Tall Grass and True Tales
*TRIGGER WARNING – CONTAINS DESCRIPTIONS OF ABUSE AND RAPE*
And a note about English educational system as most of the readers seem to be American – “Upper Sixth” is the name for the top year in school, also known as “Year Thirteen”, and is the year you take your final school exams, called A-Levels (the better your results in these, the better your chances are of getting into good universities). “Lower Sixth” (aka “Year Twelve”) is the year below that. It’s not a major plot point, but might help with clarity.
Over the next week and a half, Sam saw him every day. They would meet sometimes for only an hour while he focussed, sometimes more successfully than others, on writing his thesis, or other times they would spend all day in each other's arms, going down to the river for a walk, Alex crutching more often than not, his progress slow but confident, by her side until they reached a secluded meadow on the outskirts of town where they would sit on the bench or beside it down on the grass and watch the rowers and kayakers skim by. They were lying like this on a balmy Sunday afternoon, nestled in the soft, sweet-smelling grass of a field on the edge of town, Sam’s head nestled against his shoulder, her fingertips idly tracing lines up and down the centre of his chest, feeling the weave of his t-shirt and the solid contours beneath while he lay on his back.
Having just started talking about family, Alex asked Sam, an odd note in his deep voice, "What's it like to be an only child?"
Her lips puckered thoughtfully and she paused. "I don't know, it's..." she faltered, continuing with a laugh, "It isn't lonely as the stereotypes would have you believe... I grew up having to find my own amusement most of the time, so I guess it makes you kind of independent in that respect, you know, self-reliant. It means you don't mind being on your own... I don't need people to be around in the same way that some of my friends do who grew up with siblings. Why do you ask?"
He smiled enigmatically and said, "I was just curious."
She frowned, letting her hand resume its pendulous movement over his chest again. "It must be nice," she began, "To have someone you're as close to, and who knows you as well as Will does." He huffed a happy laugh but stayed quiet as she added, "You know, you and Will don't look much alike. Do you look like your dad or your mum?"
Sam felt his breathing stop beneath her listening ear, his diaphragm unexpectedly hitching, his Adam's apple lurching in his throat.
"What is it? What did I say?"
His arm tightened around her shoulders and he looked down at her with a reassuring smile. "I'm sorry, I..." he laughed softly. "I always forget about that until someone reminds me of it."
"Forget what?" She wondered if she'd upset him by mentioning his parents.
"Will and I aren't actually related."
"What?" Her head left his shoulder and she sat up slightly, resting on her right arm, her face incredulous. This was a massive deal – she’d seen how close they were, how protective Will was about him, and how deeply Alex cared for him. How could this not be a bond sealed by DNA?
Alex was chuckling softly to himself as he observed the aftermath of his casually-dropped bombshell. "He's as much my brother as though we share the same blood, but he's adopted. It was a bit of a surprise for my parents, let's just say, when they had me. They'd been told they would probably never be able to have children, so they adopted Will when he was only a few weeks old, and only a month or so after that, mum found out she was pregnant with me. They say it can happen, but..."
"That's amazing!" she smiled, setting her head back in the nook of his shoulder that felt as though nature had sculpted it for her alone to rest on.
His dark eyes traced the contours of her face from where he lay on his back in the grass. "Yeah. Will was bullied about being adopted at school, and for being a total nerd, and I was always the one that came barrelling in like some kind of maniac when he was getting beaten up. Now he looks after me. I'd be lost without him."
Alex looked so sad for a moment, and so lost as he turned his eyes on the wandering clouds above them, that she sank into her own thoughts and wrapped her arm over his stomach, feeling it softly rising and falling. She couldn't quite bring herself to break the silence.
Alex broke it for her when he said more cheerfully, "And in answer to your actual question, I look like my mum."
"I don't look much like either of my parents," she replied softly. "If I wasn't an almost exact carbon copy of my grandmother, I might have thought I was adopted too. You don't talk much about your parents..."
Again, he was silent for just a breath or two too long and she knew she'd touched an exposed nerve. His response, however, was weirdly calm and polite considering its contents. "My dad left us when Will and I were about seven. He was Scottish, and we were living in Glasgow til then, but mum moved back down to Cambridge after that, and she never re-married."
Sam smiled. "Ahh, I was wondering where your slight accent was from..."
His brows twitched. "Huh? I have an accent?"
Up until that point, she had never been able to trace the extra tone to his voice. It was like a hidden note in a really good wine, or the extra depth to the sound of a Stradivarius violin. "As I said, it's really slight. It's just in the way you say certain things, certain vowel combinations, like 'ow' sounds." She wondered suddenly if he would mind her pointing it out, given what he’d just said about his father leaving.
She got her answer pretty quickly when he chuckled softly and said, "I can think of worse accents to have! I had no idea. I was born there, so it's hardly surprising. I thought I’d lost it by now."
After a heartbeat, she murmured, "Scotland is gorgeous,” running her finger distractedly along his jawline. “Just like you. Did you like Glasgow?"
He flushed attractively, modestly, and looked away for a second before answering her question. "Yeah, I did, but I used to love escaping the city and getting up into the wild Highlands though. That was my favourite thing about living there. I really missed that when we moved back with mum. Still do I guess. Not that living down here wasn't fun - we had a wonderful time. Mum never wanted to remarry after she came back, so it was just the three of us until six years ago."
"Is that when...?" she ran her palm over the belt of his jeans to finish her question.
He nodded. "Yeah. She was killed in the accident."
What do you say to that? she thought. You lost your mother and your legs in one go. "I'm sorry," she rasped, hoping silently that one day he would tell her a bit more about that pivotal moment in his life.
His bicep pulsed against her shoulder as he squeezed her briefly. "Thanks. It was rough - we were a close little trio. But I still have Will, and so much to be grateful for.” His voice became suddenly flat and detached as he said, “I'm not saying it isn't tough, and that I don't hate it. It is, and I do, but it could have been even worse, so... yeah..." he trailed off, his eyes once more on the skies above.
Lacking the art and tact that she wished she had, Sam ploughed on with all the grace of a lumbering rhino, and said, "It's nice that you two are both at Cambridge doing PhD's though. You're a pretty brainy pair..."
He barked a laugh and then said, "Yeah, it is. Will went to Oxford for his undergrad though, and I'm still not sure he wouldn’t rather be there for his PhD as well."
"You think he stayed here for you?" she asked quietly, shuffling a little as a stone began to make itself felt in the small of her back.
He moved his head in a kind of answering shrug, his great shoulder jostling her slightly. "I never could tell," he said eventually. "I made him go to Oxford rather than staying here and ‘nursing’ me in the first couple of years after my accident. He'd dreamed of going there for as long as I can remember, and I was damned if he was giving that up because of me.” Alex suddenly began opening up to her in a way she had never expected. Perhaps it was the vast blue sky above them and the expanse of the green fields around them. “When I left rehab we had a carer come to the flat during the mornings to help me with stuff and to make sure I was still functioning, but I managed ok on my own before the year was out. Term times are as short at Oxford as they are here - only eight weeks - so Will would only be away for a couple of months at a time anyway. It's funny, I used to be so protective of him - I was so much bigger and bulkier than him and he was just so weedy and pathetic! Now he's the one who's... well... 'protective' might actually be an understatement..." he laughed fondly.
"You still are bigger and bulkier than him," she smiled, reaching over his solid chest and digging her fingers into his right shoulder.
Alex gave an earthy groan of mingled pleasure and thanks, and then continued to reminisce with an odd look on his face that for some reason reminded Sam of figures in Victorian stained glass windows: calmly glowing, pale, and full of stories, if only you knew the frequency to tune your mind to. "He never stuck up for himself at school. It was always my job to come wading in to the rescue and hoik him out of trouble. I...” he huffed another laugh, “I used to think it was because of all those years of my rescuing him that he still feels the need to look after me now, but I can't really be sure." His voice trailed off into thoughtful silence, his eyes still on the clouds above as though trying to trace every outline before they all shifted.
Sam smiled, and eventually she dredged up the courage to voice the question she wanted to ask, "How... how does he look after you? I mean," she said in a tiny, timid voice, “What does he do?”
She felt his head move slightly, first towards her, and then away, as if in shame. "I don't need a carer now or anything," he muttered hastily into the grass by his right shoulder. "Just... sometimes I need a little bit of extra help. He does the little things that make my life ten times easier if there's someone else to do it for me or with me... stuff like doing my 'range of motion' exercises in the morning." He turned his head back to gauge her reaction. When she frowned in confusion, he elaborated, somewhat reluctantly, with a slight sigh in his answer. "My muscles aren't strong enough really to move my legs when I want them to -" he showed her, focussed his attention on lifting his left leg from the ground and it quivered, shuddered and hovered a few inches above the grass for maybe three or four seconds, before falling back down and lying as still and unfeeling as the wood of the bench nearby. He panted slightly from the effort for a moment. He continued with an explanation that felt so short and simplified that she was certain it came from his own CripNotes study-guide, specially tailored for Samantha Fey, but still, she couldn’t complain at his openness. "So in order to stop me seizing up or falling to bits completely, it helps my joints, muscles and circulation if I can make them move, bend, rotate… so he does it for me. It is possible for me to do it on my own, but it's just tricky and awkward -" he huffed a short laugh and said, "If you think about trying to bend and straighten your own leg with only your hands and ingenuity…"
"I see," she smiled, inexpressibly grateful that he was sharing all this with her. Her fingers moved a little on his chest, stroking his solid muscles in what she hoped was a gentle, affectionate and grateful gesture.
"So yeah, he does that kind of thing for me," he murmured, adding with a wry smile, his sense of humour shining through along with the blush, "Sometimes he’ll help me to my feet again if I fall over or whatever, but I try not to let that happen; a twenty-four year old toddler isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world to move..."
She smacked him lightly on the chest with the flat of her fingers and said nothing. She was still picturing herself lifting his legs and helping to move him. It was strangely intriguing, but she couldn't yet see herself doing it every day like Will did.
Alex was speaking again, his voice at a slightly higher pitch than usual. "Doesn't any of this freak you out?"
Sam looked up at him. "It's only natural that he should do stuff like that for you," she said.
"That wasn't what I meant," he said flatly, taking her hand from his chest and placing it pointedly right on his break, near his left hip.
"Oh." She let the coarse weave of the denim press into her palm. "Why should it? Everyone has routines; it’s just that yours is different. You're not a travelling horror show!"
His eyes clouded and he said, "Feels like it sometimes."
"I'm sure," she conceded.
He sighed deeply, her head rising and falling with the movement. His deep voice rumbled in his chest, "You're my miracle, you know that?"
She tightened her arm around him like a small serpent. She ached to tell him that he'd done for her what no one else ever had: he had slipped through her defences like a shadow and found himself in the citadel of her heart. Hardly the kind of thing she was going to tell her boyfriend in the first few stuttering weeks of their relationship though.
They lay breathing together in the grass, heartbeats almost matching, as the sun warmed their faces, until the stone in the small of Sam's back managed to make it too uncomfortable to stay still and she fidgeted herself free of Alex to search for the irritating little stone in the dry fronds of grass. She heard him laughing softly. "What?" she fired, pausing in her search to fix him with a look, which only made him laugh all the more.
"You're like a little hamster nestling down into its bed or something!"
"Well thanks," she huffed, pretending to be hurt. "Actually, I'm trying to get this rock out from under my backside so that I can lie in the arms of my man," she spoke in a falsely dreamy voice, fluttering her eyelashes at him. "Turns out he just thinks I'm a joke."
"Come here," he said, yanking her supporting arm from under her and sending her sprawling over his chest. "Didn't you hear me? You are my miracle, not my jester."
She cackled suddenly as he slid his hand down her back, sculpting with his palm along the outside of her sleeveless black vest, her skin slightly damp from the heat, and then, with a cheeky glance to make sure there was no one around, his steel fingers slithered down the back of her shorts and gripped her cheek. Just once. And then his hand had gone. In return, she turned his face away from hers slightly, exposing his chiselled left cheek and planted an adoring kiss right on the crinkle by his lips that was almost a dimple, but not quite. She heard the breath go out of him and it only added fuel to her inner furnace. She wriggled up his body and planted another kiss right on the junction of his jaw line and neck, relishing the low rumble that came from somewhere inside him afterwards as she slid back down to place her head on his shoulder again, draping her hand back on his stomach, under his t-shirt this time.
"Mmm, Sam, you keep doing that -" he began as she lowered her palm in an appreciative sweep down his torso and towards that mysteriously intoxicating line, "- and you're going to cause trouble."
"Trouble? Me?" she whispered, her lips brushing against his earlobe. As they did he let out another grunt of pleasure.
"Not here," he croaked. "I need my legs to get me home again," he said. "And it's a long way back."
Sam withdrew her hand, contrite, and said, "I'm sorry."
He laughed, catching her hand in his like a butterfly in a net as it hovered awkwardly, embarrassed and chagrined. "It's actually a good thing that my, um, reactions, are a little slower than they used to be, or you'd really be in trouble. Or I would..." The ghost of a frown flashed over her brows, which only made him laugh like a schoolboy. "Little Alex isn't quite as quick off the mark as he used to be," he finally explained.
She felt the heat of a blush fill her cheeks. "Oh. God, I can be so dense sometimes..."
He smiled. "Crip mechanics," he reminded her, placing her hand back just above his break and clamping it to him as though it might just flutter away. "It's one of those things that - post accident - is... um... rather different."
"You know, eventually, we will have to talk about some of that," she said quietly. "Otherwise I'll just keep putting my foot in my mouth, and making it awkward for both of us."
A sigh heralded his next sentence, "I know," he said. "That just now... it was only a taste of things to come... you know. Sex with a para is never going to be spontaneous. Nothing we do ever is."
Her mind cartwheeled in place for a moment like a midsummer gnat suspended in its crazy dance, never breaking free to move forward through the air. She was certainly pleased that he was thinking along those lines as well, but there was no way she was ready for anything that intimate. She thought sadly that she still jumped in surprise at his touch on her neck at times. "We'll come to that one when we come to it, if you follow," she said, nuzzling her cheek into the safety of the dip at his shoulder. "I'm not sure I'm ready to start thinking about going that far yet either. It's been a long time since I've wanted to share that much of myself with anyone; the last time I thought I was, I ended up in hospital for two weeks..."
"You what? Hospital?" he whispered, not understanding at all.
She breathed his scent in, drawing on it like it was a fuel for her strength. "Now's as good a time as any to tell you I suppose," she said.
He held up a hand with a gesture that spoke volumes about his understanding. "Only if you're ready," he reassured her. "I didn't mean to push you."
"I don't think I'll ever be ready, as such, but you probably should know the answer to why I react instinctively to things the way I do... You’ve probably noticed…”
He drew his chin down in ascent, closing his eyes once slowly before opening them again. She stared into their depths, knowing that once she got going, she wouldn’t be able to look at them until she’d reached the end of her memories. Going back to that story felt like bolting through a dungeon: if she let herself get snagged by the grabbing hands of the inmates, the memories, it’d feel like she’d never get out. She blew the air from her cheeks, pretending to herself that she had more bravado than she did, she said, “Before I start though, I'm not telling you this with the expectation of quid-pro-quo.” Peeking up at his calm, concerned face, she saw he had begun to smile. "I don't expect a horror story in return..."
Alex grinned his thanks and understanding, shuffled his shoulders slightly to get more comfortable, gave her hand a quick squeeze, and then fell quiet and still again as she began.
"The only people who really know what happened are my parents and Dan; Dan was the one who came for me after it happened.” Panic flared in her drumming heartbeat as she stood before her internal dungeon door, key in hand. Mentally, she raised that key – a big, heavy, solid iron one, like a prop from an Indiana Jones movie – turned it, and pushed the door gingerly open, staring into the void. “I was seventeen, just, and there was a guy in the year above me at school, top year, who everyone wanted to notice them. You know the type… He was captain of the rugby team - a huge bruiser of a guy, cool, good looking, funny, tough... the kind of guy who walks into a room accompanied by the sound of a thousand ovaries exploding, if you know what I mean..."
She ploughed on again, past the first few cages of her dungeon. "For some reason, he started to show some interest in me. I wasn't the butch tough-girl I pretend to be now - I was a real wallflower: thin, willowy, spotty, bookish, keen in lessons... all that was missing were the glasses and braces to complete the stereotype..." He gave her an affectionate little hug with one arm but allowed her to continue without interruption. "Clearly I was not his usual type. So when he started dancing with me at this school-organised Halloween dance, I was, shall we say, astonished. He got my number out of me in a twinkling - my first mistake - and I eventually worked up the courage and agreed to meet up with him after school one Friday. We went to the cinema, it was all very normal, and quite fun. He seemed surprisingly nice for someone so popular, and I found myself beginning to like him even more. I know now that it was probably awe rather than affection on my part. Anyway, to make a long story a little bit shorter, we started going out, much to everyone's annoyance or amusement.” She nibbled her thumbnail absentmindedly as the knotting tension built in her stomach. “Over the next couple of months, he pushed me quicker than I was ready for through all the rites of passage which most girls had already been through by that age, but I was too quiet and shy to tell him to slow down. I thought I was the one who was behind, needing to be ‘educated’. He... um…” her thumbnail began to take a heavier battering as she started to ‘run’ through that imaginary corridor of dungeon cells and reaching hands. “One night in early December, he got me very drunk on all sorts of stuff round at his house, and essentially bullied and shamed me into taking him in my mouth. I hated it. I was too drunk, I didn't know what I was doing, and actually, I ended up being sick. That was the beginning of things going wrong, and the point at which I definitely should have bailed."
Alex looked horrified, but she guessed it wasn't because she'd been sick trying to go down on her boyfriend... His eyes were gentle and dark, encouraging her to go on by telling her, silently, that he was not judging her for letting herself be pushed.
"He was so angry. Called me all kinds of disgusting names, made me clean up, and then he stormed out. His parents were away and I have no idea where he went. I just walked home alone and drunk. Sobered up pretty quickly though..."
The pain in Alex's face was bringing it all back to her in a sharper way than it had ever come back before. She didn't know if she could go on. Salt tears prickled the corners of her eyes and she gripped his shoulder with her bird-like fingers. Alex planted a kiss gently on her forehead, and it was like the rich, single chime of a church bell in a storm. It made the maelstrom of feelings quieten a little, and she took a moment of silence that felt much longer than it actually was.
Cranking her vocal cords back into life, she picked up her dash through the dungeon. "I've never been that drunk again. As I said, that was the start things getting difficult. He'd get really angry at me, losing his temper a lot and occasionally hurling things at me, but only ever in private, when we weren't around his friends, or mine. I found I had to be careful about what I said, what tone of voice I used, and how I did things. He didn't like me being with Dan at all, but he was my best friend and I was just torn - it was all awful." She sighed but didn’t allow herself to stop for long, afraid she’d never start up again. "My parents noticed how quiet I was getting, just disappearing inside myself. They thought it was stress at school or something. Things came to a kind of head at a New Year Ball at school.” Her thumbnail was now significantly shorter than it had been a few minutes earlier. “The dance was joint with another local school, and it was supposed to be for the Upper Sixth only. He was in top year, but I wasn't, but he managed to get me a ticket as I was his girlfriend, and I was told to go,” she said with the kind of disgust that only comes with hindsight. “I can't believe I went. I hate dances, and I didn't know anybody at all. We'd been dancing - well, I'd been standing there and he'd had his hands all over me - it was totally inappropriate - and suddenly he’d leaned forward and hissed in my ear, 'You could at least look like you're fucking enjoying yourself.' He got off on treating me like a puppet. I excused myself and headed to the bathrooms, and made my dad come and pick me up and take me home with some lie about not feeling well. I got a text from him when my dad was driving me home saying something like 'slinking off like a nun, you cold bitch'. He wasn't exactly eloquent."
Alex's lopsided snarl flared bitterly, his fingers tightening around her for an instant, protectively. It gave her the glow she needed to blunder on for the other end of her corridor of caged memories.
"So a few nights later, he called by the house and charmed my mother into letting me go for a late night walk with him. I told her I was tired, that I didn't want to go, that I'd see him at school the next day... any excuse I could think of. She still feels terrible about the way she practically bundled me out the front door into his arms, and that he'd got her completely fooled with his whole 'Good evening, Mrs. Fey,' act... Anyway, we'd walked for maybe half an hour, down along these really dark lanes with hardly any street lamps, when he started to peck at my neck and grab at my top. I'd never been comfortable with him doing that, but there was something different about him that evening; an extra kind of fervour that really frightened me. I had no strength whatsoever then and I couldn't push him off me, and he seemed both to love and to hate me trying to fight him. 'What's wrong with you?' he’d snarled.” She braced herself mentally. “Then his anger just blossomed out almost out of nowhere and he lost it. Dealt me this vicious backhand across the cheek.” She screwed her eyes shut as the shockwaves of that first, vision-shattering blow echoed across her mind, as fresh as though it’d happened only a few moments ago. “'You're so fucking cold all the time!' he’d bellowed. I can still see that face in the half light from the single street lamp.” She didn’t add that she still saw it regularly in her dreams, even four years later. Sam’s tone quavered as she spoke his next words in her own voice, “'You're supposed to be my fucking girlfriend! You're supposed to let me touch you.' I was terrified. I think I knew what was coming before he had even put his ice cold fingers around my throat." At the memory of that awful vice around her neck, Sam seemed to leave her mental first-hand replay of those memories, and, Inception-style, float up to watch herself reliving it. Even her voice sounded distant to her ears as she lay in the summer sun in Alex's arms. "He rammed me back into the metal railings of a car scrapyard. His breath was hot in my face and I could see nothing but his narrow, angry eyes. They were a kind of mucky brown colour. I was squirming and begging and crying, which only made it worse because I was as fragile as a little piece of straw in his hands and his anger was just growing. He was hard too - I could feel him as he pushed my body against that wall with the hard railings. My knees buckled, and I bashed my head on a jagged bit of metal, which stunned me. I was lucky not to lose too much blood from the cut."
Alex was hardly breathing. His face was white, tense, his features set in a deep anger that was not, Sam knew, directed at her. She sheltered herself in that kind of protective rage as she reached the apex of her story.
"Somehow we ended up on a concrete slope which led into the yard. There was a smell of old petrol and oil in my nose and his hands were still on my throat. Then he ripped my tights down and I've never tried so hard to wriggle free of anything in my life, but he was just too enormously strong. He punched me square on the cheekbone to shut me up - I had a black eye for weeks - and he snarled something along the lines of, ‘Hold still. I’ve spent three months with you and all I keep hearing is the word 'no'. You know what? I'm going to fuck you, and I'm going to make you a woman.' I don’t think I've ever said the word ‘please’ so many times.” She needed a minute or two to force her mind back to the present before she could speak again. She lay breathing into Alex's chest. He said nothing. He knew there was nothing he could say, so he didn't waste his words. "In my panic, I kneed him where it hurt, not hard enough, clearly, because he hit me and hit me until eventually I couldn't even see those eyes of his any more. The punches hurt, but nothing could compare with what he did next. I was a virgin, and he was so rough."
"Oh Sam," he breathed, the first time that Alex had spoken during her story. "My brave Sam." And he suddenly clutched her to him, cradling her head in his big, tough, gentle hands, stroking her hair as the tears suddenly welled from her in an unexpected gush.
His shirt was damp by the time she managed to get herself together. "Sorry," she mumbled. "I didn't think I would cry about it now... Urgh, I'm a mess..." she swiped the mascara splodges from under her eyes and looked up gingerly with a watery smile on her lips. "How's my panda face?"
"Beautiful," he said, catching the last tear as it squeezed from her lashes and hurried away down her cheek.
She sighed, determined to finish her story now; the door at the other end of the dungeon was open and she could see it. "Well, he was so angry, but when he'd finished with me, he panicked. He shouted at me and blamed me for it, telling me that it was my fault, that I'd driven him to it, that I shouldn't have been so cold, I should have been a better girlfriend... I believed him for a long time afterwards too. Then I must have passed out. I woke up later – I think it was only about twenty minutes - alone, bleeding, and in so much pain... I was in shock, and I didn't know what to do, and when I eventually let myself cry, I'd spent so long holding it in that it sounded to me like it came from someone else. I don't really remember ringing Dan, or what I said, or how I sounded. I just remember him getting there a few minutes after the police and ambulance - he must have called them, because I don’t think I did. He barged through three police officers and a paramedic crew to get to me. Held my hand. I couldn't speak. They let him come with me in the ambulance. I couldn't have done it without him." She ran the flat of her hand over the smooth contours of Alex's chest without really seeing them. "They kept me in for three weeks - I was so bruised and battered, and my head had taken a good knock when he'd flung me down on the concrete ramp. Took me a pretty long time to get back into to school and face all the staring and whispering, and even longer to go out at night. He didn't come back to school though, so I didn't have to worry about that. He went to prison. He got out last year. That was a horrible time - I'd be lying if I said I hadn't spent months waiting for him to turn up and do it all again."
"I can't imagine what that must have been like. Any of it," he said. The willow behind them whispered in a slight breath of wind and Sam shivered despite the warmth of the sun.
She breathed Alex's scent in again and said, trying to be cheerful again, "Well, that wasn't one of the things I thought we'd be talking about today!"
He smiled softly. "Where better than under a bright sky in a wide open meadow though?"
She had to admire his tact. "True. Now you know why I flinch sometimes when you put your hands on my neck."
"I'll won't touch you there again if you would prefer," he said, his hand occupied in stroking her hair.
She shook her head. "No, I'm not afraid of you, or your touch. It still just makes me jump sometimes. I'm sure it'll pass though."
Alex's left leg gave a single, tiny jerk and he winced.
"You want to head back?" she asked, putting her left hand down to his thigh. The fabric of his jeans was warm from the sun, and the muscle beneath had fallen numbly, innocently, quiet again.
His sigh melted into the breeze.
It was so sad that Sam was deeply moved. "What is it?" she asked.
His dark eyes were kind when they met hers, but he didn’t smile. "Don't worry," he muttered. "Yes, let's get going. Help me up?" he asked automatically, before he seemed to realise that he had even asked her.
"Sure, what can I do?"
Alex suddenly seemed to recall who she was, and what he'd just asked, and his cheeks flushed for a minute. "Um, could you just grab my crutches while I heave myself up onto this bench...?" he said quickly, his voice full of gruff embarrassment. He sat up once she'd peeled herself from his gorgeous chest, and he shunted his body backwards on his hands, sliding his backside over the short grassy distance to the bench with his legs stretched out straight in the braces. They were still unlocked from when he’d released them earlier after completing this process the other way round. Then, with his back against the edge of the bench seat, he used his arms to push himself upwards as quickly as he could onto the wooden slats of the bench. The effort of hauling himself up off the ground like that seemed to take the breath from him for a few seconds, and he took a moment to recover. Sam was standing nearby, carrying his crutches, holding them just below the black cork grips and when he didn't reach to take them from her immediately, she sank onto the bench beside him and fixed her gaze on his face. "Thank you," she said softly, which made his face crinkle in confusion.
"What for?" he asked, opening his dark eyes and blinking in the sunlight flashing between the willow leaves.
She felt her chest collapse slightly and she laughed, "How can you not know what I'm thanking you for? You of all people?!" He wore an expression which told her that he thought he knew, but didn't want to voice it. She rolled her eyes, afraid she was going to sound melodramatic. "For just listening to me talk to you about hard stuff..." she muttered, feeling suddenly like a small child.
A chuckle rolled freely from his parted lips and she turned her eyes back to his face. Her heartbeat lurched as she saw the attractive way the scar tugged quietly but insistently on his eyelid when he smiled. Recalling her first thoughts about a Napoleonic first lieutenant in the University Library cafe, she grinned, leaned forward and kissed him, pressing, almost crushing, her lips against his, her right hand clutching his solid shoulder.
In the heartbeat between their kisses she heard him breath her name. "Sam," he gasped, the word barely audible above the hissing willows and murmuring river.