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we two strangers

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  Ariadne told herself, grimly, that she was not hiding.

  Her dissolved engagement with Charles had not changed her perception of him - indeed, she did not care much for him beyond their mutual understanding - but the pointed low hum and buzz of gossip ringing the ballroom had begun to prickle. Her reputation was stellar, more so than Anna’s (darling, lovely Anna), but then, she was less popular. Once or twice a few giggling speculations reached her ears, some blatantly cruel, some closer to the truth of her and Charles’ arrangement than she liked. Either way, a couple of polite turns about the dance floor and Ariadne was sick of it all.

  So - not hiding. More of a temporary strategic retreat. If anyone asked, she would simply say she had wandered off to peruse the Institute library, though the door to the room she was now trying was nowhere close.

  The door handle turned. Unlocked. Ariadne caught her breath and glanced furtively up and down the hall to make sure she wouldn’t be seen.

  It was a small sitting room of some sort. A set of wingback armchairs sat turned towards the fireplace, where a low, crackling fire burned and cast the room’s dark paneling in a strange amber glow. Odd to have a fire burning in a room where no one is, Ariadne thought, taking a tentative step inside.

  There was movement. A slender shadow among shadows, hidden in one of the chairs, started up. “Ariadne?”

  Reflexively, Ariadne made to apologize - she had obviously intruded - but then the figure turned fully towards her, and she knew him. “Alastair Carstairs,” she said, surprised. They stared at each other for a long uncertain moment, and then Alastair said, “Well, come in and close the door.”

  She was still holding onto the door handle, she found, and pushed the door shut behind her with a gentle click. Alastair was still standing, a hand on the back of his chair. Awkward silence fell between them. They had not spent much time in each other’s company without Charles, and Alastair, like her, was clearly avoiding the engagement party.

  Finally Alastair said, dryly, “I take it the party is going very splendidly.” He motioned to the other empty armchair, an offer, and she came around to sit. As they both settled into their chairs, she saw that he had a thick book in his lap, something with a deep blue and gold cover. He must have brought it with him from home, prepared to stay out of the event.

  “Very splendidly,” Ariadne agreed, equally dry. “The discussions around why he could have possibly called off his engagement to me are quite lively.”

  When Charles had made his proposal, he had not mentioned Alastair, only said, somewhat haltingly, and until - we come to an agreement - you might be free to discreetly pursue any other romances of your desire. Ariadne had agreed, thinking of Anna, and had paid little thought as to who Charles might be thinking of, himself. She had been introduced to Alastair sometime after as a friend, but knew from the way he looked at Charles that it was far more than simple friendship. She did not know much about him beyond that.

  What she did know was that his voice was kind and a touch regretful when he said, “He shouldn’t have treated you the way he did.”

  Ariadne took a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, smoothing down her dress. “A false engagement. They were sure I was going to die. I understand.”

  “Understanding hardly makes it fair to you.”

  “No,” Ariadne admitted, thinking of the whispers in the ballroom. “It doesn’t.”

  Alastair flipped a page of his book, but he didn’t seem to be reading it. His eyes were fixed on a point somewhere beyond the pages. “I broke things off with him because of it,” he said absently, and then, at Ariadne’s startled expression, clarified, “Partly. I realized he would never hold more affection for me than his esteemed politics. I did not want to hide or to be a beloved secret. It is best we parted.”

  She thought with a pang of Anna, her resolute I will not marry a man, I only want you. Oh, Anna. She had been so cruel to the only one she had ever loved. But it was not the only part of Alastair’s quiet confession that she caught.

  “You only parted recently,” Ariadne said. Her voice sounded distant to her own ears. I would not be unfaithful to him, she heard herself telling Anna, sweet, beautiful Anna who had looked at her, stricken, paling with each word. 

  Alastair looked at her oddly. “...yes,” he said. “I thought - you knew. That we were in love.” The last two words were, perhaps, unconsciously sad. It made what she had to tell him even worse.

  “Charles never told me about you,” she said. Alastair did not say a word. “It wasn’t part of our understanding with each other. I knew by the way you looked at him, but I didn’t think - that you were still - ”

  “He said you understood.” Alastair’s voice was very quiet. “He truly never told you?”

  Ariadne shook her head. 

  “Well,” Alastair said quietly, and stared into the fire. There was no anger on his face, nor sadness, only resignation.

  There was only silence for a while, save for the crackling of the fire. When Ariadne could bear the pensive quiet no longer, she ventured, “If you aren’t avoiding the party because of Charles’ engagement, why are you?”

  Alastair exhaled. “It’s rather hard to be thrilled about an event full of people who detest you,” he said, although he seemed to be speaking more to the fireplace than to her. “Rightfully so. I...have regrets.”

  Ariadne thought of Anna again. “We all have regrets,” she said softly. Alastair must have heard something in her tone, for he looked over at her and studied her curiously.

  “Your arrangement with Charles,” he said, low. “I presume you were in love with someone else as well?”

  She hesitated far too long. Anna was a well-known bohemian, but she wouldn’t like to disclose her and Anna’s affairs; on the other hand, after Anna’s cold, I think you are lying to yourself that wretched day, telling Anna that she still loved her, that she would win her back mere weeks ago...telling Alastair otherwise seemed like another betrayal.

  By Alastair’s expression, he understood.

  “I was unfair to her,” Ariadne said finally, “and I hurt her deeply. I would give anything to undo the past, but it is too late for that now.”

  “Anna Lightwood,” Alastair said. It was neither a question nor a statement. Again, Ariadne hesitated for just too long, but he only smiled ruefully. “You are not the only one in love with a Lightwood.”

  Before Ariadne could do more than look at him in amazement - did he mean Thomas Lightwood, or Anna’s brother Christopher? - surely not Anna herself - Alastair changed course. “Were you planning to hide here for the rest of the evening?”

  “I am not hiding,” Ariadne said, dignified. “This is a strategic retreat. I will go back in.” She thought of the whispers and sighed. “Eventually.”

  Alastair’s dark eyes gleamed. “Then I have a strategy for you.” He closed his book and stood, offering a hand to her. “Dance with me.”

  Ariadne stared at him. “I am not going to marry you,” she said, finally.

  “By the Angel, I do not wish to marry you. Dance with me so they cannot say a word about your slighted honour, or that you were so embarrassed by your former fiance that you had to leave.”

  “I don’t know that this will quell any of the rumours.”

  “No,” Alastair said. “But Charles might be horrified, and we can enjoy ourselves by murmuring unflattering things about him. Shall we?”

  Ariadne took his hand.

  It was true. When they made their subtle re-entrance, Alastair squeezed her hand, lightly, to tell her to look. The expression on Charles’ face was well worth it.