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Author's Chapter Notes:

I expect people are still reading and just busy!

This chapter is some gratuitous winding up of Tristan, written for my friend Melissa, who loves seeing him in uncomfortable situations. But he always makes things go a bit serious when I write from his POV, so sorry about that :)


Christmas Day, dusk

Tristan stepped outside just as dusk was starting to fall, and stood looking up at the stars, relieved to be at liberty even for a short time. The five girls were still at a high pitch of excitement, and their voices were, in spite of Madame’s gentle chastisements, pitched at a similar level - a great trial to the ears. Added to that was the knowledge that there were simply a great many more people in his home than he was accustomed to, which had been pleasant for a while but was now beginning to wear him out. Sarah was serving tea, which meant that the guests would be here for a while yet, though fortunately it seemed that they had all eaten sufficiently at lunch for them to refuse to linger until supper. Assuredly he was grateful to be out in the cold, still air of the mountains, to look upon the snow, the moon and the stars at his leisure, and in complete silence!

It was strange, he thought as he stood leaning against a tree, shivering slightly despite his coat and scarf, but this had been the first real family Christmas he had attended since before the War. Last year they had not known Susie and Matty as well as they did now, and they had not even met Evelyn - impossible though that was to imagine! As for their first Christmas at the Tiernsee, it had not been a success, for they had only just moved in together again after four years apart, and they had not been used to one another’s company. He seemed to recall it had ended in a flaming row and Sarah had gone to bed early. Not a happy memory!

And before that, every Christmas had been scarred with the knowledge that someone was missing. Mother had died so soon after New Year in 1919, and the Christmases that followed that were redolent with her loss, and with the absence of their brother, who had been killed in the winter of 1917. He could not recall much of their “celebrations”, but they must have been awful, especially for Sarah. Certainly she had not even come home from Italy for Christmas once in the four years she had spent there, and he had mostly ignored the festive season and concentrated on his work. As for Christmas during the war - well, he did not care to recall those. Eddie at the Front, and then him…it was not a time for peace and joy to all men. 1913 had been their last Christmas en famille, and even then Dad had been missing, as he had for so long. How strange, to think how suddenly their family had been rent asunder - and how long ago it was, when it seemed only yesterday that they were sitting down to Christmas dinner with Mother, in that grey stone house in Westmorland on the shores of Esthwaite Water. But now they had a new house, and a new family - Evelyn, Matty and Susie, their strange, loving little clan. What a difference it made to Christmas, to spend it with them!

Above him the stars twinkled like so many diamonds on black jeweller’s cloth, and he gazed up at them for some time, picking out the constellations and naming as many as he could. Earlier in the year he had brought Evelyn out here and had sat down with her, and had pointed out the various clusters and constellations and taught her their names, telling her the legends that lay behind so many of them. He remembered doing the very same with his father, one holiday not all that long before he died. Dad had woken him late at night and they had gone out onto the fellside, just the two of them, and had lain down just as he and Evelyn had, side by side on a blanket, looking up at the stars. Later, when his father had died, he remembered that night as a special one, one of several precious moments during that year running up to his death; and he wondered how much the old man had known, whether he had been aware that he was not much longer for this world and had arranged these adventures for his son with that thought in his mind. Had he done the same with Eddie, with Sarah? He must ask her, when they were alone.

Laughter shrilled forth from the kitchen window and he closed his eyes tiredly. Lord! all this clamour! The children exclaiming, the women chattering, the doctors talking in lordly fashion about this or that concerning the San, a discussion which effectively closed him out. And the salon stank of the smoke of their cigarettes. At least Susie and Matty had the grace to smoke outside, or to lean out of the window. He hated cigarette smoke - it irritated his lungs and made him cough - and he refused to believe in its beneficial effects, however much it might be recommended as a remedy for consumption. To him it was the worst kind of pollution, a sure way to ruin one’s lungs and voice. If only Susie would not do it.

He thought for a moment that he had conjured it up from his imagination, for just as he was thinking this a drift of cigarette smoke came to him and caught his attention, but when he turned round he realised that it was no figment. Susie had followed him outside and was standing now, wrapped in her fur-collared coat with a cigarette between her fingers, smiling at him in a pointed sort of way. He smiled back, fondly, feeling no less excited to see her than he had felt at any point in the last six months or so - since he had discovered his feelings for her.

“Have we driven you out?” she asked him.

“Oh, no!” The response was automatic these days - he knew that one should never be rude about one’s guests. But Susie was different. She gave him a knowing smile, and he laughed slightly reluctantly.

“It is rather more…peaceful, out here among the stars,” he temporised.

“Mm. Aren’t they pretty? I don’t know a thing about them.”

“Do you not? I can teach you - I have been teaching Evelyn.”

“Maybe later,” she said as she flung her cigarette away. “As a matter of fact, I had quite a different purpose in coming out here.”

“Oh, yes?”

“Yes.” She came purposefully over to him and stood before him, taking the lapels of his coat in her hands and giving him what he thought might be an arch look. He stiffened automatically, wondering what fresh teasing lay in store for him.

“I’ve come for another kiss,” she said.

“What!”

His mind exploding in panic, he sought an escape. It was not easy. His back was against the tree and Susie had him in quite a firm grasp, making it impossible to slide either to left or right - and of course, she was in front of him, so he could not go that way. Oh, damn that mistletoe! Frantically he tried to forestall her.

“Did the last one not suffice?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “No, the last was not quite up to scratch, I’m afraid, my dear. You’ll have to try harder this time, because I intend to kiss you until you get it right.”

“Until…I get it right?”

“That’s it. Come on, darling. Impress me.”

Impress her? He glanced around him, but he saw no escape - and here she was before him, her beautiful face tilted up towards his, waiting for him. His mind turning somersaults, he gave in the fight more willingly than he had anticipated, and bent to kiss her lips. She kissed him back gently, then more enthusiastically, until he pulled back, feeling light-headed, panicky and frighteningly out of control.

“Hm,” Susie said thoughtfully. “Not bad, but I’m sure there’s a bit more passion in you somewhere. Let’s try again.”

“Again? I…Mmmph…”

This time her arms came up around his neck, and unwittingly he found himself pulling her into his arms. Weakly he tried to break the kiss, but she made a little “Ah, ah!” noise in her throat and kissed him again, harder. She tasted of wine and cigarettes; he could smell her perfume and her hair…his mind swimming, he gave in completely and kissed her with abandon, and forgot the world around him.

When finally they broke apart, he took a deep breath to steady himself. How could simply kissing someone make one feel so faint? Susie seemed no less dizzy, for her eyes were unfocussed and she was half-smiling, gazing into his eyes until he felt uncomfortable and turned his head away, hot and embarrassed. She cupped his cheek with a hand, fingers tangling in his hair, and turned his face back again, and he forced himself to meet her eye. She was smiling bewitchingly, devilishly, terrifyingly.

“You like me, don’t you?” she said.

“No! I mean…that is, I do, but I…not like that…”

“Liar. I know you do. For a start, you’re still holding me.”

He hadn’t realised. He dropped his arms in a moment and she laughed, and wrapped both her arms around his neck. Her face was damnably close. Unconsciously he found his hands creeping to her waist again, and stopped himself with an effort.

“That’s just one obvious fact,” she said. “The other telling point is that I came out here demanding a kiss without actually possessing any mistletoe - and you didn’t notice.”

“I…”

He leaned his head back against the tree and rolled his eyes heavenwards. She had tricked him - again! She laughed in merry fashion and kissed his neck, his jaw, his lips, and he found himself kissing her again, quite against his will.

God, how he wanted her!

As soon as the thought crossed his mind he froze and pulled away, much to Susie’s obvious surprise. Disentangling himself from her arms, he put her gently aside and hurried towards the house, stumbling a little in his flight, desperate to free himself from her and her entrancing charms. Behind him, he heard her amused laughter and blushed even harder, but he did not observe how the laughter faded away and how her expression lost its humour. He was far too set on escaping her. It was not until the kitchen door clattered shut behind him that he could breathe a deep sigh, close his eyes and shake off the trance. He would not venture outside alone again!

Outside, Susie stood for a while beside the tree. She watched him go, then lit a cigarette and lingered to smoke it, wondering why it was that he always ran away.




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