Mirabel crumpled Gladys' note in her hand. She couldn't seem to scrunch it up into as small a wad as she wanted to, but at least she could curl her fingers around it so that it wasn't visible at all, crushed into her sweaty palm. Her fist tightened around it as she opened the study door and slammed it shut behind her. She would find Gladys, force her to apologise and come back, and then...
She strode down the corridor, propelled so fast by fury that she risked being scolded for running in the corridors, but even the mistresses knew that when Mirabel's face was such a livid thundercloud, it was best to give her a few minutes to collect herself. That weak little thing, to let her down like that... who did she think she was, defying Mirabel like that? Well, let her. She was quite right: Mirabel didn't need Gladys or anyone else. Having a vice-captain was a stupid, ridiculous idea anyhow, she was perfectly capable of licking those young cubs into shape by herself, without half-baked interference...
"I wonder who our dear Mirabel is scolding so feverishly inside her head?" Bobby asked Claudine, with some amusement, as she raced by.
Her companion shrugged a graceful shoulder. "Some poor little one who has refused to come to practice, I suppose. How very dull the life of a strapping tomboy must be, to care so much about such things."
Mirabel caught Claudine's words, and the flames at the sides of her vision lapped against the top of her skull, spreading itching heat along her scalp. Her headlong progress only stumbled to a halt outside the common room. She could catch snatches of the conversation inside. Carlotta was arguing with Angela, her piercing tones carrying over Angela's refined and sweet but surprisingly audible voice, while one of the twins, she couldn't tell which, was laughing at them, Janet mocking... She couldn't catch Gladys' voice, but then, that was hardly surprising, even if she was in the room. She was probably in a corner, quietly reading or sewing, meeklu waiting for Mirabel to receive the note and wondering what she would do about it. Gladys detested scenes, and she must be dreading Mirabel storming in and creating a terrible fuss in front of the rest of the form.
Yet, she had left the note on the study table.
Mirabel stood dumbly outside the door, only moving when she became aware that Bobby and Claudine were approaching. She had no intention of being caught looking ridiculous and standing stock still by a door she was suddenly afraid to open, especially by that useless, lazy French girl with her honeyed little barbs. Mirabel turned on her heel, finding a different way back to her study.
She managed to close the door before her fury collapsed into angry sobs. She stumbled to one of the hard school-issue desks by the fire and lowered her head into her hands, weeping with bitter anger and a hollow sense of loss.
No matter how frustrating and horrid the year had turned out to be, no matter how she'd been let down, she'd never really believed her own faithful little Mouse would turn against her.
She wasn't sure how long she wept before she was interrupted by the opening door. She lifted her head and her shoulders, scrubbing away the tears with one hand as she turned to glare at whomsoever had dared enter without knocking. If it was one of those pests of first-formers, she'd give them short shrift and make sure they had no thought of cheekiness or carrying tales.
It was Gladys. Of course. Well, it was her study too, she had every right to come in, Mirabel wouldn't begrudge her that. She glared at the other girl, daring her to comment on the fact that she'd been crying.
She felt oddly deflated when Gladys didn't seem to notice at all, let alone feel any sudden overwhelming guilt over having been the cause of the tears. Her study mate kept her head down and didn't look at Mirabel at all, busying herself with books on their small shelf.
She was going to ignore her, after leaving that curt little note destroying their friendship. It was unendurable.
"Traitor." Mirabel spat the word out with all the venom she could muster.
Gladys' hand visibly jerked, the book she was holding falling against the shelf so hard the pages were bent. She picked it up, carefully smoothing them before she answered, in a low voice. "That's not fair."
"Isn't it? Everybody else has turned against me, so why not you?"
Gladys set the book down, and turned at last. "Mirabel."
There was a kind of dignity in the way she spoke, but she looked so worn and unhappy, and oh so /little/, her shoulders thin under her tunic, her eyes reddened and her shoulders not much higher than Mirabel's own for all she stood and her friend sat, hair pulled back in two lank tails. She looked so much like the old Misery Girl Mirabel had despised and pushed aside and had no idea of loving that the association was painful. Gladys was so very plain and unlovely, and that struck something in the heart of Mirabel, who alone was unmoved and slightly contemptuous of Angela's golden beauty.
Mirabel was conscious of the urge to gather the smaller up in her arms and comfort her, to transform her back from the Misery Girl into her own beloved Mouse. She didn't pretend to understand Gladys, never had, but she could always make the queer, soft-hearted thing feel better when no one else could, because her Mouse didn't trust anyone else the way she trusted Mirabel. No one else could enfold her in their arms and make rough jokes, press almost brotherly kisses on her cheek and see that gentle face light up as a reward. Gladys had put her trust in her when the rest of the form saw her as an obnoxious, tomboyish bully, worthy of nothing but contempt.
The last time Mirabel caught Gladys with red eyes, after one of her mother's bad spells, she'd played the violin for her, soothing her with melodious soft strains until the tense line of her friend's back relaxed a little. She'd held her close afterwards and they'd talked until Gladys snuggled her face into Mirabel's shoulder, and Mirabel felt her smile against her throat. The last time she'd cried herself, after quarrelling violently with her siblings, Gladys had teased and lectured her, her small hand tucked in Mirabel's, until she was smiling and apologising to her family, simply because her Mouse wished it of her. Now, all she had to do was reach out, and she knew the quarrel would be over.
Pride and her own sense of injured betrayal held her back from any such soppy display of affection. "What do you want?"
"Mirabel... don't be so unhappy, old dear. I can't bear it. I simply hate fighting with you like this, but you made it impossible for me -"
Mirabel's temper rose up again, saving her from either further humiliating tears or caving in completely and putting her arms around her friend. "I made nothing impossible," she said, biting off each word carefully. "The only impossible thing is the way you were supporting insubordination against me."
"Don't be utterly ridiculous! This is a school, not the army!" Gladys was crying openly herself, tears sliding down her face without any shame. "Mirabel - please don't. I want to come back and help you, if only you'd let me, if only I felt you needed me at all! We were such friends..."
"Friends?" Mirabel couldn't endure looking at her any longer. She looked at her hands instead, turning them over to stare at her palms. The left hand had become smudged with ink from the resignation note, streaky blue from the indent where her palm met her wrist to the sweaty centre of her palm. "Friends back each other up. They don't undermine each other and then abandon them completely."
"Friends listen to what their friends have to say." Gladys' voice was so quiet that Mirabel had to strain to catch it.
"That's it, is it? You were proud of the way the others said you could 'handle' the awful tomboy, and when I didn't do what you said you gave up on me?" Mirabel no longer cared if she was being unjust. It all hurt too much. "Or are you the one who doesn't need me any longer, now you have other friends and I'm alone?"
"How can you say something so horrid and untrue?" She still hadn't raised her voice, only the shake in it giving away the perilous foundations of the calm tones, but the tears still slipped down her face. "Half the little ones in the school worshipped you, until you spoiled things for them, and you have a wonderful family - all I have to love is Mother and you/, if only you'd /let me!"
All Mirabel could work out through the pain was that Gladys was saying she was unable to love her, and that it was her, Mirabel's, fault. She dropped her head to her forearms, suddenly, trying to block it all out.
Gladys dropped to her knees, and her arms came out around Mirabel's waist. "If I only thought you still needed me, at least a little." Her voice was barely a whisper.
Mirabel opened her mouth to inform Gladys that she didn't need anyone, least of all a wretched little crybaby who wouldn't support her when she needed it, but her throat was suddenly too dry for such a speech. "Mouse." The pet name came out as a kind of painful croak.
"Oh, Mirabel." Gladys leaned her head against Mirabel's side, her weight settling against her.
They sat there for what seemed like a very long time, perhaps ten minutes. Mirabel was unwilling to move, for fear of disrupting the peace. Gladys' head was surprisingly heavy against her rib cage, the grasp around her waist firm, but she couldn't possibly be comfortable like that, kneeling on the floor. Perhaps Mirabel should pull her up...
She turned just as Gladys had obviously decided to rise, so after a few confused moments they found themselves facing each other, Gladys' arms having slid up to just under Mirabel's armpits, Mirabel's own hands on Gladys' shoulders. Mirabel hesitated just a moment, then pulled the smaller girl onto her lap, crushing her close.
"It's been such a frightful year, and I thought it would be so marvellous," she said against Gladys' hair. Not pretty hair, not really, but so fine and silky against her mouth. "I wanted to make a smashing success of things, pull everyone into shape, and it's such a mess instead. I've spoiled it all for both of us, Mouse."
"Silly duffer." Gladys pressed her wet cheek against Mirabel's. "People have to lick themselves into shape and fight their own battles, just as you did in second form. Not everyone is lucky enough to have you as a special friend, you know. But it's not too late, dear, I promise."
"But too late for us to be special friends again? I know I've been a sulky, bad-tempered ass..."
Gladys pulled her head back, to look into Mirabel's eyes. Her plain, shy, dear face was streaked and her eyes were nearly as red as her skin, but something in her glowed in a way quite apart from any physical radiance, giving her something much more poignant than mere prettiness. "I do love you so very much, Mirabel. I don't know what I'd ever do without you - I'll always be your friend."
"Always?" She was kissing Gladys before she knew it, no chaste kiss on her cheek or forehead but allowing her lips to drop directly against that precious mouth. She didn't mean anything by it but one chaste kiss of reconciliation, but Gladys made a small surprised noise and pressed her own mouth back hard.
Gladys' lips were parted, and her mouth was warm and wet. Mirabel gasped with surprise against such a forceful caress from her quiet friend, and Gladys took advantage of the movement, her lips clinging and pulling and almost sucking against Mirabel's mouth...
Panic suddenly rose in Mirabel's throat. This was too sweet, too intense, and she couldn't understand why it was happening, why there was this sudden tight ache deep within her and the urge to crush Gladys even closer, smother her face with kisses... She'd never heard of such a thing. Gladys... Gladys had somehow realised that there was this other self, these feelings inside of Mirabel, and was only trying to please her... Or maybe she didn't understand at all, maybe she was only innocently kissing her, and wasn't burning and aching like Mirabel was.
She pushed Gladys away. "Have you gone mad?" Her voice was as loud with fear as with the sharp longing to pull the other girl's mouth back down to hers, lose herself in the kisses...
She watched Gladys' eyes come back into focus, her face drain of colour. When the rosy cheeks were quite grey, Mirabel could have bitten off her own tongue. She'd spoken straight out of her own terror and hadn't realised how much it would hurt the other girl. She almost reached up to pull her back into the kiss but that was clearly impossible. Far wiser just to let her stumble to her feet, pull her tunic and tie back into place... Mirabel wanted to throw back her head and howl.
"I'm sorry." Gladys' voice was tight. "I was foolish enough to think for one whole moment that you really did need me again."
"Mouse - I do -" Her voice was strange to her own ears, in the strained desperation. Surely Gladys heard it, too.
Gladys closed her eyes, and then took a deep breath, seeming to collect herself. "It's all right. I was just being as soppy as little Jane, and I know how you loathe that kind of thing."
Mirabel caught her hands, wanting to make up - wanting to pull her down and kiss her again, but that wouldn't do. It was her job to look after Gladys, not to pull her closer to... whatever it was she'd felt.
She floundered about for something to say, seizing on the job of Games Captain. "I think - it will be all be fine now, old thing. Now you're back on my side, we can tell the girls to stop this ridiculous insubordination, and..."
She hadn't thought Gladys' colour could change so quickly. "Mirabel - /no./."
"No?" She paused, flummoxed.
"Mirabel, if I take back my resignation, you have to listen to me. It's no good bullying the youngsters, you have to be kind -"
"Such nonsense!" Mirabel said impatiently. It was going badly, she could tell, but she needed to move the conversation away form the perilous place of a few moments ago, had to reestablish things as they had been. "We need to pull together. Now, if I set a practice for tomorrow, they'd jolly well -"
"Mirabel Unwin, you're utterly impossible! And my resignation stands. I can't work with you, and you obviously don't need me at all."
"I'm sorry." Gladys was obviously trying not to sob through the words, and it struck Mirabel straight through the heart. "If you ever decide you want a real friend back, one you can treat as - as - more than your pet mouse, you can always come to me. But I can't go back to this! If you want to destroy your life, you'll have to do it alone. I love you too much to help." Gladys stooped and, lightening-fast, dropped a kiss on Mirabel's cheek.
Mirabel sat frozen and struck dumb as Gladys turned and fled the study. All she had to do, she told herself, was swallow her pride and go apologise, promise to be easier on the lower forms...
When she was sure she was quite alone, with no chance of her friend returning, she buried her head in her hands and cried and cried.
"It wasn't such a bad term n the end, was it?"
Mirabel looked up down at her friend's sweet face, swinging on the garden seat beside her, and laughed without bitterness. "Easy for you to say, Mouse. You're not stuck spending half the hols being tutored."
"We still have the afternoons together." Gladys tucked her hand in Mirabel's larger one. "Selfish of me or not, I'm rather glad you failed, if it meant we made up."
"Selfish little beast," Mirabel said affectionately. "I was lost without you, you know."
"I know." They were quiet for the moment, Gladys' shorter legs moving in unison with Mirabel's long ones, to keep the seat swinging. "Mirabel?"
"Yes, old thing?"
"What did you feel when I kissed you?"
Mirabel rested her cheek against the top of Gladys' head. Amazing, that her Mouse sometimes had so much more courage than she did. "I don't think I can say."
"Oh." Mirabel couldn't tell if Gladys was happy or upset by the confession.
"I love you too, you know."
"Oh!" Now it was easy to tell that Gladys was pleased. "You never say things like that."
"I should." Mirabel looked at the sunlit garden, let the peace and warmth flow up inside her. Everything had been all right, she hadn't been a complete failure after all, she could take the exams again... the other girls had forgiven her... Gladys was at her house for the hols, snuggled against her side. Courage flowed into her.
"I suppose we could always try kissing again, and see how we felt this time..."
Gladys smothered the words against her lips, and this time, Mirabel neither panicked nor pushed her away.
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