re pretty fiery yourself.”
And with that she’s groaning, jabbing him with a sharp elbow and it takes everything he has to not toss his mug aside onto the floor and kiss her smiling mouth, her flushed cheeks and the pale patch of skin that had never been kissed by the sun behind her ear.
She is looking straight at him now, voice deadpan, but trying her best to bite back laughter, a dimple hollowing her cheek. “That was really, really bad. I hope you know that.”
“I’m right am I not?” He insists, and Anne has to bite the inside of her cheek to stop from smiling.
“Whether you’re right or not has nothing to do with it. It was bad.”
“Well it did what I wanted it to do.” He says, lifting a hand to beneath her chin, the other twisting a loose strand of red hair around his finger. “You’re blushing, Annie.”
“And you’re stating the obvious Rich,” she retorts, smiling in spite of herself. “It’s my fatal flaw, especially around you.”
Her sudden wide eyes tell him she didn’t mean to reveal that last piece of information and he can feel her skin scorching beneath his hand. He brushes her chin with his thumb, the corner of his mouth upturned.
“It’s the furthest thing from a flaw Annie. You’re just easy to read that’s all. It’s one of my favourite things about you. You say what you mean and if you don’t, your cheeks do. You’re honest, cripplingly so.”
She shakes her head gently, pink mouth forming a smile. “I’m glad you think so, Rich." She pauses, then adds "I don’t think I’ve ever seen you blush before.”
“You do enough of it for the both of us,” he jokes, winding her hair around his hand.
“No, I mean I don’t think I’ve ever seen you nervous before, truly nervous.”
Richard bursts out laughing and so does Anne, though her laughter is a little more anxious than his. They’re quiet for a heartbeat, laughter dying on their lips and a nervous energy taking its place. I have so many things I want to tell you, Annie, he thinks with a chuckle, but I also don’t want to scare you away. It is much, much too early to tell Anne he loves her, but perhaps he doesn’t need to. Perhaps she already knows. Several seconds pass as he steadies himself, allowing the words to come to him.
“I’m scared all the time Annie, you’ve seen it. Remember when I fell and shattered my shoulder and it took months to heal? It's still hurts a lot of the time, and I don't think it'll ever be truly fixed." He straightens his spine instinctively, a rare glimpse of self-consciousness from him. "Or when my dad passed away when we were small.” His voice hitches and Anne places a hand on his, squeezing gently.
“I know I might not act like I’m ever afraid but believe me…" He is looking at her now, squeezing back, "I am. But it was you, it was you who got me through those things because you were there.”
She is looking at him with the eyes he knows so well, eyes that filled with tears when she saw him cry out in pain, eyes that wept at his father's funeral. The same eyes that look at him now, imploring him to go on.
He exhales shakily, grateful for the small hand that rests on his.
"As for nervous, I know I might not always show it, but I’m a wreck Annie. If you knew how nervous I was last night when we stood under that lamppost, God, you wouldn’t believe it! Even now, I’m the same.” He gestures suddenly to his chest, to his heart, feeling his pulse race beneath his skin. “Listen, can you not feel my heart going like a jackhammer? Feel.”
She leans into his chest, hesitantly at first, and places a hand over his heart that thuds beneath her palm in a testament of love. There is something so vulnerable about the light pressure of her hand over his heart, ghosting over the taut muscle and ribs beneath. Meeting her brown eyes warm with something he can’t place, he takes the hand that lies on his chest and holds it in both hands, so much in his heart that he longs to share, can’t put into words.
Outside, the sun has risen, casting an warm glow over the pair of them, reborn in the morning light. The wind is beginning to pick up, a few snowflakes drifting from the sky to the white sheet below. Raising her hand to his lips, he kisses her knuckles, eyes as dark as spilled ink, brimming over with feeling.
“It’s always you Annie. It’s always been you. I’ve known you my whole life and it feels like I’ve been waiting that long to say this to you.”
There is a moment where his words lie heavy and his heart drops but another passes and Anne moves closer and she is there. There is a sharp intake of breath and he shudders as her mouth meets his for the dozenth time but this time the anxiety is gone, something unbounded and raw in it. Her cheeks are still hot, but not with embarrassment or shock - she is pink, overwhelmed with something she never thought she could put a name to with Richard, her Richard. Knocking over their empty mugs which they don’t hear tumble to the floor and the blanket long forgotten about, Richard’s back is pressed against the chilled glass and Anne’s lips against his are sweet with sugar.
He could almost cry out his mouth seems to burn so against hers. He traces his cool hands from the crown of Anne’s head to the nape of her neck, running his fingers through the length of her hair until he reaches the smooth curve of her back and the small of her spine. They are breathless, lost to the senseless need to convey how they feel, Anne’s small hands knotted in the curls of Richard’s dark hair and his hands wrapped around her waist until her body is atop of his, chest to chest and hearts as one. It is only when they pause, gasping for breath that he realises he is flushing, he thinks for the first time in his life, the blood in his face spreading in a rush from his neck to his hairline and he is laughing, pure unbridled laughter. Anne looks down at him, brown eyes glittering, and he thinks a man could drown in eyes like hers. She breaks into a grin, the light of the new day reflected in her eyes, hands cradling the face that burns beneath her fingers.
Ned was right, he realises. Perhaps he is easier to read than he thought.