“I made a huge mistake.”
Charlie’s eyes are unnaturally large in the dim light from the lamp on my bedside table. My roommate is blinking at me with startled confusion written over his face, his hair mussed and his cheeks swollen from sleep. “Whatppnd?!”
“I made a huge mistake, Charlie,” I repeat and plop down on the edge of his mattress. Charlie’s limp body is catapulted into the air by my sudden and substantial weight on the other side and if I were in a different situation I guess it would be funny.
Charlie scrambles back against the headboard, taking the blanket with him, as I scoot back in his bed to lean against the cold wall, wrapped in my own blanket. “Hmmmh?”
“I’m so stupid.”
Charlie groans and closes his eyes, letting his head fall back. “I agree with you on that,” he mumbles and pushes his hands through his hair, making an even greater mess out of it. “D’you know what time it is, crazy?”
I actually don’t. I slept fitfully, because of too much food and too much alcohol I assume, and then, all of a sudden, I woke and felt the urge to talk to someone. Since Charlie’s bed is only a few feet away from mine, the choice was rather obvious.
I draw my legs up some and place my arms around my knees over the blanket. The cold air on my bare skin lets me shiver slightly. “He tried to kiss me,” I say. “He most definitely wanted to kiss me but I didn’t because of You-Know-Who and that’s why I blew it and fucked it all up and now I don’t know what to do.”
“Woah…” Charlie rubs his eyes and pulls the blanket even higher under his chin. “Slow down there. Who tried to kiss you? And what’s Voldemort got to do with it?”
“Vol-?” I roll my eyes. “Charlie, please, I need your brain on this. Or what’s left of it.”
Charlie yawns and snorts. “I’m trying, I swear. But you aren’t exactly making sense during the day. It’s not better in the middle of the night.”
I elbow his thigh through the covers and chuckle a bit. “I know you’re decently intelligent when you want to be, so concentrate, alright?”
“Uh huh…” Charlie nods and blinks dutifully at me. Bless him.
“Okay. So you remember yesterday? The Christmas Banquet?”
Charlie nods again, his eyes still mostly blank. Geez, how much drugs did he do?
“And you remember the guy I sat with? Alexander?”
After a few seconds, Charlie’s face lights up suddenly. “Ah, the Earl’s son, isn’t he?” His expression grows dreamy.
Great. Well, at least he remembers. “Yeah, that one.” And now I know Alexander’s father is an earl. Good to know. Or not. Who says I’m ever going to need etiquettes again? Also, what does that make Alexander?
“And… Oh! He tried to kiss you?”
“But you didn’t kiss him back?”
I blush and stare across the room, to my vacant bed with the rumpled-up sheets. “I might have said something along the lines of: Let’s see if there’s more food somewhere to soak up the alcohol. And then I leaned away before his lips could touch mine.” I don’t go into detail about how Alexander couldn’t catch himself with his bad hand on the back of the couch, and almost toppled on top of me.
“Oops. So…” Charlie weighs his head. “What then?”
“He wasn’t rude or angry or anything. We just acted as if nothing had happened. He showed me the kitchens and we got some leftovers from the cake buffet and the midnight soup, which was fucking delicious, especially the-“
“Uh… Well.” I try to push back the image of amazing treats and the taste of creamy cake in my mouth. “And then we bid goodbye and he asked me if we should take a taxi together but I said I’d rather take my bicycle, kind of nodded at him and that’s it.”
“Yep. I’m so, so stupid!” I cover my face with my hands.
Charlie shakes his head. “Just to get this straight: You want him to kiss you?”
“I…” I groan. “Yes? No. I want him to kiss me. Eventually. But not right now. I’m not sure I’m ready for that whole relationship thing, after Mister Fucking Largest Asshole In the World.”
Charlie nods his head slowly, his eyes soft. “I see.”
“So now Alexander is going to think that I hate him and that I don’t want to kiss him because of… You know what.”
“Uh nuh, wait… Because of what?” Charlie is watching me confused from under his tousled-up bangs.
“His disability, Charlie. That.”
“Ah…” Charlie doesn’t look like he remembers. He has probably only Alexander’s ass in front of his inner eyes.
“Yes. And I don’t even know his phone number and I’m pretty certain he doesn’t live in the castle. He probably hates me now, so he won’t come to my concert for sure. Even if I knew where he lived… I can’t walk up to some kind of fancy estate, simply knock at the door and ask the butler to see the Earl-to-be or whatever he’s called, can I?”
“Hmm…” Charlie has slipped down a bit, his head almost touching the pillow, his eyelids lowering.
“They’ll probably throw me into the moat. Or call the cops. Or whatever. How do I ever explain this to him?”
“I dunno…” Charlie drawls. He’s got his eyes closed by now, awkwardly slumped against the headboard. “Sounds like you’re fucked. I’m wondering…”
I lean forward when Charlie doesn’t go on. “You’re wondering what?”
“Do they really still do moats?” Charlie drawls. Then his breathing evens out.
Suddenly, I feel heavy and drowsy myself. I lay down as well, taking up most of the space in Charlie’s bed and fall asleep wrapped in my blanket, convinced that yes, I’m absolutely and truly fucked.
There’s a penetrant ringing waking me the next morning, and something solid knocking repeatedly into my side.
“Get off me!”
It’s Charlie, and he’s pounding my ribs with his fists, which I only feel dimly, while I’m more or less lying on top of him.
I sit up, blinking into the morning light. I still have no idea what time it is but I have the feeling it’s about 9 or 10 am, judging by the brightness outside and the quiet in the corridors. It’s a typical Saturday in the dorms, no one is awake, yet. Except for me, and Charlie, who’s still currently halfway buried under me, and-
“Fucking get the door, I wanna sleep,” Charlie mumbles, manages to escape from me and retreats with his blanket into the corner of the bed that I’m not occupying.
Right. The ringing is our door bell. No one ever uses it so I’m not familiar with the sound.
“Coming,” I slur and mutter swears as I extricate myself from the rest of the blanket and stumble toward the door.
A mildly surprised Alexander greets me as I wrench the door open and almost sail into his arms. He’s starting to grin as he takes my appearance in. “Slept well?”
“I did,” I grumble, covering up my own surprise with brusqueness. “Until this very annoying person rang the bell.”
It’s him. Here in the University’s dorms. Outside my door.
Alexander’s grin widens. “I have bred rolls,” he says and lifts his right arm, which makes him sway slightly and necessitates a limping step to the side. Sure as hell there’s a paper bag in his hand, from which a delicious smell of fresh bread is emanating. My traitorous stomach rumbles audibly.
“Do you know what time it is?” I ask him sharply, still trying to wrap my head around the fact that he is right here. I have absolutely no idea how to handle that.
Alexander shrugs. “Time to get up and seize the day, starting with a delicious breakfast?”
I sigh and look from him to the bag, my cheeks heating a bit. “What do you think we’re doing now?” I whisper what comes into my mind. There’s no filter in the mornings.
From behind me a tired voice yells: “Get outside and fucking talk to each other.” Charlie. “But if you aren’t in the mood, Emma, I’d definitely take you up on the offer of breakfast, Alexander.”
Well, I can’t have that. I snatch my coat from the wall next to the door, slip into my waiting trainers with bare feet and usher Alexander backward until I can close the door behind myself.
“Alright,” I groan. “Breakfast.”
Alexander chuckles and looks down at my legs. “In pajamas, huh?”
I look down myself as well and then up again, straightening my back. “You’ve got a problem with that?”
Alexander tries his best to hide his amusement. “No. Not at all.”
I walk past him and down the large corridor. “There’s a café on the street across from here.”
“Um okay…” Alexander follows slower, the paper bag crinkling against a black cane that he’s holding with the same hand. It issues small thumps when he sets the rubber tip down on the stone ground every second step. “It has been snowing during the night,” Alexander offers as an explanation when he catches my gaze directed at his mobility aide.
“Uh huh.” I nod. I assume he needs the cane for balance when it’s slippery.
It’s fucking cold outside and just as Alexander has informed me, there’s a thick layer of snow on the walkways and streets. Alexander is moving even slower now, setting his feet and his cane carefully, as if he’s walking on egg shells. Both of his knees are slightly bent and almost knocking into each other.
“Here, come on,” I mumble when my thin pajama pants seem to start freezing to my equally ice cold skin underneath and I realize it will take forever to reach the café at the corner like this. I snatch the bag with the bread rolls from Alexander’s grip around the cane’s head and slip my arm under his left without warning.
Alexander stiffens but he doesn’t object.
“I’m not going to break from your weight, believe me,” I joke without laughing.
“Didn’t think you would,” Alexander says and we resume walking down the street, slightly faster now. With every step Alexander seems to trust me a bit more, leaning over to me as he moves his right leg forward mostly from his upper body. His left boot leaves long traces in the snow where he drags it over the ground and his left arm feels stiff as a board against my side.
We only part once we’ve crossed the threshold of the café and stand on the carpet in the warm breeze of the small, familiar room. Alexander stops, tucks his cane under his elbow and takes his foggy glasses off for a moment.
“Good morning, Emma!” The barista waves at me from behind the counter and eyes Alexander curiously. I come here often and I know that we’ll be able to eat our bread rolls here, provided we order some coffee. “That’s an early visit today.” He winks.
I shrug. “Hi, Kent.”
Indeed the café is mostly deserted, there’s only a middle-aged guy with a newspaper in one corner. I guess the hordes of caffeine-craving students stumble in much later.
Once we’ve given our orders at the counter and are situated in comfortable armchairs waiting for the hot drinks to arrive, there’s a tiny second of awkwardness. Why are we here, indeed?
Alexander clears his throat and fixates me with his eyes. “So, because of yesterday…” he starts.
“I’m sorry,” I blurt out at the same time.
We both stop and I let out a nervous giggle.
“That was my part,” Alexander says mildly and pushes with his good hand through his hair.
“Was it?” I ask surprised.
Alexander leans back against the leather bench. His left arm was hidden under the table but now it’s snapping to his chest, the fist clenched tightly. “I may have been a bit overeager, yesterday,” he admits. “You’ve been telling me about a recent bad experience with a guy and all I do is try to kiss you. That’s been rather insensible of me.”
I don’t say anything because there’s nothing to add.
“I want to apologize for that,” Alexander offers. Then he suddenly grimaces and covers his left fist with his right hand. I wonder if it’s hurting. “I’m sorry, really. I know alcohol isn’t an excuse but-”
“I want to apologize for leaving without an explanation,” I interrupt him, weaving the fingers of my hands together under the table. “I was… I guess it was all a bit much. And yep, the Whiskey sure had something going.”
Alexander chuckles gratefully.
Our drinks arrive and we sip from the porcelain cups. Alexander opens the bag he’s brought and places one bread roll after the other on the plate that Kent provided for us. They look amazingly fresh and crisp and smell like heaven.
“So we’re good?”
Alexander chuckles. “Are we good?”
I take one of the bread rolls, take a huge bite and close my eyes to savior the taste. When I open them again, I look into Alexander’s face and see the carefully concealed anxiety behind his teasing grin. “Yup,” I say. “We’re good. Only…” I shrug. “I’d like to take it slow. If that’s okay.”
Alexander nods hesitantly like he’s accepting a long negotiated contract. “I understand that.”
“I want to get to know you first before needing you aunt’s blessing or something… Alright?”
“Of course,” Alexander says and submerges a bread roll in his coffee. Brown liquid swaps over the sides and he cleans his fingers on a napkin. “Promise I won’t make a proposal today. Or tomorrow.”
I groan and he chuckles, but then his expression becomes serious again. “So… You start.”
“What?” I’m on my second bread roll.
“Getting to know someone involves asking questions. You get to ask the first one.” He grins. “If you’d like.”
I roll my eyes. “You’re eager to get this part behind you, aren’t you?”
Alexander smiles. “Who can blame me?”
I blush and hide it behind a bread roll. It’s too early in the day for games like that. But I think I owe him that much. “Okay… um…” I watch him fish out his soaked bread roll. He leans forward over the table to eat it without making too much of a mess and his left arm jerks and knocks against the table, his fingers twitching.
“How can you know you’re left handed?” I blurt out before I can stop myself. Yes, excellent, Emma. Bring up the most insensitive, insulting question you can think of. Only, it’s something that’s been stuck in the back of my mind for some time now.
Alexander, to my surprise, laughs. “Actually no one has ever had the guts to ask that.” He grins. Then his eyes avoid mine and he cleans his fingers again and cradles his left arm in his right, subconsciously as if he isn’t aware of the act while he goes on. “My upper extremities aren’t affected by CP as much as my legs, and that goes for both my arms and hands. When I was younger they were both pretty fine. Then, when I was nine, I was in a car accident that caused extensive nerve damage in my left arm.”
For a moment Alexander’s calm attitude cracks but he forces control over himself almost immediately. I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t watched him so closely.
“That’s how I know that I’m actually left handed, because until then I had been. After the accident I had to relearn to do everything with my right hand. Not so successfully, as you may have noticed.”
He gives another laugh, but this time it’s less convincing.
“Thanks for explaining,” I say. I feel like I narrowly botched a catastrophe so I try to keep my face neutral and my mouth shut for once.
“Okay, it’s my turn.” Alexander looks as glad as I feel to be able to steer the conversation somewhere else. “How do you take revenge on someone who’s mistreated you online?” His eyes are distant and narrowed.
I grin and lean back. “Oh… Interesting. So I guess your date from yesterday hasn’t called in yet?”
Alexander shakes his head. “She has,” he says. “To say she’s sorry she couldn’t make it, again, and try to rope me in with some made-up nonsense. I’m not even sure by now she’s actually living anywhere close, maybe not even on this continent.”
“Well…” I muse, “What about trying to find out which town she really lives in, and then telling her you’re coming for a visit?” I’m not dreaming of ever seeing, or even interacting, with Mister Fucking Largest Asshole In the World ever again, but it gives me a certain kind of pleasure to take revenge on him by getting back to another dishonest ass out there. “Charlie knows how to do stuff with the computer that shouldn’t be possible. And probably isn’t legal, by the way.”
Alexander’s face lights up as he grins. “Sounds intriguing. Tell me more.”
From there we’re talking about everything and nothing while finishing the bread rolls and our coffee, the conversation flowing easily and comfortably. I’m telling Alexander about Charlie, what it is like to share a room in the dorms, about my studies and he tells me about EJ, as well as his father and his sister, who he seems to be very fond of despite constantly complaining about them.
After a while I tilt my head, wondering if I’m granted another inquisitive question. Alexander’s eyes sparkle behind his glasses and he nods slightly.
“What instrument did you learn as a kid?” I have a distinct feeling I may have been wrong with my previous assumption.
Alexander grins to himself and looks at me over his glasses as if he’s preparing for a really good joke. “Piano.”
“Shit.” I don’t need to look at his left arm to know that he isn’t playing anymore. Only a musician can know how hard that loss is and I clench my hands under the table, trying not to think of losing the ability to play the flute. I’m not usually showing myself very invested with my own music but if I’m being honest it’s my world. Mostly. That and food.
Alexander shrugs, sensing my shock. “I wasn’t very much into it and I wasn't a prodigy like my sister, anyway.”
“You could still learn the trumpet?” I supply, half joking.
Of course he did. And he’s probably a damn good trumpeter, too. “I’m sorry, though,” I say meekly. “Must’ve been shit.”
Alexander nods slowly, his eyes meeting mine. “Yeah… yeah, it was.”
Alexander startles a bit as Kent comes over to collect our empty cups and the plate. We both forgot about time.
Alexander slips his phone out of his pocket. “I have an appointment with EJ in thirty minutes.” He blinks at me, probably as surprised as I that it’s already this late. “I’m really sorry.”
“Oh don’t be,” I say forcefully cheerful, trying not to let on how much I’d love to continue this. I feel like I could talk to Alexander forever. “There’s surely no time to waste after the Whiskey bottles have ripened for hundred years.”
“Whiskey really doesn’t -” Alexander stops himself and sighs. He’s visibly disappointed that he can’t lecture me now because time’s running short. “Ah, I’m going to tell you that next time.”
I smile when the last words register in my brain. “I’m certainly looking forward to that,” I mumble, faking annoyance while I try to get over the fact that there will be a next time. Somehow I hadn’t actually had any hopes that I would make it to another… not-date? Anyway, I can barely refrain from beaming at him like an idiot. Instead I pick at some of the bread crumbs that are left over on our table.
The table screeches as Alexander uses it to push upright and jostles me out of my thoughts.
“Are you coming, too?” He’s already changed into his coat and wrestled his left arm into the sleeve. He picks up the cane that was leaned against the side of the armchair.
I nod, still strangely flustered, and take my coat to follow him outside.
We walk even slower this time, although Alexander is again leaning on me and his cane, but we both seem to be reluctant to part. Alexander’s upper body sways from one side to the other gently, and I get a bit lost in the rhythm.
“My father is going to want to meet you after the concert,” Alexander says, slightly breathless, and stops walking for a few seconds before continuing. The trek through the snow is much more taxing on him than on me. His limp has grown more pronounced with every minute, his left leg drags more and the stomp of the cane is bordering on desperate.
I groan. “Do I have to?” I shudder, thinking about everything that will be expected of me in order to meet the Earl. Proper clothes. And manners. Just to name a few. I suddenly realize that this is going to be quite a challenge if I’m to spent more time with Alexander.
To my surprise, I feel up to taking that challenge.
Alexander smiles. “After he’s heard you play I’m sure he can’t be persuaded otherwise.”
I sigh. “You still haven’t heard me play, so how would you know? Maybe I’m dreadful.”
“Nothing you do could be dreadful,” Alexander says quietly.
That surely isn’t something anyone has ever said to me. I’m so distracted I almost stumble over my own feet and for a moment I’m only holding myself up because I’m clinging to Alexander’s sleeve. He sways a bit and rams the cane in the ground between us but he manages to keep himself on his feet.
“Sorry,” I apologize sheepishly and pull him along so that he won’t see my still burning face.
It’s surprising even to myself how fast I’m falling for this guy. After my recent experience I didn’t think this could happen. I really want to listen to Alexander talk lovingly about his mess of a family, or about his silly passion of trading Whiskey, or just watch him walk in his own, fascinating way, his balance always precarious but his entire posture so naturally confident that no one dares to question him. Right now I really don’t want more from him than that and that he accepted it, respectfully, tells me much more of him than he could ever convey with words.
For a while we don’t talk, there’s only the sound of our breathing, Alexander’s a bit quicker even than mine. The street is deserted, no one dares to drive in this weather until the streets are cleared.
“I know that Whiskey doesn’t ripen in bottles,” I say eventually, before the silence gets too thick.
Alexander chuckles. “Indeed?”
“I read the Wikipedia article about Whiskey yesterday, I think,” I mumble. I remember bits and pieces of it, more the longer I muse about it.
“That’s a start. But I’ll lead you much further than that.” Alexander winks at me from the side.
I groan theatrically.
Alexander stops walking and turns around to me. I let go of his left arm and he tucks his cane under his right elbow. “I can’t wait to see you again,” Alexander says and takes my hand that’s been supporting him. He blows on my half-frozen fingers to warm them up. “Until then, Emma.”
I didn’t realize we’ve arrived in front of the entrance to the dorms.
“Uh… yup. Can’t wait either,” I say lamely. “Really though.”
Alexander’s lips ghost over my fingers and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be ridiculous but somehow it isn’t. I can feel the warmth spreading up through my entire arm and I smile without having to force it.
Maybe it won’t take just so very long until I want more from him.
Alexander smiles back at me and then leans on his cane again and turns to go. He’s barely done more than a few slow, careful steps in the snow, his legs stiff, his right leg bent considerably and the left foot digging lines into the snow, when I call him back.
“I’ve got one last question.”
Alexander turns around again, his right hand tightly squeezing the cane’s head, his breath forming clouds in front of his face. “Okay. Go on then.” There’s a slight hesitation in his voice as if he’s already regretting he granted me permission.
I tuck my hands into the pockets of my coat, the right tingling from the cold and the kiss, and it makes me think I never want it to stop. “Do you still do moats?”