[identity profile] halfaustere.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] thedirtyverse
Immediately follows this.

Alice still didn't tell him his hair was blue.

"Come on!" She jumped up from her seat.

His hair, therefore, would probably remain blue until he got a glimpse of it in the mirror; if there would even be a mirror to glimpse in.

"I certainly hope," Robert mused, following after Alice – he'd prepaid, after all, so they could just leave, "that the car is back, because if it's not I may have to actually locate a telephone."

"I could hotwire a car," Alice suggested, sounding serious as she walked ahead of Robert.

"Ah, or that," Robert said hesitantly, ignoring the waiters' stares. He figured they were just looking at him because of the antics of the rest of the night – the blueness of his hair hadn't occurred to him. "But I think, and hope, that Zebediah has come through."

He had – the car was outside.

"I like his name. Zebediah. Has he got a nickname? Like Zeb? Or Zebby? Or Zebster?"

Alice was almost more keen on hot wiring a car, something she had no idea how to do, because the sight of the actual car made her very, very nervous. It was uncharacteristic for her but until now, she hadn't given much of damn about any of the impressions she left on the boys she dated.

Robert shrugged self-consciously, aware he hadn't actually explained the entire circumstance. "You'd have to ask Dawn," he admitted, "Zebediah is Colin's driver. I frequently forget his name entirely. We don't know each other very well."

He held out his arm, offering it to her for the remainder of the walk, where he planned on opening the door for her, as well.

Alice grinned and latched on. "So you stole a car from Dawn's father to take me? Isn't there some sort of royal code against stealing cars from people working for the government and using them for civilian affairs? Were you afraid to take me somewhere nice in your car? I like your car."

"I wanted it to be –" He heistated, thoughtful. "Special, I think. Different."

Alice smiled again, mostly as she hadn't yet stopped, and leaned her head against Robert's arm. "Will we always have a car? I could let you borrow Martin."

"If you like my car, we can go somewhere nice in my car next time. Or Martin can drive, or Zebediah, or we can walk or bicycle or ride horses! The possibilities are endless." They were, suddenly. They really were. The end of his time wasn't about to come, after all.

Robert grinned, and held up a hand to keep Zebediah in the driver's seat, opening the door for Alice.

"Could we even boat?" Alice asked, keeping herself in order as she slid into the back of the car.

"We could!" Robert agreed, cheerfully, climbing into the car. "If there is someplace you would like to boat to. We would also have to obtain one."

"We've a sailboat we bought in Cape Town," Alice said, settling back and putting her purse and jacket next to her.

Zebediah bid them hellos and started to drive, not wondering about what they'd get up to in the back seat. He was sure Alice had accepted. Robert, on the other hand, was trying his best not to suggest getting up to anything. Trying, anyway.

"Where do you keep it?" he asked, sociably. Smalltalk. Forty minutes of it, perhaps.

"In the coachhouse," Alice said, linking her fingers together and setting both hands in her lap.

"Makes sense."

Of course it did. She'd accepted and she was his and he was hers and Robert was still nervous. Wasn't it supposed to end? It was too soon to lean over and pull her into his arms. She looked comfortable.

"Mmhm." Alice was tired of her lap but her lap was the only place she dared to look. The only reason for it was that Robert, despite the entire evening with him and everything he said, still felt like Robert. He still blushed at everything she said. Alice felt compelled to hold herself back, mostly because nothing felt real. Just, well, as it was four hours earlier.

Eventually, gathering a bit of nerve, Robert put one of his hands on top of Alice's.

Silent.

Alice bit the inside of her cheek. Snogging int he car. He had said snogging in the car. The only thing wrong with that was the obvious: Alice didn't think Robert really felt comfortable with snogging in the car. Or snogging at a restaurant. Or possibly snogging anywhere. He would sooner snog his hat--oh,

"Your hair is still blue, by the way," she told his hand.

"What?" Robert reached up to his head to take the fedora off (it had fallen off multiple times outside and was slightly bent) and ruffle his hand through his hair. The couple of hairs that came out from being shaken up too much were, in fact, blue.

Oh.

Robert laughed, changed it back. "Thank you for not letting me face your family with bright blue hair," he said.

"I could have done! But Daddy's probably already in bed and so Mummy will be with him."

Randolf often had a tendency to stay up and wait for the safe return of his daughter, but over the years, Isabella had convinced him to relax and was likely doing the same thing now. And it was Robert. No one had anything but faith in Robert.

Alice hoped.

Robert wasn't sure, then, if that meant he could linger a bit. Give her a proper kiss goodnight. That might be nice – that would be right. She deserved it.

He kissed her hand, then, instead, capturing it long enough to pull it to his lips.

"Before you ask," he said, "I just felt like doing that. No real reason. Nothing it was for except because I wanted to."

Aliced looked at him and fiddled with the hem of her dress. "Are you going to explain your motivation for everything you do after you do it? And I wasn't going to ask why. I was going to call you a copycat."

"I was not sure if you would ask me what it was for," he admitted, "so I thought I would cover it. Go ahead and call me a copycat."

Alice hesitated for a moment.

"Copycat."

"I won't deny it. I am a thief. Currently I'm stealing ideas at work, too – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?" Robert tried.

"There are more sincere forms of flattery," Alice said, speaking somewhat slowly and letting the words hang in the air.

"Flattery by nature may be considered insincere, depending on how you define it." He had to work up the nerve to kiss her – he wasn't sure if he'd find it in this funny-shaped space.

On the doorstep of the estate, he would. That, he could do. That was how he saw it in his mind's eye.

"Well, I like it," she said, looking out her window. Isabella had always said to accept every compliment as a compliment and not to sit around over-analyzing it. The moment you doubt someone, you're doing more harm to yourself than the insincere compliment ever could.

"And anytime I would flatter you it would be because of the fact I want you to know what I am feeling," Robert said. "I would never say something just to influence you. I have no desire to influence you – you are perfect just as you are."

He thought she was. He hated this fear. He moved closer to her anyway.

"I'm not perfect." (She would never be her mother and she knew it.) "But I do like it when people try to please me."

"You're close enough to perfect," he said, and then his tone dropped to something softer and he asked, gently, "Would you let me hold you? Just – I want to get used to it, to being able to touch you whenever I want to."

The window suddenly became a lot less interesting.

"You always could touch me whenever you wanted to," Alice said, though her tone lacked much of its usual level of teasing. She wanted him to hold her, just like on the tube, and never stop.

"I was capable of it," he corrected, softly, and moved to put an arm around her. "Doesn't mean I felt I could."

Alice did her part, tucking herself against him and wrapping an arm around his chest just as she had on the tube. Only now, with a seat under them and relative privacy, not to mention the change in their relationship, she curled up on to the seat and rested her head on his shoulder.

At that moment, Robert felt better, safer, more secure and more content than he may have ever done before in his entire life.

"You're the best thing that's ever happened to me," Robert told her, stroking her hair, and he meant it. He hoped he'd get to tell her that forever, too.

With those words, Alice felt the uneasiness lift. She didn't know if it was true, if she really was the best thing that ever happened to him, but she knew that Robert was exactly what she had been waiting for. Even though she still wanted to kiss him, as she had wanted to do for the past five months, she stayed where she was, content there and even more content now that she didn't have to play make believe marriage. Robert really was her boyfriend.

"I thought your hat was," she teased him.

"The hat - not this one, of course," as his usual hat wasn't anywhere near formal enough for the occasion, "was merely the best risk I ever took. Unlike the car, the hat I really did steal."

"I still don't think you have it in you to steal. Or to do a lot of other risky things. You're very tame, you know."

"Well, I did steal that hat!" Robert insisted, and sounded quite proud of it. He was proud, especially if it impressed Alice.

"Rode by a hat stand on my bicycle and just nabbed it. Really." If any of the witnesses were still living, local and easy to contact, he'd get proof.

It hadn't been that long ago.

"I can't believe you! What if you put the poor hatmaker out on the street because he sold his entire inventory but needed his entire inventory to feed his children, and you stealing that one hat prevented him from doing it!"

She was impressed, of course. Suitably so. But it was more fun to fluster Robert.

Robert hung his head a bit – it ended up resting on top of hers. He didn't mind.

"It makes me a terrible soul. More terrible still for the fact I never went back to check."

"Oh, Robert, how could you be so insensitive?"

Alice didn't seem to mind. Her hold on Robert had tightened somewhat. In lieu of his not snogging her senseless, she would take as much contact as it was possible to get.

"I was young and foolish."

He'd been two hundred and seventy-four.

"I don't believe you were ever young and foolish."

"I was!" Robert insisted. "Once. A long time ago. When I was falling out of bellfrys and shooting horses."

"I wish I could have known you then," said Alice as she touched the massive stain.

"I was spending so much time melting sand I didn't know that many people. I had – well, then, possibly four friends?" He ruffled her hair a little, smiling sort of hazily – hazy like the memories of being twelve. "Numbers went up and down. We were all trouble, but it is hard to raise kids in a castle."

Alice closed her eyes and imagined herself with young Robert.

"I used to play in the ruins of ours. Mummy didn't like it much. Maybe castles are bad for children."

"Belfrys are bad for children, especially children with brand-new wings who're going to be jumping out of them and terrifying the people below." Really, he fell out of the belfry and jumped off the wall, but it was close enough – "Not that the castle is really safe for adults, either. A few years ago, I think it was, closer to the beginning of school – we had a May Day weekend and Sully fell off the outer wall."

Alice opened her eyes and looked up at Robert, laughing.

"Was he sober?"

"No! Of course not. Drunk as a skunk and high as well. Challenged Michael to a duel for Dawn's honor on the wall – about twenty minutes or so after watching Dawn and me fence on it. So he was copying my moves. Inexperienced. I'd had hundreds of years of practice to do those things!"

"Sully and I simply know there's no use in fencing. We choose to make a mockery of it. Totally intentional."

Or they were rubbish.

"These days it is a dying art, yes. I doubt I could challenge Don to a duel."

Suddenly, though, he really and truly wanted to.

"Don prefers knife fights. He always played with his stupid knife. Sometimes during sex."

Robert chose not to comment on the idea of playing with a knife during sex, because bloodplay was something he'd never heard of and the idea of Alice not being enough to keep one's entire focus was just as horrifying; instead, he said, "A sword's merely a long knife!"

"He always said he liked to see the fear in someone's eyes from close-up." Alice shrugged and rested her head against Robert's shoulder again.

"He's probably in jail again. I haven't heard from him in a while."

"Hopefully," Robert offered, kissing the top of her head, speaking softer again, "you don't hear from him while he is in jail. I would have to have words with the man."

"He's harmless, really. Mostly a prick. But a harmless one. Anyway, you mean more than he ever did."

And that was the truth. No one in Alice's life had ever meant so much. She still wanted to snog.

"I'd still like to give him hell – if he ever hurts you, you'll come right to me, yes?" Robert held her closer still, hating the idea of anyone getting near to her at all in any way that wasn't entirely pure. The idea she let these sullied people touch her still made him sick, just to think of someone who didn't have the best intentions getting that close to her. To his Alice, who no one would ever hurt again.

Not on his watch.

Not ever.

"Of course! But he wouldn't. I'd kick his arse. He knows the only way to get me going is to be manageable. But he's cut off now that I have you."

Alice blushed a little and played with one of Robert's buttons.

"Good," said Robert, content with that. Happy with that. Thrilled by it, even, in many different ways. "Hopefully all your other beaus will learn to take no, as well."

Alice grinned and sat up so she could slide onto Robert's lap. "Why, Robert! Are you jeeealous?"

Was he?

Well.

"Let's say possessive, perhaps. I think I haven't got anything to be jealous of just now – but I'd hate to be put in the position of it."

Alice felt a rush of inappropriate pleasure at being an object of Robert's possession. She wrapped her arms around his neck.

"You haven't seen all the flowers they got me."

Robert wrinkled his nose, distastefully. How dare they! Men really needed to stop giving flowers to people they were no longer with. They had no hold on her any longer. She was his, and so it was only a further point of guilt when he remembered –

"And I never got you flowers at all." Robert sounded, and felt, guilty.

"But you gave me little fires. And you said you're falling in love with me. They never bothered with that."

"They're fools," Robert decided, truly believing that they were. Who could have a chance at loving her and not do so?

"Teenagers, more like. I never loved them. Not any of them."

Alice touched her hand to Robert's cheek.

"But," he was daring to ask, because he had to know, "you could love me."

Even if it was more of an observation than a question, as he presented it – it was a question.

Alice nodded, still touching his cheek. She had fallen in love weeks and weeks ago, and yet saying it still made her anxious. As though he would change his mind.

"I already do."

And that – that was when she got her kiss. It wasn't a snog, not properly, because this was a motorcar and they were in the back seat of it, still some minutes away from the estate, if not Corsham entirely. But Robert was so overcome by emotion he couldn't find the right words, so instead he put two of his fingers under Alice's chin, gently tilting her head up, and kissed her.

Alice sighed the softest of sighs, a sort of catch in her throat as her heart leapt into her ribs. And when her lips actually touched Robert's, she forgot breathing altogether. Who needed it? She had Robert now.

She didn't even try sneaking something extra. A kiss alone was enough to make her head spin.

Nothing, not even sex, had done anything like this to her.

"You're beautiful," he reminded her, when he had moved far enough away to speak again. She was, and this, just now, had made him feel that all over again. He had no idea how long it'd been that he'd been wanting to kiss her, and now that he had - it was a pity to stop.

It would be hard to leave her and go home.

Alice blushed again and ducked her head a little, though not enough to move away. There was still some sort of tingling that was lingering in her stomach and had spread to her toes.

"Are you working tomorrow?"

"I am, sadly, or I would come up with some ridiculous plan for something to do in the morning – or ask you to, at any rate. But, no, sadly I am masquerading as a very young doctor, which puts me at the bottom of the pecking order and working a hundred hours a week."

"Won't you see me, anyway?" Alice asked, playing with his collar.

"If you stop by the ward, I would," Robert agreed with a crooked smile. "And I'd like it if you did."

"Why's that?" Alice nudged his chest. "So you can show me off?"

"If that's what you'd like." Robert shook his head. "I was thinking because I'd miss you."

"I would like both. For you to miss me and for you to want to show me off."

Gently, almost as though she was touching something very, very delicate (in many ways, this was what Alice felt), she stroked her thumb against Robert's lower lip.

"I think I'll dream about you tonight."

"Every dream I remember has you in it," Robert said softly, hand finding her hair again, stroking it gently. "Hopefully tonight won't be an exception."

"I hope you remember it. I hope you remember it in details."

Delicately (because this wasn't the usual relationship), Alice leaned forward and pressed a kiss just below Robert's jaw.

"Details enough to write down," he whispered, holding her as close as he could without hurting her, afraid to let go, letting the tiny chill from her kiss run down his spine. "And give to you later. I know you've helped yourself to my journals before."

Alice grinned, keeping it against his neck. "I know. And I've helped myself to your dreams, too."

Robert nearly choked – he did cough a bit, clearing his throat. "What – I mean, I assume you mean the ones I'd written down, and not –"

The wicked look was seen by only few, and for good reason. Whatever reason she had for making it was never ideal for the recipient.

Sitting back, Alice shifted innocently on his lap and looked innocently out the window as she innocently chewed on her nail. "I don't think you would have written it down."

Robert didn't say anything.

He just stared at Alice, and didn't do anything to stop himself from turning so pale he was almost translucent, and then looked down, and then out his window. Coughing a little.

Alice started giggling. "So you do remember it!"

"I," he said slowly. "Barely, but enough."

"Barely!" Alice shoved his shoulder. "Barely?"

Saying I tried to forget was going to come out wrong, if this was the dream Robert thought it was. Not at all the kind of dream he normally had.

"Things fade over time!" he insisted. "Normally I only remember bad dreams anyway, and this one certainly wasn't –"

"I can't believe you'd let something like that fade. I'm insulted! How could you! I thought you'd like that!"

Robert winced, even if he was smiling. He thought – he thought, and hoped – she was teasing.

"It distracted me!" he defended himself. "From everything. Thinking about you makes it hard to do my job!"

Alice hit him in the shoulder again. "I bet Zebediah wouldn't forget a sex dream if I was in it!"

She twisted around. "Oi! Zebediah! Would you forget a sex dream if I was in it or would you come after me for more sex?"

Robert put his forehead down on the seat in front of him. While he would've normally muttered something about provoking the person in control of the vehicle, he wasn't about to stop Alice.

"What?" Zebediah started, though thankfully remembered to stop at the traffic signal. "I – do not think I'm at liberty to answer honestly, miss!"

"Too bad! I'm asking! And you better give me the answer I want."

"How am I meant to know –"

"You'll have to guess," Robert said in a tone that wasn't really menacing, laughing a little. "And if the lady does not get the answer she wants you're fired."

"I'll flash you!" Alice exclaimed, turning around completely and hanging over the passenger seat.

"Flashed and fired, or flashed or –" Zebediah gave up, cleared his throat. "I ... think that I would not hound you in person, miss, but I would hope for the dream to repeat?"

"Wrong answer!"

Alice, true to what she had done as a girl with her boyfriends, climbed over the seat and flopped down in front. "You really, really wouldn't? My driver would. You're meant to be encouraging Robert to nail me."

Martin was married and twice her age and wouldn't dream of it, but no one knew that. Except most definitely Robert.

"Well, yes, I think he should, of course," Zebediah tried to keep concentrating on the road and not the leggy young woman who had climbed into the seat next to him, "which is why I am not saying that I would! That's his job."

Alice groaned and climbed into the backseat.

"You're both impossible."

"Of course I am," said Robert sensibly. "Who's ever heard of a three hundred year old man?"

Alice lunged forward to grab Robert's hat and started smacking him with it. "That's not what I meant!"

Robert yelped, and moved back so he was in the corner between the seat and the door, trapped in a tiny space and completely unable to escape Alice's attack. Not exactly what he'd meant to do –

"And yet I would like to try it sometime!" he squeaked, sounding a bit like Sully.

Alice climbed onto him and continued whacking him with the hat (and Zebediah also got a sound whack, as well, for not cooperating--the second time in one day! What was wrong with the world?).

"See if I don't fuck you again in your dreams! Just to refresh your memory!"

"Careful, miss," Zebediah warned, "I might end up getting us into a bit of an accident." He knew that neither of them could die, and he'd really be the only one in trouble, but death wasn't part of Zebediah's plans for the evening.

Meanwhile, Robert's foot and Robert's mouth made good friends, as he managed "I hope you do!" before realizing that was probably not the best thing to say.

Even if it was honest.

Alice stopped, breathing hard (and hit Zebediah again, because he and the waiter had succeeded in not doing what every other male always did).

"Do you really?"

"Er," said Robert, and blushed, and didn't say anything.

Alice grinned and sank down right on his lap, then shoved the hat on her head. It was easier for her to wedge herself between the seats. She had quite a lot of room to spare on either side.

"We're going to work on you," she said. "I'm not certain how much you need, though. Because it wasn't me jumping on you in the dream, if I recall."

Instead of answering directly, Robert faltered a tad and said, "You look quite fetching like that. Maybe I should let you keep that one – work how, dare I ask?"

His hands found her hips anyway. A gentle touch. Light. No pressure.

"You're afraid of being sexual. That makes you slightly afraid of me."

"Yes," he confirmed, because she was, in fact, correct. "Sort of. It is not entirely fear – before you, it was a lack of interest, and now it is a lack of experience."

"But--," (in another world, she would have teased him about the dream and his experience there, but this was serious) "you don't have to be afraid of me. Even when you kiss me. I'm nothing like Mummy. I'm nothing special."

"That's not true," Robert insisted. He wouldn't have her believing that or even saying it. "You are the most special person in the world, as far as I'm concerned. No single soul's more important."

Not even his family. He would give the world for them, but having no children of his own, he could put Alice on a slightly higher level. The love was different.

Alice shifted a little, tucking herself against Robert and the seat. "You won't always be afraid of me, will you?"

"I sincerely doubt it. It only takes some acclimation – I need to get used to you," he told her, kissing the tip of her nose. "And I need you to have a little bit of patience with me. I do everything slowly."

Maybe she'd get impatient, leave him for someone more quick to be sexual.

Robert hated the thought.

"You haven't got used to me yet?"

"I am used to you as a friend, not so much as anything more. There hasn't been much time for it!" He wasn't even sure how long it had been since she'd accepted.

They couldn't be that far from Corsham, and yet Robert wanted to hang on to the drive forever.

"I've been practicing for today," she said. "I wish it would never end."

"I was just thinking that," he admitted, and then: "Practicing? How?"

Alice turned pink and kept her head firmly out of Robert's sight. "Daydreams," she said. And moments where her bear played Robert.

"So I certainly didn't surprise you."

He hadn't expected to: it was nice to have it confirmed.

"You did, actually. I didn't think you would ever ask." That, at least, was entirely true. She had told Sully as much and certainly didn't believe his claims that Robert was interested in acting on his feelings.

"Ah. Well." He certainly felt guilty, and a bit embarrassed. "Like I said, I am – very slow, in nature."

"And I'm going to work on you to speed you up a bit, because I'm not taking three centuries!"

"I can guarantee you it won't take that long."

Three years, maybe.

He didn't say that.

"It better not. You will get it. I guarantee it. I'm fiesty."

"You might hate it!"

There. Worst fear. Put out.

"What?"

"Well." Mark the return of the blush – it was a bit more noticable that time, as he was mostly looking at her, eyes averted to the side. "I haven't got as much experience as I think you'd like."

Alice raised her head so she could watch his face. "I'm only twenty two! What makes you think I know anything? People my age are all hormones and no finesse." She could at least put herself down because she knew she had finesse.

"Probably, you know at least as much as me and likely more –" Robert had no interest in continuing this topic at this particular time, as he'd been comfortable and happy, and now he was back to being anxious.

But he couldn't think of anything else to fill it with.

Alice frowned. "I just don't want you to be afraid of me. I know what I want! You're what I want."

He smiled, then, finally finding shreds of confidence. "And you're what I do," Robert said. "It'll work out. Always does."

It had to, after all.

"I'll come visit you tomorrow, then. As a surprise. So don't do anything because I need to find you!"

Her next plan of action was to figure out how to break it to Vi and Mallory without getting called a hypocrite.

"Don't do anything?" Robert furrowed his brow. "So I should ... sit at a desk and read the same X-ray all day? Or does that count as doing something?"

"Just sit and wait for me to come in! Otherwise you might be busy and then I'll have to go home and that won't do at all!" Alice even pouted as she spoke.

"I'll – make sure to do low-key things as long as I can," was the best Robert could do. It was a bit hard to not do any work at all.

Alice grinned. "I'll make it worth your while in a way that you can handle."

"Oh, really? Do I get to know, or must I be surprised?"

Warning might've been nice.

"I haven't decided yet!" Alice chirped, smashing Robert's hat back on his head.

His nose wrinkled, seemingly of its own volition. "It did look good on you. I want a picture sometime."

Alice giggled. "You can still give it back to me, silly."

(It sank in again, as it seemed to do every half-hour--Robert. She was sitting on Robert's lap in a car on their date. And he loved her. And they weren't friends anymore. They were more than friends could ever be and all of her dreams were going to come true and everything was perfect and would be perfect for the rest of her life.)

"Would you want it? You could, I meant it. Keep it."

Zebediah considered telling them they should be at the estate within ten minutes, and decided against it. It may or may not have actually been true, after all.

"Only if you're not going to need it! Although I think you ruined your suit. If you didn't have such a naughty imagination, you wouldn't have!"

"You did that on purpose!" Robert refused to believe she hadn't meant for him to drop his glass.


"I meant to get you going, not make you stain yourself."

Thankfully, Robert's mind wasn't so naughty he took that the wrong way, too, though it occurred to him after he replayed her sentence a couple of times. Either way: "Well, it worked. And then some. I have plenty of suits."

"I bet. You only own nice things. Formal things. Crisp things. Because that's you." And the description made sense in Alice's head and still made sense when she said it. That was Robert to her. Incapable of mediocrity.

The problem with being incapable of mediocrity, Robert would have said, had it been up for discussion, was that one who was impeccable could also be an utter failure – and yet still manage to never hit the middle ground.

"I have some pretty grubby things, too," he admitted. "And things destroyed by surgeries."

"Well, you do now, anyway! Me!"

Alice threw her hands over her head.

"You are nothing of the kind! If you mean either grubby or destroyed by a surgery."

"I've never had surgery before. I know I hate seeing it."

"You don't seem destroyed, and I can guarantee there is nothing grubby about you." Robert kissed the tip of her nose again, on impulse, or perhaps instinct.

Alice grinned and wrapped her arms around Robert's neck, settling in close, close enough to bump her nose into his.

"You're the most amazing and gallant man I've ever met."

Robert failed to give his assessment of other people she might've met, because if he were the most amazing of them – while not down on himself too much, Robert didn't have much of an ego, either.

"You are easily my favorite person to be around."

And it was true. Even though she made him nervous beyond belief, she was.

"You're so funny!" Alice chirped. "That makes you just right. I've an idea. Let's move into this car."

Zebediah, behind the wheel, cleared his throat and promptly gave up.

"Move into it?" Robert went back to having a slightly angled head, titling it to try to get a better look at her. "It's a bit small."

"But I don't want to get out of it," Alice said, scooting back and stretching out on the floor of the car with her head on Robert's chest.

"If tonight does not end," Robert quoted, "tomorrow will never come."

"Yes it will! I've stayed up until dawn! And past dawn! I stayed up for forty eight hours once!"

Most of those involved boys and being inebriated in some day.

Robert actually looked impressed. "And you didn't go insane? – wait, maybe that explains something about you."

Alice stole his hat and looked up at him, shocked. "What? Wait, what--did you make a funny?"

"I teased," Robert confessed, looking very solemn and grave about it.

"I didn't know you were capable of it!" Alice squealed, kissing both of his cheeks. "Oh, I'm so proud!"

That had Robert dissolve into laughter, and he waved a hand about, trying to express something, and then eventually giving up.

Alice grinned and wrapped her arms around his chest. "You'll be like me in no time, and then what will the world do with you?"

"Fire me," Robert decided. "Because I will become uncomfortable with surgery –"

"Can you breathe, sir?" Zebediah thought to check.

"Quite fine!"

"Well, good. Then you'll spend all day with me."

"And, having no variety at all between us, we will grow to be annoyed with each other, I think."

"But who could ever be annoyed with me?" Alice asked, raising her eyebrows innocently. "I'm wonderful. And cute."

"If you are certain you would not be annoyed with having to constantly deal with a second take on yourself, then I suppose no one would! I could never be annoyed with you, myself."

Not really.

Slightly exasperated at times, perhaps, but not annoyed.

"What if I poked you for an hour straight?"

"Annoyed might be the wrong word, still. Irritated, yes. You might also end up mildly wounded, but nothing that would last."

"What?"

"Well, if I were trying to work I would do my best to stop you from doing so, which might include moving out of your way, or perhaps attempting to hold your hand steady – and sometimes people struggle and end up scraped while trying to get their hands out of mine, et cetera, I don't think I would sit still and tolerate it!"

This was not true. Probably, for at least twenty minutes, he would sit still and tolerate it.

Alice looked thoughtful and adjusted the hat. "What if I do it with my top off?"

"Then I would sit still and tolerate it for long enough for someone else to take a picture," he said sensibly. Possibly the Sullyesque voice inside his head had suggested the comment.

"Aaand," she continued, "if I do it knickerless?"

"I think the same perhaps stands, although I do not know in that case if I would aim for a photograph."

"Not even a personal one just for you?"

"I would prefer the real thing," was half the truth, and the only part he verbalized. Really, there were some things that made him uneasy still, and nude photographs not taken for still-life studies were on that list.

"You'll get the real thing any time you want it," Alice tried, pushing her luck.

Robert smiled, hesitantly. "I will let you know."

Maybe the topic would just change itself!

Alice said nothing, consciously thought nothing, and sank down to his chest again.

She got more hair-petting, for her trouble – a gentle touch, trying to be less hesitant than it was. Robert wasn't sure if he was entirely in over his head or just in need of a metaphorical oxygen mask.

Alice was quiet for another moment, still thinking about not thinking at all. Without thinking she was capable of saying, "I do love you."

"Even if I am that hard to tolerate when it comes to sex?" It was surprising, to him, that this was something they would discuss right away; it didn't seem to be first date material, but on the other hand, it had come up, and it was important, and who was he to impede?

The usual first date with Alice included the act itself, so talking of it was somewhat new and definitely strange. It was also making her slightly uncomfortable, as she knew it made Robert uncomfortable.

"I wish you wouldn't tease me when I say that I love you."

"It was an honest question," he said, and didn't press it. "But I am glad to hear it."

Alice decided then, despite that Robert meant the question, not to answer. She didn't know how she felt, really. She had Robert now and anything else seemed insignificant. They had only been together for a few hours and who was she to abandon her usual sense of optimism?

Instead of saying anything, she made a pointed effort to snuggle rather determinately against his chest.

He held her, silent and cautious, kissing the top of her head and settling his chin there once he had done. The possibly dreaded silence had settled in again – but this time, it didn't bother Robert anywhere near as much. It wasn't an awkward silence so much as a comfortable one. Here was Alice in his arms and he loved her and she loved him and it would be okay. Everything would be all right. He'd never felt such calm so fervently before.

"It's just another couple of minutes," Zebediah said, at last, breaking the silence.

Alice groaned and smashed her face into Robert's shirt. "Make time go backwards!"

"No one ever taught me how to do that," Robert said guiltily.

He didn't exactly dislike the idea any.

Alice sighed and turned her head so she could breathe something other than buttons.

"Will you come to the door with me?"

"Of course!" Whyever wouldn't he? He'd intended to. Even if he still didn't have any flowers to give her. A good-night kiss was an imperative.

"Good. Just reminding you."

She had only kissed him once.

It was dreadfully taxing to hold herself back.

"I would never forget." How could he? How could he forget this evening, ever? Even the quiet moments had been beautiful – even the tense moments had been better because she was his.

Zebediah looked, and felt, a bit guilty when he pulled into the estate's drive. Far be it from him to want to break this evening up, but he was merely doing his job! Doing a job Robert suddenly didn't want him to do, even if he did need his sleep, even if he was working the next day – even if he was going to try to evade working as long as possible!

Robert cleared his throat, and didn't move. Frozen in indecision – give her a kiss here, first, get out, do it again? Something else?

Alice looked up at him. "Is that my cue to get off you and collect my things?"

"If you'd like it to be," was Robert's quick response, "or we could simply sit here longer."

This was both appealing and stupid to him at once.

Alice remained hesitant for a moment before curling back up. "Okay! I'm staying here."

Robert grinned, in a rather schoolboyish fashion, and settled back into his seat. Eventually Zebediah would yell; at that exact moment he chose to relax instead of thinking about it, giving Alice another rather tender look and weighing the pros and cons of another kiss.

The pros won out before the cons came up again. It was hard to resist now that he didn't have to.

It was still hard to believe that tomorrow she could still say Robert was her boyfriend, and that it wasn't all some sort of silly daydream. For the umpteenth time that day, she felt as though this entire thing hadn't sunk in. In a few minutes it would probably sink in again, but five months of inconsequential hopes had made ever achieving this moment some sort of fairy tale.

Alice grinned at him because he was looking at her, anyway. (Looking at her!)

"You're beautiful," he told her, because it was observable, and a fact that no one was allowed to dispute (beauty may be a subjective sort of topic, but as far as Robert was concerned Alice was the standard). "Will you let me kiss you again before we're forced to move?"

Zebediah tapped his watch. Robert ignored him.

"D'you have to ask me?"

"I don't have to, if you prefer I would not, but it is –" 'Habit' seemed like such a funny term for something he hadn't done in decades. "– habit, albeit a rusty habit."

Instead of waiting for a proper 'yes,' though, or any further encouraging word, Robert took her present response as good enough. Admittedly it was a light kiss, even with his arm around her waist just so, but it was less chaste than the previous one had been.

An Alice with any other boy or man in the world would have taken that tiny sip and expanded it. Climbed into his lap, even, and willed Robert's hands on her ass.

But this was not any other boy or man and so attempting to con him into a snog was out, much as it pained her and much as she chased the kiss when it began to pull apart. (It wasn't fair, really, but maybe it was some sort of irony that the one person she had been looking for was the one person she would never really get in every way she wanted.)

He barely pulled away; just far enough to be touching his forehead to hers and whispering, "I think the driver is about to kill me."

"You may both be glad to stay up all night, but I'd rather not get home late and would rather not have the snogfest going on in the backseat of my vehicle," Zebediah quipped. "No offense meant, of course, to lady or sir."

Alice narrowed her eyes and turned to glare at Zebediah. She grabbed her jacket and purse and said, in a voice few ever survived, "Daddy is going to hear all about you."

That was his death sentence, and Zebediah regretted speaking – it was half Alice's words and half Robert's glare.

"I hadn't really expected you to be quite so snitty," the former duke said in a disturbingly posh tone. "Also, it is, in fact, Colin's car, which I'm quite sure he'd be glad to reposess." Irritable, mostly because Alice had been offended, Robert shook his head and let himself out of the car, running about the back to open the door for Alice as well.

"I'm sorry about him," he said, softer.

"I don't know what's wrong with everyone tonight but they're all so rude. Daddy is going to have a lot of work cut out for him," Alice snapped, pulling on her jacket even though she would be removing it again in a flash.

"Well. Zebediah is a cross old coot, and yes, I can get away with calling him that simply because I do not find myself particularly cootlike –"

Wonderful. Now she was angry because his choice in help had been too glib; she was angry and the peace and perfection of the evening was absolutely destroyed.

"He hadn't meant to offend you, anyway, only me. I'm sorry." A thousand apologies probably wouldn't fix her mood. Robert had long since accepted he did few things right, but this one was something he'd thought he hadn't screwed up. "I do hope you don't think me rude."

"Of course I don't think you're rude! I'm just used to everyone liking me more. Everyone always likes me! Or I make them." Alice pulled on her gloves, another unnecessary thing to do.

"He does like you. I could tell he liked you earlier – and the waiters liked you! Bent over backward to accomodate, or else that's the bit I caught."

She wasn't angry with him; Robert could breathe a bit more easily. To top the list of unnecessary things that seemed customary anyway, he held out his arm to her, got a walk that wasn't really long enough to merit it.

Alice took his arm and clutched her purse in her other hand. "Only because Daddy could put them out of business if I complained!"

"I'm quite certain it's not just that. I'm sorry, though. That anyone was upsetting toward you – I really did want it to be perfect."

"I'll just be back there to break them in tomorrow, then!" Alice said decisively, ruffling her metaphorical feathers as she checked that the necklace box was in her purse. It was, so she closed it again.

(It was horribly embarrassing to flirt and to be brushed off in return! And more than once!)

"I'll have words," Robert promised. Even if he hadn't seen it as anything more than professionalism; perhaps that was just his old coot of a mind talking again. "Anything you want."

He was dreading the next two minutes. To have to say goodnight and go.

"I will have words. I bet no one's done that to Mummy. Even when we were little she would play silly games with the waiters and then Daddy would pretend to get grumpy and the waiters would be so pleased that they had done it when they really hadn't at all."

Alice was the very self-conscious version of her mother.

Being so huffy about rejection and embarrassment had her forgetting that it was time to say goodbye.

But when they reached the door, Robert hadn't.

And he wanted, suddenly, more than ever, to never leave her – to not even let her go inside the door, to whisk her back, to make Zebediah pay and take her home with him and keep her always – but such dreams were, at the time, unrealistic. A pipe sentiment. Something born of just not wanting to let go. Which he didn't – of course he didn't. He hated the very idea of it. Of going home, of going to work, of having to wait to see her again.

Calm down, his mind reminded him. It's the end of an evening, not a lifetime.

He caught himself staring at her again and didn't do anything about it. Didn't do anything about it for about two seconds before he pulled her to him again, gently but with some degree of conviction instead of nerves, his mouth finding hers – this kiss couldn't have even masqueraded as chaste for about six seconds.

Apparently, Robert knew how to snog after all, out of practice or not.

Alice's first thought was not that he was out of practice.

Alice's first thought died the moment Robert kissed her, and when it wasn't just a simple kiss as they had shared before, no thoughts returned or had hope of returning. She kissed him back on instinct and months of desire, which was enough to make her entire body feel weak, from her toes to her fingers. It was the sort of reaction best followed up by more, but even having it and having Robert snogging her was enough.

Robert was snogging her.

For the first time, she knew what he tasted like and that even her best guesses paled in comparison to the impact of the real thing. She didn't wrap her arms around his neck or push into him to get more--she just stayed where she was, on her toes, hand holding her purse and other hand gently resting on his chest, above his heart.

While he wasn't pressing further for a deeper kiss, he wasn't pulling away or backing off or even trying – Robert's brain and shut down and fizzled out as well. This wasn't a dream and it wasn't Sully's rambling and it wasn't even one of those girls from the war who'd been as real as anyone else but somehow felt a lot less real. This was Alice. This was Alice who felt, tasted, smelled like perfection; this was love, something he'd seen a million times but never felt before.

He didn't want to stop the feel of his mouth on hers, the touch of their tongues, the smell of her hair; didn't want to back away from her or her hand on his heart, where it belonged. Here, like this, was how they belonged and how he always wanted to be.

And yet, an apparent eternity later, Robert remembered he had to breathe.

Even in letting the kiss end, though, he didn't step back; instead, he put his hand over hers and just looked down at her, still and silent, the lovesick gaze of a man who knew he'd found the most important thing to him in the world affixed in his eyes.

And that look was almost impossible to endure, despite how much Alice never wanted him to look at her in any other way. It was raw, perhaps, and she had never encountered someone feeling this way for her before--not ever, not once. Robert, being who he was, seemed capable of making Alice feel what he was feeling, which only overwhelmed her even more.

But hardly in a bad way.

Alice didn't want to move. They could stand in the doorway forever and no one would be able to see them. She could live just having Robert and needed nothing else to sustain her. Grown up love, was that was this was? Maybe it was how her parents felt when they met.

"I love you," she whispered.

"And I you," he told her, returning to his bad habit of stroking her hair, deciding that that was perhaps his absolute favorite thing in the entire world to say and maybe always would be. To reply in an affirmative when she told him she loved him, to be able to tell her he loved her.

It would never grow old.

"Do you really have to go?" Alice asked, pleading with him and not even needing her pout to do it.

Robert thought about it, and reality hit him like a ton of bricks: yes.

"I cannot do nothing in a timely fashion waiting for you to turn up and rescue me from the monotony of patient records if I am not there on time," he said, making light of it. "I'm pretending to be a young, new to the field sort of young fool. It would reflect poorly if I were late and slacked off all day."

"But you're just acting! You know more than everyone there!"

"Which will not, unfortunately, make a difference when it comes to advancing my career this time around – I can still be reprimanded and can still be removed from the hospital for things like lateness. It counts every time, unfortunately, I do need to genuinely earn this license. I don't mind forging birth certificates; this is a bit more crucial."

Even if he didn't want to go either. This particular version of himself had a lot going for him.

Alice narrowed one eye. "You're not going to be the sort of boyfriend who dates his work and not his girlfriend, are you?" It was important to ask even if it wouldn't have made a difference to her. She was grateful just to have him.

"I must only keep to deadlines. All they are, at this point, are showing up promptly in the morning and not taking lunch breaks that are over two hours long. Sometimes I have to stay overnight at the hospital but you are, of course, welcome to visit – urged to visit, please, I would like to be able to have more than one person I can stand around and Whitaker and I do get sick of each other."

"You didn't answer my question," Alice said, narrowing her other eye.

"– it was an exaggerated extension of no."

Alice shook her head and wrapped her arms around Robert's chest, clinging to him like a set of chains.

"I miss you already."

"You will see me in the morning." Or some approximation of the morning, as his morning began very early indeed. "I do promise I will see you tomorrow."

"That's far away! Whatever will I do until then? After I take a bath, I mean."

(Where she would relish in the memory of the snog. She was quite horny.)

"Have you thought of sleeping? I was going to do that after soaking my poor shirt."

"I'll just have a dozen sex dreams and wake up every hour."

Robert had been hoping, in trying not to think about Alice in the bath, that his neck would stay its normal shade. That did it, though, and it got somewhat more flushed.

"I," he said, and was going to apologize for it, and wasn't quite sure if that was right. "– should I be sorry?"

"Yes!" Alice said, stepping out of the hug. "It's your bloody fault. I'm young and sexually frustrated."

"Well, then," and he caught her hand to kiss her knuckles, "I give you my utmost apologies."

"You should. And then some."

"The some is yours too, then."

"No it isn't. I'm waiting for the some. Incidentally, I've never waited for the some, so this is a first for me!"

Robert caught on, and Robert laughed, and Robert was glad that his uneasiness at least wasn't making Alice angry.

"Is it so that you would rather get it elsewhere?" he tested the waters, ready to be slapped.

"Robert!" Alice scolded.

"What? Honest question, just in case!"

Alice rolled her eyes and sighed obnoxiously. "I don't know about you sometimes."

"Many people don't – I think I do not know about me sometimes, but at least I make a valiant effort to understand myself."

And, apparently, hang around Sully too much.

"You should understand yourself in every sort of way, then," Alice told him, grabbing his arm. "But now you've stayed too long and can't leave."

"Oh dear, have I? I will have to live with being fired, then." Maybe theatrics were contagious. Robert sighed.

"Good! Come inside, then," Alice said, pulling his arm towards the door.

"Maybe for a minute."

For a minute. He meant it. Maybe for a minute.

"For a minute or for the entire night. You can fit in my bed with me," Alice said, holding his arm and opening her purse with her free hand in order to find her keys.

Robert did not try to escape. He instead weighed his options; he could see her in and escape. He could kiss her goodnight and let her fall asleep before letting himself out with help from one of the staff. (Zebediah might kill him, but he'd offended Alice, so. It was just.)

"I think the entire night would have me very late indeed."

"But--damn it!" Alice dropped her purse, but she didn't let go of Robert even as she bent down to pick it up and put everything back inside. "Wouldn't it mean the whole world to stay?"

That was a question he couldn't fairly answer in either direction.

In one corner: it would be wonderful to stay. He could watch her sleep and he could sleep himself and he could have a car sent for him in the morning and gun it back to London to scrub up.

In the other: he would be really, really late, not sleep well, not be willing to jump into sex which might be upsetting to her. Probably would be upsetting. At least awkward.

"While I would love to circumstance makes it unrealistic that I should," he managed.

Alice let go of his arm when she needed both of hers to fix her purse and its contents. If he didn't want to stay, which was clear to Alice, she didn't want to force him. But her tiny little balloon deflated, anyway, when she stood up and stuck her key in the door. "Okay."

"I'll stay all night tomorrow, instead," he added, smiling. Robert was glad to have Saturdays off.

"Do you promise?" Alice asked, looking at him in a way that said breaking any potential promises would break her poor little heart.

"I do."

Confidently, he could. Well, almost – "As late as your family will allow, anyway; all night if it suits them."

"I'm twenty-two! I can do whatever I want with my boyfriends. Mum and Daddy can't stop me at all."

She had a point. When he was twenty-two he'd been considered an adult for years. On the other hand ...

"It is their house. I am only being cautious. Should I bring – no, I am sure you have cards."

So that's what it was going to be? A slumber party with card playing? She couldn't complain. She was brilliant at poker.

"I've got loads of cards! All sorts of decks. And it might be their house but I live here and I can do just what I please!" She turned the key in the lock and the door clicked.

"Cards are somewhat of a familial rite of passage, if spending an entire evening in someone's presence some time must be killed by some sort of game. I can't remember not doing that." Robert was eager to include her in such rituals – he wanted to include her in anything and everything, really.

He also couldn't quite leave yet.

"Alice –"

No, wait. She said not to ask.

Alice looked up at him after pushing the door open. "Yeah?"

Robert could have said good night then and turned to go – of course, he didn't. Instead, he took a step closer and cupped her cheek in his hand, tilted his head a bit, leaned down and kissed her. Slowly, tenderly, but with a little bit of tongue for her troubles.

Only after pulling slowly away did he actually say, "Good night, love."

Alice had gone slightly pink and slightly stunned and was slow to emerge from it, even when she said, "Goodnight."

This is the part where you go back to the car, Robert.

Robert forgot to move, just stood there and didn't want to leave and had to leave and was stuck.

Hello? This is the part where you go back to the –

"I suppose this is the part where I go back to the car."

"Um. I suppose so." No telling him to stay.

No changing his mind. Responsibility. Someone had to be responsible and remember that yes, life did go on, and there would be no catastrophe, they would see each other tomorrow –

Robert stood up straight, cleared his throat.

"I love you," he said, and smiled, tenderly and lovingly and happily at once, and turned to walk back to the car. He'd had to do it. Unfortunately.

I love you, too, Alice said to herself, too quickly for Robert to hear. She watched him until she couldn't see him from the door, and to stop herself chasing the car down the drive (and flying onto it, if she needed), she quickly stepped inside, shut the door, and squealed. The piercing sound of it echoed through the foyer and was soon drowned out by her feet tearing up the stairs, down the hall and to her room.

The privacy there lent itself to a sudden outburst.

She squealed again, jumping up and down and up and down until her hair came loose, spinning in circles, losing her shoes and her purse in the process but too full of energy to care.

Robert loved her and Robert kissed her and Robert kissed her and she was going to see him tomorrow and she got everything she wanted and in two years she would be his wife, guaranteed, and the world would be the most perfect place--in the world! If she didn't wake up the rest of the house in the meantime.

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The Dirty Life Universe

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