Aldred was so much recovered that the nurse was hard-pressed to find a reason to refuse when she requested Mabel to stay the night. The other beds remained in the room, so Aldred and Mabel were both made to promise they would sleep at a reasonable hour, and the concession was allowed.
Mabel sat on the closest bed and Aldred sat up against her pillows. Though all had been forgiven, there remained a quiet awkwardness between them, and they watched each other gravely.
Finally, Aldred said, “Will you come sit here by me, so I can be sure of you?”
Mabel was happy to comply, though she said, “That’s a funny reason to ask. Can’t you see me now?”
Lifting up her covers, Aldred waited as Mabel climbed up beside her and then clasped her closer hand tightly with both of hers. “Certainly I can see you, but I’d rather have hold of you. Is that all right?”
“Yes, of course,” Mabel replied, returning the squeeze.
Silence fell once more, but it was far more comfortable as the girls nestled cozily in the pillows.
Aldred was evidently thinking hard, as she eventually came out with, “I suppose every person does have faults. I just wonder why mine seem to run so much deeper. I mean... people like you, or Miss Drummond, seem so easily good and kind, while goodness comes at a high cost to me. Is it a curse, or a defect of birth?” and she began to cry again.
Mable wrapped her arm around Aldred directly and tilted their heads together. She stroked Aldred’s hair as she tried to think of the thing to say. “I don’t suppose I’m the best person to talk to about this, since I was so confused for so long. But I know that a person who was cursed or defective wouldn’t have risked her life to save mine, no matter how much she loved me.”
“But what if I only did that for my own sake?”
“You almost died, Aldred. That wouldn’t have benefited you at all.”
Aldred screwed up her face to keep from smiling, and Mabel poked her side.
“Besides, when I think back really over the last year, I don’t see you tripping children or stealing heirlooms. Even if you were less than... well... honest, you don’t intentionally hurt people. You’ve been a good friend to me and taught me so much. Those aren’t the qualities of a bad person. And anyway, didn’t we agree we were going to help each other be better?”
Faces close together, the two smiled conspiratorially. Then without giving herself time to think about it or second-guess—not at all typical of her, obviously—Aldred darted forward and pecked Mabel on the lips.
When Mabel didn’t pull away or stop smiling, Aldred said as if she’d only just thought of it, “You know, I’ve never really kissed anyone before.”
“Really?” said Mabel. “Well, I suppose that’s true for me as well. I kiss all sorts of people on the cheek, but I’m only ever around girls and family, so I’ve never kissed a boy.”
Aldred’s face went bright pink and she tried to turn away, but Mabel held her in place.
“What?” she teased. “Did you just remember kissing a little boy when you were a little girl? I can see how that might slip your mind.”
“No,” Aldred replied, keeping her eyes turned down. She paused for a long moment, and her blush remained fierce. “It’s just that I wasn’t thinking about kissing a boy.”
Mabel looked confused and cocked her head. “But...” Having obtained most of her education about adult pursuits through the reading of books in her family’s library, Mabel had very standard ideas about how such pursuits could be, well, pursued. She was also slow to read between the lines, but after a moment she caught it. “Oh. Well, yes, I suppose that makes logical sense. I’ve never really read anything about that, though...”
Peering up through her lashes, Aldred asked, “Don’t you sometimes imagine things you haven’t read about?”
“But not kissing,” and she’s able to smile again.
“Perhaps because it was something I’d never done, I only ever thought about it in reference to books I’d read.”
“Very possible,” Aldred replied, and then they were both silent for a moment. Aldred alternated pinching and smoothing the covers, looking down and focusing on her fiddling fingers.
Mabel watched her friend’s face, as the other girl began to blush again.
“Well...” Aldred said, and then took a deep breath. “I suppose we could try...”
Widening her eyes in mock horror, Mabel said, overacting terribly, “Aldred, you don’t mean—!”
Aldred looked up quickly and shook her head, immediately insisting, “No, no, of course not, I would never—”
Mabel looked down and shook her head, torn between laughing and sighing. “That’s not much of a start to our new friendship, Aldred.”
Now entirely confused, Aldred shook her head helplessly.
“Honesty, Aldred. Straightfowardness. Did you or did you not mean what you just said?”
Sighing and sticking her lower lip out a bit, Aldred replied, “Well, of course I did. I try so hard to do the right thing, Mabel, you must believe I do. I just know I’ll make a mistake and you won’t be able to forgive me.”
Patting her hand, Mabel said, “We simply must both promise to try; I to be understanding, and you to tell the truth. It will only work if we both try as hard as we might.”
“Yes, Mabel. I promise.”
“Now, I believe you were about to ask—?”
Aldred folded her arms stubbornly. “I don’t see why I should now, if you’re going to be playing tricks on me.”
Leaning into her side, Mabel made a silly face at Aldred. “We would hardly be even if I continued playing tricks all night. But of course I won’t, I just want to hear what you were going to say.”
“I suspect you know exactly what I was going to say.” Aldred sighed expansively. “Now I must start all over. Well, I’ll just say it then—why don’t you let me kiss you properly, and then we’ll see what that’s like.”
“Well done, Aldred! I knew you could get it out.” Mabel sat up straight, shook her hair behind her shoulders, and closed her eyes. “Go on then.”
Aldred couldn’t help giggling nervously as she raised a hand to Mabel’s cheek. Pulling her lips into her mouth, she licked them and then pressed her lips carefully to Mabel’s. They remained still for a moment, and then moved apart.
Both girls turned forward and stared with furrowed brows, pondering.
“Could that be it...?”
“It does seem much more active and dramatic in the books.”
“Let us just try once more, but more... Well, follow your instincts, I suppose.”
Trying not to make a production out of it, Aldred got onto her knees and took Mabel’s face in both her hands. She cocked her head and assessed the situation, then pressed her lips to Mabel’s again. This time, Mabel pressed back into her, and her hands went to Aldred’s neck. They had both seen couples kissing when in town, and so they tried moving their heads and kissing and releasing.
It was far more pleasant, but still rather experimental, so they separated and each took a breath, trying to relax into it.
On their final attempt, they slowed down and focused more on the sensations than on what they were ‘supposed’ to do. Nestling back into the pillows again, they kissed softly and sweetly for some time.
Of course Mabel had the time ever in the back of her mind, and around ten o’clock she stopped and said, “I will not be the reason you stay up all night. Shall I return to the other bed?”
Aldred held on to her and said, “Oh no, please don’t. We have enough room here, don’t we?”
Sliding down until her head was on the pillow, Mabel smiled up at Aldred and said, “I suppose so. As long as your wounds aren’t too painful.”
Aldred lay down carefully and snuggled up against Mabel. “Hardly. I’m sure I’ll sleep deeper with you here.”
“Goodnight then, Aldred.”