Who: Gawain, Cecilia, Idris, Taliesyn, and the original Mrs Robards, aka Gawain’s mum
Where: The Glass Slipper
When: 10 January 2002, evening
Mary Robards did not fail to notice the looks exchanged between the hostess and all four other members of her party. They were barely in their seats before she shot out “so which one of you had a tryst with the hostess?”
“Not me,” said Idris and Tali simultaneously. They shot each other a look. Tali, one of surprise, and Idris, one of annoyance.
Mary looked around the group. Her eyes narrowed. “Who’s missing?” It came to her. “Cecilia, I see you’ve lost one.” Cecilia sighed and signalled for drinks, stat. She had chosen to hold their little dinner in a public place in the hope of her mother-in-law moderating her tongue, but it seems that was a futile exercise. (It wasn’t because she didn’t want Mary to know they’d had to downgrade accommodations. Well, she was sure the older woman knew, but knowing and actually seeing were two different things. A cottage with only two bedrooms? Heavens.)
She gave her husband a firm nudge. Gawain immediately cast a muffling charm upon the table. Much better than a silencing charm, he thought, given that any nosy people confronted with silence would give up, whereas if they were confronted with speech just on the edge of hearing, well, that really drove them nuts. It was so easy to spot the eavesdroppers.
“Cary’s not lost, he’s just… he works abroad.”
Mary gave a great sniff. “He might as well not be here. I’ve often said any more than two children is an extravagant luxury. And personally, I would have you thought you’d know better, given the horrendous—”
“Mother, would you like to see the drinks list?” said Gawain, plonking it down in front of her.
“Oh yes, thank you, darling,” she replied, as Cecilia’s eyes rolled out of her face. Mary barked her choice at the waiter and handed the list over, hardly read.
Gawain’s attempt to distract his mother from her train of thought hadn’t succeeded. She launched straight back in. “I suppose you had to make up for the deficiencies of the second.”
It wasn’t until Idris snickered that Tali realised they were talking about him. His face coloured. “Oh, um…”
“No, don’t bother answering. I wasn’t talking to you and I didn’t ask for comment,” said Mary. She fixed him a gaze that made him wish he could slowly sink his whole body down into his shoes. “I see you haven’t grown. You could be 6′4 if you didn’t slouch.”
Tali blinked. He very much doubted that. “Uh…”
“You said not to comment,” he replied helplessly.
“Yes, don’t bother any more, you had your chance and you missed it,” said Mary. She turned to bend Gawain’s ear. They were still talking about him, behind his b- well, right in front of his face, actually. Tali wished Gawain had left him out of the audible range. He didn’t need to hear about his deficiencies in expanded detail, complete with opening statements, a series of irrefutable arguments and then a conclusion for every point made, with Idris’s chuckling acting like music to add atmosphere.
The entrees came and Tali half-heartedly thought his mother’s dislike of her mother-in-law — she used a variety of glamour charms to appear much younger, once somebody had told Cecilia they thought the two were peers, that person has never been seen since — would override her own tendency to nitpick at his life, but he was wrong. Cecilia kept a stony face through one glass of wine but the first sip of her second saw her smile. Betrayed.
Mary started on his lack of love life and nobody corrected her. Tali frowned. Surely, they knew? Tali had a brief moment of panic that his relationship had passed them by — OK, so he hadn’t taken Romilda to meet them or anything, but that was because they’d already met, on numerous occasions previously — when he remembered they had to know, they’d both embarrassed him through the journals because of it.
Apparently his identity as a lovelorn entity was just so right it was stronger than reality. He poked at his meal listlessly.
“Tali’s got a girlfriend, actually,” drawled Idris.
Tali’s head snapped up. His elation was short-lived.
Mary snorted. “That won’t last.”
Oh, now it was so much worse. Before they were talking about theories that, while hurtful, weren’t true. Now they were talking theories that were both hurtful and could very well come true.
Tune out, he told his brain desperately. Tune out. Pretend Watson’s got a feature article in the pets section of the Sunday Prophet and you’ve got to submit an interview with him. Yes, pretend you’re talking to Watson.
‘How is life treating you these days, Watson?’
‘Any thoughts on what it’s like to be a corgi in the 21st century?’
‘Does it bother you that I always win at tag because you can’t jump fences and I can?’
‘When am I going to let you in my room again? Well, when you learn to face the wall when my girlfriend’s getting dressed. It’s rude to stare.’
‘Do you like Dot better than you like me?’
‘You know, sometimes I envy your life, Watson. 100% leisure time, plenty of food, toys, freedom. I envy you a lot.’
‘But then I remember you had your testicles snipped off, so you know, I actually don’t envy you at all.’
Tali was awoken from his reverie by wine splashing down his front. He leapt out of seat. “What the hell happened?”
He glared at Idris. “You did that on purpose!”
Idris rolled his eyes. “Why would I do that? Besides, you knocked it over yourself.”
“You bumped me!”
“Well I’m used to sitting next to Cary. Not my fault you’re all elbows, is it?”
Tali began pulling his shirt out of his trousers. Mary grabbed his arm and hissed, “Not at the table. Go clean it up in the bathroom.” She gave him a shove in that direction.
Idris may have — no, definitely did do that to embarrass Tali, but being sent to the bathroom wasn’t so bad. He was away from his family, for a start. It gave him a small chance to calm his nerves.
He had gotten all the wine out, rinsed his shirt thoroughly for good measure and now set it on the counter with a charm to dry. He needed to cool down. His face must be burning.
Tali glanced at the mirror. Oh yes, definitely red. Red and too long. Well, his face would always be too long, he thought unhappily, long for the rest of his life, but maybe the blush could go. He turned on the tap and started splashing cold water on his face.
A few moments later he felt a bit more composed. He sucked in a few deep breaths. He could see his chest rise and fall in the mirror. Tali looked upon it first with surprise, then with… something akin to pleasure. He looked, well, it wasn’t bad. He’d only intended going to the fitness centre as a hobby with an end date but it had turned into habit. The only fitness he’d done previously was jogging with Watson, and let’s face it, that was never an arduous challenge.
Tali was glad going to the gym was getting results. He thought it had been working, but he never bothered to check visually. He ever only used mirrors because shaving without looking was a bit risky, so this was a first. He looked at his arms. Not… well, he wouldn’t go so far to say they were muscular, but they weren’t sticks! He flexed a bicep and grinned involuntarily.
“Oh, Tali. Always so easily impressed.”
Idris’s life wasn’t going very well. He was getting dangerously close to cracking and admitting to his mother he wasn’t sure Sepphora’s house was worth Sepphora. Not that he hated her, or felt her company intolerable, or her opinions infuriating. Far from it. She was just so… acceptable. Like sitting in a bath where the water was neither pleasantly warm nor prickly cold, and so one had the agony of deciding between two almost, almost equal choices — would it really be better to stay or get out?
Honestly, it would have been easier if Sepphora did infuriate him. At least that’d put some fire in the belly. Maybe he should make one of her friends hint that she should take up veganism.
Beyond that, Idris wasn’t even sure if the manor was a done deal. Now that the youngest Smith seemed intent on parading his new girlfriend around, reminding his father that surely it would be better to keep the property in the family name, now that he might have some actual descendants to pass it through? Trust her to be a Vane, as well. They must be conspiring to ruin his life. First Matilda and her stupid photos, which he’d gone a bit mad for just before Christmas and bought a whole fuckload of them to send as gifts to all and sundry, every last person who’d ever done him a favour. Second Emelda, allowing herself to be in Zacharias’s clutches. And third, Romilda, who bloody thought there was nothing shameful in bedding his younger brother. (Honestly, there had to be something rattling around loose in her brain. Well, considering her family, even looser. He could understand a one-time thing, some drunken dare to go shag the least desirable person you could think of, but appearances suggested it was happening on a consistent basis. For months. Months! Something definitely loose.)
Idris couldn’t stand to see Tali happy. It made him ill. It also made him just the tiniest bit on edge. He’d been a bit agitated in the aftermath of that trial demonstration. He couldn’t work out why — considering he’d been the one brandishing the scary knife — until he realised that someone who’d go through that much punishment simply to make another person happy was maybe, just maybe, not someone that could be fucked with easily.
Well, Idris would have to rectify that. And Grandma Mary had been so kind to lay the groundwork. Of course, he couldn’t say anything particularly cutting out in public. But now that Tali was confined to the gents’, it was the perfect opportunity.
Idris excused himself from the table. He pushed open the bathroom door silently. It was better than he could have hoped. The idiot was admiring himself.
Oh, this would be too easy.
“Oh, Tali. Always so easily impressed.”
Tali jumped like he’d just been caught in an act of self-love. The burning sensation returned to his cheeks. It’d probably just spread up from his chest, which he realised suddenly was still uncovered. He grabbed his shirt hastily — still a tad damp, but whatever — and shrugged it on. He tried to do up the buttons as fast as possible, which only meant that he probably skipped one, he reached the bottom, fuck, definitely skipped one, fuck, too late, just go with it.
“I’m, I’m not, I’m uh, I was just—”
Idris clicked his tongue sympathetically, which only served to set Tali further on edge. Even subconsciously he’d already backed himself against the wall. He wished he could just phase through it. If he could, he’d go through, keep walking backwards, walk backwards all the way back to his place, through the front door and into his room, where he’d slam the door shut and not leave for a week.
“Hey, I understand. Some of us have to take whatever we can get.”
Idris was standing possessively over the only exit. Tali closed his eyes. Maybe if he couldn’t see Idris…
“Does your girlfriend find it impressive?”
“Uh,” Tali was having trouble speaking. It was basically a question with no right answer. If you said no, then you were an idiot wasting your time and energy on a pointless, hopeless mission, and if you said yes, you were obviously a naive, deluded narcissist.
Idris schooled his eyebrows into an expression of concern. “Does she even like you?”
Tali didn’t even bother to make hesitant noises. He gulped.
“So why is she with you, then? I think it’s well established you have few attractive qualities and quite a few unattractive ones.”
Silence. Tali did have to agree on that account. Once you’d heard something so many times, well, it was basically fact, wasn’t it?
Idris sighed and looked to the ceiling. “Well, any port in a storm, I guess.”
Idris stepped closer. Tali remained rooted to the spot. Idris’s work was done. What, did people think he would do something vulgar like actually come between two people? No, there was no need for that. No point in pushing anyone in front of oncoming traffic when you only had to be a little patient to see them wander across two lanes of their own accord.
His work was done, but maybe he could put in a bit of overtime. He moved toward his brother till they were close enough to touch. Idris put a hand upon Tali’s cheek. It felt almost feverish.
“Do you remember Windermere?”
Tali’s eyes widened. Since he had lost the ability to speak Idris decided that was answer enough. It would have been a difficult episode to forget.
He gave Tali a light slap. “C’mon! Or you’re going to miss desert,” Idris smirked. He turned on his heel and strode out briskly.
Idris was already into a piece of cake when Tali finally made his way out. He walked across and stopped only to talk to his mother. “I have to go, Watson fell down a well,” he muttered, bending down.
It wasn’t clear that she’d heard, but Tali wasn’t stopping. He summoned his coat from the cloakroom without waiting for the attendant and left.