“This place is amazing.” Harrison leaned on the balcony railings and tilted his face upwards, letting the warm night breeze ruffle his curls. “I can see why you stayed here. Marijuana ale and cock-shaped doughnuts...everything I didn't know I needed in my life.”
Claire laughed and dropped her head onto his shoulder. “Nice to know your priorities haven't changed.”
“Oh, Claire.” He drew her close, and she snuggled against him, closing her eyes and relaxing into the mellow buzz from her beer. “I'm so sorry I haven't been around for you...”
“Don't say that. You've been wonderful.”
“I wasn't with you.”
Heat still clung to the green summer air, but even so, Claire shivered. “Can we not talk about it, please?”
“And would you please stop saying you're sorry?”
He grinned naughtily. “Sorry?”
“Idiot.” She gave him a playful shove, and then hugged him, squealing as he lifted her off her feet. “I'm glad you're here now, though. I'm happy you're finally seeing Oregon.” She folded her arms as he put her down and pretended to glare. “Although I'll have you know there's more to it than cannabis beer and penis doughnuts.”
“I'm sure. And I can't wait for you to show me around.” He picked up his beer from the small folding table, and settled into one of the balcony chairs with a contented sigh. “Today was fun. It was nice of your friends to let me tag along.”
Claire smiled too, though the familiar wistful ache stole through her chest as she thought of Sören and Mark kissing, and the love that shone in their eyes. “Yeah, they're a a good bunch.”
“Sören seems really cool.”
“Sören's wonderful.” The smile that tugged her lips was involuntary. “You know, he stuck googly eyes to everything in Mark's classroom once. Including his harp.”
Harrison snorted. “I bet that went down well.”
“Oh, Mark was fine with it. His bark's worse than his bite. Well...” She checked herself, thinking of the occasional flares of anger she'd seen from the musician, the strange aura that sometimes thrummed around him, that elusive sense of something ancient and powerful, awful in its oldest sense. “I wouldn't want to be on his bad side. But if he cares about you, he'll do anything for you.”
Harrison nodded slowly. “That isn't always a good thing.”
“Mm.” The hairs on her arms lifted; she shrugged and picked up her cardigan, which had been draped over the other patio chair. “Sören's a good fit for him, though. They...they balance each other.” She frowned. 'Balance' didn't feel like quite the right word, somehow. Complement? Complete? Neither really seemed to fit.
“And what about the older guy?”
“Oh.” She smiled ruefully. “You spotted that, then.”
“You know me. I like watching people.”
She sighed. “Professor Dooku has been an angel to Sören. There was this awful guy...” Fury flared inside her at what her friend had endured, but she checked herself again. It wasn't her place to be telling Harrison about Sören's past. “Long story. But yes, Professor Dooku's had feelings for Sören for a while – and it's so sad, I wish he could be happy, but I don't know what that would mean for Sören and Mark, and...well.” She tucked her hair behind her ears and shook her head, colour creeping into her cheeks. “It's all a bit of a mess.”
Harrison's voice was gentle as he replied, “You're telling me.”
Claire looked up sharply. “What's that supposed to mean?”
“I think you know.”
She opened her mouth, intending to protest, then buried her face in her hands instead. “Oh, God. Is it really that obvious?”
“Only to me, I suspect.” Harrison moved to perch on the chair arm beside her, and put an arm around her shoulders. “Even I wasn't sure at first; you hide it pretty well.”
“Well, that's something at least.”
He drew her against his chest and kissed the top of her head. “How long?”
“I don't even know. We always got on so well, right from the day I started...he'd make me laugh partway through a class, or sit with me in the canteen...it was like he knew when I was lonely.” She felt the blush in her cheeks deepen, but she knew her cousin wouldn't laugh. “And I always looked forward to seeing him, and then I started daydreaming about him, and before I knew where I was, it was done. A lost cause.” The ache inside grew sharp, but she'd done her crying for Sören. “It's fine. I'll get over it. I don't have a lot of choice.”
“You aren't going to tell him?”
“How can I? He's married, for crying out loud.” She looked up at Harrison, whose eyes were soft with sympathy. “What would you do?”
“I don't know,” he admitted.
“Exactly.” She squeezed his hand. “Come on; we should sort the bed out, before we fall asleep out here.”
They folded down the Murphy bed that sat neatly over the sofa, then plumped the pillows and turned down the sheets. Harrison looked around the little studio apartment as they worked, smiling at the floating shelves where Claire had displayed her books and plants and ornaments. “I like this. It feels very you.”
“It's a cute place,” she agreed. “I wouldn't mind more room, but a teaching assistant's salary only goes so far.”
“What about your savings?”
She lifted her eyebrows. “I'm not burning them on rent. I might need that money one day.”
They took it in turns to use the bathroom to change into their pyjamas, and then Claire locked the balcony doors, and they curled up under the covers, taking one side of the bed each.
“Just like when we were kids,” Harrison grinned.
“And you used to keep me up all night, kicking and snoring.”
“I didn't snore!” he protested.
“Yes, you did. You were like a piglet with a cold.”
She shrieked as he whacked her with a pillow, then squirmed away giggling as he tried to tickle her. “Alright, that's it.” She grabbed a cushion of her own and took aim at his head; he ducked, Claire overbalanced and ended up falling out of bed. “Ow!”
“Oops.” Harrison sat up. “You OK?”
“Fine.” She rubbed her elbow where it had banged against the floor – but she was smiling. The silliness of their play-fight fizzed through her, soothing and settling the confused feelings stirred by their talk on the balcony. “Harrison?”
He smiled, and then yawned; apparently the jetlag was finally catching up with him. “You're welcome.”
She waited for him to settle down and get comfortable before maliciously adding, “I promise not to tell Ari you snore.”
Harrison rolled over. “Excuse me?”
“Don't think I didn't see you getting all gooey over him.”
“I was not!” he protested, feigning outrage.
“You were practically drooling.” She nudged him. “Come on; turnabout is fair play. Tell me everything.”
“There's nothing to tell.”
Claire hesitated, then nodded and slid into bed beside him. “Alright.”
She flicked the switch on the bedside lamp, and for a while they lay together in silence – then Harrison's voice came out of the dark.
“I still miss Luc.”
“I know.” She rolled over and took his hand. “But Harrison, you can't spend your life waiting to see if he'll come back. He made his decision, and it's been almost two years now.”
Harrison gave a kind of muffled choke. For one terrible, lurching moment Claire thought she'd made her cousin cry – and then with a wave of relief she realised he was laughing. “It's been eighty-four years...” he snickered, pretending to make his voice quaver weakly.
Claire rolled her eyes. “If you're going to quote Titanic at me, you can sleep on the floor.”
“Don't be such a grouch.” Harrison propped himself up on one elbow. “Alright, fine; yes, I like Ari. He's attractive, he's funny, we have a lot in common and he seems really kind. I'd like to get to know him better, but at the same time I'm not going to be here for long. I don't want to hurt him – and I don't want to get hurt. Happy now?”
There was no anger behind the words; it was a statement of facts, nothing more. “I get that.” Claire sat up a little too. “And I'm not asking you to marry him. But would it do any harm to go for a coffee together, while you're both in town? I can make myself scarce for a few hours, if you want to use this place...”
Harrison snorted again. Too late Claire realised what she'd said.
“I don't mean for that!” she giggled. “I mean if you want somewhere to talk, or if it rains and you need to get out of the weather...”
But it was too late; her cousin was in hysterics. She shook her head fondly and lay back down, waiting for his laughter to subside.
Eventually, Harrison took a deep breath, and the bed stopped shaking. “Claire?”
“Stop trying to be helpful and go to sleep.”
“Fine. No snoring, though, please.”
She grinned. “Goodnight, Harrison.”
“Goodnight.” A pause. “I love you.”
She curled up on her side, hugging the duvet to her chest. “I love you too.”