If his attention hadn’t been caught by a vivid flash of yellow, Eustace would have tripped right over her. As it was, he stopped just in time and peered down. She was sitting, curled up, in the shadow of the piano.
“Jill?” Though she looked up and met his gaze, Jill said nothing. “What on earth are you doing down there?”
“Hiding.” She bit her lip and did not elaborate.
Eustace considered this for a moment, then removed his jacket and handed it to her. At her frown, he explained. “Your dress is very bright.” She spread it over her as best she could, and gave him a worryingly lukewarm smile of gratitude. “Would… would you like some company while you hide?”
She shifted over to make some room for him. Eustace was immediately flustered as he crammed into too little space, Jill flush up against his side, but he felt her relax almost as soon as he sat down. They sat there in silence for a few minutes before she eventually spoke. “George asked me to be his girl. I said no. Everything is strange now.”
The matter-of-fact words belied the strain in her voice. Eustace didn’t entirely know what to make of any of this. He was sorry for George, whom he liked very much; he was concerned about Jill, who seemed utterly exhausted; he certainly wasn’t feeling any sort of indecent, gleeful relief. He cleared his throat. “Strange?”
Initially, she didn’t respond. When she did, she sounded smaller and sadder than before. “Did I lead him on? I liked being his friend. I thought he liked being my friend. I thought we were friends.”
Glancing at her, Eustace realised exactly how he felt. “It’s George’s loss, then.” He was suddenly furious. Jill had been radiant earlier that night, and now she looked miserable and hunched and about thirteen. Even though, very privately, he did think Jill could have been clearer with George about what she wanted, nothing could justify whatever the man had responded. “He should be deliriously happy to be your friend.”
Jill leant her head on his shoulder, her hair brushing against his cheek. She wriggled a hand out of the tiny gap between them, and squeezed his arm. If he wasn’t mistaken, he heard her breath hitch as she sniffed. He placed his spare hand over the top of hers, and felt useless. The noise of the party continued as they sat there, but it seemed unreal and distant. The world seemed to have shrunk to him and Jill in not quite enough space, and the sound of her unhappiness against his shirt.
Eventually, Jill’s breaths evened out, and she sat up straight again. She did not move her hand away. “I’m very good at finding hiding places,” she joked, her voice thick. “Except from you.”
For once, Eustace did not take the invitation out. He concentrated intently on the floor and on his hand over hers. “Your friendship,” he said, quietly, soberly, “is, absolutely, positively, without competition, the very best thing about my life, Jill Pole.”
At that, Jill startled away, and it was his turn to wish he could hide, but she then smiled at him, albeit still a little tearful. Jill jumped to her feet, and held a hand for him to use as he stumbled out of his spot. He rolled his shoulders, which groaned in protest, and wondered quite how long they’d been sitting there. It wasn’t entirely his imagination now—the sounds of the party were beginning to die away, and Jill handed him back his jacket.
“Will you walk me home?” she asked. Her eyes were nearly dry and she was grinning, though without quite her usual energy.
Eustace pulled his jacket on, and Jill slipped a hand into the crook of his arm, as if this was a completely normal thing that they did every day. They stepped out together through the French windows. Jill began to talk about the exam she’d had earlier that week in a cheerful, ordinary voice—and he didn’t think it was entirely put on this time. Looking at her, watching her become progressively more animated, he made a silent promise to her and to himself. One day, he would find the words, and it would be the right time, and she would know how he felt about her—for better, for worse. And if it didn’t work out, and if she had no interest in him, and if this was all he was ever going to get—he would delight in her friendship; he would feel honoured for every minute of every day that he got to be her friend; he would be absurdly grateful for whatever form their relationship took—for the rest of both of their lives.