1st: this is, um, not the last part of the story. The next part is the last!
2nd: I would not usually post on a Saturday, but this is a special Saturday. This is Kelly’s birthday! Happy birthday, sweet Kelly: without you none of this would be.
3rd: I hope you guys enjoy.
The next few days were devoted entirely to an elven outreach program. Elliot wrote to every elf he’d ever met in Serene’s company, including Serene’s mother, and sent a particularly forlorn, helpless yet flirtatious letter to Swift. Then he made Luke write down every elven contact that Luke or any of the Sunborns had.
Once he’d forced Luke to wrack his brains, Elliot was surprised by the array of results. The Sunborns got around.
In some cases literally. Gregory Sunborn had spent years in the elven woods being a celebrated courtesan. He had a list of contacts that stretched to the sea, and after receiving a nicely worded note from one of his favorite young cousins, he promised to leave no stone unturned until they had news of Serene.
Luke dropped Gregory’s letter on the pile. “I don’t want to talk about it!”
“Great, because we don’t have time,” said Elliot. “I’m going to dictate another letter to you. Listen up.”
They also spent a great deal of time in Commander Woodsinger’s office, Elliot going through her correspondence while she shouted at them not to go through her correspondence and Luke stood in the way.
Elliot used a retired professor’s room beneath the commander’s to write his letters, so he could bother her with greater ease and efficiency. He sat and wrote there, freezing in the stupid stone room with rickety doors leading to a wind trap of a balcony and thus forced to borrow Luke’s jacket, and he counted the days by noticing when the sun lit the windows and when he lit the candles.
“Have you noticed that the professors for the council courses don’t get replaced, while there are more captains who teach us every year?”
“There are more people in the war training course,” Luke said absently, sitting at the other end of the desk and methodically going through letters from various aunts, uncles, and cousins.
“And why do you think that is?”
“I don’t know, Elliot, maybe some people in this world actually want to be useful.”
“I know, education and diplomacy is so stupid compared to knowing how to stick the sharp end of an object in someone.” Elliot scrubbed a hand over his face. “Though I’m not sure I can talk. I don’t remember what happened in class today.”
“We didn’t go,” said Luke.
“Ah. That explains that. When we get word back about Serene, I’m going to take a break and be cultured and educated. I’m going to help Myra with her play.”
Luke gave Elliot an interrogative look. Elliot rolled his eyes.
“Myra of the Diamond clan,” he said. “She’s very nice. You have met her many, many times. And she’s working behind stage on a production of Radiant and Jewel, which is—I’ve heard, I haven’t read it yet—a genre-defining classic tale of elven love and tragedy, possibly the most influential fictional romance of all time. It will be very interesting to see what approach a human production takes to not only the dialogue but the costumes and setting: this is a real opportunity to present a balanced middle ground for both species through art.”
“Wait, I’m confused,” said Luke. Before Elliot could express how unsurprised he was Luke went on, deadpan: “There’s something you haven’t read? How is that possible?”
“Ha ha, shut your loser face,” said Elliot, pleased that Luke seemed to be on a more even keel than he had been on the first day.
Luke looked out the window, where the sun was setting and light was brimming against dark hills, like a vast candle burned down almost to the wick. “When we get word back about Serene,” he said softly, “I’m going to—”
There were running footsteps outside the door. Elliot’s heart turned with the door handle. The door creaked open and Elliot’s ex-student Cyril Leigh came tiptoeing in.
“I, uh, brought you the letter as soon as it came,” he offered. “I was watching just like you said.”
“Thank you.” Elliot accepted the letter graciously.
Cyril lingered at the table, doing a small humble tap dance.
“You did say…” he said at last.
“Oh, right. Luke, pay the man,” commanded Elliot.
“You’re unbelievable,” said Luke, reaching for his money pouch.
Elliot found this hurtful. He wasn’t paid for going to magic school, and his father obviously could not give him pocket money in the Borderlands’ legal tender. He found it hurtful that Luke would think he was so unimaginative that he’d promise the kid money.
Cyril held out the one-page newspaper called the Border Daily, with Luke’s picture emblazoned on the front. Luke recoiled like a vampire faced with a cross.
“Would you sign it?” asked Cyril.
“Sign it,” Elliot said.
Luke opened his mouth to either protest or vehemently refuse, but then he was caught in the wells of Cyril’s powerful puppy eyes. He sighed heavily, gave Elliot a filthy look, and signed the paper.
“Thank you so much, Luke,” said Cyril, blushing and leaving.
At any other time, Elliot would have teased Luke unmercifully and at length, but as soon as Cyril was outside the door he was ripping open the letter. Luke was up and standing behind his chair, reading over his shoulder.
It was Swift who had come through and written with news. Elliot’s careful letter had paid off: he had not let himself betray how serious the situation was, only expressed masculine flutterings. Swift, simple soldier that she was, had in her attempts to soothe his delicate feelings let slip several pieces of information about the elves that Elliot was sure the elves didn’t want them to know. She had also said several terrible things about Elliot’s stained virtue and presumed availability. She had also mentioned that Serene was in the eastern woods, alive and unhurt, and in fact much admired by the gentle elven nurses on the battlefield for her valor.
“She’s okay,” Elliot burst out, in case Luke hadn’t got to that part yet.
“Yeah,” said Luke. “And we know where she is. I’m going to find her.”
Elliot twisted around in his chair. “No you are not. Because doing so would be an act of war.”
Luke spluttered. “Oh, like you haven’t stowed away or sneaked along on every single mission—”
“When did I not stow away?” Elliot asked. “Oh right, when there was an actual war.”
“Of course not,” Luke snapped. “You’d have been killed. But I’m not like you—I can actually help.”
Elliot swallowed the I’m not like you in aid of convincing Luke not to go on a suicide mission. “Really?” he asked. “So you go in, and you get killed, and the Border guard come in to avenge you. Then the elves are fighting a war on two fronts. Or Serene tries to help you, and gets executed for treason. Which of those scenarios is actually helpful for Serene, in your mind?”
“I can fight!”
“I know you can fight!” said Elliot. “The point is, they won’t let you. It’s not fair. There’s got to be a long-term solution. I’ve got twelve books on elven customs in my room that I need to consult on the matter, but right now you and Serene both signed on to be soldiers and that means you signed on to obey the rules of warfare. If you’ve decided to quit being a soldier, then I’m more delighted than I can say. Have you?”
Luke looked away, toward the window where there was almost no light left. His jaw worked for a moment, then he shook his head. “All right. But the second I can go after her, I will go after her.”
“For now,” said Elliot. “Get used to being useless.”
Elliot almost felt useless, even now, when he was limp with relief. It was a horrible anticlimax to have information, and not be able to use it, no matter how glad you were to have it. And now that he knew Serene was all right, he had to learn how to live his life in the Border camp, without Serene and thus without Luke. He had his plans: getting to know Myra better, doing this play. He was even looking forward to it, but it did feel very strange.
“Well…” Elliot said. “See you later.”
“Uh, okay,” said Luke. “See you later.”
Elliot put the plan for his new life into action the moment he entered the lunchroom, and swooped down on the table where Peter, Myra and various other council trainees were eating. “Hello Myra. You look very pretty today. Is this seat taken?”
Myra beamed at him. “No, please sit. Where’s Luke?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Elliot. “Can you pinpoint the location of every random classmate we have?”
“Hey,” said Luke, and sat down beside Elliot. He got some serious side-eye from the girl sitting on his other side, Carla Summersong, but he didn’t seem to notice because he was giving Elliot some side-eye of his own.
“There you are!” said Myra.
Elliot double despaired.
“Guys, I don’t mean to be rude, but we’re in the middle of talking about our play,” said Carla. She turned to Luke and adopted a kindly, patronizing air. “Do you even know what Radiant and Jewel is?”
Luke blinked. “A genre-defining classic tale of elven love and tragedy, possibly the most influential fictional romance of all time?”
There was a silence. Elliot was surprised, because he would have thought the sound of every atom in his body exploding with indignation might make some noise.
“Oh, wow.” Myra looked impressed. “I had no idea you were a theatre buff, Luke!”
“That’s so cool,” said Carla. “I wish my boyfriend was even half as interested in the arts.”
Another girl, this one from the year below, leaned forward and made a grab for one of Luke’s hands. Carla and Myra were already holding onto a forearm each.
“Luke,” said the new girl. “Do you think the play is too challenging for us to produce? Be honest. I truly value your input.”
“Um, no,” said Luke. “I think it’ll be… interesting to see what approach a human production takes to not only the dialogue but the costumes and setting.”
“I so agree,” said Carla Summersong.
“I agree more,” said the new girl.
“I’m plotting your death,” said Elliot.
“Um,” Luke said. “If you think about it, this is a real opportunity to present a balanced middle ground for both species through art.”
An almost cooing sound broke from three throats. Elliot was stonily outraged. Those were his insights, even if they would not have got the same reception from his mouth. Elliot was helping Luke be irresistible to all women, which was unfair and unnecessary.
“Think of the different ways Othello has been produced,” he said to Natalie, who was from the other side of the Border like him.
When everybody was engrossed in a conversation about the evolution of drama, Luke elbowed Elliot hard—which was brutality—and whispered: “Why are we sitting here?”
“I don’t know, Luke,” Elliot said, very reasonably. “Why are we sitting here?”
Luke frowned. “I don’t get it.”
“That seems true!” Elliot exclaimed, but then Myra appealed to him on a point about set design in the human world, and they could not speak on the matter any further.
Elliot thought about it later, and thought he could understand. Elliot remembered Luke slinking away from parties, and remembered what Rachel Sunborn had called him: my shy boy. Elliot still didn’t think she’d got Luke entirely right, but Luke was wary of people he did not know well, even if he was always scrupulously pleasant to them. He’d been raised in a fort with enemies without and impatient soldiers within: he had learned to be no trouble, a pleasure to have around, and to melt away long before anyone wished him gone. Elliot didn’t understand it himself, but if Luke needed someone to be obtrusive Elliot could do that.
So the next day at lunchtime, Elliot grabbed Luke by the elbow when he came in and marched over to where the sporty types sat. “Can we sit here, you guys? Awesome.”
“Absolutely,” said some idiot with teeth that stuck out. “Over here, Luke.”
“Sit down by me and let’s talk about those moves in Trigon,” said another one, this time with an overbite. Elliot did not have the time to learn the names of all these people with dental problems.
It did, however, seem as if integrating Luke into this merry band would be simple. It was possible Elliot could simply slink away…
“Sit with me, Elliot,” said Dale Wavechaser, crushing Elliot’s dreams. He patted the seat beside him, which Elliot had mentally earmarked for Luke.
Elliot shot a desperate look at Luke, who was being pulled down like an antelope by three annoying lions. “Okay,” he said darkly. “Why not?”
Dale beamed and Elliot sat down. Dale put a hand on his back. “Are you doing all right?”
“Ahahaha,” said Elliot, squirming away. “Never better, buddy.”
“I’m glad you’re both here. I saw you guys at the drama kids’ table yesterday,” Dale said, looking honestly concerned. “You can come sit with us anytime, you know.”
“Gosh,” said Elliot. “What an honor.”
“Oh, don’t even worry about it,” said Dale. “You’re welcome any time.”
This immunity toward sarcasm must mean Dale had such a peaceful life. It also meant he and Elliot were basically speaking different languages.
“I mean, theatre, boring, am I right?” asked Dale. “It’s just a bunch of pretending stuff.”
“You’re so right, Dale,” Elliot told him nobly, for Luke’s sake. “I mean, the history of art, basically a lot of idiots wasting their time.”
“And that dwarf girl sits there.”
“I like her,” Elliot bit out, stabbing Dale with the twin icicles that his eyes had become.
“Oh no, I’m sure she’s nice,” Dale said hastily. “Sorry, that was a bit—I didn’t mean to offend you. Hey, so you missed most of the Trigon game the other day, didn’t you?”
“I was thus tragically deprived,” Elliot said flatly. “Yes.”
Dale began to outline the events of the game.
What a nice person, Elliot thought. What a wonderful chat he and Luke could be having about their mutual love for physical exhaustion and hatred for culture. Also he was really super handsome, the curling ends of his hair turned to summer gold. Elliot was so bored he wished harpies would attack.
Elliot was accustomed to being a gleefully abrasive and unpleasant personality, and he did not feel temperamentally suited to extended periods of tedium. He was used to telling people they were annoying and unintelligent and leaving at speed.
But he couldn’t do that to Dale. It wasn’t just Dale and Luke’s destined future. Dale had given Elliot his only birthday present: Elliot didn’t forget that. Elliot would rather hurt himself than Dale, if it came down to it.
So Elliot propped his chin on his fist and sighed dreamily, imagining making his incredibly rude escape. Luke was on the other end of the table, looking twitchy and attempting to rise despite several hands on each of his shoulders. Luke too clearly wished he was the one speaking to Dale. Everything was terrible.
If Elliot said he had to go to the bathroom, he would be expected back. He set his mind to the problem of finding a good excuse to leave the table for the entirety of lunchtime.
“It actually reminded me of classic games such as the one played by Eleanor Sunborn eleven years ago,” said Dale. “Do you know that one? Never mind. Let me tell you about it.”
“How fascinating, please go on,” Elliot encouraged Dale gently, and stabbed himself in the arm with a butter knife. “Whoops, butter fingers. Butter knife… fingers.”
Dale and Elliot watched with incredulous dismay as the gash on Elliot’s arm widened and a lazy trickle of blood became a rushing river.
“As you can see, Dale, and desolate though I am to say it because our conversation was riveting, I have to go see a medic.”
“Will I come with you?” asked Dale.
“No,” said Elliot firmly. “No, you should stay and enjoy your lunch. If your Trigon prowess suffered because of a lack of proper nutrition, how could I live with myself?”
Whoosh! went the bluebird of sarcasm, zooming miles above Dale’s head.
“Oh,” he said. “Okay.”
“What did you do to him?” Luke asked, looming over them and eyeing the blood, which was now all over Elliot’s arm and the table, in horror.
The sporty types with dental problems were in a routed heap at the other end of the table. They were also staring at the blood.
“I did it to myself!”
“What did you let him do to himself?”
“It’s not his fault,” Elliot snapped. “Why would he assume that I couldn’t feed myself without incurring injuries? Which by the way, ignoring current evidence, I obviously can. I’ve been doing it for years. It was a simple accident. A slip of the knife. It could’ve happened to anyone.”
Luke yanked him up off the bench by the back of his collar. “Come on, we’re going to the medic.”
“That’s a really good plan, Luke,” Elliot said. “I commend you for it. However, if I might suggest one teensy, eensy adjustment? I could go, and you—since you’re not injured—could stay!”
Luke continued dragging. “Yeah, I’m really looking forward to Serene coming back asking me why she hasn’t found you in one piece the way she left you.”
If Serene was so tenderly concerned about his wellbeing, she could have not dumped him with a dull thud.
It wasn’t fair, so Elliot didn’t say it. He let Luke drag him to the infirmary tent, where at least his day was brightened by being whisked away and tended to by the cruelest medic of them all.
“I’m having a crisis,” Elliot told her.
“A crisis where you forget how to use your eating utensils? I noticed,” she said, bandaging with efficiency and no effort to spare him pain.
“Do you know, at lunch there’s one table for kids who like drama, and one table for kids who like sports?”
“Amazing, it’s like you’re going to a school.”
“But this is a school in a magical land!” Elliot protested.
“People are awful everywhere,” she told him. “Not just kids. Everyone. They tell you people outgrow it, but they don’t. Everywhere you go, you see dynamics just like the petty gangs of youth. Which isn’t to say that school is not a very special hell, as people haven’t yet learned to hide how awful they are.”
“I don’t have a special table,” Elliot protested.
“Uh, you, the murderous man-hating elf girl and the intense gay kid?” asked the medic. “You’re the weirdo table.”
The infirmary tent was hushed for a moment, with nothing but the sound of the medic humming to herself and clinking through her instruments, as Elliot worked through this awful opinion.
“Well, I just don’t think that’s true.”
“You’re the intense weirdo table, I don’t care what you think is true.”
Elliot gazed at her with admiration. “Will you tell me your name?” he asked. “Can I eat my lunch in here with you from now on?”
“Get out of here, I don’t want to spend time with you, why would you think that was an okay thing to say?”
Elliot wandered out of the tent feeling vaguely more cheerful.
“Did you do any serious damage to yourself, you idiot?” asked Luke, falling in step with him.
“No,” said Elliot. “But apparently it was a nasty cut. I admit I might have stabbed myself harder than I intended.”
“Nothing,” said Elliot. “I misspoke. I certainly did not intend to stab myself. Who would intend that? I’m not crazy.”
“Debatable,” said Luke.
Elliot’s shoulders sagged. His arm was throbbing. “I just want to sit somewhere and read, please.”
“Well,” said Luke, and frowned. Elliot believed that Luke was allergic to the library. “I could use some javelin practice.”
“Okay,” said Elliot, all the fight stabbed out of him. He brought a book and sat in the stands.
“You’re not watching,” Luke said crabbily at a later point in the evening.
“You’re not wrong!” Elliot called back. Luke was doing fine.
The next day Elliot, in no mood to stab himself, just went to the intense weirdos table and sat down in a state of gloomy surrender to the inevitable.
“Well, thank God you’ve stopped being so weird,” said Luke, sitting down across the table from him.
“What you just said is very ironic, but you don’t know it,” Elliot observed. “But then there’s so much you do not know, loser. About irony, obviously. Also about literature and art and drama. Also about computers and music.”
“I know about computers,” Luke claimed, which was such a lie that Elliot stared at him, open-mouthed.
“Really, Sunborn? No, really. All right then. Tell me about computers.”
“Well…” Luke said, and looked shifty about the eyes. “They’re boxes… but you can write things in them. And read things in them. And there are cats in them who are funny for some reason. They’re like—boxes of infinity. And! You keep the wikipedia in them!”
“Elliot,” Myra said from behind him. “Can I talk to you?”
“Absolutely and I’m glad you asked, come to me for any reason whatsoever,” said Elliot, but before he twisted around he pointed at Luke. “And you, hold that thought, because it might be my favorite thing you have ever said. It might be my favorite thing anybody has ever said.”
He jumped off the bench and looked down at Myra, who seemed upset. He wondered if Peter had done something to overset her, and wondered exactly how one went about defending one’s soon-to-be lady.
“Everything all right?” he asked. “Tell me what I can do to help you.”
“Are you sure you still want to help with the play?” Myra asked. “Because if you are, we could use you right now. Adara Cornripe is having a diva moment.”
“You can rely on me immediately,” Elliot assured her. “Except give me a minute. I’ll meet you in the hall.”
“Right,” said Myra, looking relieved but still under pressure. She turned and fled.
This was a perfect opportunity to win her heart that should not be missed, and an opportunity to keep himself busy and not thinking about Serene. Elliot rapped on the table to get Luke’s attention. Luke eyed him, unimpressed.
“Gotta go see about this play. Myra needs help and I can’t abandon her.”
“Ugh, okay,” said Luke, and got up.
“So I’m going to go…” Elliot said, as Elliot went and Luke went with him. “To the hall. Where they’re putting on a dramatic production.”
Luke sighed as if incredibly put-upon. “I wish you weren’t making me do this.”
“I don’t know how you think I’m making you do this, Luke. Do you think I’m an evil wizard?”
“Uh,” said Luke. “Obviously not. Wizards are not real.”
“Good,” Elliot told him. “I don’t like wizard stories all that much. Stories about witches are better, because witches are morally ambiguous and traditionally disempowered. And of course my very favorite is—”
“I swear to God if I hear one more word about mermaids,” said Luke, as they walked into the room and heard Adara Cornripe shouting.
“I will break all the props over your head and then beat you to death with the shards! I’ve waited to play this role since I was a little girl and now everything is ruined. Tell me, what is my motivation… to not kill you?”
The hall where Elliot had once served General Lakelost doctored drinks looked very different from how he remembered it. Someone had removed all the table and chairs, and a small stage was in one corner of the room. A sheet was pinned up over the stage, and wooden buckets of paint were lined up like hopeful petitioners beneath the sheet. There were also a huddled group of people, including Captain Whiteleaf, listening to Adara. She had her hands on her hips and murder in her eyes.
“Maybe I could step in and play—” began the captain tremulously.
Adara snorted, which sounded like a horse shooting a bullet out of its nostril. “Can you really see yourself as Jewel? No, wait! You’ve decided to turn this piece into a comedy.” Her eyes narrowed so much they almost slammed shut. “Well, I’m not laughing!”
It was hard to note anyone besides the pillar of flame that had been Adara, but Elliot saw Myra with her arms curled around herself, looking ready to stop, drop and roll.
He wanted to be her hero, so he stepped forward.
“Nobody’s laughing, Adara,” he said soothingly. Adara’s head snapped around to face him. Elliot lifted his hands in a gesture of peace. “Just here to help, you dazzling apricot of artistry, you. Excited to help out, build sets, see you perform. Can I fetch you a glass of water or something?”
Adara did not immediately bite his head off and spit it out of the window, which Elliot counted as a win until he noticed that Adara was not looking at him, but over Elliot’s shoulder. Elliot glanced behind him, and saw Luke had stepped back and hit the door he’d just come through.
“Jewel,” Adara breathed.
“Can I have a word with you, Elliot?” Luke asked between his teeth. “I have a strong feeling that I should be somewhere else.”
Elliot leaned back against the door as well. “No. Nope, I think I want to stay and see this one play out.”
Luke stared into space. “Awesome.”
“So here’s the issue,” said Adara briskly. “Professor Fleetwood—”
“Was his first name Mac?” asked Elliot.
“No, why would you ask that?” Adara snapped.
“No reason,” Elliot told her, disappointed. “Continue.”
“—Professor Fleetwood retired last year,” Adara resumed, “and several students have quit since then, and the best male performers graduated last year and have not been replaced. The drama group has always been primarily female. It’s something the very few women in the camp can do together! It’s why we put on elven plays, because that means that there are more women with bigger and better parts. But it’s also why the boys don’t want to join! And this idiot isn’t any good at recruiting, due to having the charisma of a rotten leaf.”
Captain Whiteleaf looked deeply wounded.
“We need men,” Adara continued. Elliot figured there was never a bad time to hear things like that from a beautiful blonde. “Specifically, we need someone to play Jewel In The Crown of Beauty, our protagonist’s love interest and the most beautiful and virtuous elf in the four forests. Luke, you saved the whole production by coming here, you would obviously be perfect and you are cast. And you! You’re a boy, sort of,” Adara went on.
“Oh, thanks,” said Elliot.
“More of one than Captain Whiteleaf, anyway.”
“Oh, thanks!” Captain Whiteleaf exclaimed indignantly.
Adara’s indifference was supreme. “Someone throw Schafer a script. Does anyone think that he could play Red Rose?”
“Red Rose Blooming In A Garden of Darkness,” Myra put in helpfully. “He’s often played by a red-haired actor, though some people argue that the name symbolizes the carnal sin and temptation he represents in his place as a minor agent on the side of evil.”
“Sorry, what?” asked Elliot. “Are you telling me that Luke is cast as the maiden fair and I am the bit part evil floozy?”
There was a pause. Myra was cute but there were some things Elliot could not put up with.
“How dare you,” Elliot exclaimed. “Come on loser, we’re leaving.”
“Thank you, Elliot,” Luke said devoutly. “I do not want to be here.”
“Red Rose actually has a very interesting backstory!” Myra burst out, jumping to her feet and shoving her handwritten script in Elliot’s direction. “He was in love with our hero, the valiant knight Radiant Blade Washed With Blood. That’s Adara. They went to school together, but Red Rose is embittered his beauty is fading with the years and Radiant’s heart has been stolen by Jewel’s loveliness and purity, so he turns to evil!”
Myra gazed beseechingly at Elliot. Elliot flipped through the pages.
“Uh, why is Radiant described as a young woman in the prime of her youth and strength while Red Rose’s beauty is fading with his years? Since they went to school together, aren’t they the same age?”
“Eeesh,” said Myra, making a dismayed face. “Good point.”
“Cry me a river of blood tears, you ginger whiner!” Adara exclaimed. “This is a play that will involve a mostly human cast and be played in front of a mostly human audience, and this is not how humans see men and women! It might be good for them to think about how our situation gets flipped around by the elves. I’m not going to have my play ruined by someone who finds it too traumatic to even pretend to walk in someone else’s shoes.”
“Good point,” said Elliot. “You seem really into this play. Why don’t you sit around at the table with most of these fine students discussing the dramatic arts? Not cool enough for you?”
Adara sniffed. “I hardly need to have my habits at the lunch table criticized by someone who fell on his butter knife yesterday!”
Elliot felt he’d won that round since Adara had descended from the philosophical to the personal so rapidly. Adara seemed to feel differently. They glared at each other. Elliot thought she was going to be terrific in the role.
“I think you two would play off each other well,” said Myra, hopefully. “And obviously, Luke looks just right to play Jewel.”
Luke looked like a man in a nightmare.
“Elliot’s not hot enough to play Red Rose,” Adara sneered.
“Excuse you, I am a tornado of recently matured sexuality,” Elliot told her. He flipped through more pages. “Oh, Red Rose gets two dance numbers and a song!”
“Elliot,” Luke hissed. “I thought we were leaving. I was happy to be leaving!”
“I’m reconsidering,” said Elliot. He flipped a few more pages.
“I thought we were meant to help Myra with the props and scene painting,” Luke said, more loudly. “I don’t want to leave her doing all the work.”
Myra looked touched.
“Fabulous,” said Adara. “You’ll play Jewel and Red Rose, and help with the sets. Thanks for volunteering, Luke. I wish I could help but my part is very taxing and requires all my concentration.”
“Wow, I can’t believe you volunteered us for double duty,” Elliot remarked disapprovingly. “Thanks for nothing, loser.”
Luke looked torn between weeping and punching Elliot. Elliot understood that this was an eternal struggle.
And that was how they got cast in the school play.
Dinner was a less important meal than lunch in the camp, usually eaten around the fires. The war training and council training courses had separate fires and tended to keep to their own.
Elliot left his fire that night and went to find Luke, who was surveying a cut of meat as if he would never have any appetite again due to being in a play.
“Hi, I need something,” he said.
“Will something be another living nightmare?”
“It’s a tiny thing!”
“Is it a tiny living nightmare?”
“I simply need you to put your name down for one of the practice rooms so I can learn these dance routines.”
Luke frowned. “You can put down your own name.”
“Yeah, totally!” said Elliot. “Except no, not at all. People in war training will scratch off my name.”
“Nobody would do that!”
“They have been doing it for literally years,” said Elliot. “Also, they come and beat people up if they don’t take the hint about the name-scratching.”
Luke looked upset. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“I thought you knew,” said Elliot. “Um. Sorry. So will you put down your name? If you do, I’ll come to your Trigon practices. I swear I will.”
“Sure,” said Luke. “Of course. I’ll come to the practice rooms too. You’re not getting beaten up. Nobody’s getting beaten up again.”
Elliot raised his eyebrows. “That’s excellent news. Wait, since this is a moral stand you’re taking—and you would take it anyway on account of your principles—I don’t actually have to go to the Trigon practices, right?”
Luke shook his head and did not look sorry. “You do,” he said. “You said you would and now you have to.”
“Ugh, fine,” said Elliot.
He turned away while Luke turned to the ring of war training students, like a ring of crows in their black leather and picking on their meat. Luke raised his voice so Elliot could still hear it over the crackle of fire and of meat on the spit, of the night wind rushing through the leaves.
“All right, guys,” said Luke. “Listen up.”
The practice rooms were smaller, less well made cabins built around back of the cabins in which they were taught class. Boards hung outside every cabin, and names were written on them every week: at the beginning of a new week the board would be sanded away until all the names were gone. Mainly, the cabins were for warrior trainees who did not want to betray a weakness where people could see. Serene and Luke, therefore, had never used them.
Luke’s name written on the board was not scratched out. A tall black-haired boy in the year above them did see Elliot come in one day, and followed him in, but he found Luke already sitting on the benches on one end of the room, reading a book on elven customs.
“Problem?” Luke asked, with deceptive softness.
The boy started. “No! No, but great to see you, Sunborn. I just remembered that I have to go back to my cabin and get something—”
“Was it your self-respect?” Elliot asked.
“I hope we can catch up sometime soon!”
“You’d better hope we don’t,” said Luke. The boy just ran.
Since Luke had come through so resoundingly in the name of truth and justice, Elliot actually did feel obliged to go to Trigon practice. It was even more shameful than going to the actual games: the stands were almost empty. It looked as if Elliot had a real interest in Trigon.
“Hey, Schafer, good to see you,” said Dale, making his way down to the pitch. “Came to see the new swing I was talking about at lunch?”
“I definitely remember that part of our excellent conversation very clearly,” Elliot said. “And that is absolutely why I am here.”
He sidled over to Carla Summersong, glad to recognize someone with a functioning brain. “Here we are, isn’t it terrible?”
“I know, Trigon, so dull.”
“I think I love you,” Elliot said. “Don’t leave me, but why are you here?”
“My boyfriend’s on the team,” said Carla, giving every indication of pride.
She waved and the guy with the sticking-out teeth who’d cornered Luke at the sporty table waved back at her, beaming.
“That’s your boyfriend?” Elliot asked. “And this is a voluntary situation for you?”
“What?” said Carla.
“Personally, I am here under protest as part of a dark bargain.”
“Okay,” said Carla, and her accepting attitude made Elliot realize that the cruel medic was right and everyone totally did think he was weird. “Well, Sam likes me to be here to support him. Besides, my man looks great in the uniform.”
Elliot left her to her delusions. It seemed kinder. “Elbow me when it’s all over,” he said, taking out his book.
“But if you’re reading your book, how will you see the game?”
Elliot favored her with a smile for her swiftness on the uptake. “Exactly.”
He did look up occasionally. Luke appeared to be better than everyone else, as usual, so Elliot felt it was foolish and unnecessary to practice at all, and yet here they were. Elliot was being wronged by the universe.
Elliot felt a great deal more wronged by the universe when Dale Wavechaser intercepted one of Elliot’s occasional glances from his book. He waved.
“Hey, Schafer!” he said. “Check this out!”
He threw the large glass ball in a fast, curving arc. Even to Elliot, it looked impressive.
Even to Elliot, it was obvious nobody else was expecting Dale to throw. People were taking a time out, talking amongst themselves. Richard Plantgrown, who was meant to catch, turned and gestured helplessly as the ball sailed far out of his reach. The Trigon ball hurtled through the air—suddenly Elliot remembered how heavy it had weighed in his hands—and connected solidly with the back of Luke’s head.
Luke went down, face forward in the dug-out earth.
“Call for a medic,” said Elliot, dropping his book. “Now!”
Carla Summersong had hysterics because of the blood. Dale had hysterics because of the guilt. Elliot had hysterics because of the rage. They, Sam who was holding onto Carla, and Richard were put in the cabin by the infirmary and told they would be informed when there was news. It was more of a corralling than anything else.
They all sat at different points of the room.
“I’m really sorry,” said Dale.
“Don’t speak to me,” Elliot said coldly. “You raving imbecile.”
“Do you think he’ll be okay?”
“Oh, yeah, no doubt, since he got a giant glass bowling ball to the head!” Elliot snapped. “Try not to be more stupid than you can help.”
“There was too much blood,” Carla murmured, with her head in Sam of the Sticking-Out Teeth’s lap.
“I know, baby, I know,” Sam murmured back, and glared at Dale, who looked as if he was going to cry. “How could you be so careless!” he hissed. “She’s from council training! They’re very sensitive and delicate!”
“If you gave Luke brain damage, I am going to ruin your life,” Elliot announced.
Richard shot him an unfriendly look. “Schafer’s in council training. He’s not exactly a tender little flower.”
“Schafer is crazy!” Sam exclaimed. “Everybody knows Schafer is crazy!”
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Elliot promised.
Luke had told Elliot in so many words that he was protecting Elliot, so Elliot would be safe when Serene returned. But who had looked after Luke? Nobody had. What was Elliot supposed to do, when Serene came back? What was he supposed to do anyway?
Elliot rubbed a hand over his eyes, and continued staring out the window instead of at Dale Wavechaser’s idiot face.
The door opened, and all of them jumped as if at the crack of a whip. The mean medic stood in the doorway.
“Well?” Elliot snapped.
“My job would be easier if people would let me get the words out instead of yelling at me,” she observed. “He’s fine, he just has a concussion from your dangerously stupid rough-housing.”
The world lost its tunnel-vision focus, and Elliot remembered he was meant to be nice to Dale.
“It was nobody’s fault!” he announced. “Just one of those accidents that could happen to anyone.” Dale looked extremely surprised but extremely pleased. “Can we see him?” Elliot pursued, and made a gesture to Dale that might have been reminiscent of a mad scientist displaying his latest experiment. “This is Dale Wavechaser. If you mention his name, Luke will want us to come in.”
“Nope,” said the medic. “He’s asking for Elliot. That’s you, right?”
“Right,” said Elliot, doubtfully. “But are you sure you should be listening to someone with head trauma? A large object hit him right in the noggin. I don’t mean to tell you your job, but he’s probably deeply confused.”
“Are you coming or not?”
“Oh my God, go!” said Dale. “Tell him I’m really sorry! Really sorry! Tell him you’re not mad at me! Put in a good word for me! I’m so sorry!”
It appeared Elliot had no choice. He trailed disconsolately out of the cabin after the medic. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Luke, but Elliot had some serious doubts about his ability as a ministering angel.
“Could Dale not come too? Luke is like, totally in love with him. I am sure he would want to see Dale.”
“Terrific idea,” said the medic. “I can see you know a lot about head wounds. Lots of company is ideal. Let’s bring in the whole class.”
Elliot appreciated her dark sarcasm but was still left desolate. “Dale has a very soothing personality.”
“Are you sure you’re not the one in love with Dale Wavechaser?”
“Let me tell you, you wouldn’t be asking me that if you saw his test scores,” said Elliot. “They are obscenely dreadful. But, you know, okay, the thing is–”
He didn’t quite know how to say, I have the opposite of a soothing personality and only ever upset Luke and I should probably be kept away from everybody and put in the cruel-repartee dungeon.
The medic who did not care about anything did not care about his problems. She just shoved Elliot inside the tent and departed, Elliot thought maybe to kill everyone left in the waiting cabin.
The day was drawing down to evening but there was only a single candle guttering in a little bronze cup, lending the tent only a flickering glow so as not to hurt Luke further. Luke was lying on a white pillow, looking dazed and helpless: his eyes unfocused and half open, trying and failing to prop himself up on one elbow. It was horrible to realize that Elliot had almost bought into the myth of the untouchable Luke Sunborn, found himself thinking about Luke the way everyone else did.
“Elliot?” Luke asked thickly.
“Shhh,” said Elliot, because it seemed like the right thing to say. He wasn’t sure it was: nobody had ever been there when he was sick. He hadn’t been taught what to do.
He poured Luke a glass of water and carried it carefully over to him, helping him sit up and putting the glass to his lips.
Luke drank the water obediently, then laid his head against Elliot’s shoulder with a little sigh. “Don’t be mean to me, okay?” he whispered.
“No,” Elliot promised. “I won’t be mean.”
After that evening, Elliot kept reminding himself that Serene wasn’t there to watch out for Luke. He reminded himself of all the reasons he’d been willing to go to the awful sporty table and all the reasons Luke had not wanted to be there. Luke did not like crowds of people, did not like new people, and did not trust anyone easily, even if everyone seemed to like and trust him on sight. There was nobody else: Elliot had to be kinder, had to be dependable. Just until Serene got back.
The next morning, Elliot finally got a letter from Serene herself. He nobly did not read it, but carried it to the infirmary and Luke so they could read it together. Apparently Serene had been severely reprimanded, and also robbed of many privileges including writing implements, due to what her commander had described as ‘berserker frenzies.’ Serene seemed rather proud about the whole thing.
They had a lot of things to do behind the scenes for the play. Myra turned out to be a harsh taskmistress. They had to paint all the scenery, help with the costumes, and build a balcony for the big romantic scene between Radiant and Jewel.
Luckily, Luke seemed to quite like painting scenery. This meant that Elliot was not abandoning Luke, nor forcing him to do anything that made him actively miserable. It also meant that Elliot could spend lots of time with Myra, and earn her eternal gratitude. Two birds, one stone, thrown by a strategic genius who had no interest in throwing actual stones or harming actual birds.
When one of them was high up on the ladder painting, someone else on the ground had a rope tied to the paint bucket and their wrist so they could catch it and the person on the ladder could catch themselves. They had to incorporate this policy because of the time Myra was on top of the ladder and wobbled, tried to catch the paint and ended up falling right off.
Luke had caught her. Elliot had caught the bucket of paint with his face.
“You cannot be mad about that forever,” said Luke, painting the starry night of the balcony scene.
“That’s funny you should say that because being mad about it forever is my exact plan,” Elliot told him, and carefully painted the front clump of Luke’s fair hair dark blue. Luke ducked his head and grinned.
He had been extremely grateful that Luke was there to catch his lady love, because Elliot definitely had no athletic prowess and definitely could not have done it. He was, however, still going to punish everyone for the cruelty of the universe in directing the bucket of paint at him.
He had been painting odd bits of Luke and Myra for days. It was possible that was why Myra had gone up to the top of the ladder again. She looked down at them laughing, though, so Elliot didn’t think she minded. She was very fetching with scarlet paint streaked down one side of her face.
“Terrific,” said Adara, coming in to inspect their handiwork. Her tone, as always, was deeply sarcastic. It was one of the things Elliot liked best about her.
“Oh no, we need more blue paint, I’ll get it,” said Luke, and bolted.
Adara looked vexed. “The sets aren’t done and you’re all wasting paint. Getting in character already, Elliot?”
She referred to scandalous elven men who were no better than they should be and used cosmetics to adorn the contours of their chests.
“Is that a request for me to take my shirt off?”
“It’s a request for you not to mess things up. Do you think you’ll be able to pull off the dance between Radiant and Rose Red in the ball scene?” Adara asked.
Elliot grinned at her, charmed, and put down his bucket of paint. The rope was still tied to his wrist, but he had plenty of room to maneuver. He glanced up at Myra, who gave him a thumbs up. “Let’s see.”
The ball scene was when Radiant suspected Red Rose of turning to the side of evil, but was not sure, and Red Rose tried to seduce her—to get information or because Red Rose wanted to seduce her. Elliot thought it was both. He had made extensive notes and had many opinions about Red Rose by now: the way the world had told him he was useless until he seized on being evil as the only possible purpose, the charm and strangeness of Red Rose which had once attracted and now repelled Radiant, and how the unfairness of that, of being first loved then hated simply for being himself, enraged Red Rose so completely.
Adara bowed and held out her hand, with Radiant’s wary chivalry: Red Rose sank to the floor, eyes sparkling up at her from the direction of Radiant’s ornate belt buckle.
“It’s been a long time,” said Radiant, and helped Red Rose rise. They began to move across the floor, Radiant leading but Red Rose making moves that he should not have.
“Have you missed me?” Red Rose asked, laughing softly.
There was a set of boxes to represent the table and chair that Radiant and Red Rose danced across: Adara had not proved able to catch Elliot when he leaped from the table, so instead they leaped together: neither of them could stumble or both would fall. The world whirled by and narrowed to the press of their bodies and the clasp of their hands.
“How would you desire to be missed?”
“I would desire to be missed like the remembered and desperately sought fragrance of a strange flower that grew in your garden: missed a riot of color gone from your eyes, miss the sweetest of feasts lost from your lips, missed like a carpet of the richest and most gorgeous silks, which you long and long to lay down on the floor once again.”
“You desire too much,” said Radiant. “But you always did.”
“As a flower drinks the sun, as the earth drinks rain, I know that you will come, come taste me again,” whispered Elliot, and he kissed Adara, his fingers in her hair, her arms going around him.
“No,” Luke’s voice said. “Nope. No. No. What’s happening and why is it happening?”
Adara pulled away. “It’s part of the play,” she said with a saucy wink. “I can’t wait for our kiss scene.”
Luke said his new favorite word again. “No. No way. I’m going to see Commander Woodsinger.”
“What? Why?” Adara demanded, but Luke was already gone.
Elliot picked up the bucket of paint because he didn’t have time to untie the rope from his wrist, and followed.
“Elliot, where are you going with the paint?” Myra asked, sounding distraught, and came after him grabbing at the bucket.
Adara went with them, so Luke arrived at the commander’s office and walked in without knocking but with an entourage. Commander Woodsinger looked startled by this entrance.
“I have a complaint,” said Luke, throwing himself down in the chair across from the commander’s desk.
Elliot and Adara hovered by the chair, not wanting to sit and not wanting to miss anything. Myra confiscated the bucket of paint and carried it to the back of the room, as if out of range.
“If this is about Serene Heart in the Chaos of Battle again—”
“No,” said Luke, flinching. “No, I understand that… I have to do my duty.” He began to look embarrassed. “It’s nothing serious like that. But I’m in Captain Whiteleaf’s play.”
“My condolences,” said Commander Woodsinger.
“There’s meant to be kissing,” said Luke. The commander dropped her quill with a haunted look. “I don’t want to do it.”
Adara flushed dull red. “Well, you have to!” she snapped. “It’s in the script.”
“I won’t,” said Luke.
Commander Woodsinger looked as if light had broken in on her, shining with the promise of rescue. “This is, I think, a matter to be taken up with Captain Whiteleaf!”
“I can’t, she tells him what to do,” said Luke. “But I won’t. I don’t want to let anybody down but you have to tell the captain I won’t.”
“I refuse to give the captain any orders about kissing,” Commander Woodsinger said with dignity.
Myra clutched her bucket of paint. “Well, the commander has spoken, we’d better go and sort this out amongst ourselves!”
This was not Luke’s usual unhappiness about the play.
“Hang on a minute,” said Elliot. “Luke doesn’t have to do it if he doesn’t want to. Nobody has to kiss anybody they don’t want to. Plays are supposed to be about fun and enlightening the masses, not forcing people into distasteful acts.”
Adara made an explosive noise of outrage. Elliot raised his eyebrows at her and grinned.
“That’s true,” said Myra reluctantly. “I wouldn’t want to kiss someone only for a play.”
Luke looked with gratitude at Myra. Commander Woodsinger gazed at her with a clear sense of betrayal.
Elliot swept on. “So you’re going to have to talk with Captain Whiteleaf about stage kisses. If they hold their heads at the right angle, it’ll look like they’re kissing when they’re not. You just have to make it clear that’s the way it has to be.”
“If you leave my office immediately,” said the commander. “… I will do so.”
Adara looked as if she wanted to weep with mortification. “It’s in the script! Why didn’t you people read the script all the way through?”
“I read the script. And I have no problem with kissing Adara, obviously, she’s gorgeous,” said Elliot, and then realized what he’d said in front of the girl he was trying to court. “I mean, she could look like a severed thumb and I’d still do it. For my art. I’m an artiste.”
Adara tossed her long golden hair over one shoulder. “Well, I don’t want to kiss you.”
“Okay then, you shouldn’t,” Elliot agreed. “Nobody’s kissing anybody. Is everyone happy now?”
Adara did not look happy. Myra looked terribly embarrassed to be there. Commander Woodsinger looked like she wanted to brain him with her paperweight. A certain amount of tension had slid out of Luke’s shoulders, though, so Elliot was calling it a win.
“Please leave,” said the commander. “If the impulse to come into my office and chatter exclusively about kissing ever comes over any of you again, I urge you to crush that impulse. I will expel you for wasting my time.”
Commander Woodsinger was as good as her word, and so the play continued smoothly and took up most of their time, and the rest of the time Elliot tried to remember to look out for Luke, not to be mean. He’d promised.
Since he went to Trigon practice, he made Luke go with him one day when the bookstalls were set up outside school. Elliot had a great many credits for academic prowess that could only be redeemed for books. Elliot got a little over-excited, lost Luke and found himself in a literary avalanche before he realized that he was completely hidden from view, and Luke must be wondering where he was. He picked up his booty and emerged.
“Looking for your friend?” he heard the nice bookstall lady ask.
“He’s not my friend,” Luke’s voice answered. “But my friend would want me to look out for him.”
“Hey, loser,” said Elliot, coming up to him with his pile of books and a blithe air. “Sorry for keeping you waiting.”
“That’s all right,” said Luke indulgently. “Do you want to go to the last bookstall?”
Don’t be mean, Elliot told himself.
“No,” Elliot said. “I’m all done.”
The kissing matter was not the only complication offered by the play. Nobody liked their costumes.
“No,” Luke said, waving the flouncy white shirt as if it was the head of his enemy. “No way. Add buttons.”
“How many buttons?” asked Myra.
“How many have you got?”
Luke sat down disconsolately on the edge of the stage, to stare into the distance and dream of buttons. Adara sat down beside him and began to speak of her vision for their love scene. She put a hand on his knee.
Elliot looked at them from behind his curtain. “Would either of you help me with my trousers?”
“No!” snapped Luke, going pink around the ears.
“In your dreams,” said Adara, tossing a scornful look over her shoulder. He leaned out from behind the curtain slightly in order to wink at her.
“Maybe. You can never tell what weird things will happen in dreams.” He raised his voice. Everything was playing into his hands. He was a genius. “Myra! I need help with my costume, and the mean blonds are bullying me!”
Myra came bustling over, her mouth full of pins, and slid into the changing space behind the curtain with him.
“Luke’s not mean.”
Elliot smiled down at her adorable naiveté even while she helped him do up his trousers. “Luke’s got everyone fooled.”
“He’s not the only one,” said Myra, and gestured at Elliot, who thought this appreciation for his manly charms was a very good sign. “Do you want me to get the paints?”
“Wait, are we actually painting my chest?” Elliot squawked.
He squawked incautiously loud, and Adara and Luke, united for once, burst out laughing. Elliot put his hand outside the curtain to make an obscene gesture.
He studied Myra, whose face was crestfallen. “As long as you’re the one doing the painting,” he said to her in a low voice, and he thought for a thrilled moment that she blushed.
Later Elliot went out to inspect her handiwork in a mirror and found Adara, whose costume was a more practical version of Luke’s, tying up her flouncy shirt to bare her midriff. Elliot glanced at her, appreciative, and Adara was in a good enough mood to catch his eye and wink.
“I’m sure Adara is a very nice person underneath it all and she means well and everything but I have a few problems with her,” said Luke later, when everyone was back in their normal clothes and looking thankful about it. “The first problem is that I don’t like her.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Historically, I have not been opposed to mean blonds,” said Elliot.
“Um, mean people are awful?” Luke pointed out.
Elliot rolled his eyes: if Luke was going to be ungrateful whenever Elliot expressed affection, he wasn’t going to bother.
The camp was alive with rumors of the Border guard mobilizing to enter elven territory without permission. Elliot knew Luke wanted to go: knew that nobody would listen to Elliot’s objections, that they might even think he did not care about Serene. Nothing was decided yet. Elliot was throwing himself into the play, and trying not to think about it until the night of the play had passed.
But then the night of the play came, and Elliot saw Luke’s parents and Louise in the audience. He was certain that they could not all have come for their posts to watch Luke: he was sure the Sunborns had been summoned.
Elliot did not allow Red Rose to falter. He continued plotting with Radiant’s evil stepsister.
The play was received very well. Adara was absolutely magnificent. Luke had hostage eyes throughout and might as well have been carrying a sign that said THIS IS ALL STUPID PRETEND! HELP ME! but he looked the part. Each new scene background got applause, with Myra glowing in the wings. Elliot even thought people liked him.
It was all going wonderfully, until the penultimate scene where Red Rose’s treachery was exposed and Jewel and Radiant shared their first kiss, when Adara actually leaned in against all the orders and kissed Luke on his startled mouth.
Red Rose was meant to turn bitterly on Jewel: Elliot yanked Luke away.
“Lovely child, you think the world is so bright,” said Red Rose: they were the only words he ever spoke to Jewel in the play, as if men didn’t talk to each other. “You have not learned yet that the light of the world is men burning. The years will pass and you will know what it is to be consumed.”
Jewel was meant to look annoyed by Red Rose’s spite, and it was the one thing that Luke had ever managed to do believably. Now he couldn’t even do that. He looked upset.
Elliot turned, and Red Rose gave Radiant a parting kiss: Elliot made viciously certain that it was a real kiss too.
Red Rose was never seen again in the play, fading out as if his character arc was not as important as any other characters, as if his purpose was more about being alluring than anything else. Elliot had decided to at least make his exit meaningful, so as soon as he had kissed Adara he leaped from the stage and into the audience.
The audience all started applauding. Elliot made his way over to the Sunborns, where Rachel was patting the seat behind her and Luke’s father was shaking his head slowly and sadly over the whole business.
“Move up one, rearrange yourselves, I want to sit next to Little Red,” said Louise, and Rachel and Michael shifted with good-natured grumbles.
Louise sat next to him, and kissed him smackingly on the cheek. “You were very sexy,” she told him. “Well done. Luke looks like he wants to die and it is hilarious!”
Elliot cackled with her. After the play was done, a surprising amount of people came over to Elliot and told him he’d been good, though none as memorably as Louise.
Best of all, Elliot seized a moment to ask Myra to meet him on the balcony outside Professor Fleetwood’s office. Tonight was the perfect time to ask her to be his girlfriend.
Tonight was the night Elliot would die. It was absolutely freezing on the balcony. He should have stopped to find a shirt but it had seemed such a good idea to woo Myra, with his chest painted in the green and red and blue and gold patterns she had inscribed on them, glancing up at him through her eyelashes as she painted, checking that he was okay.
“Elliot, you are shaking so much it looks like you’re about to have a fit,” said Myra.
“I am great, never better,” said Elliot, when Luke’s jacket landed around his shoulders. Elliot clutched it.
“Thank you so much,” Elliot said, heartfelt. “Now please leave.”
“Yeah, okay, sure,” said Luke, rolling his eyes and leaning against the stone carapace. “So, the play’s over at last.”
Myra answered him, but Elliot could not hear over the terrible realization sweeping through his mind: he told Luke to go away so often without meaning it that now nobody could recognize when he did mean it.
“Oh my God,” Elliot said in a hollow voice. “I did this to myself. I am the boy who cried wolf.”
“There’s a wolf?” asked Luke, and his hand went to his sword.
Myra clutched his arm. “I can’t see a wolf!”
“There is no wolf!” Elliot cried.
Myra squinted. “Then why did you say there was a wolf?”
Here Elliot was, on a balcony under a starry night sky with a beautiful, kind girl who he thought liked him, and thanks to his amazing wooing skills she was poised to flee from the wolves.
“Luke, I need to talk to you inside,” he announced. “Myra, I’ll be right back, hang out here for a minute.”
“With the w—” Myra began, but Elliot had already dragged Luke inside and shut the door on her protest.
Luke looked annoyed. Elliot could hardly blame him. Elliot felt forced to do the one thing he absolutely loathed: be emotionally vulnerable.
“Here’s the thing. I like Myra,” said Elliot. “Romantically. I want to ask her out. Please go away so I can do that.”
“What?” said Luke. “Really?”
Luke was clearly bewildered, and still looked upset by the whole play business. “I didn’t know. I didn’t think—I’ll go.”
“Please.” As Luke went down the corridor Elliot’s heart misgave him. “Hey,” he said quietly, and Luke turned. “I wanted to say… since it was the first, if you wanted it to mean something, it still can. I don’t think a kiss counts, unless you want it.”
The light from the torch affixed to the wall was burning low, but it was enough to see Luke blush. “How do you know that it was… that I haven’t… I’ve kissed loads of people. Loads of times.”
“Okay,” said Elliot, letting it go.
Luke retreated down the corridor, and Elliot whirled around and hastily opened the balcony door. “I am so sorry.”
Myra was standing on the balcony where he had left her. “Don’t be,” she said warmly. “I know what you were doing.”
Myra advanced upon him, and slipped her arms around his waist. For a moment it was like being carried away by a warm rush of joy: that something could be so simple, and so lovely.
“I know you know how I feel about Luke,” she said.
The warm rush turned to ice. Elliot remembered how Myra had always smiled at Luke, listened to him at the lunch table, looked up at Luke when she had fallen and he had caught her.
“I know you’ve been making sure I didn’t make a fool of myself over a guy who doesn’t even like girls. I know you’ve made sure always to be with me whenever he’s around,” Myra went on. She sniffed, and burrowed her head further into Luke’s jacket, while Elliot stared down at her head in mute horror. “Thanks. You’re such a good friend.”
The only possible response to someone telling you that they wanted to be friends, or that you were a great friend, was gratitude. Elliot had been friendless long enough that he knew friendship was a prize in itself. Myra was lovely, and thought the best of him.
She was lovely, and she didn’t love him. She had never even thought of loving him, and though she had never owed him love, though he was grateful for her friendship, Elliot could not help but be disappointed and furious at the whole world, furious at himself for being so stupid and thinking, every time, it would be his turn to be chosen.
It was never going to be his turn. The world didn’t work by turns: the sun shone on some people and not on others. It was always going to be Luke’s turn, over and over again.
Elliot was aware that what he was doing was wrong, even as he did it, but he still went down to the grounds where the fires for roasting meat were burning down in the mud trampled by all the guests of today. He might have taken off Luke’s jacket and dragged it through the dirt and embers.
He might have done it more than once, until he saw golden curls through the last dying flames, and realized Adara Cornripe was sitting on a log by herself.
Elliot went over and sat down beside her.
“Leave me alone,” snapped Adara. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Believe me,” Elliot said. “I’m not really in the mood to talk myself. But I wanted to say something. I was mad at you, but that doesn’t make it right to kiss you when you didn’t want me to. I liked playing Red Rose but I wouldn’t want to live that way and I know I don’t: I know who does. I’m sorry.”
Adara studied him, her own beautiful face unreadable. She did not speak, but she leaned forward, took his face between her hands and kissed his mouth. Sparks flew up skyward from the dying fire, as if hoping they could become stars. The sparks burned behind Elliot’s eyelids as he shut his eyes and kissed her back.
Elliot might not have done it, if he had known Serene was coming back the next day.