Her father swings through the doorway from the living room and startles her as she closes the fridge door. One second she’s looking at the leftovers trying to decide if it’s worth ordering pizza, the next she’s closed the door and he’s standing there smiling at her like a maniac.
“Geez, dad,” Amicia breathes, swiping at him. “Do you need to be such a weirdo at all times?”
“Yes,” he tells her, beaming. “Any second now your mother’s going to descend the stairs looking radiant as ever and I have to make sure you’re here so I can tell you not to burn the house down.”
She rolls her eyes at him. “I think I’m old enough at this point to know not to do that. Where would I live?”
He taps a finger against his chin. “You’d have to move out.”
“In this economy?”
Robert just laughs and slings an arm around her shoulder, guiding her to the living room so they can wait for her mother.
It is not, however, Beatrice who descends the stairs, but rather Hugo. Robert takes this completely in stride.
“Wow, dear,” he says in that soft reverent tone he saves just for his wife. “You look stunning.”
Hugo is wearing his school uniform still, dark slacks and a white button-up, tie loose around his neck, hair in complete disarray. He looks down at himself, then back up, confused. “Where’s mum?” he asks.
“Oh, you’re my son,” Robert chuckles. “She’ll be here soon. Why do you look so frazzled?”
“Uh…” He twists the loose hem of his shirt around a finger. “Because I forgot to tell you that your assigned evening for parent teacher interviews was today? And I was reminded this morning in form room?” Hugo offers the cutest, widest smile he can manage. (It’s not the same as when he was five, of course, but his dimpled cheeks don’t hurt any.)
Robert’s smile flickers but it’s a testament to his good nature that he just claps a hand to Hugo’s shoulder and shakes his head. “Is it imperative that we go?”
Hugo shrugs. “Probably not? But it does make a good impression.”
Amicia watches her father’s face as he thinks. It’s unlikely either of her parents will elect parent teacher conferences over their already-planned evening; it would be really poor form for them to just not show up. Not that Amicia knows precisely what the function is they’re going to this evening but knowing them it’s something vitally important to the future of science.
After a moment, Robert turns to look at Amicia, his thoughtful expression now aimed at her.
“Oh no,” she says, taking a step back. “No way. Lucas is coming over this evening. It’s book club.”
“You can’t have a book club with only two people,” Robert tells her patiently. “Please?”
“It’ll mean a lot to me, Amicia,” Hugo adds. “I’d like my teachers to at least think I care.”
“Is it really a good impression if your older sister goes to these things?”
“Yes,” Hugo and Robert say at the same time.
She thinks it’s some sort of universal punishment that her mother chooses that moment to come down the stairs looking beyond elegant in her evening gown, hair done up in some elaborately pinned knot, shawl draped over her shoulders. Beatrice takes one look at the scene before her and – if not the details – immediately knows something is going on.
“It’s Hugo’s parent conferences tonight.”
Beatrice clucks her tongue but smooths Hugo’s hair into a more presentable state anyway, not really mad; she’s wearing her problem-solving face. And, of course, she comes to the same conclusion as Robert. “Amicia, please take him.”
Not a request. She waits a beat and then sighs, defeated. There’ll be no talking both her parents out of this. “Let me call Lucas.”
Lucas is, predictably, understanding, “It’s alright,” he says as Amicia shoos her parents out the door. “This is important too. Can I stop around tomorrow?”
“Uh… sure. In the morning? I have to be at class by three.”
“No worries. Have fun!”
After he’s hung up she turns to Hugo who has tidied up his uniform and stood looking suitably guilty the whole time. It’s not really fair that he’s nearly the same height as her now; totally ruins her ability to loom menacingly while upbraiding him. He offers her a sheepish smile.
“When do we have to be there?”
Amicia bumps into his shoulder gently on her way past back to the kitchen. “Time enough for dinner, then.”
Amicia puts no effort into dressing for the occasion. It’s just a bunch of meetings where Hugo’s teachers will tell her how great he is in class, what his grades are like, and probably some other nonsense that she’ll be expected to relay to her parents. She brings a notebook just in case something anomalous happens (such as a teacher telling her Hugo fell asleep or didn’t hand something in).
His school is one of those fancy ones that puts a lot of stock in ceremony and all that nonsense, she remembers from when she attended and honestly? Amicia doesn’t miss it. Not least because when they arrive, she has to get her driver’s licence out to prove that, while she’s not Beatrice de Rune, she is related to Hugo and has every right to be there.
It’s a situation made infinitely worse when his maths teacher – a man older than time itself who had taught her when she was there – pops into the room and recognises her. Sure, he helps resolve the situation with the whole proof of identity thing, but it also makes her feel remarkably self-conscious.
“Amicia!” he calls in a reedy voice that instantly launches her back to when she was fourteen and sitting at the front of his class. She shudders a little. Traumatic. “What brings you here? Haven’t seen you in years.”
She plasters on her best approximation of a smile and turns. “Here for Hugo, sir.”
“Parents couldn’t be here?”
“They had a prior engagement.”
“Ah well, it happens.”
It sure does. Her mother had almost never had the time to attend her functions like this when she was at school. Maybe it’s a good thing Hugo at least has her.
“I’ve gotta go,” he says, collecting something from behind the receptionist’s desk. “I’ll see you later!”
She heaves a sigh of relief when he’s gone, thanks the receptionist when she receives the schedule for meetings, and resists the urge to stick her tongue out when the woman looks away.
Hugo isn’t allowed to accompany her into the meetings, he sits on the stairs outside with his friends instead. Something about not wanting to say hard truths to student ears. Probably a good thing, if Hugo was a bad student it wouldn’t be nice to badmouth him where he can hear.
(But he’s the poster child for good students and this whole thing seems pointless to Amicia.)
Which is proven to her three times in a row when she speaks to his literature, mathematics and chemistry teachers. They all gush about him and two of them – teachers who had the good luck to teach both de Rune children – ask after how she’s doing.
(She even survives the conversation with one of them about when her children will be attending. Amicia has never experienced before equal desire to melt into a puddle and also punch someone in the face before, so that was new. She feels like she deserves a medal for doing neither.)
His biology teacher, an older man who Amicia doesn’t know but remembers as being the one who taught Lucas, talks about how Hugo’s mind is so sharp, so curious. He even scribbles some notes into her book for later on how he highly recommends Hugo look further into botany and the places study could take him. He’s the most genuine and enthusiastic teacher she’s spoken to so far; it’s refreshing.
Of course, he couldn’t have been the last meeting. Oh no, that honour is held by Hugo’s history teacher. Amicia immediately hates life and everything that led her to this moment.
The woman is young, maybe about her own age, which means Amicia doesn’t know her, has no knowledge on which to draw. Her red hair is messy and she’s not as pristinely dressed as the other teachers, in fact, she looks decidedly like she’d rather be at home. She’s unfairly pretty in this laid-back way that most teachers at the school must shun given their wardrobes (pretty in a way that makes Amicia swallow). But the real kicker is when she looks up from flicking through her paperwork and spots Amicia.
Her face flashes through a host of emotions that disappear much too quickly for Amicia to identify but she’d hazard that curiosity numbers among them. In the end, her expression settles on something that might border professional, but only just. There’s something warm and a little cheeky in her eyes that makes it hard to classify as anything particularly relevant to a parent-teacher meeting. And the way her eyes flick over her makes something sticky blossom in her stomach in a way she’s not familiar with but finds not entirely uncomfortable.
(She’s so distracted by the woman’s face that she walks into the chair like a right idiot. And she’s surprised she gets away without being mocked for it.)
The woman extends a hand and says, “Mélie Dubois.”
“Amicia de Rune.”
Shaking her hand takes too long. She had a class where her tutor explicitly explained handshakes, and this is not what he described as ideal. It’s too long, too warm, too… too much. It’s hard to let go, all the same.
Mélie doesn’t sit at the desk like the other teachers did, either; she sort of slouches into it in a way that exudes a casual air. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you’re not Hugo’s mother.”
“How much older? Most parents wouldn’t trust a sibling with this.”
It’s a valid reason to ask but Amicia’s skin prickles with the feeling there’s more behind her question. “Ten years.”
And the way Mélie’s eyes flicker makes her assume she’s right. “Huh. And he roped you into this, I take it. Jerk.”
She shrugs. “He forgot it was today. Mum and dad had something else on.”
Mélie rolls her eyes. “Oh, he forgot did he. Legally, I’m not allowed to hit a student so can you just…” she mimes punching, “in the shoulder for me?”
“He’s not that poorly behaved, is he?”
There’s that funny look to Mélie’s face again, the one that’s so many emotions warring for dominance that it’s impossible to interpret. It fills a beat until she regains composure; although Amicia has known this woman for two hot seconds and has already come to the conclusion that her idea of composure is some variation of smug and mischievous. “Just mad he forgot me. Me, his best teacher.”
“If you’re his best teacher,” Amicia begins, mirroring the teasing tone, “how come he never mentions you?”
“He doesn’t, huh? Well then.” Mélie pulls a phone out of her files and slides it across the table to her. “I had to confiscate this today because it’s against school rules to have them in class.”
Amicia jerks forwards. “No way. And he got caught?”
“It’s not the first time,” Mélie goes on. “Though it is a recent development. I was going to return it tomorrow like I always do but if he hasn’t even mentioned me…”
From the smile on her face, no matter her intentions, this was going to be brought up one way or another. Amicia turns the phone screen on, it’s a picture of the two of them when they went for ice creams over the summer, then she tucks it into her back pocket.
“Any ideas why he might be doing this?” Amicia asks her. “None of his other teachers mentioned anything.”
There’s a pause in which Mélie shrugs and just looks at her. “No ideas?” she asks.
Mélie laughs. “Rebel? Hugo?”
“You’re right, that’s a bit of a stretch.”
“Just between you and me? I think a lot of kids use their phones to get around the internet blocks on the school’s wifi. He just got unlucky a couple of times.”
“Well…” Amicia sighs. “I’ll have words with him, I guess. Maybe I can threaten him with mum unless he talks.”
Mélie’s laugh almost falls into ‘evil cackle’ territory. “I like it. Let me know how that goes.”
The way Mélie’s eyes settle on her face, the tilt to her smile, Amicia almost forgets that she’s supposed to leave. Then there’s a ding from the PA system to signal the end of the meetings and she nearly leaps from her skin.
“I’ll see you next time, Miss de Rune,” Mélie says softly.
“Maybe you will, Miss Dubois.”
And maybe she will.
Amicia holds the phone up when she gets outside and Hugo makes a funny little noise.
“She told you,” he groans.
She trots down the steps and heads towards the car. “Yeah, she did. What’s this about?”
He hunches his shoulders up around his ears. “Teenage rebellion?”
“Brrt. Try again.” And she lights up the screen again and shows it to him. “And since when is this your lock screen?”
Hugo tries to make all these indignant huffs as if he’s offended by that question and he says, “Since always.”
“Brrt,” she reiterates. “You’re not a very good liar, you know.”
“I know,” he sighs.
“Do you want to explain it to me, or should I give this to mum when she gets home and explain what Miss Dubois told me?”
“If I tell you…” he begins warily, “will you promise not to tell mum?”
“We’ll see if I like the answer.”
Hugo sinks into the passenger seat, does up his buckle and then sits with his hands in his lap staring at the dashboard for a long, long while. Amicia doesn’t key the engine to life, content to wait him out. He’s always been a thoughtful kid, prone to weighing his words carefully before speaking; even when he was little, he had a tendency to think things through before coming to a conclusion.
Eventually he looks up at her, face open and maybe a little worried. “The first time was an accident,” he says. “It was last Thursday, and you’d posted that photo in front of the law firm where you got your internship. I… had it open before class and didn’t notice Miss Dubois had come in and she saw me on my phone and confiscated it.”
So, an honest mistake. “But…?” she prompts.
“But she saw the photo,” he elaborates, voice strained. “Asked me who it was. So, I told her.”
Amicia blinks. But if Mélie had already seen a photo of her and Hugo had said she’s his sister, then she knew she’s not his mother already? And why would she have to double check that?
“Alright,” she says, filing that thought away for later examination. “Then what? She said she’s confiscated it several times.”
He fidgets with his fingers and shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.”
Hugo’s eyes flicker about her face and then he stares out the window. For a minute she thinks he’s not going to speak, lifts a hand to the keys. Then he says, “If I’m quoting someone, can I swear?”
“I’ll tell you what Miss Dubois said. But she swore.”
“Yes. She does that sometimes. That’s why everyone likes her so much.”
Amicia rubs her fingers across her face. “Okay. I guess.”
“When she saw the photo of you at the internship…” His face goes bright red. “She said ‘holy shit she’s hot who is this’, like she’d forgotten where she was.”
Amicia’s face goes the same brilliant shade of red at that and when she tries to speak her throat closes over. Something heated shoots through every vein in her body and suddenly the car feels stifling.
“I checked the time the other day and she took my phone off me even though everyone does that,” he goes on softly, rambling, maybe trying to forget what he’d just said. “Adam thinks it’s because she just wanted to see you on my lock screen and I told him that was stupid but she only confiscates my phone and I’m a little bit over it. So I thought maybe if she met you, she’d see you’re a nerd and then she’d leave my phone alone. The meeting times have been in the notices for two weeks I just didn’t tell mum and dad because then you wouldn’t come with and I didn’t know how else to get her to stop taking my phone.”
The truth comes out. It… doesn’t explain as much as she might’ve liked.
She decides to ignore as much of it as possible, keys the ignition over and says, “I’m a nerd, am I?”
Hugo’s entire frame slumps backwards into his seat in relief. “The nerdiest. But you’re the best, too.”
“The best nerd. I can take that.”
“Please don’t tell mum.”
“Don’t tell mum that your teacher takes your phone and swears in class? I think I can manage that.”
What she apparently can’t manage is to stop thinking about Mélie Dubois at all, for any reason.
Lucas says she’s acting funny in the morning and doesn’t stay as long as normal because she’s ‘like a robot and probably needs more sleep’ according to him. She hears almost nothing that her lecturer says in her class that afternoon and might as well have stayed home and taken Lucas’ advice.
The woman asks her questions she doesn’t need to? Says… that to her brother? Her brain feels like one of those coloured crayon scribble drawings kids do when they’re very young.
Amicia spends her weekend replaying the conversation with Hugo’s teacher trying to remember if there was something – anything – to hint at an ulterior motive, or maybe just something unsaid. But she can’t remember.
By Sunday, she’s decided that enough of her time has been wasted dwelling on this and she likely won’t ever see Mélie again so what does it matter.
The universe wins that round by proving her wrong.
“Hey, Amicia,” her mother says, stopping in her doorway a few days later. “Can you drive Hugo to his debate this evening? I have to go to the office.”
She swings her chair around but Beatrice’s attention is fixed on the tablet in front of her, face all pinched with worry and brows crinkled in either thought or frustration. Amicia watches for a beat before she says, “Sure. What’s the address?”
“It’s on the fridge. Thanks, hon. Text me his results?”
Beatrice stands there a bit longer as she types out a response to whatever is so important, then she looks up and smiles at Amicia before leaving.
She goes back to her case study and remains engrossed in that until Hugo sticks his head around the doorframe about an hour later and asks, “Where’s mum?”
“She went back to work.”
“But – !”
“Do they feed you at these debates or should we stop on the way there?”
“You’re taking me?”
“Yeah, they feed us. Chinese this week.”
He doesn’t speak for a moment and she keeps typing. Then he says, “We’re going to be late,” and when she looks at the time on her desktop she sees it’s already after five.
“Ugh. Sorry. Go quickly.”
The drive to the school isn’t that far, really, but there’s been a team retarring the road along the fastest route and Amicia forgets about that until they’re stuck in traffic. Hugo spends the entire delay bouncing his leg and glancing at the clock. It’s nice he doesn’t blame her for her lapse in awareness, though.
When they arrive he bounds from the car and beats her into the building by almost a full minute. Which is bad, because she doesn’t know where she’s going.
“Hugo?” she calls.
“This way!” he hollers back. Amicia follows his voice until she finds the classroom with people in it.
The space is big, there are folding doors along one wall so she assumes this room can be split in two. Up the far end, the students huddle together for last minute planning. Other parents sit at the desks filling the space, and by the door where she enters a couple of desks have been shoved together and snacks are laid out.
There’s a guy with massive, broad shoulders standing at the table holding a plastic cup of water and chatting amicably with another woman – a teacher, Amicia presumes. She doesn’t know him, and when he sees her his eyes glance over quickly; once he’s realised he doesn’t know her either, he goes back to his conversation.
That’s about when Amicia realises the back of the woman’s head is vaguely familiar. Or rather, her head of red hair is what’s familiar, as is her less than semi-formal business attire. Without really intending on it, tugged by a spike of warmth between her ribs, Amicia heads over to the table, fills herself a cup of water and injects into a pause in their conversation, “My brother told me why his phone got confiscated.”
Amicia looks around at the crunching sound that follows her words and she finds the man’s face and shirt covered in water. Mélie’s eyes are about as wide as eyes go. They both splutter but for two different reasons. At least Amicia hopes it’s for two different reasons.
(If she finds out later that she’s known to the staff body as ‘Hugo de Rune’s hot older sister’ she might just have to find a hole to die in. But if that’s how Mélie described her to other staff? She can feel her face heating at just the thought alone.)
“Miss de Rune,” Mélie finally manages. “Hi.” She sets her crumpled cup on the table and says, “I have to be… elsewhere,” in a very small voice before she flees.
Amicia is about to follow her when the man speaks. “Hugo’s sister?”
Oh. Crap. “Do I know you?” And she internally readies herself for her fears to be met.
He extends a massive hand. “Rodric Fabron. It’s a bit of an ironic name for a manual arts’ teacher but what can you do?”
“Amicia,” she tells him slowly, taking it. “What’s a manual arts’ teacher doing at debating?”
“I’m the debate coach,” he says brightly.
“And uh…” she glances over her shoulder but can’t see Mélie anywhere, “Miss Dubois?”
“We’re friends. She comes with so I’m not alone with the students and…” he leans in a little to whisper conspiratorially, “parents.”
“Problems with the parents?” she asks around laughter.
Rodric turns so their shoulders are nearly pressed together and he points across the room to where a couple of mothers are sitting in a clump and waiting for the debate to begin. “See that blonde one? That’s Clarissa Linville, single mother, she flirts with all her daughter’s teachers if they’re young enough. And she’s very difficult to avoid.”
She laughs properly this time. “Must be hard.”
“It is,” he insists. “Do you know Mélie too?”
“We’ve met just the once. At parent teacher.”
“Ah yeah…” He gives her a curious look, opens his mouth, closes it again. She cannot quantify how relieved she is that he doesn’t say whatever he’s thinking. She doesn’t know what it is, and she doesn’t want to know. Rodric looks around and waves at one of his students. “Excuse me, I have to go. It was nice meeting you.”
As soon as he’s crossed the room, Amicia turns to the door and goes looking for Mélie. She stops in the exit, gives the crowd a once-over – but crowd is a generous term for the six kids, two teachers and their parents. Mostly just one parent per kid too. Mélie isn’t there, so she leaves.
It’s pretty late in the afternoon and it’s been cloudy all day, so there’s something vaguely off about standing in an abandoned school hallway lit only by the light filtering through the glass pane in the door behind her. It’s quiet. So quiet she can hear something off to her left (not heading back the way they entered) and so, with only the briefest of hesitations, she sets off to find it.
By the time she reaches the end of the hall Amicia realises that the sound she was hearing is just rain. The corridor opens up onto a balcony that overlooks the gardens where a lot of students spend their lunch times. She remembers this location, but not the entrance to the building; they must have refurbished parts of the school.
The gardens in the rain are a nice enough sight that for a second she forgets why she left the debate. Then she recalls that – supposing the school hasn’t been refurbished too much – the humanities block is at the end of this balcony; geography on the top floor, history underneath.
Amicia turns, wanders towards the far end, shoes clicking softly on the wood in imitation of the rain. In one of the classrooms downstairs a light flicks on in the window. Must be Mélie’s room.
She tiptoes the last little way and checks to make sure she won’t be spotted through the window before heading down. No sense giving Mélie the warning she needs to run away again. Amicia only spares a second to wonder why she even cares about having this conversation. It’d be easier to never speak again, probably.
And yet there’s a but in the back of her head driving her, a compulsion maybe. Her lecturers tell her this is what makes her a good future-lawyer: her inability to leave a single line of questioning unresolved. What could be more unresolved than a teacher potentially harassing her brother… somehow? She’s not sure exactly how it’s harassment, but she’s determined to get to the bottom anyway.
(Though she suspects it won’t be a mystery she adds to her resume.)
The door is ajar and she can hear something from inside which she hopes is loud enough to cover any squeaking noises the door might make. It doesn’t even creak a little bit so when she’s pushed it open far enough, she slips inside.
Mélie’s classroom is about what she’d expect of a history room, albeit not necessarily what she’d expect of Mélie (not that she really knows the woman well enough to be making judgements of that variety). Windows look out onto the garden, cabinets are labelled with peeling paper notes, student work hangs on the walls or is placed on shelves. The desks are set out in groups ensuring every chair has a view of the board, Mélie’s desk is tucked away in a corner and a projector hangs from the ceiling; it’s about standard for a classroom these days Amicia supposes. It’s what most of her university tutor rooms look like, if a bit smaller.
At first, she can’t see who she’s after, but then movement catches her eye and Amicia spots Mélie kneeling on the floor by her desk rummaging in a cupboard.
“Hope you’re not holding anything dangerous, this time,” Amicia says softly.
Despite trying not to startle her, Mélie flinches dramatically about two words into the statement. She also bangs her knee on the edge of her desk when she stands.
“Fuck me,” she hisses, leaning on one palm and rubbing her knee with the other hand.
“Ah,” Amicia sighs, stepping into the room and sliding up onto one of the desks. “I see Hugo told the truth; you do swear in class.”
Mélie gives her a wry look. “Gonna tell on me?”
“No. But I’d like to know why you ran away before.”
Not having a cup of water to scrunch up, Mélie’s face flushes crimson instead. “Well,” she says, looking out the window. “That’s too bad. Are you going to tell me why you thought ambushing me was a good idea?”
“Ambushing you? I just came to watch Hugo’s debate.”
“You’re not there.”
“I’m solving a mystery.”
“The mystery of…?”
Amicia kicks one leg beneath the desk before she admits, “Honestly, I’m not entirely sure yet. You looked at me funny at the interview, ran away from me just now, and you keep confiscating my brother’s phone. What mystery would you like me to be solving?”
When Amicia says it out loud like that, the obvious conclusion to come to is that Mélie just doesn’t like her for some reason. Only they don’t know each other, so how could she? Maybe that’s the mystery.
Mélie folds her arms, scrunches up her nose, leans away; defensive behaviour. Her psych teacher would be so proud. “I thought you said Hugo told you why I took his phone?”
God this woman knows how to deflect. “He was looking at photos at the start of class. Yes, he told me.”
“He didn’t…” she trails off, expression wary for some reason. “That’s all he told you?”
“No. He told me what you said. Had to ask permission to swear, first, though.”
“Yeah, that sounds like him,” she laughs and it’s fond. So this isn’t all because she doesn’t like Hugo. Good to know. “Listen, how about I promise not to take his phone anymore? How’s that?”
“If he’s on his phone in class you should take it off him.”
“Yeah. It’s a fine line, you know? Sometimes I wish I could be like, just get out your phones for this it’ll be so much easier. But… rules.”
Amicia smiles, leans back on her hands. “I get that. Sometimes even if you know the answer to something, you’re expected to jump through hoops to get there and it’s just… why bother?”
Mélie’s defensive posture relaxes, her arms swing loose to gesture, her wariness replaced by something a little more emotive. “Right? Like this is just how it is, accept it. There’s been fifty years of research into why it’s like this, but I don’t have time to explain carbon dating to you, okay? It just works.”
“They ask things like that?”
“Well…” Mélie huffs a laugh. “Among things like ‘why use carbon’ which I can’t answer because science, and also jokes about historians dating old things, yeah. Sometimes they ask actual good questions. And I’d like to say, just google it, but I can’t because the school’s banned phones.”
“I guess that’s nice, at least. Better than the dumb questions I have to listen to my fellow interns ask.”
“What are you interning for?”
“Lawyer. One of the guys placed at the same firm as me asked what he should do if the defendant is a hot widow who hits on him.”
Mélie’s guffaw is loud and infectious. “He thinks a grieving widow is hitting on him for any reason other than a better result?”
Amicia laughs with her. “That’s exactly what our lecturer said! Well that, and professionalism.”
“Yeah, that’s not as amusing though.”
There’s something in Mélie’s expression, in every line of her body language, that changes when Amicia says she’s a lawyer-to-be, but not in a way she’s familiar with. She tries to file it away for later thought. Whatever the change is, something in Amicia’s chest responds to it warmly.
“One of the defendants in the case we’re working at the moment keeps flirting with me. I think...” Amicia admits, softly. “Never where my supervisor can see, unfortunately, because I feel like punching him would end badly.”
“Shouldn’t you report that?” Mélie seems genuinely concerned.
She shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe? We haven’t exactly covered ‘unwelcome come-ons’ in class.”
“That seems like an oversight. Teachers get so much drilled into them about advances it’s ridiculous. Don’t encourage kids, don’t get too involved or personal with them, blah, blah, gross.”
Amicia isn’t sure exactly how her face contorts, but whatever it does Mélie finds it funny. “At least there’s a logical procedure for that since it’s illegal.”
“Illegal, sure, but also disgusting. Anyone who doesn’t find it disgusting should be locked up. Students included.”
“That might be going a bit far. If a child lacks emotional connection at home, it’s only natural that if a teacher shows them an ounce of respect or understanding that they’re going to develop feelings of some sort or other. That’s just how brains work, especially for adolescents looking to find their place in society.”
Mélie rolls her eyes. “Psychobabble nonsense, save it.”
“You’re telling me you don’t know if any of your students think you’re pretty?”
“I definitely don’t. And I don’t want to know. They absolutely have no reason to think of me like that.”
“They have eyes,” Amicia says without thinking it through. “Isn’t that reason enough?”
Mélie’s face fills in with colour again. “Uh. No? They are infants.” She coughs and adds, “Also your brother is one of them.”
Amicia joins her in red-faced idiocy. “I’ve decided this is a topic to cancel right now, immediately.”
“Thank you, yes.” Mélie rubs at the back of her neck. “I should… uh, go back to Rodric. I’d hate for him to be attacked by the mums.”
“Yeah… yeah, should be up there watching, really.”
Amicia precedes her out the door and waits while she locks up. The debate is half over when they return but at least she sees Hugo’s argument and final points. His team is determined to be the victor and there’s a huge rush to eat the Chinese take-out someone has delivered while she was absent.
She loses Mélie in the chaos and it’s not until she and Hugo are almost home that Amicia realises she never did get a straight answer out of her.
Lucas is punctual as ever on Thursday for book club (the book club that’s just the two of them). He even brings ice cream. Bless him.
“Alright, so I have thoughts about this one, Amicia,” he says, forgoing a proper greeting, just waving his paperback at her. “Why did you make me read this? It’s scientifically ridiculous.”
She smiles. “You didn’t enjoy dinosaurs?”
He huffs. “I guess I enjoyed them, but they made no sense.”
He collapses onto the sofa in her room, mouth open to launch into a tirade about nineties science fiction, but she nicks the book from his hand. “We’re not talking about this. I have another topic for you.”
“About a book?”
“About a girl.”
Lucas is immediately attentive if the way his entire body twitches forward in the chair is any indication. “Explain.”
In as few words as she can, Amicia recounts the teacher conference, subsequent conversation with Hugo, and the evening of the debate. To his credit, despite his usual lack of interest in inter-personal matters, he remains focused the entire time.
The only question he asks is right near the end, when she’s outlining all the weird things Mélie had done: “Immediate gut response, why do you think she’s behaved in this fashion?”
“Gut reaction?” She shrugs. “Doesn’t like me?”
He sits in silence for a long moment, staring at the carpet and tapping his fingers across his knees. “Hugo said she called you hot?”
“Doesn’t that imply the opposite?”
“Why’s she avoiding me then?”
He hums. “Fear? You’ve literally asked me for help on this. Don’t you think maybe she’s having a similar struggle?”
And the funny thing is: she hadn’t.
Of course, once Lucas points that out to her she falls into a spiral; the sort of self-analytical spiral her psych lecturer warned them about and encouraged in the same breath. Question your responses to situations, why are you so focused on this and is there something more pressing you should be concerned with?
As soon as she asks herself that question she blurts, “Oh no.”
“Oh no?” Lucas asks with a raised eyebrow.
She slaps his book back onto his lap. “And we’re done talking about this now. Back to science fiction. Thoughts on prehistoric cloning?”
Normally Lucas isn’t one to get distracted so easily, but he must read something in her face that makes him do so now because he picks up right where he left off.
Amicia lays awake a lot longer in bed that night thinking about how she might have been so blinkered on why Mélie was behaving weirdly around her because she didn’t want to acknowledge that she was also acting a little odd.
Especially because admitting that means she has to admit that she finds Mélie attractive. Which feels massively awkward.
But once that thought has burrowed into the back of her mind, she cannot shake it.
When her alarm goes off in the morning she rolls over, groans into her pillow, and goes back to sleep.
She spends the next week so caught up in her head (in thinking about Mélie, specifically) that she nearly misses two of her classes. When she reaches the inevitable conclusion that she was caught up in ‘solving a mystery’ because the mystery involved Mélie and that essentially just meant Amicia was thinking about her because she’s pretty, well… she immediately wishes she’d kept ignoring it.
She might’ve succeeded in pretending this didn’t suddenly make sense to her, except Hugo mentions Mélie several times. Innocuous things, mostly, throwaway comments at dinner time or he’ll spout a fact that ‘Miss Dubois taught us even though it has nothing to do with history’. And then Amicia is thinking about her again and her stupid little crooked smile and ugh.
(The worst thing is, she’s not sure if Hugo realises what he’s doing. Either he has no idea that Amicia maybe has a moderate infatuation with his history teacher in which case thank god. Or he knows precisely what he’s doing in which case she’d like to die of mortification right now, thank you.)
To reiterate: ugh.
“I have an errand to run,” she calls as she walks past her mum’s home office. “So I’ll pick Hugo up from school.”
“You sure?” Beatrice sounds distracted, like the question is a formality rather than an actual offer.
“Yes. See you in a bit.”
She does, but barely, and mostly on autopilot. In fact, she’s so zoned out that she almost drives to her internship instead of her real destination. When she realises, she starts second guessing herself and drumming her thumbs on the steering wheel anxiously.
“Stupid,” she whispers to herself.
There’s a roundabout along her route and it’s nearly enough to convince her to take a different exit and go somewhere else, somewhere less fraught. She doesn’t, shockingly enough, but she does take the long way.
It circumvents the road works but adds about ten minutes to the trip, so it takes about the same amount of time at the moment. This just feels faster because she doesn’t have to stop for the workmen. Amicia also feels like she gets every green light on her way and she can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not.
On the one hand, less time to stress herself out. On the other, she might actually have to go through with this crazy idea. Catch twenty-two.
She drives around the block once before pulling into the parking lot and even once she’s done that Amicia spends the next five or so minutes driving around aimlessly. There are plenty of empty spaces, she’s just delaying things. It takes her a further five minutes after she finally pulls into a park to talk herself into getting out of the car.
When Amicia does finally get out, it occurs to her that she doesn’t even know if Mélie has a class now or not. And even if she does have a spare period, it could be she’s assigned to a supervision, so really this whole trip to the school might’ve been for nothing.
Amicia isn’t sure if she hopes that’s the case or not.
At least class is in session so she’s not going to be harassed by someone asking who she is and why she’s here. That might just be the death of her.
Somehow, she manages to walk out of the parking lot and underneath the block her muscle memory tells her will lead to the garden outside humanities. It does, but as soon as she’s there her feet suddenly forget how to carry her places and she’s left standing sort of just in the middle of the walkway staring at plants.
Seats have been added to the space since she attended the school, she and her friends used to sit on the bricks in one corner. It was nice because in winter the bricks would get warmed and sitting there at lunch was toasty and pleasant. Except when it snowed, but most people wouldn’t go outside then anyway. And in summer there was always a nice breeze from under the building and plenty of shade offered from the trees and balcony anyway.
Now that there are chairs students probably don’t get the same kind of warmed-butt sensation on the bricks. How sad for them.
(Amicia is completely aware that she’s indulging in some nostalgic recollections for the sake of avoiding why she’s really here.)
To further facilitate the recent discovery of her excellent avoidance techniques, she goes to sit on one of the new benches. As expected, it’s not as warm as the bricks would be. Very disappointing.
She sits there anyway for a few minutes, staring blankly at the ground and wondering if she’s just a fool for coming here like this. There’s nothing innately interesting about the bricks, but Amicia is so focused on them she doesn’t hear the tak tak tak of shoes approaching (and therefore doesn’t think she’s about to be caught trespassing) until there’s someone standing next to her.
When she looks up, she jumps so hard she nearly falls off the bench.
“Payback,” Mélie says with a soft smile. “At last.”
Amicia’s heartrate is elevated from the scare, but she doesn’t expect it to slow down any time soon. Especially not when Mélie decides to sink into the space beside her. She doesn’t know what to say. All she can do is try her hardest not to stare.
Mélie doesn’t seem to have the same problem, Amicia can feel eyes on her even as she stares at the bricks again. And then she asks, “You’re a little early to be picking up Hugo, aren’t you?”
“Actually I came to see you.” The words are out of her traitorous, awful mouth before she can think twice. But then they’ve been summoned into the world and Mélie has heard them and there’s no going back. The bricks should open up to swallow her any second now.
“And you’re here instead of twenty feet over there where my room is because…”
Mélie laughs, but it’s gentle, earnest. “Am I that scary?”
Amicia looks up at her, she’s wearing that same funny complicated expression from the teacher meetings, the debate evening, only this time she spares the time to try and figure it out. Mélie wears a cheeky smile (that she’s coming to assume is her default) like it’s armour, protecting something else, something softer, underneath. Maybe Lucas was right; she’s scared.
“Not really,” Amicia whispers, but she has to suck in a deep breath to steel herself before she adds, “you’re that pretty.”
It’s something of a relief when pink scribbles across Mélie’s nose because it means maybe she didn’t make a horrible, terrible mistake. “Oh.” She gets only that one sound out but it’s strangled so maybe this is affecting her too.
“I thought you didn’t like me,” Amicia adds.
Mélie coughs sharply. “Didn’t like how hot you are,” she grumbles, the pink tinting darker. She groans and finally looks away before admitting, “Didn’t like how you showed up on debate night and that thought I’d been ignoring since parent teacher resurfaced immediately.”
“What thought?” she asks, unsure if she wants to know or not, but unable to stop herself. Just like she can’t seem to look away from Mélie’s profile. The sharp line of her jaw, her nose, the soft changes to her expression that finally start to make sense to her.
When Mélie turns back this time her eyes flick between Amicia’s, skip down and back up, but it’s enough to give her away. Amicia’s heart misses a few beats even before Mélie says, “That it might be nice to kiss you.” Her voice is small, strangled, as if she’s saying it against the wishes of some little voice in her head.
Amicia has to take a few more steadying breaths before she can respond and the delay must be enough for Mélie to think she’s said something wrong because she shifts in her seat, a miniscule adjustment away, her eyes darting off to the garden. So Amicia blurts before she can wimp out again, “Take me on a date first.”
Mélie’s gaze whips back, her mouth open just a bit. Her attention is suffocating, all Amicia is aware of while she waits is her blood thundering in her ears, the nervous way her lungs quiver, and every place where Mélie is no longer close enough that she could twitch just an inch and they’d be touching.
“Really?” Her voice is small still, uncertain. Amicia can relate.
At last, the tiniest uptick of her lips hints at a smile and Amicia follows the movement like some sort of horny teenage boy. “Friday?” Mélie asks.
“Sure. Give me your phone.”
Mélie doesn’t even hesitate before sliding it from her back pocket and passing it over. Amicia saves her number to the contacts list and sends herself a message before handing it back.
“Yeah,” Mélie breathes, staring at the number on her screen. “I uh… yes, definitely.”
They just sit there for a few beats and Amicia is so caught up in how that worked out that when the bell rings distantly it snaps her out of her daydream with a start.
Mélie laughs, stands. “I should um… go. I have a staff meeting. But um… yeah,” she lifts her phone, eyes never wavering from Amicia’s face. “I’ll see you on Friday?”
“Cool.” Her smile is wide and endearing and honest, Amicia feels her face mirroring it. “Cool.”
Then she’s gone and Amicia has to remember to go back to the parking lot and wait rather than get caught hanging out like a creeper in the gardens. Hugo looks at her funnily when he sees her, but she’s too busy wondering how that went as well as it did to pay him much mind.
Beatrice even asks her when they get home, “How was your errand?”
And when she says, “It was… really good. Really good,” she gets only the briefest confused and questioning look before her mother seems content to ignore that.
And if she answers her phone before the first ring? Well that’s no less embarrassing than Mélie calling before the sun even sets.