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Srebrna, Skald Arkadii (and thoughts on writing)

DPDT – Chapter 17 (part 3 of 4): And sing and dance and laugh

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The group gathered around Mina was making significant inroads into her container of cookies and she felt just a tiny bit of relief at the thought of small box in her backpack, where several handfuls of heart-shaped cookies were waiting safely until the afternoon.
“So, what’s the deal?” one of the girls from her Italian class asked. “Rose was handing the cookies out yesterday, and I thought it was for both of you.”
“She’s a day younger” Rose patted Mina’s shoulder. “Or, rather, fifteen minutes, but over the midnight divide.”

“We’re not the weirdest ones” Mina shrugged. “Dad told me today that there are people born in different months, when a mother went into labour on, like, thirtieth of April or something.”
“I wonder if there are people who are born in different years” Damien popped another chocolatey round in his mouth. “This. Is. Divine. I honestly worship your mother and I haven’t really seen the woman yet!”
“Well, it is technically possible, if someone went into labour during the New Year Party and the first kid was born just before midnight…”
“Oh, wow, more useless sweets. I wonder how many of your classmates will make it into the team this year, Darcy, if you keep feeding them this crap.”
Mina stiffened.
“These are my birthday cookies, and it’s none of your business” she answered as calmly as she could, not turning around.
“What? Your mother can’t be arsed to bake some for your actual birthday? She really must love Rose more. What a shame.”
“Today actually is Mina’s birthday” one of the girls piped up.
Oh, God, no.
Davison chortled and Mina felt Rose’s hands catch and hold her own around the rim of the box.
“You two are even more freaky than I expected. How can you even call yourselves actual twins, if you weren’t born on the same day? I wonder, is this some problem with you two, or is your mother so useless she can’t properly have kids on time?”
Rose’s hold on the container and Mina’s hands tightened, and Mina’s cheeks blanched as Davison’s lumpy, bruised visage came into her view.
“Oh, were you trained to obedience since Tuesday? I wonder, if you are so quick to learn…”
“Ekhm.”

####

Teddy was quite fed up with a lot of things.
Rugby practice, for one. Early mornings, team of jocks, locker room humour… And Davison’s ugly mug.
His parents’ slight disappointment. He had explained as much as he could – including quoting the slur James had used, which mollified his father a bit – but it was still a dark blot on his otherwise pristine school record.
Mina’s weirdness. She was being skittish. Yes, she had been playing Rose for the whole bloody September and she had been sick for a week, and probably overworked now… But it was like a country dance with her, close up and away, cold and hot, present and absent. She kissed him and then told him they can’t talk for two weeks. TWO BLOODY WEEKS.
He was thoroughly fed up with Davison’s shit, too, so hearing him insulting someone… OK, that was easy, and it was Mina, of course. Davison seemed fixated on the twins and for some reason homed in on Mina unerringly.
Careful, Theodore. You got yourself a detention for Mina’s sake, don’t clock the idiot now.
“Considering you are supposed to write a two-pager on how not to be a dick at school,” he said slowly “I’m guessing this is you, making a thorough research on the topic.”
“Strickland, for your own good, you will turn around and leave,” the team captain drawled. “Because I will ensure you will not be playing in any games this season, otherwise.”
Really? He’s trying to blackmail me with that?
“Unlike some, I do not require a sports scholarship to pay for my university” Teddy remarked calmly. “My grades are good enough and I have more options… Not really your business, anyway. Now, I think that unless you want me to report this whole thing to the headmaster, you will leave and, in fact, you will not approach either Darcy in the foreseeable future.”
“You think you can make me?” Davison stood straighter, presenting all his five-feet-eight of height. Exactly an inch more than Teddy. And about a stone of muscle more.
“No, I am going to report you to the headmaster. This is in that paper I am supposed to work on. There are procedures on this, you know. I’ve read them. In a case of a person bullying younger or weaker students…”
“I’ll give you weaker,” he heard Rose’s grumble.
Younger or weaker students, the ones present on the scene should ascertain the safety of students bullied by isolating them from their aggressor and report the incident to the nearest school authority. Which, in this case, would be either the coach, who had been looking at us from the window for the last several minutes, or the headmaster, who is just a loud shout away. Now, do you want the coach to see two teammates parting peacefully after a kind exchange of friendly remarks, or would you rather have me call him down here and point out the unethical behaviour of the captain?”
“I think that army camp made you a wuss, Strickland.”
“I think that whatever it was your father took you on made you even more of a dick than you used to be, Davison.”
“A hunting vacation, Strickland. You should try it sometimes. United States – a wonderful, if slightly barbaric country, where a real man can be a real man without paying attention to the authorities. And they have these fabulous forests, unlike our own, semi-bald island. You can shoot a real bear there. Or, well, you could, if you had balls to do that. Not every so-called man does in fact have these. I suppose you’d have problems even raising a rifle properly, not to mention pulling a trigger.”
Oh bloody hell.
“I sincerely doubt killing an unarmed creature is a measure of manliness these days, in our country” he said scathingly. “And I did carry a gun during my training, in fact. I got very good results in the range.”
“Range. Phew. Because when the time comes, of course, there will be paper shapes attacking you.”
Now he was honestly intrigued.
“What the hell are you talking about, Davison?”
“About survival, Strickland. This is what the endgame is. Survival of the man and his family. Making sure you stay alive when others perish…”
“Ah…” Rose coughed delicately. “Headmaster?”
“Cookies?” Mr Farlane smiled at Mina, who was still holding the container of sweets.
“Chocolate, headmaster” came a quiet answer.
“And what is the occasion?” he carefully picked a cookie from the box.
“My birthday” she looked down at the box and her lower lip trembled.
“Ah, many happy returns, then. Rose… Wait a minute, but Rose’s birthday was yes… Ah. Right. I thought it was a clerical error.”
“N-no” Mina shook her head, eyes still on the cookies. “Mom says– I mean, we were born on both sides of midnight. My birthday is today.”
“Aah! That’s why! So, your classmates should rejoice – they get a double batch of your Mom’s biscuits, instead of just one. Now, I see that the situation is becoming rather unpleasant – and on someone’s birthday, too. Does anyone wish to volunteer… No, Strickland, not you. Your particular brand of honesty is not what I’m looking for today. Mina? You didn’t have a chance to talk to me on Tuesday. Can you tell me what is going on here?”
She shot Teddy a weird look.
“Sir, I…” she stuttered. “I, we were just sitting there, and someone asked the same question and then I explained, and Davison started making fun of me – saying things about our mother…”
“Saying that Mom doesn’t love Mina enough to bake for her actual birthday, because he knows better and he said we are supposed to have birthday on the same date and that our mother is too stupid to even have us properly on the same day.”
The tall man sighed and turned to the rugby captain.
“You will wait for me in front of my office. We are calling your parents in immediately.”
“But…”
“I have heard enough of your exchange with Strickland to make me apprehensive. Hearing this…” he shook his head.
“They are lying!”
“We have witnesses,” Rose pointed out. “Guys? Was Davison saying stupid crap about our Mom?”
Tatiana and Damien quickly confirmed and the rugby captain left, making a face at them behind the headmaster’s back.
“And he said something about Mina needing proper training, I think,” Tatiana added.
“And that is when I heard him and told him to lay off,” Teddy sighed. “I hadn’t heard any of the stuff he said before, but when I asked him to leave the girls alone, he started spouting some idiocy about being a real man and hunting bears.”
The headmaster very, very slowly rubbed his face with his large hand.
“And here was I, hoping for a quiet, calm week,” he said to nobody in particular. “I think I need another cookie. May I?” he smiled at Mina.
“Here, sir,” she raised the container. “Take a few.”
“I’ll take two then, thank you. I’m very sorry you had to hear this, Mina. I will deal with Davison and his parents, and he shouldn’t be bothering you again. Any of you” he nodded towards the others. “I really hope you won’t see the whole school as bad just because people like James sometimes make it look a bit less than perfect.”
Suddenly her eyes met Teddy’s and she blushed.
“No, sir” she said quietly. “I think I’m OK with the school in general. As long as I never have to talk to Davison ever again!”
He patted her shoulder.
“I will certainly try to make it so. Now, the two of you, and Theodore, please have your parents come talk to me on Monday morning. I don’t want them to feel the situation is not being handled properly. What happened two days ago was, in fact, James’ first offence in his whole school career, so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and some time to cool off. I see now that he is set on his course and very much convinced of the validity of his ideas, and these are not compatible with the way I wish this school to be run.”
“Ask Sheila, too,” Mina blurted out.
“Who?”
“Sheila is James’ ex,” Rose explained. “She told him to leave her alone after he said some stupid stuff to her… What was it?”
“You said she said it was about her not needing to go to college?”
“Yeah, because she is pretty enough.”
The headmaster bit into one of his cookies and chewed for a moment, thinking.
“That would be Sheila McNamara?”
“I suppose so” Rose shrugged. “Only one Sheila in the whole school, I think.”
“Very well. Now, Theodore” he turned to Teddy, who startled. “I think we can safely say you don’t have to hand in your essay. You have demonstrated your ability to resolve conflict without violence to my satisfaction. How was that military training you have attended, by the way? I meant to ask you before, but it slipped my mind…”
“It was informative, sir” he saw Mina’s eyes trained on him, but immediately looked back at the headmaster. “There was a lot of very early mornings, which is never a very pleasant thing, but I dare say I’m better for it, sir.”
“Very well. I expect we can have a few more students admitted next summer. It definitely shapes proper young men.”
He felt himself flushing with warmth.
“I… Thank you, sir.”
“I hope you will manage to lose that crisp attention stance sometime before Christmas, because it makes me recall my Army days, and I know I will never again be as young as I was then, which makes me just a bit sad.”
“I’ll try, sir,” he heard himself say “but I can’t promise it will work.”
“Very well. As long as you do try. Now, I think I’ll take… one more cookie” he winked “and go call James’ parents. Please keep the gossipping to the minimum, if possible. If someone starts bothering you about James, refer them to me.”
He made a few steps towards the building, but the he stopped, as if considering something.
“And, Teddy?”
He looked up in trepidation.
“Yes, sir?”
“Your detention is cancelled. Please report to Miss Yang for your competition practice immediately after lessons.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mina straighten.
“Thank you, sir.”

#

Quite contrary to what Mina had told him she wanted, he had been, in fact, planning to talk to her. Davison’s idiotic act simply made them meet earlier than he expected. He didn’t manage to say or do what he had been planning to, and the tiny gift box in the pocket of his trousers was still burning its way out of there. But now it could wait. He was going to meet Mina in Miss Yang’s classroom in three more hours. He could relax.
More or less.
He kept thinking about the truly epic amount of crap that was going to bury him the moment the next rugby practise came and the rest of the team learnt of their conflict.
If Davison was expelled, they’d be without a captain, and the coach would have to pick a new one. That was always a mess.
If Davison wasn’t expelled, they’d be in deep doo, because the stupid prick would be out for blood, especially Teddy’s.
He sighed and tried to focus on the chemical experiment being performed by one of the girls at the main table. Something something and potassium. He really hoped one of his mates would lend him the notes, or his boast of being in top three in his class would become much weaker.
Even if Davison was expelled, he’d anyway have to meet that prick every time he went for a run, because he was unfortunate enough to live a street over. Gah.
If Davison wasn’t expelled, the prick’s self-congratulatory tendencies would lead Teddy to beating him into pulp one of these days at school.
Biology wasn’t much better, but at least they were watching a movie and he was awake enough to make a note of the title and so gave himself a chance to watch it later at home.
If Davison was expelled, his parents would make Teddy’s parents’ life difficult at the homeowners club.
If Davison wasn’t expelled, he would make Teddy’s life hell at school. And Mina’s. And whoever had witnessed today’s humiliation.
English. He had to focus. He had read the assigned book and had, at least that very morning, considered himself to be ready to answer any question. Now it seemed less and less probable.
If Davison was exp…
“Strickland! Are you listening?”
The English teacher was looking at him expectantly.
“I’m sorry, Miss. I think I’m not at my best today.”
“He’s in love, Miss Brandon” one of the other guys drawled in that special “this is so hilarious” tone.
“That doesn’t excuse inattentiveness. Strickland, explain to me the main characters’ relationship.”
He sighed. One more lesson.

#

By the time they were let go, he had almost bitten his thumbnail to the quick and was slightly jittery due to the missed lunch and a candy bar eaten on a sly instead. Still, he tried to be dignified – not too eager, not too obvious – and so he calmly sauntered towards the music room.
Someone was playing the piano. It definitely wasn’t Miss Yang, because she was standing in the doorway and waved to him when she saw him, putting a finger on her lips. Obediently silent, he peeked over her shoulder to look inside the room.
The piano was placed in a fortunate spot – almost directly in front of the big window, well illuminated by the afternoon sun. Mina was sitting facing away from them, steadily working her way through a piece he vaguely recalled having heard multiple times, full of sharp strokes and long passages. The triumphant parts in the higher register were interspersed with more sombre, but still lively sections in lower tones, which quickly escalated into something almost martial-like, more audacious, ending with a long passage up, again more triumphant tones and a strong finish of several accented notes. They stood in silence as she leaned away from the keyboard, then shook her head and sighed ‘hopeless’.
He waited for a breath, but as Miss Yang made her way inside, he followed quietly.
“Rafal Blechacz you are not, darling” the teacher said softly. “I’m afraid there are some natural limitations that you have that can only be overcame by extensive practice, and I’m not sure you have enough hours in your day for that amount of playing time.”
“I was aiming more at Marta Argerich” the girl remarked morosely. “But I’m still not up to it – especially after my whole summer spent at a camp and a month without any practice at all.”
“Mina, may I remind you, you told me yourself you’d started learning piano when you were eight? Marta Argerich performed her first concert at that age. You can’t compare yourself at fourteen to her as a grownup.”
“I…” Mina’s fingers went up into her hair and grasped, pulling them up. “She had that smile. Ever since Mom showed me that recording, I though I could one day smile like this. To know that I had conquered this… this…”
“Polonaise” he surprised them both by saying. “Right?”
Mina dropped her hands immediately and she looked at the keyboard, not raising her eyes him.
“Yeah” she said finally. “‘Heroic’. Chopin.”
“That was… good” he ventured. “I’ve never heard it played, like, live.”
“Well, you two can discuss it later. Now, Mina, take a small break. Teddy? Ready?”
He smiled, trying to still the nervous shiver. Mina moved to where her bag was hanging on one of the chairs and started looking through it, rather intently.
Uh.
“Breathing, posture, relax…” Miss Yang prompted and he adjusted the way he was standing, brought his head up and inhaled.
It was fine. It was going well. It was actually quite quite good. Until the very end of the second verse.

He smiled at me, and he said, said he,
“She’s the gem of Ireland’s crown,
Young Rosie McCann from the banks of the Bann,
She’s the Star of the County Down.”

His voice died at some point and he never even noticed Miss Yang’s surprised question. He had only eyes for Mina, who was now sitting ramrod-straight and very, very carefully not looking at him.
“Mina…” he started and saw her shook her head. “Miss Yang, is it too late to change the song to something else?”
The teacher glanced at him in surprise, but then followed his stare to Mina and, apparently, added two and two together.
“Ah” she said, slowly. “It’s only a week and a half to the competition, Teddy.”
“But…”
“No” suddenly, Mina was standing in front of him, looking up sternly. “No. You have practised this and prepared and you’re not going to change now just because some people are going to be stupid about it. I am singing a song written from the point of view of a soldier waiting to be executed! The songs are not the reality. And if someone is crazy enough to bother you about it, send them to me.”
“Mina…”
“Sing. This. Song.”
“…I kind of wanted it to be.”
“W-what?” he saw her honest confusion.
“I had that grand plan, to do something on the stage and sing it…” he swallowed “…for you. To you. And it was OK, and your hair is kind of nut-brown, and everything, but now…”
“The name doesn’t fit, I know. That’s OK. As long as you don’t call me Rose, I’m fine.”
He shivered suddenly.
“I wouldn’t!”
“Ekhm.”
“Sorry, Miss.”
Mina smiled, reached up to pat his cheek and went to sit again at the back of the room.
“Come on. From the beginning.”
He breathed deeply and nodded.
“In Banbridge Town near the County Down…”

#

When Teddy was done, and quite lightheaded from all the “proper breathing”, “giving it a little more push” and “more dynamically!”, he sat down on the floor, leaned on the wall and watched Mina preparing to go through the same.
“Ready?”
He saw the girl drawing her shoulders up and then relaxing, rolling her head around and yawning forcibly a few times.
“Yes” she said finally, coughed and drew a breath.
By yon bonnie banks, and by yon bonnie braes…
Miss Yang allowed her to finish, despite certain small imperfections even he had heard and only then gave her feedback.
“I hope your throat will be fine by the next weekend. It would be a shame if all that exercise was wasted because of one small infection.”
“Not that small, I’m afraid” someone commented and Teddy scrambled to stand up from where he had sat, cross-legged, relaxing finally. “But I’ll make sure she doesn’t strain herself.”
“Mrs Darcy, I presume?” Miss Yang smiled at the tiny woman – barely taller than Mina and Rose.
“Elizabeth Bennet, Mina and Rose’s mother” the newcomer smiled widely. “Miss Bennet is fine. And I have a proposition for you.”
Another, much taller woman followed her and Miss Yang’s focus immediately shifted.
“Ah… hello again.”
“Hi. Elizabeth? Your offer?”
“Well, yes. I’ve heard from Mina that you are missing accompaniment at the competition because there is no way to get a working instrument into the main auditorium.”
“That’s sadly correct. The grand piano that was in the auditorium was tuned too tightly by someone I’m not going to name, and now it’s warped beyond all use,” both newcomers winced “and we can’t get any of the classroom pianos downstairs, because that would require… well, can’t.”
“What about an electric piano?” Miss Bennet – Mina’s mother – grinned. “Would that be OK?”
“Well, that depends on the piano…” Miss Yang seemed unsure. “Why?”
“I have, you see, a very nice Yamaha at my disposal. If you’d care to have a look?”
“What, here?”
The taller of the two made a step back and then noticed him.
“Come on, young man. Help me with this.”
He followed her obediently, and there, in the corridor, was Rose, guarding a large, long, black bag.
“It’s a bit cumbersome” the woman said. “Pick up one end, just don’t drop it. Rose, the stand.”
In minutes, the stand was opened and locked in position, the piano as secured on top of it and plugged in and the tiny woman was turning it on. Miss Yang sat at the instrument and tried out the keys – he didn’t have enough experience with pianos to say what it was that she was looking for, but she definitely looked satisfied.
“We could also take some pressure off of you” Miss Bennet added, smiling at Miss Yang. “Georgie and me, we both play, quite well, if I say so myself. And we can both assist at school for the next week and a half, to help with all the students who would need it.”
“Uh, Mom…” Mina frowned and he felt a bit of a tension.
“…ah. Well,” Miss Yang bit her lip. “With Mina taking part, I think it would be the best for me to be the only one to accompany everyone, so that there was no suspicion of manipulation, you see. But if you wish to help at any later occasion, we’ll be preparing for the Christmas concert – Mina had probably mentioned that, correct?”
“Georgiana too.”
“Well, G-Miss Darcy suggested she could help and play the harp, and I must admit, having another person on the piano will help immensely if I’m supposed to be the director of the whole evening, and that is what it’s shaping up to be. If there were two of you and Miss Darcy would be switching to the harp at some point, I’d say the concert would benefit significantly.”
“I can lead a smaller group on a guitar, too, if there would be a need. Up to five, maybe six? Younger kids, too, no problem here. I could practise with them at school.”
“I would welcome any kind of help for the concert, absolutely. Still, I’m afraid I’ll have to cope with the contest by myself. Just to make sure there is no suspicion of partiality.”
Miss Darcy – probably Mina’s aunt then – and Miss Bennet exchanged glances.
“Sure, I see your point about the conflict of interest, I kind of missed that angle. But the offer of the piano still stands – we can bring it in on Saturday and set it up long before the event. If you prefer any specific tuning, it can be adjusted, too.”
“That would be perfect. Absolutely perfect. That will… Well, children singing a cappella are always nice, but still…”
“That would lack a certain something that a proper performance needs, wouldn’t it?” Miss Darcy interjected.
“Exactly!”
They smiled at each other and Teddy saw Mina and Rose looking at them speculatively and then glancing at each other.
Ah. I see.
“So,” Miss Bennet tapped the piano. “We’ll bring it on Saturday… Unless you have a place we could lock it up at school? Less fuss and it does take a lot of space in the car…”
“Well, we could put it in my room,” Miss Yang walked to the back of the classroom and opened the internal door. “It locks, it has no window and there is enough space to store it safely, especially if it’s in the cover.”
“Fine by me. I’d much rather not have to haul it downstairs right now.”
They placed the instrument in the padded bag, zipped it closed carefully and he helped Miss Darcy carry it to be secured in the small room. The stand was added and the door locked – two locks – keys going to Miss Yang’s purse.
“And on Saturday I’ll ask the janitor – or one of the bigger boys, like Teddy here – to help me carry it to the auditorium.”
Suddenly there were two pairs of eyes trained on him and he squirmed under the scrutiny of both Mina’s mother and aunt.
“Ah, so this is Teddy,” the shorter one said, a smile dancing on her lips.
“Mom,” Mina hissed, blushing.
He looked at the floor, drawing a deep breath.
“Theodore Strickland, yes, ma’am.”
“Elizabeth Bennet” there was a fine-boned hand in his field of view, so he grasped it carefully, looking up at the woman. “Nice to finally meet you, Theodore.”
He was waiting for something like ‘Mina told us a lot about you’ ‘we’ve heard about you’ or, basically, whatever else! She however simply squeezed his hand lightly, grinned at him in a slightly conspiratorial manner and nodded.
“Good” she finally said and stepped back. “Georgiana? You coming?”
“Nah, I’ll catch the bus” was the answer from where ‘Georgiana’ was conferring about something with Miss Yang.
“Rose, come on. I need you to help me with the seats we had to move to fit the piano in.”
And suddenly they were gone. Miss Yang and Miss Darcy were in the corner, completely absorbed in each other. And Mina and him by their backpacks.
“I,” she coughed and looked away. “I have something for you.”
He frowned and found himself being handed a small, cardboard box.
“But, Mina, it’s your birthday…”
“And these are my birthday cookies,” she pressed his fingers around the box. “I brought the big box for the class, but I… I mean, my Mom, she… I mean…” she let go of his hands. “Here. I hope you like chocolate.”
He loved chocolate. Hell, had these turned out to be spinach cookies, he would have probably loved spinach, too.
“I,” he felt the same tightness in his throat that she was apparently experiencing. “I, uh, got you something.”
“Teddy…!” there was a soft scolding in her voice.
“Just, I saw this in the market last weekend, and I kind of thought…” he put the cookies aside was digging out the flat box in panic now that she was taking a step back. “It reminded me of you, and I didn’t even know your birthday was so soon, I was thinking more about, well, Christmas, or something…” he caught her hands and wrapped them around the tiny piece of plastic. “Please?”
She finally opened her fingers and looked at the clear flat package. The single eight note with a tiny topaz-coloured glass in the place of the note body had been something that made him think of her immediately when he saw it on Saturday, and once he heard the day before the explanation she and Rose provided, he dug it out of its hiding place in his desk and made sure to have it in his pocket in the morning. He hadn’t foreseen, on buying it, that he’d be making use of it that soon, so he had no time to prepare his grand speech to explain how her eyes were as lumi…
Mina was kissing his cheek. Again. And then she picked up the box of cookies and put it securely in his hands.
“Thank you” she whispered and twirled in place. And she was gone before he could react.
Cautiously, he poked the flaps of the box up. A rich smell of chocolate reached him and he sighed. He really, really loved chocolate. It had been one of the reasons he had signed up for that military camp. He wanted to avoid going back to the way he used to look before his growth spurt, and so a summer spent on daily exercise and a lot of challenging training had seemed like just the way to do this. Being isolated from his Mum’s cooking and only eating according to the base doctor’s advice helped, too.
And he had already used up his “one piece of candy a day” limit for the candybar that had played the role of his lunch. Now he would be paying the price for not eating properly.
He swallowed, hard, and closed the box again.
Tomorrow.
But…
He opened the box again, this time pulling the flaps fully away and allowing the light to illuminate the contents properly.
Little hearts.
Oh.

####

Mina had such a weird face when she came down from the music room that Rose checked if she hadn’t lost her backpack or the box. No, both were there, present and accounted for.
“You OK?”
Mina nodded, looking away.
“He OK?”
“Rose…” her sister mumbled in protest.
“No, I mean, really. Just worried. You look…” she shrugged. “Never mind.”
“He gave me something” her sister finally said.
Mom sat in the front and sighed.
“Home, or do you need anything? Supplies, notebooks, pencils, whatevers?”
“No, nothing. Mina, what did…”
Her sister shoved a tiny pendant in front of her nose.
“Wow.”
“Girls?”
She shot Mina a look, but her sister was focused on the piece of metal she was holding.
“No, nothing. We don’t need anything. Can we go home?”
“Sure. And, Rose, do you have a lot of homework for tomorrow?”
She frowned, but shook her head.
“Just two maths problems. Ten minutes, tops.”
“OK, so when we are home, get started on them immediately. Dad will be waiting for you in the stables. He just texted for us to hurry up a bit.”
“Can Mina come, too?”
She glanced at her sister, who was still holding the tiny copper note with a silly smile.
“I’d say no, not for a few more days. She has to stop coughing after every move. Maybe after the competition, hm?”
Rose sat back, thinking morosely of all the things they could do, but that Mina was still not well enough to actually do.
“In two weeks, it will be Halloween” Mina volunteered suddenly, as if reading her thoughts. “We could dress up?”
“Is there trick-or-treating in Lambton?” Mom asked at the next red light.
“No, it’s more of a street fair thing. There is stuff set up on the squares, stands with food, toys, masks, pieces of clothing and some games – a shooting range, last year, but it’s always fake, because nobody managed to shoot the marker for the plushie unicorn.”
“So, everything aimed towards milking the last penny out of unsuspecting kids?”
“Yeah.”
“Sounds promising” Mom snorted. “We should absolutely go. Everyone dresses up?”
“Yeah. And the schools sometimes make an afternoon dance, too.”
They sat in silence until the car turned from the main road towards the house.
“Think about what costumes you want and tell me, so we can plan them carefully.”
“We could dress as Rapunzel” Mina giggled. “We’d just need to find a blonde wig, and one of us would be Rapunzel before the haircut, and the other, after the haircut.”
“Or we could be Snow White. One in the pretty princess dress and the other in the dress from the forest.”
“No, not Snow White. Mulan!”
“Mulan had longer hair.”
“We could dress as something generic, but one as a girl and the other as a boy. And we could switch places. To see if anyone notices.”
“Or…”
“Or we could find two red wigs and I’d be the Ariel with the tail, who could sing, and you’d be the one with the legs, because you can’t.”
There was a moment of silence in the car, as Rose reeled from the mental punch her sister had just delivered.
“Mina” Mom’s voice from the front seat was rather calm. “Apologise to Rose, now.”
“But, Mom, she can’t.”
“That doesn’t mean you are allowed to say it this way. Now, Mina.”
Rose saw her sister’s grimace and rolled her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Rose” Mina sighed. “That was a wrong thing to say.”
“Now go upstairs and start working on your Italian essay. Rose, come on. Let’s find your father.”
“But, maths…?”
“I’ll wake you up earlier and we’ll deal with this before breakfast. Now, go. Stables.”

#

There was that elation that came only with a physical exertion and a lot of fresh air. How much more chance they’d have to do that depended on the weather, but for now, it kept, so they were turning back to the house only once the both of them and horses were just a bit tired, making use of as much of afternoon light as was available.
“How are you doing?” Dad asked finally, after an hour of silence.
She cocked her head to one side and considered the question.
In general?
Right now?
In the saddle?
Health-wise?
School?
“It’s good to be back home” she finally said.
“Mhm. And what about other stuff? School?”
“School is…” she would have shrugged, but she didn’t want to disrupt Star’s steps. “Acceptable. Ah. We kind of forgot one thing. Headmaster asks for you to come meet him on Monday.”
“Kind of forgot, or were you planning another escape?”
“Forgot, because he only asked today, really. He wants to see you and Teddy’s parents, in fact. There was…” she considered. “An incident. The same boy that Mina had punched, he started today again. He insulted Mom. We didn’t do anything – and Teddy helped to rein him in a bit, but finally the headmaster heard half of the argument anyway, and then he asked Mina for the rest… so she told him. No punches were thrown, so nobody – none of us – got suspended or anything, and even Teddy’s detention got cancelled.”
“I see” Dad looked quite ready to bite someone. “And Monday? Why?”
“The headmaster will be talking to the parents of that guy today, and then he wants to talk to you and to Teddy’s parents, to explain what will be happening from now on. He almost kind of promised Mina he’d be kicking the idiot out of the school. No idea really if he is allowed to do it, but…” she rolled her eyes. “As long as Davison stays away from us, I’m OK.”
“I hope Mr Farlane can ensure that. If that boy had actually, physically attacked one of you…”
“I’m not sure he would have. He is, like, more mouth than anything else. Ugly mouth, especially since Mina punched him, but just loud. I’m not sure actually beating up a girl half his size would have fitted his macho image.”
“After a while, I suppose it would. Finally it would have been “her fault” for doing something that he had to stop her from doing” Dad shook his head. “I wonder what happened to the boy. From what you said, last year he seemed rather… normal?”
“His father took him to the States and they went hunting in the wild. He came back with all these crazy notions about only the best surviving and crap like that. The way he was speaking to Strickland, I thought he would start foaming at the mouth any moment.”
“His father took him hunting in the USA?”
“Yeah. Stupid, isn’t it? I suppose I prefer the way Teddy had spent his vacation – whatever happens at the military camp, he seems much more like a civilised human being than Davison.”
“A military camp? Hm. Did he say what he was doing there?”
“He just mentioned early mornings and exercise. He did gain a lot of muscle, I suppose. But he plays rugby and all of these guys are a bit bulky anyway. And he said he was training on a shooting range and getting good results.”
“Hmm. I wonder where that training actually was… Army Cadets have a lot of camps and centres all over the country, I suppose.”

#

Rose dropped on her bed, looking at Mina, falling asleep over her Italian textbook.
“I was thinking.”
“It’s dangerous.”
“I mean it.”
“Me too.”
“Seriously, we have to call Joana.”
Mina frowned.
“J… Ah, Joana? Cool but why?”
“Because we maybe, like, you know. Maybe she needs someone to talk to?”
“And you are going to call a girl whose parents got divorced in secret and tell her what, ours got together again?”
Rose grimaced.
“Not cool.”
“Completely.”
“We can text her and ask if she wants to talk.”
“Ok. Text should be fine.”
“Tomorrow.”
“In the morning.”
“In the morning.”
“Sorry for being such an idiot.”
Rose sighed.
“No worries. I’m… I was, too, you know. We can call it even, I suppose.”

####

Friday at school was suspiciously quiet. There was no Davison, no rugby practice, no singing practice, no club meetings. And no Teddy. Almost no Teddy. Mina was getting a bit worried after the whole day spent hurrying from one end of the school to another and not even a glimpse of the boy. She cautiously fingered the copper note hanging on a black string around her neck.
“Whassrong?” Rose glared at her suspiciously.
“Nothing” she looked down and then to the side.
“Strickland? Is he giving you grief, or something?”
“Rose! No, just…” she shrugged. “Haven’t seen him all day. I’m kind of worried.”
For the sake of Mina’s nerves, it was good that Teddy was, in fact, at school, but rather busy dodging his classmates and avoiding the necessity to explain The Whole Deal With Davison to everyone. As she and Rose were leaving through the main exit, suddenly someone held the door open for them. Mina turned her head up and smiled.
“Thank you for the cookies” he said softly.
“Thank you for…” her hand went up to her throat again and she could see his eyes widening.
“Good” he breathed.
“Good.”
“See you on Monday then. Are your parents coming?”
“I suppose they are. See you.”
It was suddenly a much better Friday.

####

“Mom! Dad’s saying… he’s saying things to his computer.”
“Dad! Mom says stop swearing at the computer, they get shy.”
“Dad says the computer is not shy, it’s stupid.”
“Mom says the computer is as stupid as the person in fr…”
“Dad says thanks, love.”
“Mom says if you have a problem, please tell her.”
“Dad says they had sent him a simulation of the software that the House will have and he can’t work it out. He managed to shut down the fireplace, but it didn’t switch automatically to the other heating.”
“Mom asks if the background is yellow.”
“Dad asks what in the blazes…”
“Mom asks if the background is yellow and please check if there is a small red flag in the upper left corner.”
“Dad says yes, and how on Earth did you know.”
“Mom says to click the flag, see the message, then click it and turn on the needed options.”
Silence.
He buried his face in her hair, arms sneaking around her waist as he kissed down her neck and up to her ear.
“My smart, perfect Elizabeth” he nuzzled her ear with his nose. “My marvellous girl. How did you…”
“Next time if you want my help with new software, please wait until I’m done with the dough, hm? I couldn’t just leave it like this in the middle of kneading.”
“Good thing you’re simply a genius” he pressed his lips to her cheek.
“Good thing I wrote the thing” she smiled and waited.
One.
Two.
Three.
“Seriously” he groaned. “It… Wait a moment! You were writing it! All that time when Mina was sick, it was this. Whenever Jonathan sent back another remark to be corrected…”
“Yep” she pulled at the dough some more, then started tearing off equally-sized chunks.
“So… Oh” he frowned and his arms went tighter around her. “But that means if they want to change something…”
“They will come to me and I will then talk to a lawyer – not theirs, yours – how to resolve this correctly. But the last time they asked I told them ‘no’ anyway. And my part of the software is up to specification, so they shouldn’t be needing my help any time soon.”
“What? Why?”
“I have my rules” she started rolling one of the smaller pieces flat. “One of them is ‘I make no cutesy mobile interfaces'” she sprinkled the piece with cinnamon and dark sugar.
“Oh” he hid his face in the crook of her neck. “Mmm, you smell heavenly. Butter, sugar, spices.”
“Yes, and if you don’t move right now, so will you, William.”
“Good” he smiled, pulling himself closer and watching her fingers working steadily on another piece of dough. “What is this?”
“Cinnamon bread. In the form of little buns that can be torn off from the rest. Now, if you insist on immobilising me, please hand me that big tin from the table.”
“I absolutely insist” he reached for the tin and placed it in front of Elizabeth. “I… hmpf… absolutely… insist.”
She sighed and reached back with a flour-dusted hand, bringing him closer for a kiss.
“I need twenty minutes and it will be much faster if I have my full range of movement” she informed him sternly. “This” she pressed a longer kiss to his mouth “should tide you over. Now, back off, Mr Darcy, or the guests will be eating raw dough.”
“Mmm… If you say so, Miss Bennet” he tightened his hold. “But I would have thought I’d have a higher priority on your list than some yeast cultures.”
You will survive twenty minutes wait. They won’t.”
He took another minute to kiss her most thoroughly.
Now I’ll survive twenty minutes.”
“William!”

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