Judy Sheppard talks like the American movie stars in the pictures she sneaks out to see on Sundays, after church; the girls hate her for putting it on, but it's completely obvious to Meredith that at least half the lilt is pure Tipperary. Judy has a seemingly never-ending supply of illicit chewing gum and gobstoppers, and her lips are big and full. There's a rumour that she uses lipstick. Judy keeps her black hair in a messy ponytail or French plait that somehow always looks artfully touselled rather than scraped back with one of the elastic bands she keeps around her left wrist.
Meredith McKay's posh Kent vowels have alienated the middle-class girls who make up most of the school, and the ink stains on her tie and cake crumbs on her skirt, odd socks, scuffed shoes and top marks in everything have alienated the rest. She doesn't care; they're all stupid, anyway. Meredith has fluffy, nondescript, mousy hair that just gets in her face and seems to always start to stick up the moment she looks away from it in the mirror. She's always starving.
The first time Meredith notices Sheppard, it's when she's been forced, yet again, to abandon her valuable library access time to watch their lacrosse team play Sacred Heart. They're losing, as usual, when suddenly the new girl - who doesn't have any friends, and who Susan, who whispers down at Meredith from the top of her bunkbed when Meredith's trying to sleep (not because she likes Meredith, but because she can't keep her stupid mouth shut for more than five seconds at a time), says has been expelled from eight separate schools, including two in Europe - suddenly darts through Sacred Heart's defence, shimmying around two enormous upper sixers with unnatural grace, and sends the ball swooping over the goalie's shoulder with a flick of her arm like she's swatting a fly.
The St Mary stands erupt, which drowns out the sound of the referee's whistle for time out, their own captain yelling at Sheppard to get back into defence, and the coach yelling at her to not be such a dunce and move the new girl forward, as Sheppard stands between them, leaning on her lacrosse net and chewing lazily, hardly looking like she's broken a sweat, except for the way her forehead and taut upper arms gleam in the winter sunshine. She's taller than the other girls, and even in lacrosse uniform manages to make it look like she's wearing a skirt just shorter than regulation, her thighs just visible, flashing white above her mud-stained, knee-high socks.
Ten minutes later, she breaks the Sacred Heart winger's ankle in a particularly vicious tackle and is sent off, and Meredith loses interest in the game again.
The second time Meredith notices Sheppard, it's when they're paired in Chemistry after Meredith makes Gwendolyn cry by belittling her idiocy, and Sheppard makes Mabel cry after heating up a test tube over a bunsen burner, then leaving it on the table for Mabel to pick up. She pouts a little when she's confronted, green eyes wide, and says, "Oh, Mabel, I'm so sorry, it was an accident, I swear." Miss Weir can't prove it, so she paired Sheppard with Meredith instead.
The first time Judy notices goody-two-shoes McKay, it's when McKay slams herself into the stool at the bench next to her, scowling and red-faced, hair sticking up everywhere, and mutters, "God, this is such a waste of my time," into her bag as she rummages for her textbook. It falls open at the last chapter when she dumps it on the desk. There are notes on it.
"We haven't got to that chapter yet," Judy says.
"Hence this being a complete waste of my time," McKay hisses. "Make yourself useful and fill up the inkwell."
But Judy doesn't really notice her until McKay grabs Judy's wrist hard enough to bruise as she's about to drop the sugar cube into the inkwell, while she thinks McKay's still looking in her bag. "Don't even think about it," McKay snaps. "Give me that." She shoves the cube straight into her mouth, which immediately loses its crooked, miserable look, and becomes a wide, bright smile. "Mmm. Go', whe' di' you ge' at?" She chews and swallows, then turns her bright, blue and suddenly enthusiastic eyes on Judy. "Do you have any more?"
"No," Judy lies, amused, and McKay loses interest in her as quickly as she'd found it, the corners of her mouth turning down again and her attention going back to what Weir's writing on the board.
"Also," McKay whispers, ten minutes later, over the scratching of quills, "You don't need to use nearly that much sugar, and it would be far more efficient to drop a few grains in all the inkwells before class, that way you'd never get caught. You get caught far too often, they're going to kick you out at this rate."
"McKay! Sheppard! Eyes on your work, I won't tell you again!" Weirdy Weir shouts from the raised bench at the front of the class.
Five minutes after that, Judy risks a whisper, "I could have more. Meet me behind the lacrosse shed after fifth period."
She catches a flash of blue as McKay shoots a wary glance at her. "I don't think so," she mutters. Judy stabs her pen down on the paper, more annoyed than she should be, and McKay looks over at her again, this time more curious. "I can't," she whispers, "I have physics tuition. After seventh?"
"MCKAY!" Weir bellows, wisps of hair beginning to escape from her ruthlessly tight bun, which is never a good sign.
After a few minutes, Judy pushes a scrap of paper over to McKay with ink-scratched writing on it. It says, "Okay."
The grassy slope behind the lacrosse shed is muddy and freezing cold, and the wooden slats of the shed are damp and leave green stains on the back of white blouses, but nobody comes out here this late in the afternoon, when the February sun is already falling behind the bare branches of the apple trees that line this side of the lacrosse field, and it's easy to sneak back into school without being seen. Meredith used to come here and read her physics textbook and eat apples last year, and she's secretly annoyed that Sheppard's discovered her hideout.
"Did you bring the sugar?" Meredith says, eyeing the paper bag Judy's casually letting swing from one hand.
Sheppard's lips quirk. "You get to the point fast, don't you?"
"Why do you talk like that?" Meredith blurts out. "Like you're in the pictures."
Judy shrugs and stiffens at the same time, and scuffs at the mud with her already-filthy shoe. "Dad's a colonel. Last school I was at was in America."
"Ooh, where in America?" Meredith says, interested despite herself.
Meredith sighs. "I don't think there are any interesting universities near there."
"Sorry," Sheppard says, with another of those odd, quick little smiles, and Meredith scowls in response to the completely ridiculous and inexplicable blush she feels coming on.
"Everyone thinks you're a serial expellee," she mutters, pulling her knees up to her chest.
"Don't tell them," Judy drawls, "It'll ruin my image."
Meredith shrugs. "It's not like they'd listen to me anyway."
A blackbird hops towards them and eyes them curiously. After about thirty seconds, Sheppard jerks her foot impatiently, and it rises up with a clatter of feathers and flies away. Then she glances over at Meredith and remarks, "Nice knickers."
Meredith says, "Shit," flushes wildly and crosses her legs so her skirt is covering her decently again, then mumbles, "Um, sorry. Used to being here on my own."
She stares at her own lap miserably in the knowledge that she's doomed herself to another week of misery as Sheppard finally gets in with the cool girls and the entire dormitory laughs at Meredith before they all get bored and move on to someone else - probably when Helen wets herself again - when suddenly she blinks, and there's a paper bag in her lap. She opens it with numb fingers, and it's full of sweet, white cubes of crystal joy that wink in the late afternoon light, more precious than diamonds.
"Oh my god, she says reverently, "Where did you get them?"
"Staff room tea box," Sheppard says casually, and Meredith chokes.
"You can get into the staff room?"
"And you're wasting time stealing sugar? They have fruit cake! And, and, tea biscuits! And textbooks!"
McKay stares at Judy, her blue eyes wide and appalled, as she stuffs sugar cubes mechanically into her mouth with her other hand. Judy wonders if she even realizes she's doing it.
"I guess," Judy says slowly, "I could go back and get some of them."
"Really?" McKay squeaks, and she's already rummaging in her satchel with one hand as she licks sugar off her thumb, then sucks her whole index finger into her mouth and says around it, "Great! I'll write you a list!"
"Ha, no," Judy says, and McKay looks up, eyes wide, sucking on her finger, skirt rucked up over her knees. "If I'm going to be carrying that much, I need someone to watch the door," Judy says.
"I can't be expelled," McKay says immediately. "I'd miss too much school."
"So make a plan so we don't get caught."
McKay slides her finger out of her mouth meditatively, leaving it shiny with spit, then licks the top of her middle finger. Her cheeks are ruddy with the cold, and one has a blue ink stain, just at the base of her squarish, unpretty jaw, about the size of a fingerprint.
"Yes, okay, I can do that," she says.
"What's your name?" McKay whispers suddenly out of the darkness, her breath hot on Judy's neck as they stand, pressed into a nook just around the corner from the staffroom, waiting for the last teacher to leave. Judy's hands are sweating around the hairpin in her hand; she hadn't entirely told the truth to McKay before, she had got them from the staffroom, but she'd grabbed them when The Gorman's back was turned during a lecture on slovenliness. McKay had looked so fucking impressed, though, and Judy hadn't expected her to actually go through with it. She'd actually monitored the staff's movements and made a plan of the layout of the corridors around it over several days, then slipped them to Judy in French as they all droned the past perfect of 'etre'.
"Tonight?" she'd muttered out of the corner of her mouth as they filed out of class, looking hopeful and bad-tempered and with a new ink stain on her forehead, "I seriously need that cake if I'm going to get through Art tomorrow without killing Sarah Kingsley with my paintbrush."
"Are you sure it'll work?" Judy had whispered, as they filed into the maths classroom.
"Of course it'll work," hissed McKay, but she was already going glazed and hurrying her step as she eyed the brand new textbooks laid out on their desks.
Now, McKay whispers, "What's your name?" again. "Your other name, I mean."
Todd Shipman, son of Major Shipman, had taught her how to pick a lock with a hairpin on the airbase their fathers had both been stationed at. Then he'd tried to kiss her in the closet they'd broken into, and Judy had punched him in the face.
"Judy," she whispers back. "What's yours?"
"Meredith," McKay says. "Don't you dare laugh."
"Wasn't going to."
They stand in silence for a moment, and finally, finally the door squeaks and clicks shut as Mrs Black leaves for her evening patrol of the second floor dorms. They wait for a few more minutes in case she's forgotten something. A floorboard creaks near them, and Meredith presses a little closer to Judy. She's shivering a little and burning hot. When Judy glances at her, though, her jaw's set and her chin tilted up. Meredith glares at her. "Now! Go! What are you waiting for?"
"Fine," Judy mutters. "You know what to do."
They round the corner to the third floor dorm, panting and laughing, their booty clutched to their chest.
"Quick, up here, Weirdy'll be around in a minute!" Meredith gasps, her cheeks bright red and hair everywhere, and grabs Judy's sweaty hand, tugs her through a door that Judy thought was a cupboard and up a tiny flight of stairs. Then she says, "Hold this," carefully balances the heavy textbook on the cake tin in Judy's arms and unbuttons the top of her own blouse, shoving her tie out of the way, then catches Judy's eyes, flushes, bites her lip and turns around so Judy can't see as she rummages in her blouse.
"It's the safest place, okay?" she mutters, as she unlocks the little door with the key extracted from her bra.
She grabs Judy's hand again and tugs her into a tiny room, with a desk and chair, a bookshelf full of notes and books, and a single, high-up window that probably doesn't give any light at all. There's a little lamp with a candle in it, burnt down almost into a wax pancake, and no other light that Judy can see.
"What is this place?" she breathes, as Meredith takes the textbook and cake tin from her, puts it down on the desk and rummages on the bookshelf for the matches. Her breath puffs cloudy in the freezing attic room.
"It's a private study," Meredith says. "They normally give it to the head girl, but when the new wing opened up they put one in there with actual heating and electric lighting, so Mrs Black said I could have this one for my extra homework. I get too much to do in study period, and I can't concentrate in the dorm room."
She hands Judy the key while she fumbles with the matches, and Judy curls her fingers around it. It's warmer than her hand.
"There," Meredith says, and steps back as the candlelight flickers and fills out the tiny room, throwing shadows on the high ceiling, making her face glow pink, catching gold in her mussed brown hair. Strands of it are sticking to her forehead. "Now we have light, and cake!"
She turns her smile on Judy, and Judy feels an answering spark light somewhere in her, a warm, piercing glow in her stomach. She smiles back, and Meredith's grin gets even bigger, her eyes blue as the sky over Cheyenne Mountain. Then she flops gracelessly down into the only chair, and starts to pry open the caketin with a ruler.
"Hey, where do I sit?"
"My study," Meredith says, hacking a chunk out of the cake with the same ruler, "My chair." She stuffs the first chunk into her mouth, scattering crumbs and a loose raisin across the desk. "Mmmph, god, this is the good stuff."
Judy perches on the desk, avoiding the crumbs, and cuts herself a slice, since Meredith's too blissed out to pay attention. She picks the decorative walnuts off the top of the cake and lines them up on the desk, then stuffs a lump of cake into her mouth. It really is good.
Meredith finishes her slice and slides back into her chair with a sigh, a sweet, contented little smile on her face, her long eyelashes brushing soft on her cheeks.
"You're pretty," Judy blurts out. Meredith opens her eyes and blinks at her. "I mean. Don't think you're not. You are."
"Okay, " Meredith says slowly. "What's the punchline?"
Judy feels herself flushing, and feels like an idiot. Shit, shit. "No punchline. Eat the walnuts."
Meredith grabs two and crunches them, not taking her eyes off Judy. Then she reaches for another, doesn't take it. She stops, like a wind-up top that's all unwound.
"You - think I'm pretty?"
"Yeah," Judy husks, then clears her throat around her stupid voice, and looks at the three leftover walnuts. She reaches over and picks one up, rolls it between her fingers. "You want this?"
Meredith nods, silent, eyes wide, and Judy doesn't have to lean far to put it in her mouth. Meredith's lips close around it too fast, brushing the tips of Judy's fingers, and Judy could swear she feels sparks. Meredith eats the walnut, still staring, then swallows, and Judy can't stop staring at her mouth.
"Are you finished?" she whispers, when Meredith doesn't reach for another one, and Meredith nods, and licks her lips, looking frightened and hungry and maybe a little dazed. Judy leans down and brushes her mouth against Meredith's, very quickly, then pulls back as Meredith takes a sharp breath. The candle beside them flickers in a draught, and in that instant Meredith's chair is on the floor and her face is level with Judy's, and she's grabbing Judy's collar and kissing her hard. Her lips are pressed tightly together, and she clearly has no idea, so Judy deliberately opens her mouth against Meredith's, licks her bottom lip, and Meredith makes a surprised noise. Meredith lets her mouth soften a little, then open, and their tongues slide together, Meredith making another noise, softer, this time as they kiss the sticky taste of raisins and cinnamon out of each other's mouths. Her clenched fists loosen on Judy's collar, and she smooths down the crumpled, starchy cotton with her fingers, stroking motions which spread outwards over Judy's shoulders until Meredith's hands are resting on her biceps, not seeming to know where else to go. Judy's kissed boys before who didn't know what they were doing, and it made her impatient when she had to grab their hands and put them where she wanted them, but this is different; it's tentative, soft and sweet, and she's afraid to even shift on the desk to stop her backside going numb, doesn't know what to do with her hands, is afraid to do anything except keep still and quiet and kiss back as Meredith strokes little circles into her shoulders. Finally Meredith pulls away with a wet sound and stares at Judy, her eyes dark. They're both panting like they've just run all the way from the staff room again.
"I think," Meredith says finally, her voice husky and breathy as she drops her gaze to the side, and, god, it makes Judy want to kiss her again, all over again. "I'm going to have some more. Cake. More cake. Um. Do you. Do you want some?"
"Okay," Judy whispers. Meredith looks down at the caketin, then seems to realize she's still got her hands on Judy's shoulders.
"I," she says, swallows, still looking at the desk, "I eat when I'm nervous."
Judy reaches over and digs her clumsy, unresponsive fingers into the cake, pulls off a lump and brings it up, holds it to Meredith's mouth. She looks at it, then her mouth quirks and she eats it from Judy's hand in two bites.
"Still nervous?" Judy says, when she's finished.
"No," Meredith says, and leans in hurriedly and kisses Judy again, a swipe of tongue and crumbs on her lips. "But. I really have to go, they'll check the beds in half an hour."
Judy leans forward and catches her lips as she pulls away, kisses her again.
"God," Meredith breathes, and tucks the loose strands of hair floating around Judy's face behind her ears. "You're so. I don't know. We have to -"
She breaks off with a squeak as Judy has a flash of inspiration and licks her neck.
"Eugh! What are you - oh, oh. No, no, really, we have to - Judy, Judy, don't, please -"
Meredith wriggles in her arms - oh, Judy has her arms around her, now, loose around her shoulders like a lasso - and is making stifled shrieking noises and giggling so hard it feels like she might break something, as Judy licks a wet line from her earlobe down to the collar of her blouse, then, because she can't resist it, and warmth is blooming in her chest, she presses her face to Meredith's neck and blows a loud raspberry into her soft skin. "Eep!" Meredith squeaks, flails and knocks over the candle, which goes out with a phutt and a clatter, leaving them in pitch blackness.
"Oh, now you've done it, idiot," she whispers, but she doesn't really sound cross. Judy reaches for her hand in the dark, and Meredith twines her hot fingers around Judy's and squeezes once before letting go. Judy gropes for the key on the desk, and Meredith hides the textbook in the desk drawer and the cake tin in a cupboard behind the desk, then sweeps the crumbs off the table into her hand and drops them in the desk drawer too, hardly making a single wrong move in the dark. Judy grins as Meredith locks the door, then primly deposits the key in its hiding place, and Meredith whispers, "Shut up," even though Judy knows she can't see her. Halfway down the stairs, as they listen for every creak, Meredith's hand finds Judy's in the dark again, and they don't let go until they're all the way to the corridor which separates the upper fifth and lower sixth dorms.
"I won't be in French tomorrow," Meredith whispers, "I'm going on the Upper Sixth History field trip. Miss Finch is taking me to a lecture at a university in London, we're sharing the bus with them."
"Will you be back for seventh?"
"Probably not. Come here after dinner, we should be back then, but don't let anyone see you, they made me swear on pain of death not to tell anyone I had this study."
"Okay," Judy whispers back, and has the urge to kiss her again, but it's not dark enough, and she thinks she can hear someone coming up the stairs. "Night."
"Night," Meredith says, and smiles, and it's almost as good as kissing.