Mandy Hope threw the last of her bags in to the boot and sighed, leaning against the bumper and wiping her forehead with the back of her hand.
“That everything?” Her best friend James had seated himself on the rim of the boot and was watching her with an amused expression on his face. She gave him a sharp look in response.
“You could have helped, you know,” she frowned and pouted at him, but the effect was short lived; he’d known her long enough to see her through her fake annoyance. They broke in to giggles and she flopped down next to him.
“It’s so much more fun to watch you struggle,” he said when they’d regained composure, bumping her gently on the shoulder, “Besides, I had to pack up all the camping equipment myself this morning. Where were you then?”
They sat in companionable silence for a moment, each staring out down the empty road. The sun had barely risen, although it was nearly seven in the morning, and for a moment Mandy amused herself by watching her breath condense in strange shapes in front of her. ‘Camping equipment’ was an over statement- they were heading for a cottage in Scotland- but James liked to prepare for every eventuality. Somewhere buried under their duvets and bags would be an assortment of cooking equipment, utensils, spare batteries and gas lamps; thinking of the photos she’d seen of their upcoming accommodation, Mandy was pretty sure that they would eventually need it all.
Although James had happily agreed, the trip had been her idea; a road trip up to the Loch Lomond where, she’d been reliably informed on a student Facebook group, there was a prime spot for some of the bird species she’d been hoping to write her dissertation on. Having finished a year out of university after her second year to work in her parent’s veterinary practice she was ready to delve back in to her wildlife conservationism degree. Thankfully, her and James’ schedules had aligned and he had jumped at the chance to join her.
The stillness of the street was broken by the jangle of the Hope’s front door and out stepped Mrs Hope.
“All ready to go?” She sauntered down the path and leant over to give the pair of them a kiss on their cheeks. She handed them each a flask, which they took gratefully. “Coffee for the drive. Google tells me it should take a little over five hours as long as the roads are clear. Your phones are charged, right? Do you need any food for the journey?”
“Mum! Stop fussing!” Mandy rolled her eyes while James stifled a laugh beside her, “We’ll be fine. We’re stopping for breakfast en route and James has a bag full of snacks.”
“How did you know?” he raised an eyebrow at her mockingly.
“Many, many years of friendship,” she quipped. When she looked back at her mum she was giving her a strange look.
“Come in and say goodbye to your Dad. He’s got a cold so I don’t want to drag him out in this weather.” Mrs Hope pulled Mandy by the hand back to the front door and in to the warmth of the hall. Before she shut the door gently behind them, Mandy caught a glimpse of James smirking at her; the warm glow from the early morning sun glinting off of his glasses.
“It’s been a while since you and James have been on holiday together,” her mum said smoothly, “When was the last trip he came on? Our trip to South Africa… you would have been, what, sixteen?”
“Sounds about right. After that his Mum always said he needed to focus on his exams.”
Mrs Hope, who at that moment had decided to take a sip of her tea, spluttered and flushed.
“Funny, that,” she said quickly, dabbing her lips with a handkerchief. Mandy watched her fold it carefully and clear her throat; a gesture she recognised from many conversations with difficult pet owners over the years.
“Hmm?” Her mum gave her an innocent look.
“You’re implying something. What is it?”
“it’s just… you know... I always wondered whether the two of you would ever-”
“Mum!” Mandy flushed hotly.
“I know, I know. Friends first. Just, be careful. I see how he is with you and I’d hate to see either one of you get hurt.”
Mandy pouted and folded her arms. Just then, the living room door opened and her dad stepped out in to the hallway.
“Aren’t you off yet? Thought you wanted to beat the morning traffic!” He looped an arm around his wife’s shoulders and kissed her red hair softly. Turning back to Mandy, he jerked his head toward the door. “Go on. Don’t keep the lad waiting!”
Out on the step her dad waved a hand at James as Mandy made her way back down the steps. He had shut the boot now and was hopping from foot to foot and rubbing his hands together. Shocked by the sudden cold air herself, she gestured to get in the car quickly and slipped in beside him in to the passenger seat.
“You were gone a while,” he raised an eyebrow at her as she fastened her seatbelt and gave it an experimental tug.
“Just… my mum being her usual worrying self.” She flashed him a quick grin before turning to wave at her parents as they pulled away from the curb.
She watched him carefully as he manoeuvred his car through the village. His face was so familiar to her after so many years; his floppy black hair, the glasses that still fell down the bridge of his nose, the way he bit his lip when he was concentrating or that spot on his neck that she had kissed during a drunken moment at Amelia Barnes’ leavers party a few years previously.
The memory came back to her suddenly. Despite being a year younger her school friends had happily let him join her at the party, their first one unsupervised. He had tasted like cheap vodka and apple sweets as he kissed her against a tree in the garden- his hands snaking up underneath the back of her shirt. She had been kissing her way down his neck when he suddenly jerked back, eyes wide, and apologised as if he’d trodden on her toes.
They had talked about it afterwards- awkward and quiet and flushed and hungover- and for a while neither one of them could quiet meet the other’s eye. But since then it had been a thing unacknowledged between them, a memory dampened by years of distance.
“Penny for your thoughts?” James broke the silence, pulling Mandy from her thoughts. She shook herself forcefully and fiddled with the buttons on the dashboard, avoiding his eye.
“Just a bit cold, still,” she said finally when she felt the warm air flowing from the heat vents.
“Here,” he kept his eyes on the road but reached in to the back seats, pulled a blanket out and dumped it bodily in her lap with a smirk. “There. Now, where do you want to get breakfast?”
They were some way out of the village before they found somewhere to grab breakfast; at a grubby petrol station where James filled up and Mandy ran in for more coffee and pastries- two different kinds, warm in a paper bag. As James drove away she carefully broke each one in half and laid them out on a napkin on her lap so that they could share. Often in the past, when she'd cajoled him in to agreeing to be designated driver, they would split their kebab shop chips in the same way; James shaking his head mockingly and reaching for his share while she sang happily in the passenger seat. When power ballads came on the radio they would sing exaggeratedly at one another like lovers from a film, the unspoken winner being the one to hold off on laughing the longest. He usually won.
Now, they drove in comfortable silence. The roads were clear- they had planned out the least commuted route- so Mandy amused herself by counting trees in the fields beside the roads. Every so often he reached over to pick at the pieces of breakfast in her lap; tipping his head back to drop crumbs in to his mouth. When he’d finally finished she screwed up the napkin and threw it in to the bag at her feet. With her lap free she folded up her legs, braced her knees against the dashboard and shut her eyes.
After a while, the silence was broken by the brash sound of a phone vibrating against the plastic casing of the glove compartment and Mandy dropped her knees and lurched forward to open it. When she looked at the screen and glanced back at James his cheeks were red and his eyes set firmly on the road.
"I figured," he replied simply, "Just ignore it. He's been doing it a lot recently."
"Recently? Hasn't it been months?"
Daryl, who had been James' first and so far only boyfriend, had come as a mild shock to Mandy, who usually prized herself on knowing everything about her best friend. They had met before Mandy returned from university and she remembered him scowling as he shook her hand the first time she came home. James had been giddy when he told her they had made things official, and she had tried to match his enthusiasm, but there had always been something about the guy that put her on edge. To her guilty relief it had been short lived as far as relationships go, although longer than Mandy's own record, and she hadn't pried at the end. He had told her simply that it was over and there seemed to be little that needed to be said about the matter. In hindsight, she wished she had encouraged him to open up a little when he turned up at her door with a bottle of wine and a sad smile.
Carefully, she reached over and squeezed his thigh.
“You never told me why you two broke up,” she said quietly, “You can… you know… if you want.” The words came out limply; finding something that they couldn’t talk about was unknown territory for them both. He shrugged but said nothing, eyes still glued to the road ahead.
"It wasn’t that big of a deal,” he said eventually and squeezed her hand, “Don’t worry about it. Really.”
She sat back in the seat and watched him carefully as they lapsed back in to silence. After a while, she saw him wipe his eyes with the pad of his thumb before leaning forward to press play on the CD player.
Three hours in to the drive and they had finished their snacks, exhausted his CD collection and comprehensively covered everything there was to spy on the motorway. The silence after James’ final guess was broken by his stomach growling.
“Lunch?” he glanced at her hopefully. She waved the empty bag that had previously contained their snacks at him.
“Seriously? You’re hungry already?”
He shrugged. “Always.”
Before long James was turning the car off of the motorway as Mandy searched for places to stop and eat. They found a pub on the edge of the nearest town and parked up, wrapping their coats tighter around themselves as they crossed the car park to the entrance. Inside, it had the welcoming feel of a family run place and they soon settled in to a booth towards the back.
“Reminds me of the Fox and Hound,” James observed as he shrugged off his coat and pulled his scarf from around his neck. The Fox and Hound was the local- and only- pub in Welford. It had been where she had bought him his first legal drink on his eighteenth birthday, handed to him with a flourish, and where they had re-homed an abandoned lurcher when they were twelve and thirteen respectively. The owner- of both pub and dog- had given him his second drink on the house, but only after she insisted that the first be on her.
After a few moments a big black shaped lurched at them from under a nearby table and Mandy laughed as a black Labrador pushed its nose in to her lap.
“Oh hello!” she rubbed his head, “Aren’t you a sweetheart!”
Her new friend wagged its tail in agreement, looking up at her with big brown eyes, and she cooed for a moment until a movement by the kitchen drew its attention and the dog trotted off in search of food. When she turned back to James he was watching them both with doting eyes.
“Reminds me a little of Blackie,” she murmured, thinking fondly of the dog James had grown up with. He smiled sadly for a moment, eyes drifting unfocussed in to the distance, before he shook himself and scrunched up his face.
“I still miss him, even though he was a pain,” he laughed quietly before meeting her gaze again, “Did I tell you my mum is thinking of getting another dog? I think she wants some company now that she’s on her own a lot during the day.”
“No! That’s a great idea!” she clapped her hands together excitedly, “I’m sure I could find her a great rescue dog if she’s willing to adopt?”
“I don’t think she’d dare face training another puppy after Blackie,” James laughed, “But I’ll send her your way when she’s ready, obviously.”
They were interrupted by the waitress, who took their orders quickly and brought them an assortment of condiments and cutlery. She was young, possibly a year or so younger than James, and he watched her go with a faint blush on his cheeks.
“Don’t get any ideas about abandoning me and running away with a Scottish waitress,” Mandy teased, laughing at his horrified expression, “At least drop me off first.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he stuck his tongue out at her, “Besides, I’ve been looking forward to this trip for weeks. It’s been ages since we had any time just the two of us, I’ve
Now it was her turn to blush and she propped her head up on her hand and watched him thoughtfully.
When their food arrived they ate in comfortable silence; James’ appetite had not dampened with age and she laughed when he took a mouthful slightly too big and dribbled sauce down his chin. Both vegetarian, largely due to Mandy’s influence, they had ended up with the only two options on the menu and they shared in their usual way.
James moaned when she pulled him out of the booth as soon as they had paid the bill, arguing that he should be able to let his food go down a little, but she was too impatient to sit idle. In the end he put up very little protest and, giving a brief wave of acknowledgement to their waitress, followed Mandy back out in to the cool, crisp air.
They arrived at the Loch in good time; James drove carefully around the neighbouring town while Mandy read out the directions from her accommodation booking email. Eventually, they found the unpaved road that would lead them to the cottage they had booked and he drove slowly down towards a collection of old stone buildings.
“Amanda Hope?” a small, middle-aged woman greeted them when they stepped out of the car and shook both their hands enthusiastically, “I’m Theresa Blake, we spoke on the phone. You made great time didn’t you! You’re lucky, my husband and I have only just got home from the market so I’m glad you’re not having to wait around!”
She beckoned them towards the smallest of the buildings, which lay some way from the others, and fumbled in her pocket for keys.
“Come in, come in,” she insisted, stamping her wet feet on the mat before walking through the door, “Let me show you around before you fetch your things, it’s too cold to be hanging around out here.”
The inside of the cottage was cosy but dated; a mismatch of furnishings, rugs and rural watercolour scenes on the walls. Mandy’s heart leapt at the sight of a real fire in the living area; her grandparents had often warmed their home with an open fire when she was a child and she and James would lay out and do their homework on the rug in front. Glancing over, she saw James was smiling slightly at the sight of it too.
“Not much in the way of modern comforts, I’m afraid,” Theresa said, shaking out a blanket that hung over the back of the sofa, “But you’re welcome to wood from the barn for the fire and we have electric heaters in storage in case the weather turns even colder. Here, I’ll show you the bedroom. It’s a twin room, but feel free to push the beds together if you’d prefer. Bathroom is next to the bedroom.”
With a wave of her hand she led them towards the bedroom door and ushered them in to the room. Inside was fairly spacious; two small double beds separated by a bedside table. James wandered over to the bed furthest from the window and sat down, bouncing once and grinning at her.
“Mine,” he said simply, patting the mattress. Theresa smiled fondly at them.
“Keys are here, I have a spare in case of emergencies but come and go as you please. We’re up early to work but you’re fairly secluded in the cottage so don’t worry about disturbing us if you’re out late, just don’t beep the horn. You have my number in case you need it?” Mandy nodded. “Great, well, let me know if I can help with anything, but I hope you’ll enjoy your stay!”
She left them briskly, her boots loud on the stone floor and James winked at Mandy.
“Are we rearranging the room or do you think we can cope with this massive distance between us?” He swept his hand across the narrow gap between the beds for emphasis.
“It’ll be hard,” she flung her hand across her forehead dramatically, “But I think we’ll manage. Now, come on, let’s go and get our bags.”
They decided to take advantage of the few remaining hours of daylight by heading straight out once they had hauled their bags in to the cottage and got their bearings. Mandy’s plans for the week revolved around scouring the Loch and the surrounding area for evidence of different species for her dissertation and it would be a good a idea to scope the place before they begun their survey the next day. So they changed in to their walking boots and, armed with a pair of binoculars each and warm coats, set off in the car towards the Loch. James knew that she had made thorough sketches of the route she wanted to take on their survey, but for now they agreed to meander whichever way they saw fit to get a feel for the place.
James’ sense of direction was impeccable, and so she had been glad when he had offered to make the drive instead of her. His car was more suited to the unpaved roads in the area, for a start, and she was sure she would have got them lost in the winding roads of the Scottish countryside even with her phone as a guide. Impulsively, she leant over and planted a kiss on his cheek when they stopped at a junction.
“What was that for?” he raised his eyebrow at her when they were back on the straight.
“I’m just glad you’re here,” she said simply.
It was true. Although they had stayed incredibly close over the years, her busy schedule at the surgery and his job in the local café meant that they mainly had to settle for seeing each other at weekends and the occasional late night phone call. Better than when she was in York for university, admittedly, but she missed the days of looking out of the window to see her best friend cycling in to the driveway on a whim. She suspected that was part of the reason her parents had so readily agreed to her taking a week off so close to when she was due to head back to York. They saw their need for the two of them to have time to themselves.
They hadn’t been driving for long when James reached out and pointed to a big wooden sign, partially obscured by the trees. Viewing point and car park. They turned carefully down the narrow road and Mandy watched the wildlife go by from her seat.
“Here’s probably as good a place as any if you want to just take a look at the place,” he looked up at the sky as they locked the car and headed up the path, “Doesn’t look like the weather is in our favour, though.”
In spite of the darkening sky they pressed on, crossing the gravel car park and making their way up the steep path indicated by the signpost. After a few minutes the wooded area opened out and Mandy gasped at the sight of the Loch revealing itself to them.
“Beautiful,” James murmured appreciatively, standing for a moment to look out as well. Realising that there was a better vantage point up ahead, they carried on walking uphill as the weather turned and a shower of rain descended on them. Undeterred, they stomped up the path and took shelter underneath a canopy of trees until the downpour passed and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds.
Then, Mandy gripped James’ elbow and pulled him towards the edge of the path to get a better look out across the water. The water was calm, sparkling under the sun, broken only by the occasional flutter of wings as herons and waders disturbed the surface. Most strikingly for Mandy, was the collection of cormorants that flocked to the edge of the water across the way from them. Undisturbed by the bustle of humans, they basked in the shallows of the Loch. Beside her, James peered at the birds through a pair of old binoculars and, hearing her gasp, handed them to her without a word.
Despite the blue sky appearing through the clouds, there was a chill in the air and they huddled together for warmth as they observed the quiet scene. James had shoved his hands in to his pockets and was leaning against her; when she lowered the binoculars and looked up he was watching her with the corner of his mouth tugged up in a small smile.
“What?” she said, eyeing him suspiciously. His grin grew wider and he turned away to look back out over the Loch.
“Nothing’s changed,” he stated after a pause, “You and me, I mean. All these years and we’re still here.”
“Me dragging you all over the place?” He chuckled quietly.
They lapsed back in to silence for a moment, both gazing out across the water. Mandy’s cheeks prickled from the cold air; the wind was picking up and she gripped his elbow and beckoned him along the path. Up ahead the open path thickened on either side with brambles and the cover buffered some of the wind. At her side, James dropped his hands from his pockets and took off a glove to tough her cheek.
“You’re frozen!” he gasped, pressing his palm to his own cheek for comparison. His own coat hood was lined with fur- faux, he had hastened to tell her- and although his cheeks were pink he seemed to have fared better than her at keeping out the chill. “Tomorrow we’re wrapping you up better if you want to be out all day.”
“Fine,” she pouted at him, cheeks scrunched up. He pinched the tip of her nose gently with his fingers and mimicked her expression.
“Come on,” he said softly, “Let’s get you home.”
Trekking down the path was surprisingly more difficult than the walk up. The shower of rain had loosened the mud on the slope and so they shuffled slowly downwards; James braced his feet on secure rocks and gripped her hand as he led them back towards the car park at the bottom of the hill. Mandy was glad for her walking boots; without the grip she would have surely fumbled and taken her best friend with her.
“Nearly there,” James panted when they approached the end of the path, exhausted with the effort of descending in a lumbering lurch. At the bottom, where the path levelled in to a sort of chalky natural courtyard, she stumbled and fell in to him; he staggered but held firm, holding her up with a hand on each arm.
Back at the car James turned the heating up to full blast as they shed their damp outerwear and waited for the car to warm them up. While Mandy wrapped herself in a blanket, James pulled on a hoody emblazoned with her university logo. She remembered him buying it cheap from the campus bookshop sale when he came to visit her on what turned out to be an unseasonably cold weekend in the March of her first year. They had shared the narrow bed in her room for two nights before a hall mate ventured to lend them an air-bed; whispering to one another in to the early hours of the morning like they were children again. He had left the hoody in her wardrobe when he waved goodbye and headed off for the train station on the Tuesday morning and for a few nights she had slept in it- comforted by the familiar smell of him, of home.
As he turned to pull his seatbelt across she reached out and traced the logo on his back with her fingertips; when he turned back round he blushed.
Mandy was propped up in her bed, notebook laying open on her lap, when James walked back in to the room with a toothbrush dangling from his lips, peering thoughtfully at a leaflet he’d picked up from the table.
“It says here that there’s a bridge with a sculpture of a sheep’s head on it,” he mumbled between brushes. Foam gathered at the edges of his lips and she stifled a laugh when he looked up, frowned at her and left the room. He emerged from the bathroom moments later, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and flopped down on the bed next to hers.
“How early do you want to set off tomorrow?” he asked, head propped up on his arms as he looked at her.
“Depends on whether you keep me awake,” she joked, but there was an element of seriousness to her tone. For as long as she had known him, James had suffered occasionally from nightmares that dragged him screaming from sleep. Their first childhood sleepover had been terrifying; her mum had come sprinting in the room when she heard the screams, first his then hers, and they had sat up in the kitchen swinging their legs on the breakfast bar stools and drinking their hot chocolate until a very apologetic Mrs Hunter arrived. After that, she had learnt to recognise the signs and, although infrequent, when the nightmares came she was good at soothing him in his sleep. Many times he had woken up clinging to her pyjama shirt while she stroked his face with the back of her hand. Even as adults, she still woke up to the occasional phone call in the middle of the night to hear him panting and panicked on the other end of the receiver.
In lieu of a reply he pulled the pillow out from under his head and threw it at her.
“You love me really,” she teased when she had pulled the pillow off of her face. He grunted in response, but she saw the smirk on his lips.
She was pulled from a dream where gulls were circling her by something that wasn't immediately obvious. Laying still for a moment, she listened for any tell tale creaks in the walls, any sign that something was amiss, then opened her eyes. There was a faint light over on James' side of the room that gave the walls a grey look and she twisted in the bed to peer over at him. He was on his phone, tapping away at the screen, his eyes shielded by the glare on his glasses. Soon enough, he seemed to sense her looking at him and flopped over to face her.
"What time is it?" Mandy still felt faintly groggy from sleep, but as her eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw his expression was solemn. "Is everything okay?"
Without a word he flicked on the lamp between their beds, fiddled within until it was dim enough to stop them squinting and held his phone up by way of explanation.
"Daryl again?" Mandy glanced over at the clock; two thirty in the morning. In the low light she could have sworn James' eyes were puffy.
"He's relentless," he said finally, "I've warned him I'll have to block his number if he doesn't stop but that won’t exactly stop him from coming in to my work and starting up again."
"I know I said this before… but do you want to tell me what happened?" she said quietly, watching him carefully. He sighed and rolled back on to his back, staring at the ceiling.
“We got drunk one night, started arguing about… something… I can’t even remember what. He got really angry when I said that I didn’t want to go home with him and ended up hitting me.”
“James!” Mandy gasped, reaching across the gap between their beds to touch his arm. He smiled at her weakly in return and shrugged against the pillow.
“’S’okay. I ended things there and then. Kind of figured that I deserved better than that. But he hasn’t really given up on trying to apologise since.” He said it simply, without feeling, but his face took on that sad, guarded look again. He sat up before she could say anything else and swung his legs out of the bed. Pulling off his glasses, he rubbed his eyes and smiled sleepily at her. “I’m going to get a drink. Water?”
She watched him pad out of the room, lanky and slightly clumsy and decked out in the ridiculous fleece pyjamas she’d seen him wear so many times before. He left the bedroom door slightly ajar, so she could watch him as he moved about the kitchen and searched the cupboards for glasses. She laid back and listened to the glug of the tap, his footsteps on the stone floor and then the door closing gently behind him. After he placed two tumblers down on the bedside table and folded up his glasses he paused, looking down at her with an unfamiliar expression on his face; confused and solemn. Without a second thought she peeled back her duvet and patted the space beside her on the mattress.
“Come on,” she said softly, as he twisted his lips boyishly. After a pause, he slid in to the bed next to her, threw an arm across her waist and nestled his cheek against her shoulder. She held him firmly, thread her fingers through his thick hair and stroked him gently. The last time she’d held him in the same way had been when Blackie had been put down, his childhood pet gone forever, and he had been at least a foot shorter. With his height now he had to curl his legs up to stop his feet from dangling out from under the duvet, one leg slung over hers. It was strangely comfortable, like having a weighted blanket anchoring her down.
“Sorry I never told you. I was embarrassed,” he said quietly, his breath tickling the exposed skin on her collarbone. Then it was her turn to shrug.
“Don’t apologise, just remember you can tell me anything, okay?”
He nodded against her shoulder, squeezed her tighter and sighed.
“Night, Mandy,” he whispered as she felt his body relax against her.
I don't even care that I'm sending this fic out in to the void. I'm having too much fun writing it.
The next time she opened her eyes, light was filtering through the thin gap between the curtains. At some point in the night they had shifted so that her head dangled off of the edge of the pillow, her body curled forward and the weight of his chest pressing against her back. His breath was warm against the nape of her neck and the arm that was slung over her waist had crept under her pyjama shirt, his hand resting against her bare stomach. The sensation of his skin on hers shocked her slightly and her breath caught in her throat.
Now that she was fully awake, her thoughts turned back to the night before. James’ relationships had always confused her; for someone with so much love to give he seemed to attract always the wrong sort. She had watched him be hurt time and time again; his first girlfriend’s cheating had been the talk of their school, leaving Mandy to patch up the pieces of his broken heart; even worse was his most long term girlfriend, Sam, whose wholehearted distrust of his friendship with Mandy had been rivalled only by her ability to find James’ weakest spots and scrap away at them until Mandy barely recognised her best friend.
Her entire second year had been spent worrying about him back home, slowly pulling away from her until she realised it had been two months since he had replied to her messages and had marched back to Welford to confront him. Arriving at the pub, a part of her had been a little heartbroken to find him in contacts rather than his usual glasses, hair uncharacteristically slicked back, quiet and polite in his greeting, and shrinking back in to himself when Sam stormed over to wrap her arm around his. Mandy had pleaded with him to talk to her, to tell her what had changed between them. He had been reticent when he spoke to her, but had hugged her tight before he turned back to his girlfriend.
In the end, Sam had been so furious about Mandy's involvement that she had thrown her glass at James’ face in the pub- ending in a police caution and Mandy and her mum cleaning up her distraught best friend’s face in the Animal Ark surgery room. She remembered the way he clung to her and sobbed- humiliated and inconsolable- as she kissed his cheeks, promised him everything would be okay and her mum looked on helplessly. At the time, Mrs Hunter had been so preoccupied with her divorce being finalised that he had been left without an anchor, and before she went back to university Mandy made her parents swear that they would be there for him as best they could.
He still had a scar next to his eyebrow from that night; small enough that no one would notice, especially with his shaggy hair, but she knew he was shamefully aware of it at all times. She was too.
Some time later had come Daryl, who seemed suave and attentive and wholeheartedly supportive of James’ friendship with Mandy after their initial meeting, but who she could not bear to see touch her best friend. He was older, a few years older even than Mandy herself, and the way he petted James like he was something to be shown off, a sweet thing he possessed, made her skin crawl. He always kissed him too hard, his fingers gripping his chin tightly, when they said goodbye to one another whenever Mandy was around and it left her with the feeling that a point was being made. He’s mine, it said, Leave your childish fantasies behind. Still, James had been besotted and she hoped she was wrong because being right didn’t feel very good. Not then, and certainly not now that she had the full picture.
She wanted him to find his person. But part of her stayed up at night worrying that there was something sweet and vulnerable about him that would be cracked open over and over again before that happened. A small, nasty part of her wondered if she was partly to blame for being there so constantly for nearly his whole life and then leaving so suddenly. She often tried to temper those thoughts by throwing herself so completely in to being the best friend she could be to him now that she was back. Being a good friend came easy to them when they were together and the thought comforted her when she nestled back against his chest.
Soon enough, he stirred against her back, tightened his arm and made a noise of sleepy greeting in to her hair.
“Good morning,” she murmured when he peered over her shoulder at her, “Sleep okay in the end?”
He nodded, eyelids still heavy. “You make a good pillow,” he yawned and pressed his face in to the back off her head. His hand was still nestled under the fleece of her pyjamas and she waited for him to make a noise of embarrassment and withdraw it with an apology; instead, she found herself pleasantly surprised when he drew little circles on her bare skin with his thumb.
“Thank you, for last night,” he whispered after a few quiet seconds, “I hadn’t realised how much I needed to tell someone.”
“Any time,” she squeezed the arm that was around her still, “No matter what, I’m always here.”
“I know,” he breathed, tightening his arm briefly before he settled back to his loose-limbed hold.
She felt the tension in his body lessen and when his hand stilled she realised that he had fallen back asleep.
They set off early the next day. Mandy had woken up when the light shone through the gap in the thick curtains and found herself alone in the bed; wandering out of the bedroom she saw James propped up on the sofa fast asleep. His reasoning, after she had roused him, had been that he was worried about waking her when he couldn’t get back to sleep. Although he got ready to leave quickly she couldn’t help but notice the bags under his eyes when they stepped out in to the cold grey light of the morning.
“I’m sorry about last night,” he said quietly when they were some way away from the cottage in the car.
“Don’t worry about it, James. Just… I’m worried you’re not okay.”
He shrugged, mouth turned down.
“I’m fine. Daryl will get over it eventually-” he stopped when Mandy placed a hand on him arm, looked at her quickly before focussing back on the road.
“I know you’ll be fine. I mean are you okay right now? Do you want to go back and nap? We can head out tomorrow instead.”
He seemed to brighten slightly, a smile playing at his lips.
“Don’t be silly. I’ll get a coffee on the way and I’ll soon perk up. Not the first time I’ve gone without sleep.” At this he winked at her and she felt her cheeks grow hot, although she wasn’t entirely sure why.
At the first chance they turned in to a estate full of restaurants and Mandy hopped out to get them both a coffee. On the way back, juggling two cups of takeaway coffee and a couple of warm pastries, she paused to watch James through the windscreen of the car. His head was lowered, eyes focussed on the phone in his hand, and he frowned slightly as he read. As usual, his glasses were falling down the bridge of his nose and when he reached to push them back up he spotted her and his expression changed to a grin.
He had perked up by the time they made it to the Loch and even when she loaded him up with a camera case, clipboard and their water bottles he still had a spring in his step that she found endearing. They hiked for two hours, James snapping photos at her direction and laughing whenever she grabbed the clipboard from him to write down something that had come to mind. At lunchtime they came to a convenient spot to stop and, despite the cold, threw themselves down on the grass to eat. James had most of the food in his backpack and made a show off acting like a great weight had been lifted when he pulled off the bag and threw it on the floor.
“You’re a pain,” Mandy laughed as she pulled her lunch from the pack, “And you’re not funny.”
“You’re smiling though,” he flopped down next to her, arm pressed against hers, and took a bite of his lunch.
They made their way back to the cottage after eating; armed with enough initial research for Mandy to jot down some ideas for her dissertation outline on the journey back. She caught James watching her with an amused expression whenever they stopped at traffic lights but she continued scribbling down in her note book until they turned in to the driveway that would lead them to the cottage.
Two hours outside had been enough for James, the weather had taken a turn and it was bitterly cold; but Mandy felt skittish, the sky was clear and it was still light enough outside for a run to clear her head.
Running was a habit she had developed in her first year of university, when the business of campus life got too much and she wanted an escape somewhere quiet and fresh. Even back home, she tried to keep a regular schedule- although patient needs often superseded her own- and she had packed her running shoes just in case. While James was busy fixing something for dinner she took the opportunity, reasoning that there were some spots she wanted to scout out before their bigger expedition of the surrounding area the next day, and he waved her off as she fixed her earphones in place and skipped out the door.
The cold meant that she was running quicker than usual in an effort to warm herself up and she soon came to a curve in the hill that crested to reveal an open expanse of river and fields. It was silent, up on the hill, and she took a moment to pause and let herself breathe.
There was something about the past few days that was troubling her and she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Unbidden, her mum’s words before they left came back to her and she wondered what it was she had seen between them that had passed her by. She and James had always been affectionate, never shied away from touching one another, and nothing had changed over the years. Sure, she had caught him looking at her more and more recently, but maybe she was just hyper-aware of something that had always been happening without her noticing.
She took a slow pace back to the cottage, running scenarios through her head as her feet pounded the frozen road. What if she she ran straight in and kissed him, would he kiss her back? Would she want him to?
A stabbing ache in her stomach told her what she had never let herself acknowledge just as she arrived back at the cottage and the the first fat droplets of rain fell down on the path.
She stepped through the door, closing it carefully so that the wind didn’t cause it to slam. Rubbing her frozen fingers together, she danced in place to warm up and glanced around in to the living area of the cottage for a sign of James. The bedroom door was pulled to so she threw herself down on to the sofa and pulled off her running shoes. Behind her, there was a sudden noise and she jerked up, twisting to glance towards the door. As she listened she realised it was James, voice low and angry, in the bedroom.
“You have to stop this!” he yelled suddenly and she was out of her seat before she realised he was on the phone. “It’s not going to happen. Ever.”
She flushed furiously and for a moment considered putting her shoes back on and giving him some privacy; but the wind was howling louder and the rain had begun to pour and the idea of going back outside was ludicrous. Instead she pulled her wet hair out of its band and headed towards the bathroom.
“Of course there’s someone else!”
James’ raised voice stopped her in her tracks and she felt her cheeks grow even hotter. He so rarely got angry around her that hearing the bitterness in his voice was an experience brand new to her. They had argued as kids, of course, but when they reached adulthood they largely managed to settle their problems with calm discussion. Her mum often joked that James should mediate family disputes.
The bathroom was next to their bedroom, so she crept carefully and slipped through the door. Thankfully, the thick walls of the old cottage were fairly soundproof and she was fairly surely she wouldn’t be intruding any more, especially with the shower running. Still, before she could ease the door shut to lock it she heard him again, voice calmer this time as if as a sudden weight had been lifted.
“I am in love... Just not with you.”
He said it in a voice she recognised and she could picture his face; lopsided smile and hair falling over his eyes as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. It was a voice she had heard many times in the past when he got quiet and thoughtful and determined; when he tried to placate her after a loss at the surgery, when he told her he was going to be okay after his parents divorce, or when she broke up with her university boyfriend and he reassured her that the loss was all his. A voice that was all him, her James, and she sighed a little. He would be fine
She ignored the knawing feeling of disappointment inside, though.
The lock stuck slightly when she turned it, the click loud and intrusive in the sudden quiet. She imagined him calmly hanging up the phone and blocking Daryl’s number, pausing reflectively, and turned on the shower to leave him in peace for a moment.
When she eventually emerged, warm and pink and wrapped in a fluffy towel, from the bathroom he was sat on the sofa reading. Without a word she walked over, wrapped an arm around his shoulder from behind and leant over to kiss him on the cheek.
“You okay?” she whispered against his ear. He nodded. “I heard you on the phone, didn’t want to intrude.”
He twisted in place so that their foreheads were pressed together. The frames of his glasses were cold against her skin and she shivered.
“Thanks,” he said finally.
Sleep wasn’t forthcoming that night either. Mandy woke up to the sound off a low moan, punctuated by a strangled gasp that had her out of the bed and rushing across the cold floor before she had even registered what was happening. The room was chilled, frigid without her duvet, but James had flung the covers off and was clawing at his face with his fingers. His back arched painfully, locked in fear, and she placed a hand on his chest and buried the other in his damp hair to soothe him.
“James,” she whispered, shushing gently, “I’m here. Hush, I’m here.”
At the sound of of her voice he opened his eyes- wide, terrified- and she pushed his sweat-soaked hair out off his eyes and pressed her forehead to his. Under her hand his heart pounded and she waited until he calmed under her touch as she whispered to him over and over again. For a moment she paused her murmurings, breath held, until he sighed and grasped her hand.
“Thanks,” he murmured; then, squeezing his eyes shut, “Sorry.”
“Who needs sleep anyways?” she joked weakly, but she felt sick with tiredness and her head was dizzy. “Move over.”
He obliged and she slipped in next to him. The irony was not lost on her when he wrapped his arms around her waist as if to soothe her and pulled her close against him. Soon enough, she fell asleep with the feeling of staggering of a cliff into the fog below.
I know it's been about a year... but life got away with me. I still love this story though so I wanted to finish it off!
Mandy looked sidelong at James; his mouth was set in a thin line and the shadows under his eyes told her that he probably hadn’t had much more sleep after she drifted off. He was already up and showering when she had woken, disorientated, in his bed and had said very little to her when she outlined their plans for the day. He was, as a general rule, more laid back than her but he would usually have some input on what they were doing; tiredness seeped out of him like a fog and for a moment she considered telling him to turn back so that he could get some sleep. But, remembering how he had rallied the day before, she held her tongue.
They set out on foot- James’ bag was lighter as they were planning on circling back to the cottage for lunch, although Mandy had filled hers with the usual supplies of notebook, binoculars and camera.
Disaster struck on a hill that peaked behind their cottage; Mandy, preoccupied with the night before, caught her foot on a branch that had been buried under layers of leaves and fell. Her fingertips brushed James’ coat as he whipped round to catch her and missed, watching helplessly as she tumbled to the ground and landed bodily on the cold ground. A sharp pain shot up Mandy’s ankle and she howled as James dropped to his knees beside her. He reached out to cup her booted foot.
“No! No, no, no, it hurts!” she jerked away from him, tears spilling down her cheeks, “I twisted it.”
He nodded, once, and reached up to the zip of his coat, pulling it down and threw the padded fabric from his shoulders.
“Here, take this,” he curled the coat around her shoulders and pulled it tight around her, “We’re not too far from the cottage, I’ll run back and get Theresa and her husband. I can’t carry you and the bags back on my own.”
“No, don’t leave me!” she felt the panic rising in her chest and clung to his shirt, balling the thin material in her fist. The movement sent another shock along her ankle and her lip quivered.
“Listen,” he held both her hands tight against his chest, “I will be right back. Call my mobile and I’ll stay on the line the whole time, okay? I promise.” Quickly, he pressed his cold lips to hers and she felt a heat rise up in her cheeks. “I promise,” he whispered again, his face flushed and lips pale.
She shivered on the hill as he raced off, her phone grasped tightly in gloved hands on her lap. Occasionally, he panted platitudes down the line as he ran until the subdued knock of a fist on wood signalled that he had arrived at the cottages. Muffled conversation and then James’ voice clear on the line.
“Graham and I are heading back up. Theresa is fetching an ice pack. I’m on my way, Mandy. Hang in there.”
After some awkward shuffling down the hill, propped up by James and a portly middle-aged man who spoke very few words to them, Mandy found herself being deposited on the sofa in their cottage while Theresa fussed over the both of them. The rain had started falling as they reached the courtyard and even the chill of the cottage was welcome. Theresa cooed over James as he shivered at the threshold, scolded him for being a gentleman as she winked at Mandy. Boot off and without the adrenaline coursing through her, the damage to her ankle seemed less somehow and Mandy felt a wave of embarrassment at the fuss.
“Lucky for you, love, I used to be a nurse before I ended up here. It’s not broken, maybe a sprain at most. It’ll hurt for a few days but keep applying a cold compress to reduce the swelling and you’ll soon be as right as rain.” Theresa patted her thighs as she stood up, turned to James and gestured towards the fireplace. “Remember where the wood is? Keep the fire going this eve otherwise you’ll both end up ill.”
Graham gave them both a nod as the pair of them left, pausing briefly to shake James’ hand before the door swung shut. In the silence, Mandy’s chattering teeth were obvious and James padded over to touch her cheek.
“They’re right, I should get this fire going. How are you feeling?”
“Cold, embarrassed. Sorry for freaking out on you.”
“Not like I’ve never done the same thing!”
He looped his scarf twice around his neck before heading towards the door. The wood shed hadn’t been far from the cottage when Theresa showed them round but in the downpour he was likely to come back cold and sodden.
“Won’t be long,” he gave her a wave as he stepped out of the door, leaving it on the latch behind him. The wind was howling and Mandy felt the chill, even from the sofa. In front of her, the fire was dwindling down to embers and she pulled the blanket closer around herself and readjusted her ankle on the pillow.
Soon enough, the door banged shut and she turned to watch as James stamped is muddy boots on the mat and shook his head to dislodge some of the rain water in his hair. His head was drenched and his glasses steamed up from the sudden warm air in the cottage; he wiped them on the corner of his shirt and blinked at her when he replaced them on the bridge of his nose.
“Phew!” he blew his damp hair out of his eyes roughly, “I won’t be going back out there in a hurry.”
“Get yourself dried off,” she laughed, “We can’t call Theresa out again tomorrow because you’ve caught pneumonia.”
He pulled off his shirt by the sink, wringing it out before depositing it in the basin. She blushed furiously at the sight of him and felt a familiar tingle of longing in her chest. Not for the first time it became obvious that the guys she had been attracted to in the past were all built similarly to him; slim, but with the very obvious evidence of a life spent helping on farms. James may have been a studious child but he had never shirked from helping her and her parents at whatever animal emergency required growing up. ‘Rural skinny’, her mum had dubbed it once, winking at her when she found them both sunbathing in the back garden.
“You okay?” he cocked his head at her, his voice pulling her from her thoughts, “Looks like you’re burning up. don’t tell me that I went out in that and you’re suddenly too hot!” His voice was teasing, but she was sure she heard a nervous lilt and when he came over to feel her forehead he was blushing.
“I just wasn’t quite expecting the strip-tease display you decided to give me.” His blush turned redder. Straightening up, he shoved one hand in his pocket and lifted the other to push his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. The gesture was remarkably boyish, something she had seen him do for years, and she laughed suddenly.
“I’m kidding. Now go shower before you catch your death.”
They hadn't chosen the most comfortable position on the sofa. Mandy was tall; only a few inches shorter than James- whose penchant for food as a child may have had something to do with subsequent growth spurt- so she bent a pyjama-ed leg to make it easier for him to press the ice pack to her ankle. Her other leg stretched out in front of her and across his lap; she settled in the nook created by the pillows and his thigh and rested her cheek against the back of the sofa. Their pyjama bottoms were thick and fleecy- the usual Christmas presents from his parents received the year before- and so they barely needed the blanket that James had thrown over them.
The stress of the day had overcome them and they sat in silence; the crackle of the fire was the only sound other than the slow sigh of breathing and the occasional rustle of fabric against fabric. Under the blanket, James’ hand rubbed circles along her thigh comfortingly and she eased herself lower in the pillowey softness of the sofa. Slowly, his hand inched upwards until his fingers laced gently in her hair.
She thought of the phone call she'd overheard earlier. His firm insistence that there was someone else that he loved, this secret person that she couldn't even picture. Part of her longed for the days when he told her everything- every thought or secret or opinion, no matter how trivial- but then a bitter part of her thought about the fact that she couldn't even broach the subject with him. How could she expect him to open up if she couldn't even ask him the right questions?
He hadn't mentioned anyone recently to her. No first date, no girl or guy he'd met, and no one in Welford seemed a likely candidate. Nancy Borg had once joked that James would have to look pretty far afield before he found a girl who wasn't intimidated by his friendship with Mandy. At the time she had scoffed, but there was an element of truth to the idea; girls never lasted long around James after he insisted that they meet 'one of his favourite people'. Daryl had been the only exception, after their first meeting where he had remained surly in the corner, he had seemed so assured of himself that maybe he never considered Mandy to be any sort of threat. The only other explanation was that James simply had stopped introducing her to people; determined to pull away for the sake of finding love. The thought hurt. While she had been at university he had stayed in Welford, his parents divorcing when he was seventeen had given him an incentive to stick around for his mum, and she wondered how much their sleepy little village was holding him back.
Thoughtfully, she toyed with the blanket, fingers running patterns along the chequered fabric; he mimicked them in her hair, stroked her like she was a beloved pet. A thought rose, unbidden, that she was sure he would be good with his hands in other ways, although she wished she could banish it as soon as it arrived- it was too complicated, too laughable to entertain. But there it was; she wanted him. She wanted to know what it would be like to sleep with him, to kiss him again, to have him look at her as more than a friend.
Slowly, she straightened so that their faces were level and his hand dropped to hers in her lap. When she met his eye he was watching her carefully, his expression serious, and she finally saw the look he’d been giving her for what it was; longing.
"Oh," she breathed, thoughts a jumble as her heart beat faster. There wasn’t anyone else.
She leant forward to press a kiss gently to his lips, but before she could pull away he was opening his mouth to her. This time he didn't taste like vodka and she was shocked by the warm sobriety of it; he kissed her like it was the most natural thing in the world, with a hand coming up to cup the back of her neck. The hand that was pressing the ice pack to her ankle faltered then held firm; she felt a little giddy jump in the pit of her stomach at the way he never stopped looking after her and a sigh escaped her lips.
He pulled back suddenly.
"I'm sorry!" he said quickly as she was filled with the familiar jolt of loss. This time, she shook her head and curled her fingers in the collar of his shirt. His face was red and flushed, lips parted and she smiled at him.
"Don't apologise, I wanted you to ki-"
"No," his blush deepened, "I meant... I thought... Your ankle."
She glanced down to where his hand had settled on her leg protectively; he looped his fingers around the back off her foot, it tickled and she squirmed slightly before looking back at him. His eyes were wide behind his glasses, slightly obscured by the reflection off the fire in the lenses but still burning bright in to her. She melted under his gaze, feeling a strange sense of deflation, like she could relax for the first time.
"I thought you were apologising again for, you know?"
"Again?" his face darkened with confusion and for a moment she was gripped with a painful panic. Then, his face cleared and he chuckled. "I didn't think you'd still think about that."
She shifted in place and cocked her head.
"I haven't," she said quietly, "Just... Something made me think of it the other day and then I couldn't stop."
"I think about it all the time," he whispered, then louder, "All the time. For a little while I was a mess over it... Over you. You left for uni and it started to feel like it was a goodbye. Like I'd realised what I wanted too late and that was it."
He spoke quickly, as if he had no control over the words coming out of his mouth and when she reached up to touch his cheek he sighed and relaxed under her.
"You never said..." She trailed off because, truthfully, she recognised the feeling and knew she was being a hypocrite. Those first few weeks of university had confused her deeply; nights of drunken freshers parties and new people and quick fumbles with boys in her halls. All accompanied by the deep set feeling that she was betraying her best friend. At the time she had put it down to leaving him behind, knowing that he was back in Welford finishing school while she explored new places, but hindsight told otherwise. She had left before they could really figure out where all those new feelings could lead; then rationalised that their friendship was too precious to put at risk.
Maybe all along it had been obvious to everyone other than them; her mum had seen it, anyone they’d dated had seen it. It was like hearing a joke and knowing she was the only person who didn’t understand the punchline; everyone else could explain it but she didn’t realise how crushingly, overwhelmingly big her feelings were for her best friend until it was staring her literally in the face.
“You know I love you, right?” he said softly, his eyes sad, “You’re my best friend. My favourite person in the whole world. And I never want to do anything to lose you.”
Lacking the words, she kissed him again, without any hesitation, and felt his arms come up and around her. His fingertips burnt through the fabric of her shirt and she shifted closer to him, drinking in every second as his lips moved over hers. A bold, warm feeling enveloped her and she embraced it fondly.
“I think I need to go to bed,” she whispered, pulling back from his lips to look at him. His eyes were searching hers, looking for an answer to a question she knew he couldn’t bring himself to ask. She kissed him again, once, softly. “Will you come with me?”
He made a noise like a gasp and buried his face in to the crook of her neck; his glasses were cool against her skin and she held him there, heart pounding, while she thought of what the night would mean for them.
In the bedroom they let go of one another, a careful distance between them. Her gaze fell on his bed, duvet still crumpled where he had tossed and turned in his sleep the night before. He followed her eyes and smiled gently, wrapped his hands around her elbows and pulled her close to him to kiss her again. Tentatively, she fiddled with the buttons on his shirt, tugged at the lowest one and brushed her knuckles against the bare skin she found there. He gasped in to her mouth in response.
Bolstered, she worked her way up the buttons until she could push the shirt off of his shoulders. Despite the fact that she’d seen him with his shirt off before, so many times, it was different somehow with him looming over her, lips parted and hands on her hips. He was warm underneath her fingertips as she traced the expanse of his chest; the dip of his ribcage, the downy hair that trailed down his stomach and beneath the waistband of his trousers. The elastic was well used and gave easily when she slipped a hand down below the fabric and took him in her hand. He watched her the entire time, expression awed, and she felt him bring his hands round to cup her behind before reaching up to pull the hem of her top up.
Pausing before he lifted the material up over her breasts, he leant down to capture her lips in his; searching for something that she couldn’t quite identify.
“I’m sure,” she answered a question he hadn’t asked, but when he relaxed even more against her- reached down to pull her exploring hand up and kissed her palm- she realised just how nervous he was. Pulling back, she met his eye. “Are you?”
“I want this, I definitely want this,” he confirmed with a nod, a soft kiss on her lips and then his hands resuming their exploration of her skin. With a pounding heart, she helped him to tug her shirt over her head and watched as he pulled back almost imperceptibly to look at her.
This was brand new. He had seen her in a swimming costume before and, once, a particularly modest bikini in her back garden. Breath held, she waited for the feeling of embarrassment, of exposure, to wash over her. It never came. James’ eyes roamed over her and it felt right; his eyes shone and a little reverential smile played about his lips as he reached up to cup her breast and tilted his head to kiss her again. Without any sense of doubt this time she ran her hands down to the waistband of her trousers and tugged, shuffled and stepped out of the fabric. Then she was naked in his arms. He moaned against her, pulled her tight against his chest and splayed his hands out across her back.
The bedsheets were cold against her skin when he eased her down, kissing his way along her jaw, but he warmed her with his body. She had to remind herself that this was James, her James, as he kissed his way along her neck and ran his hands all over her. The sweet, quiet boy she had grown up with and who was now exploring her bare skin with a confidence that she had not expected. He touched her until she could no longer bear it and she was pulling him up to kiss him, feel his tongue plunge in to her mouth and his thighs pressed against hers.
When he pulled away to trail kisses back down her body she relaxed in to the pillows, arms thrown above her head, and let herself enjoy the feel of him. As his lips found her breasts she sighed and shut her eyes; his hands tightened at her waist and he made little noises of appreciation as he moved his mouth over her. Then, she felt the chill of the air across her breasts, sensed the mattress shift and heard the sound of him fumbling with something on the night stand.
“Mmm?” she murmured as she propped herself up to look at him. He was sat back on his haunches and watching her- condom held between his fingers. Even in the low light his eyes shone brightly and the look he gave her told her exactly what she needed to know; he saw her as his everything as much as she saw him as hers.
“I never realised…” she started, but her voice caught in her throat. He crept closer to her on the bed, held himself over her propped up on his elbows. The earnest way he looked at her buoyed her and she kissed him before continuing. “I never realised how much I need you.”
Then he kissed her again and took her breath away.
In the morning she woke up alone, although the bed was still warm and she could hear him padding around in the kitchen. Swinging her legs out of bed, she tested the pressure on her ankle; sore, but nothing too serious. She pushed herself up, pulled on her shirt and walked carefully out in to the living area to find him.
He was in the kitchenette, wiping last night’s cutlery and plates and piling them carefully on the side. For a moment she drank in the sigh of him; he seemed freer somehow, his natural tendency to slouch suddenly gone, and he hummed quietly as he moved around the kitchen area. Last night, when they had laid curled up together in the darkness, she had been worried that there would be no way of reconciling her relationship with her best friend and these new feelings. But now she sighed, feeling the pounding of her heart in her chest, and calmed herself with the knowledge that this new warmth was the most natural thing in the world.
Eventually he turned, looked momentarily shocked to see her standing there and then grinned his lopsided grin, pushed his hair out of his eyes and held out his hand to her. She went without hesitation, breathed in the scent of him as his wrapped his arms around her. The cottage was far too cold to walk around with nothing on, he was back in his warm pyjamas, and already she missed the feel of his bare skin on hers.
“’Morning,” he murmured in to her hair, “How’s the ankle?”
She flexed it experimentally, felt the dull ache that she had expected, and shrugged.
“I’ll be fine, but probably need to stay off of it today,” she replied and when she looked up at him he was smirking. She gave him a look off mock horror and slapped his arm gently. “What is that face for?”
“Just thinking of all the things we could today instead of going for a walk. I think there’s an ancient game of Monopoly in one of these cupboards,” he said it innocently, but something stirred deep in the pit of her stomach and she stepped closer to him.
On tiptoes, she stretched up so that her lips were close to his ear, wrapped her arms around his chest and pressed herself in to him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you swear before,” she breathed, teasing. He shuddered, but his lips twisted in to a grin. “’Fuck’,” she moaned in mimicry, her breath rolling across his ear. With a gasp, he grabbed her and pushed her back against the kitchen top, tipping her head back to kiss her again.
She had woken up in the night with his arms around her and him gently nipping at her earlobe with his teeth; he’d been promptly dispatched, clad in nothing but his glasses, to fetch another condom from her toiletry bag in the bathroom. When he had come back to bed he was shivering, but warmed himself on the heat of her while she squealed and tried to escape his icy grasp. Then, on her knees, she had heard his breath become more laboured; felt his hands scrunch in her hair until he pulled her up and kissed her again. There hadn’t been much sleep after that.
Now, he yawned against her mouth and she giggled, reaching up to plant a kiss on the tip of his nose.
“I still don’t understand the rules of Yahtzee.” James pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and frowned down at the yellowed pamphlet he had pulled out of the only game box they could find. “Maybe we should try and get the TV working again?”
Mandy giggled at the thought of him leaning over the boxy old TV screen to direct the aerial again. He had come away covered in dust, brushing at his hair as she sat happily on the floor in a bundle of blankets. They had given up on modern amenities shortly afterwards, but there was only so much time that could be spent fondling on the floor. Perhaps fortunately, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the rain was pounding the courtyard outside of their cottage. Ample excuse, ankle excluded, to not do anything all day. She turned her attention back to James, nudged him gently with the toe of her good foot.
“That old thing will never work. And we can’t spend all day kissing!”
“Can’t we?” A quick wink and she blushed, stomach flipping under his gaze.
Had he always looked at her so fondly? It was hard to think now that she recognised adoration in his eyes. She thought that, maybe, yes he had and she had been naive all along. He kissed her like no one had before; softly possessive, but hungry, like he had everything in his grasp but was afraid of it slipping away.
She knew that feeling all too well; those moments at the beginning of university she had allowed herself to rationalise away. An aborted kiss and then three years of longing simmering underneath the surface.
Propped up against the armchair across the rug from her, he had returned his attention to the rules of the game and was reading the pamphlet silently. Lips parted, his hair flopping over his eyes, he made her heart beat just a little faster.
She let her gaze linger slightly too long on his lips as he popped a sweet from his pocket in to his mouth. They stumbled, clinging to one another, across a garden that was slowly emptying as people took themselves indoors to avoid the chill of the summer night. Feeling cooped up and a little overwhelmed, Mandy had suggested that they do the opposite and get some air, which had the benefit of avoiding the winks her classmates were giving her after their game of truth or dare.
She had warned him to always pick truth around her friends. Although he was considered a staple whenever Mandy was invited to a party there was still the pressing knowledge that he was younger, sweeter than some of the more worldly girls in her class, and not accustomed to drinking as much as the rest of them. Seventeen and nervous, they had pounced and James had been dared to kiss her. Spluttering in to his drink, he had glanced down at her. Mandy did a quick units calculation in her head and came up feeling a little worse for wear.
“I don’t think Mandy wants that-”
“That’s the game, babe.” Heather Bailes had smiled sweetly, touched his arm and winked at Mandy, “Or do you want to down that drink?”
James had glanced down at the full glass in his hand- poured, Mandy realised, by Heather from a cheap vodka bottle moments earlier- and paled. Raising an eyebrow at her, he had waited for her almost imperceptible nod and then obliged, giving her a chaste kiss on the lips.
In the fresh air, he swayed clumsily against her.
There was something familiar about his lips that she couldn’t quite place.
Her head swam.
Her classmates had whooped and cheered and his face had reddened when he pulled back. From then on the party had only grown louder and soon she recognised the tell-tale signs that her best friend was uncomfortable and, taking his elbow in the palm of her hand, had nodded towards the door to the back garden.
“You’re lucky,” Heather had whispered nastily as Mandy pulled James towards the porch, “I was going to dare you to make her c-”
The slamming door had cut her off, but Mandy felt herself growing hotter even as the air cooled around them. Beside her, James had bristled. They pressed on towards the end of the garden, where the trees lined the fence before the scenery gave way to moors and heathland.
A clink of ice against glass made her look down and she realised that James had drained most of his drink and was swirling the last of it around in the glass. At a safe distance from the house they stopped walking and, leaning against a tree, she gazed up at him.
“Sorry about Heather,” she said quietly, throwing a glare back towards the party, “She likes to pick on the-”
“Weaker ones?” he said, slightly bitterly, and swigged the last of his drink with his head tipped back. She rolled her eyes and touched his cheek to bring his gaze back down to her.
“No, she likes to pick on anyone she worries might be more likeable than her. Which is most people.”
At that he smiled, a lopsided grin that she always found charming, and leant against the thick trunk next to her, arms folded. He stood slightly taller than her now, having hit a growth spurt in the last couple of years, and she had to crane her chin up to look him in the eyes. Something gnawed at the edges of her stomach. She put it down to the alcohol.
Amelia Banks had invited them both to her leaver’s party. No adults, had been the draw for most people. Bring that cute friend of yours had done it for Mandy. Despite being younger, James had a subtle charm that many of the girls in her year found appealing. They’d never ‘do’ anything, they assured Mandy, but they took pains to remind her that her best friend had grown in to his looks. She was inclined to agree, although she felt she was probably biased.
He licked his lips and she settled against the tree, back pressed firmly to the bark. Usually a fan of personal space, she felt a little trill of pleasure when James stepped closer, almost imperceptibly except for the warmth of his thigh brushing against hers.
“I think I drank too much,” he laughed softly, head dipped to get closer to her, “I really didn’t want to down that vodka.”
“Small price to pay to not have you pass out on me later,” she joked lightly. In truth, her eyelids felt heavy and and her heart was pounding and she wondered if she could just lay down and sleep right there in the garden. James didn’t look like he was faring much better; he gazed at her through long eyelashes, soft and gentle, like he was slipping away in to a dream.
“Yeah… small price,” he whispered, breath rolling across her cheeks like a punctuation of sorts. He dropped his arms, fingers brushing past her.
“You know what I…” Cut off by his lips brushing hers, she gasped. He pulled back slightly, eyes searching hers. “… mean. You know what I mean.”
They came together again, his lips warm and open as they parted her own. He tasted sweet, but not unpleasantly so, like apple sweets with the undercurrent of vodka. His lips were soft, his cheeks slightly rough from early days of shaving when she reached up to hold his face still. Dizzy, she steadied herself against him and found herself sandwiched between the rough, cool bark at her back and James’ chest, pressed firmly against her own as his arms held her tight. He licked in to her mouth and she pulled him closer, sighing.
Emboldened, James snaked a hand up her body to entwine his fingers in her hair; his hold was strong, but his body felt looser against her, like an exhale that flowed right through him. His knee pushed between her legs and she was astonished at how good it felt to be pinned against the tree by him.
For a moment he paused for breath and she took the opportunity to trail her lips along his jaw, peppering him with kisses as his laughed softly. His hands slipped from her hips to her waist, his fingertips brushing the underside of her bra through the fabric of her shirt.
The sounds of the moors rolled around them; soft and almost silent as the leaves bristled against the wind and the harvest mice rustled the tall grasses. Mandy felt something inside her flip with delight when he moaned gently, tipped his chin up so that she could press her lips in to the hollow beneath his jaw. Grateful that she had decided to wear her usual jeans and shirt, she shivered when he slipped his hands along the bare skin across her back.
She was working her lips along the pale skin on his neck when he stiffened suddenly and pulled back.
“Sorry,” he spluttered, not meeting her eye, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have- I’ve had too much. Sorry.”
“It’s okay, don’t…” But he was pulling away, wiping his mouth with a flat palm and looking back at her guiltily. His shoulder hunched, embarrassed, and she recognised the signs of him withdrawing in to himself- signs she had seen more and more since his dad had started spending more time away from home and she had been planning for university. It was pointless to try and ease him back now. The moment had passed.
They walked home in silence.