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Bluebirds

Chapter Text

London
November 2013

 

When she caught her suitcase on the lip of the door into the Euston Tap, the jolt shocked her back to a reality she hadn't known she'd left. Everything before that – the conference, the train journey, the months in that grey, sanitised office, even her years in chambers – seemed suddenly to exist only in snatches. The space between was filled with white noise and a vague, sickening unease – a sense of her life rushing over her head in great gulping waves, of being stuck treading water, never quite able to break through the surface and breathe. Suddenly she saw and heard and felt with utter clarity. The colours of London in winter were bright and piercing, the chatter in her ears crystalline, every delicate cadence and shift in pitch as sharp as the light that sliced the sky.

From behind her came a cough, a huff, a sarcastically polite, “Excuse me.”

Claire apologised to the smartly-dressed couple who had attempted to hurry in behind her and been forced to halt. She tugged her suitcase over the threshold, and made her way to the bar.

The Tap was crammed, as she had known it would be, late on a Friday afternoon. It might be mid-November, but that did nothing to stem the tide of tourists and hen parties and workers that flowed in and out of the capital on a daily basis, some shrieking giddily in anticipation of an all-weekend drinking session, others sighing with relief that the drudgery of their week was done. Normally she preferred to drink in quieter, cosier places, where she could curl up in a corner with a book – that was, when she had the time to go out drinking at all. The Tap, though, stuffed into the old guarding lodge by Euston Station, was an exception to her usual rule. She loved its history, its benevolent, welcoming feel, and the comforting lineup of northern breweries whose crests were tied to the pumps. Invariably these took her straight back to her sixth form years in Sheffield, and the long evenings spent sampling honey ales and double strength lagers and strange fruit beers with Puneet, while Lucy shook her head in despair and herded them home at the end of the night.

Besides, she wanted a crowd this evening. She didn't want to hear her phone if it rang, or be tempted to check her emails. She certainly didn't want to make any calls.

Her leather tote was heavy, weighed down with files and notebooks and her clunky office laptop. She shifted so it wasn't pulling so hard against her shoulder muscles, and winced at the taut ache in her neck. She could almost hear her grandmother's voice in her head.

“It's not good for you, carting all that rubbish around...you'll ruin your posture, not to mention do your back a mischief...”

Well, she wouldn't be carrying any of it for much longer.

She wriggled her way onto one of the bar stools, pulling a face as her tight pencil skirt twisted and stuck around her thighs. Claire liked clothes – just not ones designed to force her to walk in a certain way, or that complicated tasks that would have been perfectly straightforward in trousers. Her heart skipped a little at the thought of giving away all her business suits – of having a small wardrobe full of pretty yet practical things...

Woah there. She reined in her mental excitement. You'll still have to earn a living somehow. Don't go throwing everything out.

The idea of finding another job sent cool, nervous tendrils creeping through her gut, and they clung like strands of poisoned web. She turned her attention to the beer list instead. The choice was impressive for such a tiny pub – and though she recognised some of the brewery logos, she realised she had no idea where to start. Networking events had meant expensive wine or strong cocktails; clutching a glass of ale would have been unthinkable.

She ordered a pint of strong porter, the least ladylike choice she could think of.

Pubs were wonderful places for being in company and yet at the same time utterly alone. Claire sipped her drink, savouring the soothing richness, the weight of it, smoke and silk on her tongue. She thought again of Lucy and Puneet, and wondered where her friends were now. Lucy had gone into nursing, she knew, and she had a vague idea that Puneet had moved to Germany. Not without a pang, she smiled at a group of young women clustered in the corner, teetering on their high heels and forming a protective circle around their suitcases. They were about eighteen or nineteen and dressed for a Big Night Out, giggling as they sipped each others' drinks, linking arms and fixing each others' hair and makeup with deft fingers. Claire wondered what they were celebrating – a birthday, perhaps, or a romantic youthful engagement. Or just being young, free, not tied to a job or a house or a car loan, or any of the other trappings of adulthood.

It isn't all bad, she reminded herself sternly. After all, her job was – had been – well paid. She had savings, which meant choices.

She kept half an eye on the giggling girls as she drank, vaguely wondering if she should text Lucy or Puneet. But would they care any more? They hadn't spoken in years. She wasn't even sure she had the right phone numbers for them.

A shriek distracted her from her gloomy thoughts. One of the girls, a petite, curvy brunette, had tripped on her heels and tipped her drink down the front of a young man standing nearby. She'd managed to spill his drink too, grabbing onto his arm in an attempt to steady herself. Claire smiled, looked away – and then looked slowly back.

The young man was nearer Harrison's age than her own. He was strikingly tall; he'd have a good three or four inches on her cousin, who cleared six foot easily without shoes. The little brunette, now mopping at his grey t-shirt and apologising effusively, didn't even come close to his shoulder. And it wasn't only his height that was striking; his glossy black hair, curtain-straight, was bobbed at his chin and streaked with thin bars of silver, navy and teal. He wore black jeans tucked into studded cowboy boots, an assortment of silver pendants, and rings on most of his fingers. His face was pale, all angles and symmetry, though when he glanced up and caught Claire looking, his blue eyes were clever and kind.

When the brunette was finished mopping, she lowered her lashes and looked up through them, one manicured hand laid enticingly on the young man's arm. He shook his head and gently disengaged himself, then met Claire's eyes again with a rueful smile. Claire smiled back, wondering how accidental the spillage had been. She sneaked another glance at the group of girls. Judging from their disappointed expressions, not very accidental at all.

The stranger was on his way to the bar, most of his beer now adorning his front. He moved with a fluid, controlled grace that immediately made her think Jedi, then she laughed at herself inwardly. Harrison and Theo have been a bad influence on you.

He rolled his eyes as he approached, and gestured at his front. “I'm going to smell like a brewery all night.”

Claire's ears pricked up at the accent. Not English, that was for sure. Dutch, maybe? “I think if they'd had their way, you'd have been smelling of pink gin and six types of perfume.”

He laughed, a warm, merry sound that made her think of sunlight on the sea. “Not much chance of that. I'm gay.”

She grinned, feeling naughty after the adrenaline rush of the afternoon. “Hi Gay, I'm Claire.”

He threw her a startled look, then laughed again and held out a hand. “Gil Walker.”

“Claire James.” She shook his hand, noting the strong grip, the slender fingers, the unusual jewellery. The designs were elegant and curved, not quite Celtic, and one of the rings bore the crest of a flaming sun. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” He settled into the bar stool beside her. “Can I get you anything?”

“Oh!” Her cheeks heated. She hoped she hadn't looked like she was hinting. “I'm fine, thank you.” She held up her pint glass. “I still have most of my drink.”

His eyes flicked curiously between her and the porter. “Do you recommend it?”

“I like it. I don't know enough about beer to say whether it's good,” she admitted, and held it out. “You're welcome to try...?”

Gil sipped, and grinned. “That is good.”

Claire refrained from commenting that he didn't look like a beer drinker, knowing the same could be said of her. “The brewery's just down the road from where I grew up.”

For a moment Gil looked like he was going to try and guess, then he shook his head. “I'm sorry, I'm still no good with British accents. I'll only offend you.”

“Sheffield.”

“Ah.” He glanced at her suitcase. “Is that where you're going?”

“Not from Euston,” she laughed.

Gil shrugged, pink creeping through his cheeks. “I don't leave London much.”

Her instincts prickled at that. She'd been about to ask where he was from, but her gut warned her to refrain. Instead she continued, “I'm actually just back from Manchester. I had a couple of days up there at a conference.”

“And now home to the big smoke?”

“Mm. For the time being.”

He tilted his head curiously. “Meaning?”

She didn't know this man – barely more than a boy, really, he was at least five years her junior – and yet she felt a wild, giddy urge to say it out loud and solidify it. A promise to herself. “I quit my job.”

“Oh!” Carefully, he said, “You don't sound sad...”

“No. I don't know what I'm feeling, but it definitely isn't sad.”

“Then – congratulations?”

“I'm not sure about that.”

“When did this happen? While you were in Manchester?”

He sounded genuinely interested, and she realised with a startled rush that she already felt easy around him, like he was an old university friend she'd bumped into by chance, not a stranger in a bar next to Euston station. “Yes. Well, kind of. I handed my notice in while I was on the train back, but I decided in Manchester.” Her heart began to thump the way it had when she'd realised what she was about to do; her blood rushed hot in her limbs, and her face turned cold. “There was a client of mine at the conference. Former client, rather; he actually got me the role at the firm where I work now. He asked me to do something I wasn't comfortable with.” She drank, her insides curling at the thought of the pale grey eyes, the way his mouth had thinned with surprise. “I said no; he said if I didn't then I'd never work as a lawyer again; I thought about it, realised that actually none of it was what I wanted, and never has been, so I told him where to go.”

She rushed over the last part, almost defensive, but Gil looked impressed. “Good for you,” he said, and drained his glass. “What did he want you to do?”

“I...” She bit her lip, knowing that even now she needed to be careful with what she said. “I practised as a commercial barrister for almost five years. You find things out – you can't help it – things that would affect whole markets and economies if they were publicly known. I left to join an LLP, but I'm still party to sensitive information that certain people would like to get hold of.” Her stomach clenched, aware that she'd slipped into corporate-speak without meaning to.

Gil didn't seem to mind. “So you were a barrister.” He let out a low whistle. “Wow.”

She laughed. “It's nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds.”

“I'll bet.” His blue eyes held hers, gentle and questioning. “What did you really want to do?”

“I...” She breathed out as a deflating realisation washed over her. “I don't know. Isn't that ridiculous?”

“No, I don't think so.” He turned his empty glass between long, elegant fingers. “The world's so good at telling us what we should want. It's no wonder we forget to pay attention to things that actually make us happy.” He flashed her an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I don't mean to sound like an agony column.”

Again her instincts prickled; something sat under his voice, a note of isolation, a longing for a path not taken or for something precious now lost. Not your business. And you don't know him. “I always loved books.” She shrugged. “But reading isn't a career.”

“Does it have to be?” Gil asked. “What else do you enjoy?”

“The theatre.” Her cheeks burned like it was an admission. “Ever since I was tiny I've loved the stage. Musicals, mostly, but Shakespeare too, once I was old enough – then Ibsen, and Bennett, and then I got into contemporary theatre...what?”

Gil was smiling. “How about dancing?”

“I was never much of a dancer. Basic stuff, you know, for shows, but nothing more than that. To watch, though? Yes.” She looked him over again, weighing her options, and went for it. “Why do you ask?” Though she suspected she knew already.

“I was a dancer.”

“Was?” She'd been about to hazard a guess at ballet, but the past tense startled and wrongfooted her. Gil was young – he couldn't be above twenty-four – and should have his best dancing years ahead of him.

“Total stupidity. We were rehearsing Sleeping Beauty; I'd been understudying the Bluebird, and I was meant to be dancing the Saturday matinée. I was late – running to rehearsal – and it was wet and I slipped on the pavement. Next thing I knew my foot was angled east and my ankle was pointing north towards Scotland.”

Claire paled.

“I'm sorry,” Gil added belatedly. “Are you squeamish? I should have thought...”

“I'm not, usually.” She swallowed. “It's just...I don't know. Something about twisted ankles and broken bones.”

“You get hardened to that sort of thing. It's part of being a dancer; you see it a lot.”

“I'm sure.” She glanced down at his right leg, elegantly crossed over his left. “This wasn't recent, though?”

“Eight months.” He flexed his ankle, rotating the black cowboy boot that adorned it. “And I might dance again, but the jury's out at the moment; I was an idiot and rushed back into training before I was ready. Now the tendons are a mess on top of everything else."

“I'm so sorry.”

He shrugged, feigning nonchalance, and looked at her empty glass. “You want another?”

She told herself she should probably eat dinner; she'd been too dazed on the train, and her first drink had already made her lightheaded. “Sure. Why not?”

But Gil had sensed her hesitation. “I wouldn't want to keep you.”

“It isn't that.” Instinctively she laid a hand on his arm. “But I could do with some food, if you'd like to join me.”

Gil's eyes widened – and she was a little surprised at herself, issuing the invitation so easily and casually. “Really?”

“Only if you want to. But it sounds like we could both use the company.” She glanced over at the group of giggling young women, who were still eyeing Gil with considerable interest. “And I'm not entirely convinced they've given up on you.”

Gil grinned. “Lead on, Macduff.”

She refrained from pointing out that the correct quotation was “lay on”, and instead concentrated on climbing down from the bar stool without ripping her skirt. Gil, after a moment's indecision, offered her his arm, with the palm of his hand turned down.

“Thank you.” Carefully, using the crook of his elbow to balance, she slipped down from her perch.

“I never know whether it's sexist to do that,” he admitted.

Claire shook her head, smiling. “I didn't take it that way.” In the corner, the brunette and her friends were looking somewhat dismayed. “Grabbing me would have been one thing, but offering is completely different.”

“I wouldn't have grabbed you.” Gil looked vaguely offended at the idea.

“I know.” Her certainty surprised her as much as her readiness to spend her evening with a total stranger.

They found a pub beside the station that served food – mussels in cream sauce, great bowls of fat glistening chips, garlic bread, dressed salad, olives. Claire found herself panicking about dairy, carbohydrates and fats, and put a hand on her stomach to calm herself and soothe her breathing.

It doesn't matter any more. You can eat what you like; who cares if your suits don't fit you?

But the habits of years were hard to break.

Gil seemed to be having similar thoughts. “I still can't get used to being able to eat what I want – or near enough.” He stirred the cream sauce with a piece of bread. “We weren't on a diet, not exactly, but we had to think so carefully about what we put into our bodies.”

“I can imagine.” She lifted her eyes, considering. “Do you miss it, though?”

“God.” He swallowed, and laughed softly. “Yes. And it wasn't even my idea at first. My mother wanted to be a ballet dancer when she was young, but back then there weren't any big companies in Johannesburg. If you wanted proper classical training, you had to travel to one of the London schools, or Paris, or Russia, or New York. It wasn't an option, not for her; my grandparents wouldn't pay for it. She taught, though. Ballroom, mostly.” He poured Claire a glass of white wine. “Then she got pregnant with me.”

“And...she pushed you into it?” Claire hazarded.

“I wouldn't say pushed.” Gil's lips quirked. “It was a little more subtle than that.”

Claire nodded. “I know what you mean. My parents never explicitly said they wanted me to be a lawyer – but they wanted me to do something impressive, my Mum especially. The kind of career path she never had access to. Something respectable and steady, not like acting, or -”

“Dancing?” Gil suggested with a gleam.

She blushed. “What did your mother say after your injury?”

“She doesn't know. I haven't spoken to her for two years.” He still smiled, but cool hurt lay behind his eyes. “It wasn't a healthy relationship.”

She took his hand, the gesture coming as naturally as the invitation to dinner.

“It's alright.” He squeezed her fingers. “What will your mother say?”

Claire snorted. “I dread to think. Jesus.” She withdrew her hand and shredded a breadcrust over her plate. “I don't even know if I can stick to it,” she admitted. “What am I going to do instead?”

“Do you need to answer that right now?”

“No,” she said slowly.

“Is there anyone else you can tell?” he asked. “Someone who won't try and talk you out of it, who'll know you've done the right thing?”

Harrison. “I don't want to use my phone,” she admitted. “Even if no-one from work tries to ring me, it still picks up my emails.” She bit her lip. “I don't even want to go home,” she realised, hating that her voice wobbled. “If I do, I'm going to spend my whole weekend sitting on my bed convincing myself that I've done something really, really stupid...”

“It isn't stupid.” For the first time Gil's voice was sharp, and he took her hand again. “Claire, I've known you for two hours, and I can tell already - this isn't right for you.

She breathed in. “I know. But -”

“No buts.” Gently, he flicked her wrist.

“'Goats butt, birds fly,'” quoted Claire.

“Isn't that from Mary Poppins?” Gil laughed.

“Yes, but it's also what my Grandma used to say to Harrison and I when we argued with her.”

“Harrison?”

“My cousin.” She smiled fondly. “He's an idiot.”

Gil leaned back in his chair and sipped his wine. “You know what you need?”

“What?”

“A distraction. A weekend-long distraction.”

Her smile widened. The tatters of nervous energy stirred in her stomach, warming into something like excitement. “Did you have anything in mind?”

“I think you need to get out of London.”

Her eyebrows flew up. She hadn't expected that. “Where?” she asked, and then immediately felt stupid.

“Anywhere. Brighton. Somerset. The Chilterns. Kent.”

“I thought you didn't leave London much?” She paused, a thought striking her. “What were you doing, on your own in the Tap?” It wasn't a local drinking place; as much as she liked it, it was effectively a quirky waiting room for Euston Station that happened to serve alcohol.

He shrugged. “Passing the time. There's something about people going on journeys – beginning an adventure, or coming home.” He smiled into his wine, long lashes fanning the curve of his cheeks. “That sounds crazy, I know.”

“It doesn't. Not at all.” The thought of leaving intoxicated her – the idea of company, of doing something so mad and spontaneous, even more so. She smiled mischievously. “So would you like to?”

“Like to what?”

“Go on an adventure.”

Gil opened his mouth, and then a slow grin spread over his features. “I was hoping you might say that.”

They paid their bill, with Gil leaving a generous tip (“I've waited tables, it's not a living wage”), and walked the short distance to St. Pancras, stopping at Gil's flat on Chalton Street so that Claire could leave her work things.

“Not that it's really mine,” he said as he unlocked the door, almost apologetic. “I just rent a room. But the trunk under my bed locks; your laptop and papers will be safe in there.”

Claire was soon spared the need to ask why he had a trunk under his bed. Gil's room was tiny – so narrow that there was barely space for a small single bed. There was no bookshelf, no wardrobe, no desk; the only furniture, apart from the plain metal bedstead, was a generic IKEA standing lamp in the corner. It was clean, with plain white walls and bare floorboards, but it felt empty, lifeless, cold.

“I know it's small.” Gil gave her a brief smile. “But it's cheap, for central London. I couldn't afford anything nearer Covent Garden.”

“Tell me about it; prices are crazy down near the river.” Her own flat was in Holborn, just a few minutes from Temple and a couple of tube stops from her current office near London Bridge. Wait, Covent Garden... Her brain caught up with what Gil had just said. “Hold on, you're with the Royal Ballet?

He smiled modestly. “Yes. If I come back from this injury.”

“...oh. Wow.”

He slid the trunk out – it fitted into the space between the foot of the bed and the door, though barely – and undid the padlock. Inside there were piles of folded clothes in shades of black and grey, with the odd flash of beatnik stripes. “Here.” Gil climbed over the trunk and onto the bed to get out of her way. “You can leave anything valuable or confidential in there. I don't think your suitcase will fit under the bed as well as the trunk, but you can leave it on the mattress if you don't want to take the whole thing with you. I don't know my housemates well but I doubt they'd steal your stuff.”

Claire put a hand to her head as she realised something. “I don't think I actually have anything with me that isn't...you know...workwear. Well, pyjamas, but I can't go wandering around wherever we're going in polka dot cotton shorts.”

Gil checked the time on his phone. “It's not late. The shops at St Pancras will still be open – unless you want to go back to your place too?”

“No, it's fine. I can pick up a few bits and pieces before the train; I won't need much, not for two nights.”

Claire unpacked her work things and stacked them carefully so they weren't squashing Gil's clothes. As she worked, she couldn't help noticing how very small the bed looked, and the way Gil had to fold his long legs under his chin to fit onto it. She bit her lip. “How can you sleep on that thing?” Her first flat in London had been tiny, with a fold-down bed and a portable cooker, but even so she'd at least had space for her things and a little room left to move around.

Gil shrugged. “I curl up.”

“That can't be doing you any good.” She thought of his leg injury, and the extreme care dancers needed to take of their bodies.

“It isn't perfect.” He smiled. “But what in the world is?”

When she was done, Gil threw a few clean tops into a roll-up rucksack; they checked train times as they walked to the station, and settled on Canterbury as their base, with a day trip out to Dover on Sunday to see the cliffs and the sea. Frost bit through the November air, and Claire's heart hammered as Gil flicked through images on his phone, searching for a bed and breakfast.

This is completely insane.

“You like books, right?” Gil flipped his screen around. “What about this place? The rooms look nice, and apparently it was in David Copperfield.

Claire took in the whitewashed walls, the dark, slanting beams, the uneven gabling, the mullioned windows. The old inn was crooked with age, but the red tiles and the soft lights in the window smiled a welcome. “Perfect.”

St. Pancras was quiet now – almost empty, except for a few harried office workers waiting for late trains home, and flurries of ragged-looking pigeons. The air inside smelled of perfume and diesel and coffee and books and damp dead leaves. Claire felt the same curl of anticipation in her stomach that she used to feel as a child before Christmas morning, together with an acute sense of stillness. The breath before diving underwater. The drop in the wind before a summer storm.

Her heels clicked along the pale, glossed floor. She selected a shop stocking practical, reasonably priced clothes – the sort of thing she'd need for a quiet weekend away – and ducked inside. Gil browsed as she picked out an armful of basics – loose fitting jeans, brown ankle boots, a few tops for layering, and a long-sleeved jersey dress in case they went out for a meal.

“Claire? What do you think?”

She turned – and grinned as Gil held up a lightweight, draped trench coat against his front. “Nice!”

“You think?” His cheeks coloured. “It's from the women's section...”

“So what?”

When he tried it on, it hit just above his knee instead of skimming the floor as it would have on her. Its fluid shape skimmed his dancer's form, effortless and impossibly elegant.

“Now we match,” she grinned, twirling in her own belted mac.

After settling up, they still had twenty minutes until their train. As they sat on their platform, waiting for the telltale metallic singing of the track, Gil pressed his phone into her hands. “Call someone,” he told her.

“What?”

“Tell them where you're going, if nothing else.”

It had occurred to her that going away for the weekend with a man she'd only just met was not exactly sensible, at least on the surface. She considered. It wasn't that late, not by student standards; Harrison was likely still at home.

He picked up almost straight away. “Hello, Harrison speaking.”

“Hey, you.”

“Claire!” Surprise and pleasure shot through his voice. “Sorry; I didn't recognise the number.”

“No, you wouldn't...Harrison, I've done something completely insane.”

She heard the others in the background – Rosie, Theo, Luc, all clamouring to say hi. Harrison shushed them. “Claire, is something wrong?”

“No, not exactly.” She swallowed. “I quit my job.”

What? When?”

“Today.”

“Quit, as in, you're done? You aren't going back?”

“Well, I'll need to work my notice, but...” She paused, grinning as the others worked out what the conversation was about and began to whoop and cheer. “Yes, I'm done.”

“Claire...” She heard him swallow, a tremor of genuine emotion in his voice. “I'm so proud of you.”

“Put her on speaker!” came Theo's well-spoken, clipped tones.

“One sec.” She heard Harrison mess with the settings, and then his voice echoed through again, tinnier and more distant. “Alright, Miss James, you have the room.”

Claire held the phone away from her ear as the others yelled and clapped. Gil quirked an eyebrow.

“Fucking finally!” she heard Theo say, swiftly followed by a yelp of “Ow!” as someone – probably Rosie – swatted or elbowed him.

“Congratulations, Claire.” A warm smile shone through Luc's French lilt.

“When are you coming to stay?” Rosie asked.

Claire laughed. “I'll get back to you. I need to start sorting my life out.”

“Sounds to me like you're already doing that,” Harrison laughed – then, with curiosity sharpened by concern, he added, “Why are you using a different phone?”

She blushed to admit it, with the others all able to hear – but Luc, Theo and Rosie had all seen the fallout of her high-pressured career, and hadn't she told Gil the truth only moments after meeting him? “I don't want to use mine. I don't want to pick up emails, or see whether anyone's rung me.”

“I get that.” Harrison's voice softened. “What did you do, buy a new one?”

“No. It belongs to a friend.” She paused. “Actually that's partly why I'm ringing. If you need me for anything, use this number; we're having a spontaneous weekend away.”

“We?” She could practically hear the mischievous grin. “You and this mysterious friend?”

Claire rolled her eyes. In the background Rosie squealed, and Theo and Luc cracked up laughing over some comment she hadn't heard. “His name's Gil. And no, it's nothing like that.” She gave them the name of the bed and breakfast they'd booked – partly so her cousin and his friends could look it up later for their own amusement, and partly for safety. Gil seemed lovely; she'd felt instantly comfortable around him, and even had a nagging sense in her gut that she ought to know him, but that was no reason to be silly. “Guys, I need to go; we're on the nine-fifteen out of St. Pancras.” Another precaution. Gil knew it, and smiled an acknowledgement.

“Have a wonderful time,” Rosie called. “Take pictures!”

“And look after yourself, yeah?” Harrison added.

“Yeah. You too.”

Luc and Theo called exuberant goodbyes into the handset. Claire giggled. “Have a good weekend, guys.”

She hung up and gave the phone back to Gil.

“Thanks.” He slid the handset back into his pocket. “They seem nice.”

“My cousin Harrison, his boyfriend Luc, and their housemates, Rosie and Theo.” She smiled fondly. “Harrison and I have always been close – more like siblings than cousins – and Luc, Theo and Rosie have always been very sweet when I've gone up and stayed in St Andrews.”

“Are they studying there?”

“It's their final year, but yes. Well, Luc's doing a Masters degree; he's a year ahead of the others.”

Gil nodded, and gave an exaggerated sigh. “Ah, the carefree student life.”

Not quite, Claire thought, but held her peace. It was one thing to tell Gil about her own problems; sharing Luc's complicated family history, or Theo's long road to recovery, seemed a step too far.

As they boarded the train, excitement stirred in her belly again. The pale strip lighting in the carriage untethered the sense of reality she had briefly regained in the Tap. There was a fault in the window sealant; the cool November air hissed in as the train picked up speed, rattling, clattering. A few last speckles of light marked the edge of London, and then all of a sudden they were in the country, rushing east towards the coast.

Claire fell into a kind of trance watching the houses change from place to place. Big, detached new builds with conservatories gave way to industrial townhouses, then shifted to pretty little mewses, then opened up into fields again. Orange street lighting glowed against a navy horizon. Occasionally something jarred – the tall tangle of grasses and weeds at the side of the track gave the impression that the train line was flush to ground level, and then a bare spot in the vegetation revealed that the field on her left was a good twenty feet below. Her stomach somersaulted as her mind processed this and reassured itself that the train wasn't actually flying. When they stopped outside a village, one of the houses was so perfectly reflected in the opposite window that she felt giddy trying to work out which side it was on. Sometimes a thin, metallic version of some rap or bubblegum pop song would issue from someone's phone, and the trance would break, just for a moment.

“You OK?”

She jumped, then smiled at Gil and nodded. “Sorry. Miles away.”

“Me too. I love trains, even old ones like this. They kind of...send my mind somewhere else.” His mouth tightened. “I feel like in London, there's no space to think.”

“I get that.”

He linked their fingers together; hesitantly, shyly, she laid her cheek on his shoulder, and leaned against him until they pulled up next to their platform.

Canterbury was hardly small, but compared to the capital it felt eerily quiet. Their bed and breakfast was in the city centre, just a short walk from the station, and Claire grinned as they approached. The buildings on either side of it were modern – but even in the tangerine glow of the streetlamps, it was as lovely as the website's artful pictures, its Tudor beams stark against the leaning white walls. “Wow.”

“Beautiful, right?” Gil held the door open for her. “After you.”

They'd booked rooms in the stable block – not as old as the rest of the building, with its gently aged scantlings, exposed brickwork and uneven floors, but comfortable and warm, with a pretty private terrace and views into the garden.

“This is heaven,” Claire sighed, sinking into her pillows. “What's yours like?”

“Similar,” Gil smiled, lounging against the frame of their connecting doors.

“Jesus.” The adrenaline of her decision, and the excitement of their mad dash out of London, suddenly drained away as though someone had pulled a plug on her energy reserves. “I'm exhausted.” Belatedly she realised that might sound rude. “Sorry, I don't mean to be antisocial...”

“Not at all. It is getting late.” Gil slipped his phone out and looked at the time. “Breakfast at half eight?”

“Mm.” Her eyes were already prickling, her limbs dissolving into the mattress's warm embrace. “Sounds good.”

He laughed. “Sleep well, Claire.”

She managed to drag herself off the bed to remove her skirt suit and change into pyjamas, but it was a relief to return to the nest of thick, clean-smelling sheets. She pressed her cheek into the pillows and curled up on her side.

As she slid into sleep, her breathing slowed, and her chest relaxed with a feeling of deep, deep relief.

Chapter Text

Her first instinct on waking was to reach for her mobile. When she put her hand out, though, not only was there no phone; there was no bedside table. And the air smelled different. A cool, sharp, sweet scent crept through the open window, bracing and strange, not at all like the bitter pollutants that clung to her grey London street.

She breathed it in, smiling. The memory of the night before drifted back to her in fragments. The argument with her former client. Her refusal to act against her professional integrity. Meeting Gil in the Euston tap, and, half-dazed, telling him everything. Their mad plan to escape for the weekend. It all had the mist-like quality of a dream.

But her sleep had been dreamless – a deep slumber of emotional and physical exhaustion. She rolled onto her back and stretched. Every limb felt warm, relaxed, refreshed, the way she always remembered feeling on the first day of her summer holidays, with school or university done for a few glorious months. She felt rested – alert but not tense. Even for a weekend, it was an unusual feeling. Her job rarely gave her any let-up, and the cheap bed in her flat was not conducive to a deep and restorative sleep – although it was certainly better than Gil's.

That wasn't a road she wanted her mind travelling. She checked her watch. Eight o'clock on the dot. Plenty of time.

She scraped her hair off her face, showered quickly, and pulled on the clothes she'd bought yesterday – jeans, boots, a soft cotton camisole, and a navy blue rugby shirt. Makeup? It felt startlingly wild to leave her face bare, or near to it. There were still traces of eyeliner around her lashes from last night, and the steam from the shower had brought colour to her cheeks; she added a smudge of lip balm, and let her platinum waves fall back around her shoulders. She twisted a lock around one finger and inspected it critically. For the first time in years, she found herself missing her natural strawberry blonde.

Gil was waiting for her in the little dining room in the main house. He sat in a window alcove, the morning sun gleaming on his bobbed hair, and without warning Claire felt terribly shy. She was afraid that the night just gone would create a boundary between them, that their plan would seem silly, that the easy, relaxed way they had felt with each other would dissipate with the morning sun and the distance from London – but when he lifted his head and smiled, he looked genuinely delighted to see her.

“Hi.” He stood up as she approached, and again she was struck by the fluid grace of his movements. “Sleep well?”

“Amazingly well.” Startled, she realised it was a long time since she'd woken up feeling properly refreshed. She couldn't actually remember the last time. Weekends had always been peppered with calls and extra work, and haunted by the dread of Monday morning. Even part of her holidays had always been given over to work, and then there was the exhausting dance of deflecting questions from her family, who were so proud of her London career. “You?”

“Same. I could have stayed in bed all day.”

As they sat down she remembered the tiny structure he usually slept on – barely more than a cot – and had to force a smile. “I don't think I could. Not after dashing out of London in the dead of night to explore somewhere new.”

“True.” He turned over her cup and gestured at the pots on the table. “Tea or coffee?”

She closed her mouth around her automatic response of “black coffee.” There was no need to force herself awake or count calories. “Tea, please. Two sugars.”

Gil raised his eyebrows. “I thought sugar in tea was, like, heretical for Brits?”

“No.” She smiled again. “Though if you ever open a bottle of iced tea around me, then all bets are off.”

The breakfast was wonderful. They started with fruit, and then Claire ordered smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, while Gil opted for avocado toast with a side of bacon. They finished with tiny, fluffy madeleines, buttery and sweet and still warm from the oven.

“This feels so...indulgent.” Claire arched her back, savouring the delicate winter sunlight.

“I guess being a lawyer didn't leave much time for breakfast.”

She shook her head, pleasure blooming in her chest at his use of the past tense. “It was grab and go – if anything at all. I never ate on court days.”

Gil's eyebrows drew together, looking her over again with fresh concern.

Claire blushed and shrugged. “It was better than throwing up on my robes.” Quickly, she shifted the subject. “And I can't imagine your career leaves you with a lot of spare time.”

“No. It was intense. Is intense,” he corrected himself. “I should technically be in today; we're supposed to do admin work at the school when we're injured, and coach the junior classes. And physio on top.”

“I'm sorry -”

He shook his head. “I needed to get out of the city. We both did.” He grinned. “Anyway, I got up early and did my exercises this morning. There's this amazing tree out in the grounds – an old yew, I have to show you...”

They took a stroll around the gardens while their breakfast settled. The leaves had mostly dropped now; a few clung stubbornly to skeletal branches, shivering as the wind breathed, while the rest were heaped in golden-brown hillocks on the grass. The yew tree stood guard by the far wall, its split trunk like a pair of reaching arms, its bark crackled and furred with age. Light from the fat, pale sun washed over the walls; the grass was still damp, and the taste of warm vanilla wafted from the kitchen vents.

“Mm.” Claire sniffed appreciatively. “God, I miss baking.”

“You bake?”

She folded her arms. “There's no need to sound so surprised.”

“I just thought...you know, professional career girl...you don't seem like the homely type.” He smiled apologetically. “Now I'm sorry. I shouldn't assume.”

She slipped her arm through his. “It's fine. I haven't baked in ages – though I do have a kitchen big enough, now.” If I can afford to keep up the rent on that place. “It just never seems worth it, for one.” Her breath cooled in her throat as she wondered whether Gil would notice the tacit admission that she had no friends in London – but at that moment his phone beeped.

“Hold on.” He dug in his pocket, swiped the screen open, and laughed. “It's for you.” He passed her the handset. “I think I like your cousin.”

The display showed Harrison and Theo standing either side of a large white banner, on which they'd daubed “CONGRATULATIONS” in blue poster paint – probably left over from Raisin Weekend. Rosie and Luc crouched in front of them, grinning. One of their other friends must have taken the photograph, perhaps someone from the cast of their latest show.

Claire laughed out loud, and passed the handset back. “They're so sweet.”

“So who's who? I think I can guess, but...”

“That's Harrison on the left there, with the dark hair and freckles. I know,” she added. “We don't look much alike. And this is Rosie.” She tapped the image of the pretty, slender blonde girl. “She's studying astrophysics; she's basically a genius. Luc's on the other side, here.” She smiled, thinking of how thoroughly her cousin's boyfriend had charmed their grandmother over the summer. “And that's Theo.”

Gil smiled. “It's cute that they made you a banner.”

“They're lovely.” She was very fond of all of them, and not just because they were Harrison's friends. “Well. Theo has his moments, but the others keep him on track these days. Mostly.”

“Mostly?”

She thought of the tearful phonecall last year, her frantic search for train or plane tickets, while her Blackberry overheated with emails from irate clients demanding to know where their work was. By the time she'd got a few days off to visit,Theo had been on the mend – but the recovery had been long and difficult, and she knew the others worried about what would happen to him when they all left university. “Theo's...kind of easily led.”

Gil nodded, and said no more.

They made for the cathedral first, hoping to explore before the tour buses arrived from London. They wandered past the Westgate Towers, squat and benevolent and gently aged, then crossed the river Stour and picked their way through quaint streets lined with pubs and old-fashioned shops. Claire squealed excitedly at a window display stacked with thick slabs of fudge, then blushed as Gil laughed.

“I have a terrible sweet tooth,” she explained.

“I guessed that from the way you take your tea.”

She smiled. “My mother was always telling me off about it when I was a kid. Anything with fudge or caramel is like catnip to me.” She remembered what Gil had told her about his mother, and wondered whether she should have mentioned her own in front of him, but he didn't seem to mind. “Maybe we can come back later. It'll only get squashed if I walk around with it in my handbag.”

The pale light of morning had warmed and sharpened when they emerged onto the precinct in front of the cathedral, dousing the stonework in gold. Spires stretched upwards like fierce spiked crowns, stark against the creamy blue sky. The symmetry of it was startling, its intricacy hypnotic; it was impossible to look at every detail, every carving, every delicate fold and curve in the clothes of the statues that watched them with blank, solemn eyes.

“Wow.” Claire stopped, tipping her head right back to try and take it all in.

Gil gazed at the great wooden door, arms folded. “Didn't you guys murder a priest in here?”

“Mm. Thomas Becket.” She laid a hand on a narrow column, and felt the stone warmed by the sun. She wondered what the city had been like then. Filthy, probably – full of people living scared, short lives, half an eye on the heavens, believing in the divine and fearing the wiles of the devil. “They cut off the top of his head.” The singing of swords...gore in the air...blood and brains glistening on the ground... She shivered, and withdrew her hand.

Inside the air was still. A hush pressed softly against her ears. The fan-vaulted ceiling spread out above them, and stained glass threw jewelled light across the floor. Claire paused in front of the Miracle Windows in the south aisle, staring at the webbed frames, at the colours so rich and deep that her eyes almost ached, at the stories that sore, blistered, long-ago fingers had worked so hard to preserve. Her throat prickled, and she covered her hand with her mouth.

Lightly, Gil touched her arm.

“Sorry.”

“No, it's OK.” He tilted his head. “Are you religious?”

“I don't think so. It's more that...” She turned, gesturing at their surroundings. “The idea that people made all of this – by hand – my God, the effort of it...it must have been terrible, men would have died as they worked, but they did it anyway...”

“They probably thought they'd go to hell if they didn't,” Gil remarked.

“Probably.” She swallowed, and looked around. “But now there wouldn't need to be such a human cost, and yet no-one would ever think to build anything like this. Things just get flung up all over the place, and it's about how fast we can make it, and how flashy it is, and how high...” She stopped. “I sound like a Luddite, don't I?”

“A what?”

“A Luddite. English textile workers in the nineteenth century who went around destroying machinery. They thought automation was undermining their craft and threatening their jobs.”

Gil smiled, a little sadly. “Maybe they had a point.”

“Maybe.” She sighed, and unfolded the little paper map she'd picked up on her way in. “Cloisters next?”

At lunchtime they emerged back into the sunlit streets. On the King's Mile, the buildings leaned against one another like friends sharing secrets. Claire ducked into bookshop with a crooked blue door, and emerged with a collection of French fairy tales, a battered old volume about lost country houses, and a copy of Eliot's Four Quartets.

“I shouldn't really keep buying books,” she smiled, leafing through her purchases and inhaling the sweet papery scent that rose from the pages. They were lounging on the grass in Westgate Gardens, sharing olives and sourdough bread and cheese bought from a deli in a tiny cobbled courtyard. Swans glided up and down the river, the water rippling in silk chevrons behind them. “I have more room than I used to, but it's not exactly Buckingham Palace.” She paused, thinking again of the room Gil was renting near St Pancras, and her stomach knotted.

But if Gil minded her thoughtless remark, it didn't show. “Buckingham Palace is like a studio apartment compared to some of these,” he commented, flicking through the book about country houses – then he looked up with a grin. “Hey, shall we go?”

“To the Palace?”

“Why not? I never do tourist stuff in London.”

“Me neither,” she admitted, closing the fairy tale book. “Except when Harrison comes to visit – and mostly, he just wants to go to the theatre.” She tore the end of the bread into small pieces in her lap, and threw the scraps into the river for the swans. “Have you been in London long?”

“Oh, yes. I started at White Lodge – the prep school for the Royal Ballet, out at Richmond Park – when I was eleven.”

Claire gave a low whistle. “So young?”

He nodded. “My mother flew me out for an audition as soon as I was old enough. I wasn't really trained, not like some of the kids I was up against – but I'd had lessons, and since I could walk I've always moved to music. It was like...like an instinct. Not even that – a compulsion. I could hear the stories under the notes, you know? And for me the only way to explore that, to try and understand it, was to dance.” He pulled up a stem of grass, and flexed the ankle he'd injured when he'd slipped in the rain. “Mamma saw it. She knew. Whatever else has happened since, she at least understood that.

Claire rested the tips of her fingers on the back of his hand. “And your father?”

“What father?” Gil's mouth quirked. “I don't know where he is or even who he is. I doubt he knows I exist.”

“I'm so sorry.” Idiot, she scolded herself. “I shouldn't have...”

“It's OK, Claire.” He turned his palm over and linked their fingers. The cool metal of his rings pressed against her knuckles. “I haven't had a perfect life, but it is what it is. Plenty of people are worse off. I don't mind you asking me things; it's actually kind of nice to be able to say it.”

She nodded and took a deep breath, pushing through her reluctance to seem nosy, her fear of offending him. “You don't have friends at the ballet company?”

“Some. But they're colleagues, and competition.”

“I get that,” she muttered.

“I'll bet you do. And ballet...” He stared thoughtfully out over the river. “I love it. I need it, even; it's in my bones and my blood and my soul. But it swallows you. I think art is like that sometimes. You give your entire self to it, more than you ever suspected you had inside you, and even that isn't always enough.” Slowly, he shook his head. “Without it, though, I don't know what I am.”

After lunch they went to the Roman museum. The solemn atmosphere of their conversation by the river soon dissipated when Gil revealed he'd thought a hypocaust was a Roman lavatory, not a system of underfloor heating; Claire howled with laughter, though Gil got his own back when she mistook a tall glass vase for a phallic sculpture.

“Well, come on,” she objected when they'd both caught their breath. “What does it look like to you?”

“I...don't think I can say with children present,” he replied, glancing over his shoulder at the trio of blonde-haired girls scrabbling about in the mock-up archaeological dig. His eyes gleamed with mischief. “But at least now I know we're as bad as each other.”

“It's the Romans, for crying out loud!” Claire protested, laughter bubbling up again. “There was all sorts of explicit stuff scrawled on the walls in Pompeii, and even up at Eboracum and Vindolanda...how was I meant to know it was a vase? It's not like it's labelled!”

Gil forced his face into a serious, scholarly expression. “It does have a large and obvious hole.”

Claire gaped at him, then snorted, then gave into a spasm of giggles and had to lean against a wall. “God,” she gasped. “You're right. You would get on with my cousin.”

They wandered through exhibitions of pottery, weapons and jewellery, and paused by a vast mosaic that the plaque informed them had only been discovered when the Germans bombed Canterbury in World War Two.

“That's amazing.” Through the glass, Claire's fingers traced the geometric flowers and stars outlined in the tiles. “All that death and destruction...and without it, this would have stayed buried under the earth forever.” She bit her lip. “I don't mean that it was worth it, but -”

Gil laid a hand on her shoulder. “I know what you mean.”

In the second to last room was a collection of silverware, salvaged from the remains of a villa on the outskirts of the city. Claire drifted through the exhibit, marvelling at how clean and new everything looked, how intricately crafted – and then the light flashed on a bright, flat surface in a case in the centre, and she paused.

Resting upright on a light wire stand was a round hand mirror. Its edge was embellished with tiny metal curls like locks of hair. Its reflective surface, though cracked, was gleaming, and it showed her face as clearly as the mirror in her bathroom back at the hotel. Etched onto the reverse side was a picture of a lovely woman, weaving. Claire's breath caught in her throat. For some reason she couldn't quite place, the image made her unbearably sad. She looked back at the mirror's other side – and her breath turned to ice in her throat.

The face looking back at her was not her own.

She stepped back, automatically reaching for something to steady herself. She caught Gil's sleeve; he put an arm around her waist, his strong grip belying his slender shape.

“Claire, what's wrong?”

“I'm fine.” She breathed in. There was nothing in the mirror now, nothing but the two of them and the room they stood in. “Spooking at shadows.”

But the man in the mirror had not been a shadow; he had been sharply, indelibly present, with a face like carved marble and eyes full of fierce, terrible grief.

Violet eyes. Her heart skittered at the memory.

Gil looked like he might press her, then changed his mind and took her hand. “Come on. I've got an idea.”

In the final room was a dressing up box – presumably meant for children, but there were costumes to fit adults too, and despite her shock Claire was soon giggling at the sight of Gil in a plumed helmet.

“Weirdly, it kind of suits you.” She tapped the absurdly short plastic sword he was brandishing. “That thing ruins the effect, though.”

Gil grinned, and threw her a long blue tunic. “Your turn.”

Claire gave an exaggerated sigh, but she obliged anyway, putting it on over her jeans and giving a twirl. “I'm not convinced.” She posed, one hand on her hip. “Maybe it's the hair. I don't think the Romans went around dyeing theirs nearly white.”

“I wondered about that.” Gil looked at her for permission, then brushed a lock of the silky stuff lying in waves over her shoulders. “What colour is it naturally?”

“Strawberry blonde.” She grimaced. “I used to get teased at school for being a ginger. When I was called to the bar I decided it wasn't professional, so I changed it.”

He nodded. “Well, I can't talk.”

“No.” Claire smiled. “I didn't think you were a natural blue.”

They went back to the bed and breakfast to change, then had dinner in a cosy, casual Indian restaurant with deep blue walls and gold fabric draped from the ceiling. They drank cold fizzy beer, swapped food and jokes and childhood anecdotes, and laughed the whole time. Claire texted Harrison from Gil's phone to share some pictures of the day – the cathedral, Westgate Gardens, the quirky shops along the King's Mile, their dinner, and a snap of the two of them pulling a silly face. The response buzzed through almost straight away.

Looks gorgeous. Glad you're having fun. Love you xx

Seconds later, it was followed by another message.

(Meant for Claire, of course...)

She giggled. “What now?” she asked, passing the phone back. “We could find a pub or a bar – or we could just head back, if you'd prefer an early night?”

“I'm happy to go back, but I'm not ready for bed yet, I don't think.” He smiled at Claire, suddenly almost shy. “How about beers and a film in one of the rooms?”

“Perfect.” Her chest gave a light flutter of relief. She hadn't wanted to pressure Gil, if he'd had enough of being around people, but nor was she ready for their strange, delightful day to end. Even during her school years, the slow creep of Sunday dread had often begun on a Saturday night – and since she started work, that had ratcheted tenfold.

They called at the Sainsbury's opposite their bed and breakfast, acquired beer and whisky, and discovered a mutual taste in films. A jumbled rack labelled “classic cinema” was selling DVDs on a three-for-two offer; they selected Casablanca, Local Hero and Indiana Jones, then went back to their rooms to change into pyjamas, and sprawled out on Gil's bed.

“I'm not sure I can make it through all three,” Claire confessed, smothering a yawn as her food weighed in her stomach and the warmth of the centrally heated air stole over her like a blanket.

“That's OK.” Gil passed her an extra cushion. “You needed to relax. If you're sleepy, that means it's working.”

Claire smiled at him. His hair was tucked back behind his ears, and his lobes were dotted with a row of neat piercing holes. She realised now, seeing him with his face scrubbed clean, that he'd been wearing mascara and eyeliner earlier; without it, and without his jewellery and cowboy boots, he looked even younger.

“So.” He spread the DVD boxes out in a fan. “Which one shall we start with?”

They decided on Local Hero, and it didn't take Claire long to settle into the sleepy bittersweetness of the film. She felt a sharp ache as she watched Mac bumble through his corporate life, and winced as the beeping watch on his wrist constantly reminding him to check in, switch on, stay in character. She sighed and relaxed as he gradually let it all go, swapping his suit for a cosy woollen jumper, developing a taste for whisky and ceilidh dancing and walks along the beach. Eventually he left his watch on the rocks while he collected shells, and the rising tide swallowed it and silenced its beeping forever. She laughed, too, at the character of Danny, far more used to seeing Peter Capaldi playing crotchety old men than innocent, lovelorn boys.

“He's such a dork,” she giggled, sipping her beer.

Gil smiled. “He's sweet.”

“He is,” she agreed. “I think I'd like to be his friend, but...”

“Not your type?”

“Definitely not.”

Gil's smile grew lazy and mischievous. “Do you have a type?”

“Oh, yes.” She blushed. “I'm so predictable it's embarrassing.”

“Tell me.”

The heat in her cheeks deepened. “Don't laugh.”

“I won't, I promise.”

“Tall. Dark-haired. Creative.” She paused, hesitating. “Damaged.”

“Wow.” Gil lifted an eyebrow. “I feel called out.”

Claire buried her face in her hands. “I didn't mean that – I know you're not...”

“It's OK.” He drew her hands down, smiling again. “Claire, I'm teasing you. It's what friends do.”

“God.” Her cheeks burned. “I think I've forgotten how to behave around anyone who isn't a lawyer, a consultant or an investment banker.”

“Then I think it's about time you re-learned.” Gil rolled onto his back, flexing his injured leg. “Actually it's funny.” He looked at her, completely straight-faced. “I always had a thing for redheads.”

She stared at him for a long few moments, and then they both fell about laughing.

After the film ended, Gil turned down the volume so that the aching nostalgia of the end credits music faded into the background. He opened them both another beer, and passed one to Claire. “So...was there ever anyone special?” His eyes were curious and kind without being nosy – just like in the Euston Tap.

“A couple of relationships.” She shrugged. “School, university...nothing I lost sleep over.” A hot dart of pain between her ribs. “There was one guy, though. Just one – and it never went anywhere. I don't even think he'd remember me.”

Gil propped himself up on one elbow.

“I was in Reykjavik.” Claire traced the rim of her beer bottle with her index finger, smiling. “It was for work, really – yet another conference – but I flew out on a Saturday so I had time to explore the city.” Her smile softened as she remembered brown eyes, dark curls, the smoky Icelandic accent. “We actually met in a bar on the Saturday night. I was lonely, and I made some stupid comment about his t-shirt – Joy Division, they were one of my teenage bands – and I was so afraid he'd laugh at me, but we got talking...you know when you just instantly feel comfortable around someone? Like you've known them forever, somehow?”

“Yes.” Gil's eyes sparkled.

Claire nodded an acknowledgement, still smiling. “Well, anyway, before I knew where I was, we were talking about everything – bucket lists, childhood memories, imaginary friends...”

“You had imaginary friends?”

“Just the one, when I was little. A giant tortoise named Copernicus.”

Gil choked.

“You said you wouldn't laugh at me!” Claire protested.

“I'm laughing with you.”

It was true; she was giggling at the same time as scolding him. “I kind of miss him. But things like that don't feel real any more when you grow up.”

“I suppose not.” Gil's smile faded. “Anyway, I can't talk. I had a cockatoo with a crazy name.”

“An imaginary one?”

“No, no, he was real.”

“Wow. I was never allowed a real pet; my parents didn't want the hassle.” She took a sip of beer. “So what was his name?”

“Aeglos.”

Claire frowned and lowered the bottle. The name nudged at her somehow, like the strain of a familiar melody drifting from a busker's guitar on the underground. “Aeglos?”

“Yeah.” Gil shrugged one shoulder. “I don't know where I got it from. Maybe it's Greek.”

“Maybe.”

“Anyway.” He batted his lashes. “Tell me more about your mysterious Icelandic stranger.”

“'Tell me more, tell me more...'” Claire sang, laughing.

Gil laughed too. “'Did you get very far?'” he finished, then tilted his head. “You have a really nice voice.”

“So do you.” She sighed, and wrapped her arms around one of the cushions. “But...no. We didn't get far at all. He showed me around Reykjavik on the Sunday, he put his number in my phone, and then on the way to the conference on Monday, my bag got stolen. In fucking Iceland.”

“That's...horrendous luck.” Gil frowned. “Couldn't you find him on Facebook?”

“I didn't know his last name,” Claire admitted, blushing at her own idiocy. “Well, his patronymic.” She flopped back onto the pillows. “So I never saw him again.”

“Well, let's not make that mistake.” Gil flipped open his Facebook profile on his phone, found Claire, and sent her a friend request. “There. Done.” He sprawled out beside her. “You know, maybe we should go out there and look for him.”

Claire grinned. “We?”

“Why not?” A crease appeared above the blue eyes. “Claire, I don't mean to sound weird – I really hope I don't sound weird – but this...” He gestured vaguely. “Going away for a whole weekend with someone I just met, lying on my bed drinking beer with them...this isn't normal for me. There's something about this. Us. I feel like I already know you – or like I should know you.” His cheeks reddened. “Shit, that does sound weird.”

“No. No, it's the same for me.” Claire squeezed his hand. “The only time I've ever felt anything similar was with Sören – that was different, of course, but that sense of being meant to meet somebody...”

Gil nodded, looking relieved. “I'm glad it isn't just me.”

“Not at all.”

“Sören...” He paused carefully. “That's your Icelandic guy?”

She nodded.

Gil reached down to the side of the bed and passed her another beer. “Was he tall, and dark-haired, and all the rest of it?”

“Very much so. He was definitely creative. He was a doctor, but art was his way of winding down after shifts. He had this little sketchbook that he carried with him all over the city. As for damaged...” She frowned. “He had a rough childhood, I know that much. His parents died when he was very young.” Outside in the garden an owl hooted, the woody edges of its cry wavering in the night air. “He might not even be in Iceland any more; he talked about wanting to get out, see the UK, or the USA. For all I know, he might be living down the street from me back in London.”

“We could go to Reykjavik anyway. Take a long weekend.” Gil glanced back at the television set. “Or Scotland,” he added wistfully.

“Haven't you been to Scotland?”

He shook his head.

“Well, that's easy enough. We can go up and see Harrison for a few days before he graduates; St Andrews is beautiful.” Claire thought of sunsets at the end of the pier, salt water shining on West Sands, the strange music that seeped from the stones. “A couple of years ago I almost packed in the whole legal thing and went up there to join him, but I decided to give my job one more go.” She nibbled the rim of her beer bottle. “Maybe that was stupid. Maybe I should have just quit then.”

“You could still move up there. It's never too late.”

She shrugged, suddenly feeling restless. “Maybe. But I feel like...if I was going to do that, I needed to do it then. It feels like the time for it has gone.” She took a swallow of beer. “I know that doesn't make a lot of sense, but there it is.”

“I think I understand.”

They stayed up chatting a little while longer, lying side by side on the bed. Claire wondered about breaking into the whisky, but her eyelids were heavy, and they'd already had a few drinks each. Her head was pleasantly fuzzy, her muscles relaxed, and her brain was drifting downwards into sleep.

And you have to go into work on Monday.

She breathed around the cool, anxious wave that swelled in her chest. She agreed with Gil that they'd get up and check out early the next morning, and catch the train out to Dover.

“I'm excited,” he smiled as they said goodnight by their connecting door. “I can't remember the last time I saw the sea.”

Claire felt a sharp, sad pang. “Maybe we should have gone to Brighton for the weekend instead.”

“Another time, maybe.” He tilted his head again, smile widening. “I like how we've already planned about six more trips.”

On impulse, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “I like it too.”

Chapter Text

Claire dreamed of the sea that night – of the sea, and a song, and fire beneath the waves. She wandered along a wild pebbled beach, listening to the hiss and rush of the tide. Someone was calling her name, but when she turned and glanced behind there was nothing there. Emptiness, shadow and mist.

A gleam in the pebbles caught her eye – a sharp silver shard, torn from a mirror. Curious, she knelt to touch it, but when she picked it up it slipped in her hand. She gripped it tighter, and its jagged edge opened a shallow wound on her palm – and suddenly she saw, and she knew. Sounds, images, smells and memories rushed through her mind. An army on the slopes of a black mountain, fair and terrible, their faces fey and wild in battle; stars mirrored in a silver shield; a man that she both did and did not know, leaning on a spear, helm cast aside, blood pouring from wounds in his chest and gut. Lightning flared on the metal of a war hammer, raised high by a white-haired fiend. Sick, cold, Claire tried to push through to the injured man, knowing if she could reach him it would be alright, he would live – but she couldn't lift her legs – she realised suddenly that she wasn't there at all, she was still on the beach – the hammer fell, and she screamed...

The screams weren't hers.

Muzzily she blinked her way out of sleep. The clean, starched, fresh-smelling sheets of the bed and breakfast rubbed against her cheek. The cathedral, the medieval streets, lounging by the river...the screams were nearby...

“Gil?” she called, forgetting for a moment that there was a wall and a pair of closed doors between them.

The cry folded into silence.

Claire pushed back the covers and tugged her rugby shirt on over her pyjamas. She hadn't locked the connecting door on her side; she slipped into the gap between the two rooms, and knocked softly on the other door. “Gil? What's wrong?”

For a few moments there was silence; her heart squeezed, and she raised her hand to push the door open, and then Gil replied. “Nothing.” His voice shook. “Bad dream, that's all.”

Must be the night for it. She bit her lip, not wanting to push in. “Would you like some company?”

She heard a rustling and scuffling, and Gil pulled open the door. He wore a Pink Floyd t-shirt and loose cotton pyjamas, and his hair was tousled, sticking up at odd angles. His face was milk-pale, and shadows sat under his eyes.

“Jesus.” Claire inhaled, and without thinking drew him into her arms. “Gil, you're shaking...”

He managed a laugh and held her close. “I'm OK.”

“You're wet through.” She stepped back, resting her hands on his damp forearms. “You're sure it was only a bad dream?”

“I've had it before.” He dropped his gaze, still shivering. “Though not for years.”

She nodded. “OK. Sit down; I'll get you a glass of water. Or...” She glanced around. “What happened to the whisky?”

“In the carrier bag by the armchair.”

She picked up the tumblers off the breakfast tray and poured them both a generous measure.

“Thanks.”

Gently, she squeezed his shoulder. “Would you like to talk about it?” Harrison had suffered with night terrors as a child, waking up screaming about being torn in two, and Theo had struggled with them for several months after the overdose. Claire saw all the same symptoms in Gil – pale skin, sweating, eyes blown wide. All of a sudden she felt a rush of protective fear, as though despite having only just met him, she was about to lose him forever.

“I don't remember much,” he admitted as she sat down beside him on the bed. “Pain – terrible, awful pain, like a spike right through my head.”

“Oh, Gil.” No wonder he'd cried out. She swallowed, remembering the man in her dream and what had happened to him.

“I could tell I was dreaming – you know how that sometimes goes? And at the same time I knew I was dying...and underneath it all, there was this awful sense of loss. Like something I loved was gone, and I didn't even remember what it was.”

Claire exhaled softly. She felt like that too, even as her nightmare – terrible as it had been – receded. Her palm prickled; violet eyes flashed in her mind.

You dream of the forgotten.

She jumped. The words had come from nowhere – and everywhere.

“Claire?” Gil took her hand, then frowned and turned it over so the palm was facing upwards. “What happened?”

“What do you mean?” Claire looked down. A neat, shallow cut about an inch in length was scored across her palm. “Oh.” She thought of the mirror on the beach in her dream, and a chill settled in her gut like winter mist. “I...don't know. I was half asleep when I heard you screaming. Maybe I caught it on something as I got out of bed.” Caught it on what? asked a sceptical voice in her head.

“You need a dressing on it.”

“It doesn't hurt.”

“Well, we should clean it, at the very least.”

As it turned out, Gil had a first aid kit with him. “Dancers can't be too careful,” he explained, wiping the cut with antiseptic, his hands steadier now. “A splinter, a tiny strain – if it gets infected, or you don't rest it, you can be out for months.” He blew upwards, ruffling his hair. “Maybe I should take my own advice once in a while.”

Claire wanted to reassure him that he'd be dancing again soon, but it seemed trite, even offensive when she knew so little about it.

Gil set aside the antiseptic wipe and looked up, curious. “It really doesn't hurt?”

“No.” Claire bit her lip. “Weird, right? Maybe I'm still half-asleep.” But she hadn't dreamed the man in the mirror, or the wounded violet eyes, or that voice that echoed like a shadow cast by stars.

Maybe you're going crazy. Too much stress; you've cracked.

But she knew that wasn't true either.

Gil was still watching her. She shrugged, touched his cheek and smiled. “You seem better. Your colour's back.”

He smiled back, looking faintly bashful. “I feel like an idiot. I think the last time anything like that happened, I was about twelve.”

“It's OK.” Claire sipped her whisky and grinned. “When I was studying financial law, I once had this awful dream that I was a balance sheet, and I couldn't make myself balance. I was burning up and I couldn't cool down; I kept turning over and over in bed, until eventually I fell out.” She laughed awkwardly at the memory. “Turned out I'd left the central heating on.”

“Claire...” Gil ran a hand through his hair, laughing a little with her. “That's awful.”

“It's done with, thankfully.”

“I'm glad.” He tilted his head, looking her over with soft, thoughtful care in his eyes. “And it's good that you can smile about it.”

“Mm. I'm not sure I could have done even on Friday night.”

“No. You've...uncoiled, somehow.”

“Uncoiled?” She laughed properly this time. “I'm not sure how flattering that sounds.”

“It's true.” Gil drew his legs up under his chin, looking young and vulnerable again. “On Friday you looked so tired. Not like you were ready to go to bed, I don't mean that; it was more...soul-tired, I guess. If I'm allowed to say that.”

“I don't mind.” She meant it. From anyone else – except maybe Harrison – she might have. “And you aren't wrong. I feel...worn thin. Like I'd been rubbed up and down a grater, over and over again.”

Gil held out an arm to her, and she leaned against his side, just as she had on the train. “I'm so sorry I woke you.”

“Don't be,” she sighed. She'd joked about being half-asleep, but she knew she wasn't. Adrenaline thrummed in her limbs, left over from her dream, and Sunday nerves whined under conscious thought. In less than thirty hours she'd be back at work.

And once you're through your notice period, who knows what's next?

She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of her whisky. It reminded her of Christmas at her grandparents' house – lemon peel, raisins, sponge cake. “How do you feel about watching Casablanca?

Gil nodded, and gave a small smile. “I could do that.”

They curled up on the bed with their drinks, easing into the fuzzy black-and-white world of vintage Hollywood. The rousing score crackled from the speakers, and Gil started as Claire's bare feet brushed against his ankles.

“You're frozen!”

“Sorry.” She glanced down. “I was worried. I didn't have time to go looking for socks.”

“Here.” He pulled the blanket up from the foot of the bed. “Get yourself warm again.” He smiled as she burrowed underneath it, one cheek pressing against the pillows. “And thank you.”

“Any time.”

She knew the film so well she could almost recite the script. When Sam drew his piano across the bar to play 'As Time Goes By' for Ilsa, Claire found herself sighing wistfully; next to her, Gil had tears in his eyes and seemed transfixed by the film. She put down her whisky glass, feeling the tension in her body ease, and she breathed out slowly as the noise in her brain faded into silence. Her eyelids itched and grew heavy as the Germans marched into Paris; later, on the borders of sleep, she heard the defiant strains of 'La Marseillaise'.

This time her sleep was dreamless. She woke to the soft grey light of morning and the scent of fresh air in the room. Dew on grass. Tree sap. Stone. She curled up tighter, cradling the duvet for a few moments longer. Someone had tucked her in. Gil – it had to be.

She opened her eyes. His side of the bed was empty, but there was a note on his pillow.

Out in the grounds. Door's open. G.

Claire yawned and stepped out of bed. Gil's cowboy boots stood by the door. Strange, if he'd gone out already. She slid them on, unsurprised that they were far too big – but at least they kept her feet dry as the grass clung to the leather like damp silk. It wasn't a bright morning, not like yesterday; clouds sat over the city like crumpled cloths, and the air was heavy and tasted of steel.

She found Gil by a bench under the yew tree. He stood with his back to her, still barefoot and wearing pyjamas. She held her breath as he raised his arms and lifted his right leg, pointing the foot in front of him in an elegant, perfect arch. An exacting female voice spoke through layers of memory – a long-ago dance teacher, name forgotten, telling her to put her arms in second and her feet in fifth, to plié, croisé, jeté...

Gil turned to her, smiling. She grinned back, knowing what she must look like – cotton shorts, a rugby top, bed head, too-big cowboy boots – and finding to her surprise that she didn't care. “Should you be doing that?”

He shrugged, folding himself gracefully onto the bench and rotating his ankles. “It's nothing strenuous – just some basic stretching, no more than I'd do with my physio. I wouldn't try anything like switch leaps and barrel turns yet, but...” He tilted one hand back and forth, his face at once hopeful and afraid. “It's starting to feel OK again.”

“You looked beautiful.” She sat down beside him. “More than that. It was...a kind of belonging.”

Gil shook his head slowly. “I hate being without it. I feel like somebody ripped the wings from my back.” He shivered. “Is that too much of a cliché?”

“I don't think so.” Claire breathed in the cool damp air, and tipped her head back to look at the yew tree. Its branches arched over them, watchful, soothing, like a friend's embrace. “Did you get any more sleep?”

“No. I can sleep on the train back to London.”

Claire's mouth dried. A sick coolness prickled under her skin.

“Hey.” Gil put an arm around her. “It's OK. You're going to walk in there tomorrow morning, and you're sticking to your guns, and you won't change your mind – and then we'll go out for dinner in the evening and you'll tell me all about it, and we'll laugh. Right?”

She took a shaky breath. “Right.”

Streaks of pink and pale blue peeped through the curls of cloud. Gil squeezed her shoulders.

“Breakfast?”

They ate less extravagantly that day, then packed up their bags and caught the train out to Dover. Claire texted Harrison on the way, letting him know where they were going. He responded with a picture of a bluebird.

Gil tilted his head. “I don't understand.”

“It's like the song.” Claire glanced around the carriage, but this early on a Sunday, it was almost deserted. She sang softly, “There'll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover...

Gil's eyes widened with recognition. “Right, the war song.” He looked back down at the photo Harrison had sent. “You don't have bluebirds in Britain, though, do you?”

Claire shook her head. “I think it was written by an American. My grandparents could never agree what it meant.”

“Oh?”

“My grandfather – Joshua – used to say it was about the American pilots based in England.” She smiled, hot tears sticking in her throat. “He would say that, I suppose; he was in the RAF.” She blinked, and looked out of the window. The fields rushing by the window were a cool grey-green, the last flowers of summer long dead. “My grandmother, Elizabeth, still insists it's to do with peregrine falcons.”

Gil grinned. “Which aren't blue.”

“No, but they were nearly hunted to extinction during World War Two. They used to attack the carrier pigeons taking messages across the Channel, so they were considered vermin.” She handed the phone back, still smiling sadly. “So the song's about hope for their return, and the end of the war.”

The weather was starting to clear as they pulled into Dover. Out here the air was bare and cold, and Claire buried her nose in her scarf. The wind lifted as they neared the outskirts of town; Gil took a detour into a café and bought them both hot chocolate, to keep them warm as they walked.

“Are you sure this is OK, with your ankle?” Claire asked. “We did a lot of trekking about yesterday – we could always just look around the castle instead...”

“I'll be fine.” Gil shifted his drink into his right hand, and slid his left arm around Claire's waist. “But thank you for asking.”

The breeze rippled the grass on the clifftops as they walked. Shadows of the clouds chased over the ground. The coastal path wiggled and meandered, here and there drifting thrillingly close to the crumbled cliff edge. Chunks of white chalk had fallen away onto the beaches below.

“Like Wensleydale cheese,” Claire giggled.

Gil stared. “What?

“Don't you think it looks like cheese?”

He looked again, then laughed softly. “If you say so.”

She tipped her head back and turned to the sea. The kiss of the salt air brushed away the creeping fear of earlier, the clinging dread of her nightmare, its unsettling symmetry with Gil's own dream. Her hair blew back, and the wind rushed cool and sharp against her face. She felt so alive out here, staring at the waves as they bobbed and swelled, green and grey flecked with frothing cream. An awakening – a rebirth. She remembered standing on the cliffs above the castle in St Andrews in January last year; then, too, mist and spray had blurred the horizon and pressed the taste of the ocean to her lips. A temptation, it had felt like; a hand extended, a whisper in her ear, her last chance to run away and join her cousin in Scotland. She had so nearly done it – and yet if she had, she would never have met Gil.

He stood beside her, poised like the dancer he was, gazing at the English Channel as though it held the answer to a riddle.

She linked their arms. “It's a shame it's still cloudy. On a clear day, you can see France.” An idea struck her. “Maybe another time we could catch the ferry over there. How would you feel about Paris?”

Gil smiled down at her. “I think I could handle a weekend in Paris.”

They walked on towards South Foreland Lighthouse, pausing at the visitor's centre to buy sandwiches and crisps and biscuits, and pushed on through the rising wind. The lighthouse perched above St Margaret's Bay like a forgotten chess piece, bright white and smiling; the elderly lady on the desk seemed surprised to see any visitors, but was happy enough to show them around, telling them about the installation of electricity (“We were the first lighthouse in England to use it!”) and the generations of keepers who had kept the optic turning, guiding ships away from the treacherous quicksands below.

At the end of the tour they stood on the balcony, the white cliffs snaking for miles in each direction. Gil rested his forearms on the low, smooth wall and closed his eyes.

“It's so quiet out here,” he murmured. “Even with the port just around the headland, all you can hear is the wind and the sea.”

Claire turned to admire the view of St Margaret's village – and her hand flew to her mouth. Gently, she shook Gil's arm, pointing across the grasslands to show him where to look.

A peregrine falcon hovered over the cliffs. It shifted and swerved as the air currents danced, and the winter sunlight gleamed on its wings.

***

By the time they arrived back at the station in Dover, the light was beginning to fail. The gloom deepened and pressed against the carriage windows as they tore through the Kent countryside. London announced itself with a splatter of orange light. Pulling into St Pancras, with its familiar layout and its neutral tiled floor, was like being wrapped in a cheap, muffling blanket; Claire felt the edges of her awareness dull as they walked back to Chalton Street, passing buildings she'd seen dozens of times before – but passively, dashing from one place to the next, the noise of the city thrumming in her ears and stifling her other senses. That raw, worn feeling returned, the sense of her heart and soul having been scrubbed against rocks, and the moments of joy in Kent with Gil faded into fragile wisps, even as he walked by her side.

When they reached his flat she could hear his flatmates in the living room. None of them called a greeting or acknowledged his return.

“Did you even tell them you were going away?” Claire asked as they slid into his room – slid, because there was so little space to stand in.

“Yeah, I left a message.” Gil shrugged. “Like I said, we're not close.”

Claire tugged her suitcase off the bed, and Gil retrieved her laptop from his trunk. She felt sick as she took it back, dreading the inevitable stack in her inbox, line after line marked URGENT: PLEASE READ.

“OK.” She swallowed and put it back in her leather tote, along with her paperwork. The extra weight of it dragged uncomfortably against her shoulder. “Well...” God, she didn't want to leave. She was terrified that as soon as she said goodbye to Gil and caught the Tube back to Holborn, the whole thing would disappear like a mad wonderful dream. She'd go into work on Monday morning and withdraw her resignation, chaining herself to that firm and that desk, to the long nights of networking, giving in to the grey cloud that seemed to sit permanently between her and the real world – and with a cold stab of clarity, she knew that it would kill her. She'd never go to France, or Reykjavik; she'd never see Gil again, or watch him dance at Covent Garden...

“Where shall we go for dinner tomorrow?” Gil asked.

The question was like warm sea air blowing through fog. “I hadn't thought.”

“We don't have to go out, if you don't want to.” His smile was hesitant, as though he too was unsure where this went next, now that they were back in the busy rush of the capital. “It was just an idea.”

She looked at him, folded almost double on the tiny cot bed, and the warmth sharpened into something protective and fierce. “What were you planning to do tonight?”

He lifted his eyebrows. “I was going to scavenge leftovers, or phone for a takeaway -”

“Do you want to come back to my place? I can actually cook, believe it or not.”

He met her eyes, and slowly his smile spread. “I believe you.”

“It would have to be quick – pasta or something. I could throw a carbonara together, and maybe we could watch a film?” Playfully, she added, “We never did get to Indiana Jones.”

Gil's head turned towards the living room. “Would you mind?”

“Not at all. You'd be doing me a favour too.” She closed her bag and sat beside him on the bed. “I don't really want to be on my own.”

“Oh, Claire.” He drew her against his side. “It'll be OK, you know.”

“I hope so.” She bit her lip as she noticed how the cheap frame bit through the mattress and creaked at the extra weight. The sheets were poor quality, and scratched against her healing palm. She moved it into her lap; Gil shifted so she could fit onto the bed more easily, and something locked into place inside her – an instinctive certainty, one she'd learned to trust from long years in court. “Gil, listen to me. We've spent all weekend being honest with each other, so I'm going to be honest now. I don't want you to stay here – no, wait.” She sat up and took his hand as he started to protest. “Let me finish. The sofa in my living room folds out into a double bed. It isn't a long-term solution, but it's a damn sight better than this thing – and if we like living together, then maybe once we both know what we're doing, we can look for a place with two bedrooms. We can live near Covent Garden, or wherever we need to be. I know it sounds a bit crazy.” Heat prickled at her collarbone. “But plenty of people just find flatmates by advertising online. At least we know each other.”

Gil stared for a long moment, and then laughed softly. “God. It doesn't sound crazy – not at all.”

“Is that a yes?”

“It's a hell yes.” He pulled her into his arms and held her close; Claire sighed with relief and pressed her cheek against his. “I almost asked you last night about moving in together, I thought you'd laugh...”

“Why would I laugh?”

“I don't know.” He let her go, still grinning. “I thought you'd want to be free to go anywhere and do anything, now that you've quit your job.”

“I still need a job. And it might as well be in London as anywhere else.”

His eyes lit. “You like the theatre, don't you?”

“Yes.”

“Why don't you come and work at the ballet school? Not as a dancer,” he added, seeing her disbelieving face. “But there are always other jobs going. Administrative posts, or backstage roles. I know it wouldn't pay what you're used to, and it might not be forever, but it would give you some breathing room.”

Claire thought about it. It would be a very different environment, though that was no bad thing. It would certainly mean less money; she'd have to hand back her car – but it was only on contract, and she didn't really need one in central London anyway. She smiled. “Covent Garden would make sense, in that case – if we can find somewhere in our budget.”

Gently, Gil laid his hand on her shoulder. “We're doing this, then?”

“Yes.” Claire gripped his fingers, and smiled up at him. “Yes, we are.”

“You're sure? I'm not easy to live with.” He still smiled, but there was a note of hesitation in his voice – almost defensive, like the first stone set down in a wall. “I keep strange hours; I can't sleep after a performance, it takes me a long time to wind down – and I've told you what dancing is to me. It's an obsession, a need. I get lost in it, and that's so hard for people to understand...and if it turns out that I can't do it any more...”

“Gil.” Soothingly, she rubbed the top of his arm. “It's alright. You will.

“I hope so.”

“I know so.” She wasn't sure how she was suddenly so certain, but she could see it with utter clarity – Gil on stage, blue eyes radiant, taking the final curtain call beside the prima ballerina as the auditorium came to its feet, stamping and whistling and cheering.

He managed a smile. “Thank you.”

“Any time.” She shivered. “And anyway, I don't think I'm going to be easy to live with either. I haven't had a housemate since university.” She gave a wobbly laugh. “God, I hadn't realised until this weekend, but I'm hanging by a thread; I'm so tired that I feel like I'm going to snap – and I can't promise I won't snap at you.” She smiled ruefully and brushed away the tears prickling at her lower lashes. “And on top of that, I talk in my sleep.”

“I know.”

“Oh.” Red-faced, she laughed again. “Last night, was I...?”

“Yes.” His eyes sparkled. “Nothing embarrassing; it's OK. Something about a pirate and a unicorn, and a pigeon loose in a bookshop.”

What?

“It was cute.”

“Oh, God...”

He laughed and kissed her forehead. “Wait here; if we really are doing this, then we need to mark the moment.”

While he was gone, Claire slipped out of her coat and hung it on the back of the door next to Gil's trench. When he came back he had a tumbler in each hand; he passed them to her, pulled the whisky out of his backpack, and poured them each a double measure.

“Sure you're sure?” he asked again, re-corking the bottle.

Gil. Yes, I'm sure.”

“Alright, then.” He grinned, sat down beside her on the bed, and clinked their glasses together. “To the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Claire raised her own glass. “To the future. Whatever it may bring.”

 

 

Gil and Claire