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The Englishman or The Fish

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Even after they left the Legion, Nick’s head was reeling, as much from the beer than anything else. His ears still rang from the music, and the cool air was a relief after the hot, crowded bar.

“That was a hoot!” Diane said, smiling up at him. She was definitely a little drunk, her words softly slurred and just the hint of a stumble in her gait.

Nick smiled at her, offering his arm. She took it, her body warm where she leaned against him. It was a slightly guilty pleasure, he knew; they had been growing closer through their time in Gander but the beers had helped lower both their inhibitions. His own inherent British-ness was softened, and seeing Diane so outgoing and open, prepared to try her hand at anything the locals suggested, made him yearn to go along with her.

Her enthusiasm was infectious, and he found himself singing and clapping along with the makeshift band. It was more fun than he’d anticipated, and watching Diane, her face flushed with excitement, stirred something in him. It had been a long time since his last holiday, and it certainly had not resembled this in the least. Being in Gander was like an enforced break from real life, and Nick was enjoying it far more than he would have thought.

Maybe it was Gander.

Maybe it was Diane.

She had kissed him, after all. He had no idea what to do with that. While he’d been enjoying her company before the screech in, the flicker of romantic interest had flared into life with her determined eyes meeting his, small hands locking into his lapels and pulling him into a solid kiss right there in the middle of the Legion Hall for everyone to see.

Glancing to his right, Nick watched Diane for a moment. She was still happily humming the tune they’d been playing before they left.

“I really think I need to lie down,” she said to him, resting her head on his arm. “Things are less fuzzy, but I’m awfully tired.”

“It’s not much further,” he said. “We could sit for a moment if you like?”

“No,” she sighed, “Probably should keep going.”

They made it back to the shelter in one piece. The distinctive, restless quiet of four hundred people sleeping on the floor of a school auditorium was now familiar, but Nick wasn’t quite prepared to let this night go.

“Come and have some water,” Nick said, steering Diane through to the cafeteria. There were a dozen or so people scattered around the room talking quietly. A local woman spied them, smiling as Nick guided Diane into a chair. “Stay here,” he said, “I’ll be back in a moment.”

The local woman - he thought her name might be Bella - had poured two large glasses already. “Good night?” She asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“You sound surprised,” she said in amusement.

“I haven’t had a night out like that in a long...well, ever,” Nick admitted.

“Did they do a screech in?” Bella asked.

“They did,” Nick replied. He turned up his nose. “I kissed a fish.”

“Congratulations,” Bella said, grinning, “and can I assume that’s due to the screech?” She waved at Diane, slumped against the table top.

“Well, yes,” Nick admitted, “and probably the beer.”

“So you’re both Newfoundlanders now?” Bella asked.

“Well, no,” Nick said. “She wouldn’t kiss the fish.”

“She wouldn’t...so was she the one who kissed...” Bella’s eyes widened as she put two and two together, and pointed one finger at Nick. “You’re the Englishman she kissed instead!”

Nick winced. The grapevine here certainly worked quickly. “I am,” he said.

“Well, congratulations again, then,” she said. “You’d better get this over to your lady friend before she falls asleep.”

Nick tried to protest the term ‘lady friend’, but Bella was gone, returning to the woman she’d been comforting before Nick and Diane came in.

“Diane,” Nick said, setting their water on the table. He sat beside her, resting one hand on her shoulder to try and rouse her.

“Nick,” came his name, less dreamy than earlier. “Have some water,” Nick encouraged her. “It will help.”

“It will?” Diane said, sitting up. She winced. “I think this is sobering up.”

“I think you’re right,” Nick said, passing her the water. “You’ll feel better in the morning if you drink plenty of water.”

She drank some, but put it down to look at him again. “I didn’t kiss the fish, did I?” she said.

“No,” Nick told her.

“But I wanted to be a Newfoundlander,” she said sadly.

“Well, I think you are,” Nick told her.

“I am?” she asked hopefully. “How?”

“Well, the fellow running things gave you an alternative.” Nick hoped she wouldn’t want all the details.

“An alternative?” Diane repeated. She picked up her water as she waited for him to reply.

Nick sighed. He might as well get it over with. “He said you could either kiss the fish, or kiss ‘this Englishman you’re not married to’,” Nick told her. He watched her brow crease as she tried to figure it out.

“You?” she whispered finally. “I kissed you?”

“You did,” Nick confirmed, feeling his face flushed. Was that a good reaction? Was she relieved or horrified?

Finally, a smile blossomed over her face. “Well that’s lovely,” she said. Leaning over, she rested one hand on his chest. “You’re really quite attractive, you know.”

“I am?” Nick asked.

“In an English kind of way,” she said.

“Thank you?” Nick tried. He wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or not.

Diane smiled at him. “I am not entirely sober,” she told him, “and I’d like to remember this tomorrow.”

“I’m not sure I can make that happen,” Nick said, smiling affectionately.

“If I don’t remember, will you tell me what happened?” she asked.

How could he say no to that? Especially when she was looking at him so trustingly. He sighed, hoping he wouldn’t regret this show of chivalry in the morning. “Of course,” he said. “We should finish our water and get some sleep.”

“Yes,” Diane said. She finished her water, watching while Nick returned their glasses. When he returned, she stood up, taking his hand as they made their way back to their cots. “Your hand’s warm,” she told him.

“You’ll want to brush your teeth,” Nick told her as she made to roll into her cot. “Trust me.”

“You know Nick,” Diane said, rummaging in her bag for her wet bag, “you know a lot about being drunk.” She blinked at him with an amused grin. “Why is that, exactly?”

“Remnants of an ill-spent youth,” Nick told her, as they walked towards the bathrooms. “I’m much wiser now.”

“Good to know,” Diane told him with a cheeky grin, disappearing into the girls’ bathrooms.

Nick shook his head, continuing to the boys’ the next door down. It was awkward, bending down to the low children’s basins, and his balance wasn’t great. He did manage to keep his feet, and hoped Diane was coping too. She had certainly sobered up between the Legion and the bathrooms, but he wondered if the beer was still affecting her judgement. She was almost…flirty was the word that came to mind, and it made him shake his head. It had been a long time since anyone had flirted with him, even with beer to blame.

She was waiting for him when he stepped out of the bathroom.

“I’m all minty fresh,” she said, grinning at him.

“Good to hear,” he replied. It was impossible not to return that smile, he thought, as she took his hand again. Her hand was cool and small in his.

God, I hope she remembers this.

I hope I do.

The short walk back to their cot was done in a blink; neither spoke as they moved together through the dim space. Nick wasn’t sure what was on Diane’s mind. He felt like he was following her lead, and as they slowed at their cots he waited to see what she would do.

Her sigh was somewhere between regret and contentment, and Nick was sure she was going to unlace their fingers. Instead she dropped her bag and turned to face him, fingers still tangled with his. “I don’t want to let you go,” she said. The words were simple and in the low light her eyes were on his. It was too dark for Nick to see her expression clearly, but she sounded sure.

Nick didn’t know what to say, but his heart started thumping.

The silence stretched between them.

“Don’t let me go,” she whispered.

Nick watched as she scooted her cot closer to his with one hand, finally understanding what she was saying.

She’s talking about sleep. Don’t overthink it.

Without speaking, they managed to arrange themselves into their cots. Nick found himself on his stomach, one hand outstretched. His fingers and Diane’s were tangled together, resting on her carry-on bag between their cots.

The last thing he saw was her face, a faint smile still visible as she slept.

God, I hope I remember this.

+++

When Nick woke, he couldn’t figure out why he was so uncomfortable. I never sleep on my stomach. Opening his eyes was harder than it should have been; with a groan, he remembered.

Screech is horrific.

And then a moment later…

Diane.

Blinking, focussing, Nick flexed his fingers. They moved freely, resting on the floor by his cot. Diane’s hand wasn’t there; her cot was empty. He didn’t move for a moment, remembering the previous evening. What did Diane remember of it? If she did remember, how did she feel about it? Nick was pretty sure she was more open last night than she might otherwise have been.

Well, there was nothing else for it, he had to get up, to visit the men’s room if nothing else.

Having made it to the men’s and back without running into Diane, Nick headed for the cafeteria. It was reasonably full this morning, but he couldn’t see her.

As he turned to leave, Bella (was that her name?) came up to him. “You lookin’ for your sweetheart, there?” she asked him.

“Er, if you mean Diane,” he started, “yes.”

“She was in here earlier,” Bella said. ‘Had a cup of coffee, then scooted off to get some air.” She grinned at him. “I found her some aspirin, poor dear. I don’t think she was used to drinkin’ so much.”

“Neither do I,” Nick told her. “You don’t happen to know which way she went?”

“Headed towards the park, last I saw,” Bella said. “I loaned her a yellow stocking cap, you can’t miss her.”

“Thank you,” Nick said. He grabbed a bottle of water and an apple and turned to see if he could find Diane.

+++

She was in the park, he was relieved to see, sitting on a low bench overlooking the ocean. The colour of the cap was a giveaway, but Nick knew he would have recognised her anyway. He approached the bench, and when he was a few steps away she turned to him.

“Good morning,” Nick greeted her. “Might I join you?”

Diane blinked, and Nick wondered what it was he saw in her eyes. Slowly, she nodded.

He flashed her a smile, not sure where to start. “How are you feeling?”

“A little fragile,” she said, her voice subdued. “Beulah gave me some aspirin.”

Not Bella. Beulah.

“She told me about the aspirin,” Nick said. “And where to find you.”

“I thought she might have,” Diane said, some of her sparkle returning for a moment. “She’s incredible.”

“She is,” Nick replied.

They sat in silence for a while. Nick still had no idea where to start. He’d promised to remind Diane about what happened last night, but what if she didn’t want to know? He didn’t want to push her into anything, it was the last thing he could bring himself to do.

“I don’t remember everything about last night,” Diane said quietly. “But I do remember one thing for sure.” She flexed her fingers, and Nick knew what she was going to say before she said it. “Did we fall asleep holding hands?”

“Yes,” Nick replied. “We did.”

Diane nodded. “Did I do that?”

“You did,” Nick told her. “Do you remember the Legion?”

“There was a fish,” Diane said. “And beer. And screech.” They both shuddered at the same, catching each other’s eye and sharing a smile.

“You kissed the fish,” Diane went on. Nick’s heart started thumping. “And I kissed you.”

“Yes,” Nick said.

Diane nodded, looking down at her hands. “I think beer makes me kinda flirty,” she said with a strained laugh.

Nick didn’t reply.

Yes it does.

It’s quite adorable.

“It was part of the ceremony,” Nick said told her. “You wanted to be a Newfoundlander.”

“I did,” Diane said. A grin crossed her face. “That was a fun night.”

“It was,” Nick replied. “Not my usual fare, but enjoyable nonetheless.”

“You really are very English,” Diane told him.

Nick could feel his cheeks warm. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said.

Diane frowned. “I said something about you being English last night, didn’t I?”

Nick shifted uncomfortably. You promised her. “You told me I was quite attractive. In an English kind of way.”

Diane nodded, supressing a smile. “You are, you know,” she said, and Nick could feel his face grow as pink as hers.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said. “For taking care of me last night.” Nick’s heart leapt as her hand settled on his knee. “You’re very kind.”

Working hard to even his breathing, Nick placed his own hand over hers. He was ready for her to withdraw at any moment, but instead she smiled, wrapping his hand in both of hers.

“Your hand’s warm,” she said.

“Yours are freezing,” Nick replied, belatedly realising how cold her fingers were. Without thinking he turned his body towards her, cupping his other hand around hers to warm them.

“Thank you,” she murmured.

They sat together, close, hands intertwined on the park bench overlooking the ocean. While the night at the Legion was fun, Nick reflected, this moment was quietly marvellous, too.

“What else happened last night?” Diane asked. “I don’t know how much more I’m missing.”

Nick remembered his promise from the previous night. “Well,” he said, “we were singing and dancing at the Legion. There was beer.”

“I remember the beer,” Diane said.

“And there was the screech,” Nick said, “and the fish.”

“I don’t remember all of that,” Diane said. “But you kissed the fish.”

“Yes,” Nick shuddered. “It was awful.”

“But now you’re a Newfoundlander,” Diane said.

“I’m not quite sure it was worth it,” Nick replied.

“What about after we left?” Diane said.

“We walked back to the shelter,” Nick said. “You took my arm, as I recall.”

“I’m not sure the world was all that steady,” she said ruefully.

“We drank some water,” Nick said. “Beulah spoke to us.” He glanced at her. “She’d heard about us at the screech in already.”

Diane looked at him. “Really?”

“The grapevine here works fast,” Nick said. His thumb was brushing back and forth across her knuckles. He wondered how long he’d been doing it; it wasn’t a conscious action, but Diane didn’t seem to mind.

“I can see that,” she replied with amusement.

Nick shrugged. “And then we went to bed.”

She looked at him, eyebrows raised and the familiar sparkle back in her eyes. “Did we?”

Her laugh at his expression was delightful and worth every bit of embarrassment he felt. “You pulled our cots closer,” he said. “So we wouldn’t have to let go of each other.”

I don’t want to let you go.

Diane didn’t reply, and Nick wondered what she was thinking about. “It’s funny,” she said, “what I really remember is what I was feeling.”

Nick nodded.

“I liked having you close,” she said quietly.

They were still sitting right beside each other, hands intertwined in the cold air.

“I liked it too,” Nick ventured. Feeling brave, he added, “I still do.”

His courage earned him a smile; it was uncertain but he thought she looked beautiful.

“Me too,” she replied.

Nick thought she was pulling her hands away and he loosened his immediately. When her lips met his knuckles instead, the breath caught in his throat and he froze. His hands were cold now, and her breath was warm where it danced against his skin for a long moment. When it was done, she lowered their hands, now holding his in hers.

“Do you think it counts,” Diane asked, “if I didn’t kiss the fish?”

Nick blinked, his head trying to keep up. “I beg your pardon?”

“Do you think it means I’m really a Newfoundlander?” Diane asked.

Nick considered. “The fellow in charge of it all seemed to think so.”

She nodded. “I did not want to kiss that fish.”

“I know,” Nick said.

“I did want to kiss you,” she said.

“Really?” Nick knew he sounded surprised. He’d thought it was the alcohol talking. His heart contracted.

“Really,” Diane told him. “But I definitely don’t remember it.”

“I do,” Nick said, the words slipping out.

Though he could feel his cheeks heating with a flush, Nick held her eyes. Now was not the time to hide behind his English reserve. Who knew how long they would be here? As he watched, Diane’s expression shifted and she smiled.

“Help me remember?” she asked him. A hesitant smile blossomed. “Please.”

Nick opened his mouth to reply before he realised he didn’t have to say anything. His smile matched hers as they both leaned in, settling into the kiss, slow and gentle as they overlooked the Atlantic Ocean.