(1938-11-01) It Doesn't Mean Nothing
Details for It Doesn't Mean Nothing
Summary: Fabia returns exhausted from another of her little jaunts to London; then Corina drops in, and she seizes the chance to introduce her friend to a higher dose of Saccharine Powder… (WARNING: Some Mature Content)
Date: November 1st, 1938
Location: Upstairs at the Three Broomsticks
Related: Plot: Saccharine Powder • Next after and refers extensively to Phantasm.

Fabia's Rooms

Swanning off to London via Floo half an hour or so after the discreet departure of Astoria Bletchley, Fabia tells Frid she'll be away for two nights this time and he ought to enjoy himself — "Heaven knows, sweetie, I'm going to."

Not a word has been said all week of the Halloween party she'd begun to plan, her first Halloween in the wizarding world in how many years, and in her own pub too — begun to plan, and then abandoned, gathering rightly that the local people whose muttering against her has begun to gather steam, would prefer just to get on with their own time-honoured celebrations without any Mugglish interlopers dashing about the place in Lelong frocks, trying to stir up fun.

At mid-afternoon on the first of November she returns; and trudges upstairs; and falls flat upon her bed, still in all her furs, moaning slightly.

And so it is that Frid, in shirtsleeves no less, thunders up the stairs in a rush, his afternoon plans set aside at his employer's early return. Straightening himself out to look as presentable as he can manage, and double checking he's not left a film of beer in his beard, he opens the door quietly and enters. One look to Fabia and he moves to a drawer, withdrawing from it a pair of aspirins and slipping them onto a saucer to deliver to her bedside.

The fur coat shudders; and extends a suede-gloved paw. "Not really my head," Fabia murmurs, scooping up the aspirin, "but I'll take anything." It's possible, of course, that taking anything was what got her into her present state of… fatigue? She still has her hat on, as well as all the rest; she fumbles with the veil, pops the aspirin into her mouth, and reaches out for — oh, a cup of tea. Bliss. She heaves herself just far enough upwards to sip it, then subsides back onto the bed. Another, more protracted moan.

Frid moves to draw the curtains first, blocking out the pale winter afternoon as best he can, before returning to his employer. With infinite care, he attempts to extricate her from her coat and hat, querying with quiet amusement, "I take it that London was satisfactory, madam?"

Her answer is delivered in the form of guilt-tinged, sighing laughter, as she shifts this way and that, endeavouring to make it easier for him to get her out of her coat but really just complicating the situation. Underneath it she's wearing her 'Panic' tweeds and a gentleman's white shirt. Hardly any makeup — just perfect red lips, and enough about the eyes to pass muster beneath her rather heavy veil — and a new pearl bracelet Frid has never seen before.

"Bath?" she murmurs, kicking weakly at her shoes to try to get rid of them.

"Ten minutes, madam," Frid responds, wholly apologetic as he finally wrangles the coat away and moves to collect her shoes from the bed. The great and marvellous Frid, caught out by a few hours, doesn't yet have it run. "A new bracelet, madam?"

"It'll be twenty minutes before I can move," Fabia promises him, infinitely forgivingly. She turns the bracelet round and round, admiring it from all angles, not too exhausted to smirk. "A little something I found under my pillow this morning," she explains. She lets it fall and begins fumbling with her glove's tiny (fake) pearl buttons. But they will keep slipping away from her other hand's still-gloved fingers. She holds out her wrist, hopelessly, to Frid.

The door to Fabia's apartment opens, and as casually as if she lived there, Corina Silver steps inside. She's in her velvet half-jacket, the one with the slightly military flair and the high collar, and a gown that might be more suitable to Queen Victoria's court. "I don't think your patronage care much for me any more," she calls out, as if continuing an ongoing conversation. "I'm having trouble even making them blush now."

Somewhat groggy laughter floats in from the next room to greet Corina; "In here, sweetie," Fabia calls, sounding not the least bit surprised to have heard her friend's voice. In here indeed, lying prone upon her bed, with a shirtsleeved Frid unbuttoning her glove.

Frid doesn't even question it. Partly because she's a regular sight in here by now, and partly because it would break something deep inside of him to make comment on any of Fabia's habits to anyone but her. He removes the gloves, then straightens. "The bath, madam? Or shall I delay it while you have company? Miss Silver," he adds politely as the courtesan enters.

Fabia shakes her head lazily, without troubling to lift it: "Oh, Miss Silver won't mind if I have my bath. Will you, Miss Silver?"

Corina waves a gloved hand dismissively. "Of course not. Maybe I'll join you." She smirks teasingly…glancing sidelong at Frid when she says it. As she comes fully into the room, she lifts a brow at Fabia. "Goodness, darling. Been playing hard, have we? Without me? Tsk, tsk."

"It's a lovely big bath," Fabia comments. And then, weary as she is, a light comes into her eyes — she smiles very consideringly up at Corina… "Sweetie, I have such a treat for you, if I can pull myself together a little. Won't you please pass me that cup of tea?"

Frid studiously examines the wall as the suggestion is made, only glancing towards Corina once her attention has switched to Fabia. He disappears, as he is wont to do, returning barely a moment later with a fresh cup in order to pour a second cup of tea, the sounds of a running bath echoing behind him.

Corina has barely handed over Fabia's tea before there is another for herself. She gives Frid a grateful smile, leaning toward him and resting a hand briefly on his forearm. "You're a darling man. Now, Fabia, what is this treat, you tantalising tart?"

A friend with whom to tease and be teased, a fresh amusement in the offing — Fabia's starting to perk up even before she pours the rest of her hot, sweet black China tea down her throat. She has, by dint of exaggerated effort, drawn herself upwards on the bed to drink it; she leans her head against her pillows, still eyeing Corina. "Oh," she murmurs, "I'm not sure I'd like to say — it might be rather more fun to surprise you, and see what happens… Would that be very cruel of me? I wonder."

Frid flashes Corina a quick smile in return, before taking up post by the drinks trolley expectantly. He adjusts his collar, caught out and apparently quite uncomfortable not to be fully and professionally dressed, despite anything Fabia has tried, over the years, to persuade him otherwise.

"I don't mind surprises, but get to it already." Corina chuckles, seating herself on the edge of the bed to sip her tea. "I can be terribly impatient when offered presents and treats, I'm afraid. Positively monstrous if teased." She flashes a grin. She's probably joking.

"Spoiled brat," Fabia complains, fondly. "You'll have your treat, but, oh, do let me have my bath first…" And just as she speaks, the taps in the bathroom stop running. Frid, it seems, has slipped past unseen, in obedience to the sixth sense which tells him when the water's liable to overflow if he doesn't. She's watching the door when he comes out: "Tea?" she pleads, showing him her empty cup. Then she sets it down and, sighing dramatically, sits up to wriggle out of her suit jacket. Beneath it, she's wearing a gentleman's white shirt, far too big for her. "I'm dying for hot water," she confides in an undertone, "I'm simply one enormous ache, with eyelashes." She flutters them. The only bits of her which don't hurt.

Tea. Frid tops up the cup, raising an eyebrow at Corina in silent question. More? "Your bath, madam," he adds. Then pauses. Then asks, "Will you require an extra towel?" as casually as he can, as though this is the sort of behaviour one expects in all the great houses of his training.

Corina arches her eyebrow at Fabia in the man's shirt. "You! You've been to London again without coming to see me. You're forgetting all about me to spend time with your man." She lifts her cup for Frid to refill while waiting patiently for Fabia to disrobe, ready to follow her into the bathroom. "The next time you do so, I insist on being notified, so that I might come here and make use of Frid." She flashes such a cheshire smile at the valet, lending all matter of subtext to what she could possibly mean by that.

Frid clears his throat quietly, heat rising in his face until it is tinged a delightful shade of pink.

Fabia answers Frid's question about towels with a giggle on her lips: "Perhaps you'd better put out another, in case it's wanted," she tells him, without commenting one way or another upon just who might want it or why. She unfastens her earrings and her new pearl bracelet and sets them down next to her cup and saucer, pausing to sip her tea (and incidentally to give Frid the opportunity to make his usual escape) before reaching up inside her skirt to unclip her stockings from her suspenders and drag them tiredly, impatiently down her legs.

"I was so sure you'd be busy, sweetie," she apologises to Corina, sitting now on the edge of the bed, dropping her balled-up nylons on the floor and unzipping her skirt, "or I'd have telephoned — really I'd have telephoned. You were busy, weren't you? Do admit. And do tell me how long you can stay today. Have you something planned for the evening that would make me swoon if I heard it?"

"Alright, yes, I was busy," Corina admits. "But it was just a minor dalliance. It lasted barely two hours. But tonight…well," she begins with a gossipy tone, "I'm to meet his lordship at the May Fair, and I expect I shan't be set free until tomorrow afternoon at the very earliest." She giggles excitedly. "But that is a midnight rendezvous, after he escapes some family affair. So, for most of the evening, I'm all yours."

Having disappeared to lay out another towel, Frid has his attention on the ceiling as he makes his rapid way back through in order to escape the inner boudoir, hurrying to the doors to wait in the room outside.

"Oh, good."

Fabia's last few garments hit the floor in the customary fashion as she approaches the bathroom door; but today her step is missing its accustomed spring, and she appears to have acquired several minor but unlikely bruises.

She has one foot in her verbena-scented bubblebath (such a refreshing scent, such a thoughtful selection by Frid) and one still out when the rest of what Corina just said arrives with her at last: she turns back to her, nibbling her lower lip in bewilderment. "Only two hours? What could he have been thinking?" A slight shrug, which sets her tulip gentleman diamonds a-shimmering about her throat; and she sinks into her longed-for hot water with a voluptuous sigh.

Corina drifts into the bathroom after Fabia, seeking out a stool to sit upon — oh, thank you, Frid. "He was thinking that he had little time, and wanted a rousing fuck," she says candidly. "He is one of my more generous lovers, so I don't mind, really."

"Oh, well, if he wasn't someone new…" That does explain it a little. Fabia nods, lying quite limp, her eyes closed. "If he was new and so quick about it, what he'd really need would be a good Freudian analyst, not a courtesan. Of course," she sighs, "sometimes there really isn't time… Sweetie, will you light me a cigarette? I didn't think before I got in and I can't ask Frid, he'd probably do it but he'd die of it. They're on the dressing-table."

"Oh, well, if he wasn't someone new…" That does explain it a little. Fabia nods, lying quite limp, her eyes closed. "If he was new and so quick about it, what he'd really need would be a good Freudian analyst, not a courtesan. Of course," she sighs, "sometimes there really isn't time… Sweetie, will you light me a cigarette? I didn't think before I got in and I can't ask Frid, he'd probably do it but he'd die of it. They're on the dressing-table."

And so she smokes and soaks — and extracts progressively naughtier stories from Corina — until she feels more like herself. It doesn't take so very long.

Out of her bath and into the magnificent dressing-gown of the late B. Travers, Esq., which she persists in wearing now and again though the sleeves envelop her hands and the hem trails on the floor about her feet, Fabia draws Frid into a whispered conference as far away from Corina as they can be while still in the same little apartment. The word "three" might drift over to the courtesan's perfect, shell-like ears; or possibly the phrase "do put plenty in".

Then Frid reports for duty at the drinks trolley, and Fabia returns to her boudoir, where Corina has been waiting without any particular patience; she pops her head out into the sitting-room just once more, to say, "But martinis first, please, sweetie, I won't feel human again till I have a martini in me."

She shuts the double doors and addresses herself to the clothes Frid laid out while she was in the bath: a tweedy, pleated dark grey skirt, a paler, silvery-grey silk blouse, and a gloriously soft bright turquoise cashmere jumper, quite suitable for an afternoon at home. The diamonds don't go, but she tucks them inside. Instead of the nylons laid out with her black and turquoise lingerie, she opens a new pair of silk stockings, just because she feels like it. The martinis are ready before she is; they're passed through the door, and Fabia's at any rate vanishes at a prodigious rate, carrying away with it most of the remaining traces of the exhaustion she brought back from London.

A little more lipstick. A good deal of scent. There! She's ready.

In the sitting-room, Frid is just depositing upon the low table before the sofa a silver salver — its contents, what appear to be three rose cocktails.

"I've changed," Fabia murmurs, tucking her hand through Corina's arm and beaming slyly sideways at her, "the recipe."

Corina leans into Fabia affectionately, smirking wryly in interest. "The martini recipe, darling? Does this mean I must suffer an evening without a rose cocktail?" She throws her hand dramatically to her brow. "I don't know if I can manage."

"It's almost a rose cocktail… you'll like it," Fabia promises her friend, giggling with insufferable smugness; and they walk in step to the sofa, where Fabia collapses theatrically. "Well, my darlings, after all that effort to get dressed, I feel rather ready for my siesta," she sighs. "Perhaps I oughtn't to have troubled… Oh, Frid, the third one is for you," she adds, firmly, looking into his eyes as he leans down to pass each of the ladies a cocktail.

"I'm not sure that would be appropriate, madam," the valet insists in his usual mild way, eyeing the third glass where it stands upon the salver.

"Oh, do please," his employer cajoles, fluttering her eyelashes.

Leaving subtlety behind, when Frid hands her the drink, Corina places her hand on his, offering him a promising smile. "Thank you, Frid. You're such a dear. Do drink with us, won't you? We won't tell the guild, I promise." She giggles, settling back and snuggling right up to Fabia.

Fabia slips her arm companionably around Corina's waist, adding her imploring gaze to Corina's honeyed words; and… it's almost as though Frid is having a flashback to Wipers, or perhaps… some more recent traumatic memory? "No, thank you, Miss Silver," he says, stiffly, his hands clasped behind his back. "It wouldn't be suitable. Is there anything else you require, madam, or…?"

"Oh," Fabia sighs, presently bereft of the strength to argue with him any more, "not really, no, sweetie, not just now. How long was it last time, do you remember?" she asks. "Well, you wouldn't, I suppose, you weren't here… Well, perhaps you might look in on us in an hour or two, and see whether we need another round. Mmm?" She sighs again, and then touches her cocktail glass to Corina's. The rims have been dusted with a familiar greenish powder, rather than the traditional white of pure sugar… "To you, sweetie."

Corina eyes the powder, her eyes lighting up. Oh, she remembers that particular treat. She looks up to Frid, giving him a full-lipped pout. "Do look in on us, Friddy. I might even have something special to show you." The pout gives way to a bright smile as she giggles. She clinks her glass to Fabia's, and takes a sip, letting the green powder sit on her lips for a few moments before licking it off. "Mmm…is this the same supply? Or did you manage to find out where it came from?"

The manner of Frid's departure is too dignified to be called 'fleeing'. All the same…

At first Fabia is too busy drinking down half her cocktail to answer. Then: "It's the same…" she murmurs, "though — somewhat more than we had that night… the other night I discovered what can happen if one takes somewhat more. Sweetie, you'll be so amused! … I do hope you'll be amused." Another sip. "I wonder why Frid had that funny look on his face? Handsome, but downright funny…" And then her smile widens, and she murmurs a knowing: "Ohhhh."

Corina sighs woefully when Frid departs. "Honestly, he's going to make me do something completely inelegant if he doesn't give a little." Her casual tone does not suggest that this is a problem. "So, this is your surprise? Dosing ourselves heavily with the powder? You have me all the more curious now." Playing right along, she takes another drink, licking a bit more of the powder straight from the glass.

One martini, and a half a rose cocktail — and Fabia's eyes have begun to gleam as though she was on her fourth or fifth at least… A hint of pink in her cheeks, too, which she didn't put there with a brush, at least not while Corina was looking (and Corina was assuredly looking). "I think something inelegant is just the surprise he was afraid of," she giggles, "though yours is… well, I hope… well, I don't know yet. I suppose it might be almost anything. The other night, I had a friend round for dinner and I put the powder in our desserts… and, my dear," her voice lowers, and why not? It's only a few inches from her lips to Corina's ear, "we saw things. The same things. And she and I ended up screwing on the sofa, though I don't think that was the powder, I think we'd have done it anyway. Frid hardly managed to run away in time so I think now he's frightfully worried about the prospect of me cuddling anybody on a sofa. You know, the way he behaves sometimes, you'd think he thought I was an unexploded bomb." She has almost finished the cocktail; and given way to giggling again.

The sterling strumpet listens with swelling interest as Fabia waxes on about the powder's effects. Eventually her jaw simply drops open in astonishment. "Wait, wait…you screwed another woman?" Her pout returns, though this time it isn't to tease Frid. For once, she doesn't join in the giggles, instead sighing loudly down at her drink.

"Well, yes, I rather suppose I must have done!" Fabia sips her rapidly-dwindling cocktail and recommences her gay chatter; and then realises, abruptly, that she seems to be the only one still having fun. "Oh, sweetie," she says, helplessly, hugging Corina's waist, "what's the matter? Have I said something? Do forgive me, I'm a little — light-headed…"

Corina gives Fabia an incredulous frown, as if it should be obvious. "I'm jealous, alright? We flirt and tease constantly, despite that you're not especially inclined to sapphic encounters…and then you end up with a different woman entirely. It stings, is all."

Fabia's gleaming green eyes widen; her equally incredulous gaze is riveted upon Corina's face as she knocks back the last drops of her adulterated rose cocktail and reaches out to drop the empty glass carelessly on the coffee table. "Jealous?" she repeats. And then her eyelids flutter closed. "You darling girl. What a beautiful thing to say." Her hand rises to cup Corina's face; and she leaves a perfect red lipstick kiss on her other cheek. She draws away, but doesn't let go. "I didn't really do it on purpose; but she was there, and…"

Then a flash of movement, bright enough to catch Fabia's eye just where it is, and Corina's where it's reflected in a looking-glass.

A woman in a sleeveless, flowing, flame-red dress bursts into Fabia's sitting-room — not through the door, which Frid shut neatly behind him, but through the wall next to it… And, flinging a fold of her full skirt away from her, she runs straight from one side of the room to the other, melting through furniture, her eyes never leaving their objective. A point upon the opposite wall, amongst Fabia's ballet photographs. From which her imperious arm pulls out — a handsome dark man, attired as a Spanish bullfighter, whom she's holding by the back of his neck, then his shoulder, then his arm… Then she lets go and draws away with such seductive intensity that he can't do other than follow.

Corina receives the kiss sullenly, torn between inner glee at the show of affection, and her continued disappointment at not being Fabia's first…well, first in a long while, anyhow. "I've been there. Here. I'm alw-…" Her lips freeze mid-double-u as the movement grabs her attention. He stares in speechless shock at the dancer traipsing about the room. She looks for Frid, who must have let her in…but no. Then her eyes drop to her glass, and a gradual look of realisation forms. When the second dancer emerges from the photograph, all she can do is lean back and stare in wonder.

They are not quite human, of course, these figures, these phantasms; their feet brush the floor but don't connect with it; the gramophone and the drinks trolley are no obstacles to them; and the roses in the woman's hair, red upon red, seem to have grown as naturally as her own curled tresses… She holds up a hand to curtail the bullfighter's approach to her; then flicks him a considering smile, and invites him; then turns away, plucks a rose from the bosom of her gown, and flings at him — only to have it take flight and bob about just below the ceiling, making lazy swoops to pester him, more bird than bloom.

Fabia's lassitude has left her; she's sitting quite upright now against the back of the sofa, one arm still snugly round Corina, her eyes hungrily following the dramatic backbends and slowly stamping heels of the dancer in the red dress. "It's Mercedes and Espada," she whispers excitedly, "from the tavern scene in Don Quixote… and, sweetie, I don't know how, or why, but it happened last time as well, we thought it must be a memory… it's me."

The beauty of the dancers' movements draws Corina further and further from her melancholy, until she is snuggling right up to Fabia, feet tucked up onto the couch, watching in awe. She lifts her drink and takes a heavy quaff. If this is what the powder does, by Merlin, she'll have more! "It's…extraordinary."

Their moment of bliss is interrupted when the door through which Frid departed opens again. Corina perks up, looking on with anticipation as the valet enters…and does he ever enter with style. His white shirt hangs open, baring a chest covered in a modest layer of manly hair. The shirt, and his hair — which seems to be in need of a trim — blow in a wind that smells of sea breeze.

Peals of laughter from Fabia, convulsing her till it seems almost painful. "Oh! It's too funny!" she gasps, impulsively kissing Corina again, this time with less attention and so rather nearer her lips. "The girl the other night… she hallucinated Frid without his shirt on too… But it was the real Frid, and he was fully-dressed all the time, I went and touched him to be sure, it was just that she and I saw him without his shirt… And the more she looked at him, the lovelier his body became. Too funny," she says again. "All of you, you only like me for my valet, and flirt with me just to be nearer to him. Do admit."

The bullfighter's role seems to be chiefly to stare in awe at the younger Fabia in her red dress, as she does the lioness's share of the dancing, to execute a few exquisitely tense tango steps with his arm locked about her, and now — to set her upon a table, which ought to be too small to hold her, but which serves, somehow, its purpose, as she falls to one knee upon it and arches her back and waves her arms in magnificent circles in response to music only she can hear. … Only she, and her elder, corporeal self, whose slight shiftings upon the sofa have a habit of coinciding with the phantasm's undulations. She's doing her very best to keep an eye on Frid and — her gorgeous self…

Corina receives this kiss with sudden stiffness, and like a sand sculpture caught in a sudden wind, the phantom Frid blows away into nothingness. "Oh," she says soberly. "So, you really did just find another me." Rising in an effort to huff away, she inevitably stumbles, as she is hardly free of the powder's effects. Blushing furiously at her gracelessness, she catches the edge of a chair to steady herself.

Young Fabia in the red dress has struck a final pose on her knees, bending backwards with arms flung wide; real Fabia in the tweedy skirt and soft cashmere sweater, finding her arm abruptly empty, unweighed-down by Corina's presence, pushes herself up and takes two faltering steps before sitting down abruptly on the other end of the sofa. For all her vaunted capacity she's unsteady too.

"But that's absurd…" She catches hold of Corina's skirt, twining her fingers through the fabric, tugging futilely, looking up at her with wide, intoxicated, slightly troubled eyes, as her younger self commences a theatrical series of curtseys, presented by the bullfighter to an audience suddenly inattentive. "Another you? You know there couldn't be two… You know, you must know, that if I'd had a choice, I'd rather… For Christ's sake, I don't care if I never see her again, let alone fuck her; but you're my friend."

Corina tugs feebly against Fabia's hold on her skirt. But her quaff of powder-laced alchohol has left her bereft of any real fight. "I don't want to talk about it anymore. You're right. Sex means nothing. Just…forget the whole thing." Giving up on any real escape, she flops down into the chair she was using for support.

The hands embedded in the full skirts of Corina's Victorian gown still hold tightly, as Fabia draws herself nearer, more deliberately now, sitting on the edge of the sofa so near to her that their knees brush — just. "But it doesn't mean nothing, does it?" she says softly. "Even to you, or you wouldn't… You wouldn't have reacted as you just did. And I wouldn't have been so — well. If I'd known I could hurt you this way, even the tiniest pinprick of a hurt, I wouldn't have. But I thought, you know, just because we flirt… I flirt all the time, flirting really doesn't mean anything. … Oh, do you want to know… do you want to know the horrible, squalid truth? Do you? But you can't tell," she laughs, uneasily, "please don't tell. My reputation, you know."

Corina frowns, returning to the pout that seems to be her comfort zone this evening. "I said I don't want to talk about it." So, she talks about it, "It isn't about the sex, Fabia. It's about…you replaced me. Even if only for a little while. I…I hate that. There is only one Corina Silver. I thought I was in a special place in your life, and…yes, I thought that if you ever decided to dabble with a woman again, it would be me. There, I've said it."

"It would have been, if I'd decided," Fabia says with sudden, perfect honesty. "I've thought about it, Lord knows I've thought about it; but after what you said… It began to seem such a foolish curiosity. A foolish risk to take, when it might spoil something in my life that was so bright, so unique — and now it seems I've spoiled it anyway, whereas if I'd spoken, it might have been saved. God will have his little joke." She laughs, helplessly, holding up the silken cloth of Corina's skirt and burying her face in it.

Corina idly tugs at the fingers of her glove, then pulling it tight again, then repeating the process. She sighs, shaking her head. "It's not ruined. I'm just jealous." She give a petulant shrug. "I'm not accustomed to being secondary in anything. I don't like how it feels."

With one last sigh of rueful laughter, Fabia lifts her face from Corina's skirt and regards her. "Oh, you sweet creature. If I'd known it mattered — you know there were two or three times when I almost — what can I tell you, what can I do, to let you know you matter to me so much more than she did?"

Corina manages to get to her wobbly feet, and holds out her hands to Fabia. "Dance with me…and take me to bed. To sleep, I mean. Not to make love. That would feel disingemous…disim…it wouldn't feel right, just now."

Looking up into Corina's eyes, Fabia nods and nods again, as though this plan were the most beautiful and most enticing she'd ever heard laid out. She lets go of Corina's skirt in order to clasp one of her hands, easing her glove slowly away from it. "I want to tell you something first, if I may?"

Corina extends her arm, letting the glove be pulled away, then offering her other hand. "Alright, tell me."

The glove is dropped on the floor; then Fabia transfers her attentions to the other one. She's not as deft as usual, but cautious and indubitably fond. "Since… since Teddy bloody Fairfax," this is his customary name, as anyone who has spent much time with her knows, "walked out on me in '32 — well, I had one lover who lasted eight or nine days, depending how one counts them, and the rest?" She shrugs, dropping the second glove, and rising cautiously onto her stockinged feet. "A night apiece. Each time I wondered, is this the last time? None for more than a year, for fourteen months it may have been, when none of the men I liked, liked me… And then Jasper!"

She draws Corina with her to the gramophone, unwilling to let go of her, keeping one arm round her waist as she puts on — whatever's on. A sudden burst of static as she's clumsy with the needle. She's doing her best.

It's a Noël Coward song. A Room With A View.

Fabia's arm stays round Corina's waist — they both need the support — the fingers of her other hand twine through her friend's, and she begins to dance, carrying Corina with her, holding her close, oblivious to the swan-girl phantasms quartering the room in a soulful pas de quatre.

"You don't know," she whispers, lips now and then accidentally brushing Corina's ear, "you can't imagine, young as you are, beautiful as you are, what it was like in those years, to think one might be condemned to sleep alone for the rest of one's days, then be suddenly the favourite plaything of a man like that… The lack I'd almost learned to live with, I can't anymore; and when that girl the other night let me know she was interested… I was just intoxicated enough, just — ready enough… It's a little embarrassing to say, but though I did like her in the moment, she might have been anyone. She wasn't — special. She wasn't a substitute for my best friend."

Corina listens intently…or as intently as her addled mind will allow. But she seems to process the essence of what Fabia is saying. As they dance, the room starts to waver. Soon, the girls in the white swan tutus aren't the only other dancers, as the apartment melts away and the women are gliding along the floor of a Parisian ballroom, surrounded by elegantly dressed men and women in masquerade. But Corina hardly seems to notice, her unfocused eyes always trying to fix on Fabia. In spite of her insistence just moments before, when the other woman's words reaffirm their friendship, she leans in, eyes fluttering closed and tilting her head to place a soft, lingering kiss on Fabia's lips.

The gay and splendid crowd of dancers is invisible to Fabia — she has her eyes shut, and is guiding Corina simply by memory through the remembered empty space where sitting-room and bedroom meet, in a shape would bring them almost but not quite against this chair, that table, the foot of the bed, the drinks trolley… if those objects were present in whatever place they now inhabit. She senses without seeing; her body knows things her mind cannot fathom. Her lips part slightly, unhesitatingly at Corina's kiss, welcoming the warmth of it.

When she absolutely must breathe, Fabia breaks the kiss with a final delicate nibble at Corina's lower lip; her eyelids lift; she sees the gilded and glittering ballroom her apartment above the pub has become, the masked dancers gliding expertly all around, and, not knowing whether it's her mind or Corina's which has called up this exquisite phantasy, but struck by the pure heaven of sharing it with her, kisses her again, eyes wide open, intent intensified.

Their music comes no longer from the gramophone, but an orchestra composed of dimly-seen dark shapes behind brass instruments, on a platform implausibly far away. Crystal chandeliers blaze in suspension from the mirrored ceiling, which reflects their light and the colourful, chaotic swirling of the dancers beneath. Fabia's French scent seems to have perfumed the air all around; her exhilarated laughter falls from her lips only to come rolling back from quite another direction; sound echoes here in ways it could not, should not. Song after song, never too swift, and their feet hardly touching the constellations of stars inlaid in the parquet floor… They are bound by no constraints of place, of possibility: they are in their imagined Parisian evening, together.

It is thus that Frid discovers them an hour or more later, properly attired but intimately intertwined, in a fragmenting landscape of dancers, chandeliers, and swagged velvet, upon which the reality of Fabia's rooms in Hogsmeade has begun to impose itself. The drinks trolley is sticking out of an elaborate arrangement of butterfly orchids, which beneath his very gaze quivers into non-existence. A chair pops up over here; a few framed ballet photographs hover in mid-air, there, as the outside wall struggles to coalesce behind them.

Dancing couples step and twirl lightly away, losing substance, sometimes vanishing; through them, Fabia catches sight of the utterly real and solid figure of Frid, motionless in a doorway presently unconnected to any wall… She lifts that hand of hers which is entangled with Corina's, to wave to him.

"We're going to bed," she calls out, trying to keep sight of him as she and her groggy, beauteous, charmingly affectionate pale-haired friend keep dancing, each holding the other upright as their feet follow the pattern of a waltz, "to sleep, we're so tired… but sweetie, where's the bed? Can you see?"

Frid frowns just a little, the expression clearing within an instant as he makes his way through the dancers, and in one case through the dancers. He rests a hand on his employer's elbow, deliberately moving in such a way to ensure that he doesn't touch Corina, and only touches Fabia enough to lead the way. Yet another facet of his valet-sense, it would seem. "This way, madam," he responds, a tiny, tiny hint of disapproval in his tone. Not disapproval of Fabia's choice of companion, necessarily, nor disapproval of her state, that being hardly unusual, but disapproval as he considers the effect of Corina's stay on the monthly finances.

Finding herself with two dance partners instead of one, Fabia follows Frid while leading Corina, arching toward her valet and holding close to her friend, her silk-stockinged feet moving inexorably in waltz-time — until the backs of her legs bump into the bed, and she recognises the solidity of it…

She falls onto the mattress — Corina is carried with her — the two women stay interlaced, nuzzling, petting, Fabia's hand sleepily stroking Corina's platinum hair, Corina's tucking itself between Fabia's cashmere jumper and the silk blouse warmed by her skin, at the small of her back, to press her closer… They nestle together, sharing kisses which taste of gin and cherry brandy and the utter, utter bliss of saccharine powder; and, by degrees, they pass out.

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