Universe: London, 1993
Pairing: Joe Carroll/Claire Matthews
Summary: Since she’d arrived in England three months ago, he was the only native who didn’t make her feel like just another stupid American girl.
Author’s Note: This was inspired by Tunnel Vision by lexiesloan.
Readers, please do not let the fandom or pairing turn you off. I think this might be one of the better things I’ve written in a long time, and I’d love it if you could give it a chance. No background on the show or characters is necessary, since this starts them from scratch.
* * *
Claire had been staring at her map for nearly fifteen minutes now, trying to figure out where she was and why she couldn’t find the church. She didn’t think it would be this hard, navigating her way in a foreign country—especially a country that predominantly spoke English—but it was. She knew she should ask someone for directions, but everyone around her moved so quickly, and whenever she spoke aloud, every native-born Briton gave her a look.
She could see it in their face: American. Sometimes it was just a flicker of recognition, sometimes it was a smirk of derision; more than once there had been an outright scowl. Fucking American. Another fucking American.
She hated it: the word, the label it created, the uncalled for shame that always came with it. More than once she’d been temped to ask, What’s so wrong with being American? but she was more than a little scared that the British citizens around her would have a laundry list of reasons. And what rebuttal did she have? She knew more about foreign countries than she did her own.
“You look lost. Can I help?”
Her head shot up when she heard the voice. It was quiet and surprisingly close and, as always, outfitted with a British accent.
He wasn’t standing in front of her, but behind her and to the side. She almost told him to get lost himself until she realized he was standing so close to her so he could read her map over her shoulder.
She tried to disguise her fluster as frustration, but she could feel her cheeks pink nonetheless. The man who had appeared to help her was exceedingly good-looking, with a shock of disheveled black hair atop his head and dark but intense brown eyes. She tried not to look at him too much as she explained, “I’m looking for Temple Church. It’s supposed to be near here but I can’t find it.”
He stared at her blankly for a second—and her heart sank; he didn’t know what she was talking about. But then a smile spread across his face. “You know about Temple Church? I’m…” He chuckled softly. “Well, I have to say I’m impressed. Most tourists are looking for Buckingham Palace or the Tower. Or one of those awful Hard Rock Cafes.”
“I’m not a tourist,” she snapped at once. She knew she was being unnecessarily curt, but right now, she didn’t care. If she could wear a shirt that said that and be taken seriously, she would. “I’m here for school. Graduate school,” she added immediately when she saw a smile play on the edges of his mouth. She wanted to say, I’m here on damn serious business, and I’m not a kid here to party; I am a twenty-four-year-old adult here to learn, but she knew that would only undermine her point, so she stayed silent.
“Well, you sure picked a good country to study in,” he told her.
She couldn’t help but smile—both because he’d made it sound like a compliment, and because she liked the English people’s pride in their country. American patriotism too often came off as jingoistic, but she didn’t feel that here. Britons seemed to honestly like where they lived, without having to compare it to other nations to feel entitled to their pride. “I know I picked a good country,” she said, because she did know it. She had already dedicated years to studying England. She liked to think she knew close to everything about it. Except how to get around, apparently.
As if reading her mind, he suggested, “I could show you the way there, if you want. It’s just this way.”
He was already stepping away, gesturing for her to follow, but she hesitated. The lessons her mother and father had taught her as a girl came flooding back. Don’t go anywhere with strangers. Men only want one thing. Always keep a hand on your purse and an eye over your shoulder.
“I’m… not sure,” she stalled.
Stay with at least one person from your class when travelling, the program advisors had told her. Don’t go off on your own in an area you’re not familiar with.
But her classmates were boring. All they wanted to do was go to pubs and flit with men, or hang outside Buckingham Palace hoping to catch a glimpse of Lady Di. Plus, she decided, parents’ lessons were only necessary when a child couldn’t take care of herself. And Claire could take care of herself.
Her eyes briefly flickered over her potential guide, sizing him up. He was big—bigger than her—but not overly large. She was confident she could take him if he tried something. He had soft spots like any other man, after all. And while pepper spray wasn’t legal to carry here, she’d been told by a couple of girls on her trip that a can of air freshener would do the trick if she got him in the eyes. And she had that in her purse if she needed it.
“I get it,” he told her before she could say anything else. “You don’t want to go off someplace with someone you just met. That’s smart,” he told her, and he sounded like he meant it. “I can just give you directions, if you want. All you need to do is go—”
“No,” she shook her head, having made up her mind. He was a virtual stranger, she knew, but she also knew she wanted to go with him. Since she’d arrived in England three months ago, he was the only native who didn’t make her feel like just another stupid American girl. She didn’t want to lose that feeling just yet. “I want you to take me to the church,” she told him.
“Okay.” He gave her a small smile, and waved her forward. “This way, then.”
Without even another second of hesitation, she followed after him. For many years, it was the single best decision of her life.
* * *
“But I was here before,” Claire said aloud as they stopped outside the doors of the round church. She looking around the outer stone courtyard of the chapel, struggling to discover where she’d went wrong. “I can’t believe this.”
Her companion smiled, looking over his shoulder at her. “Don’t beat yourself up. People call it the Hidden Church.”
“I know that,” she muttered, still annoyed at herself. She shook her head, forcing herself to drop it, and turned to the man who’d brought her here. “Thank you, for showing me. I’d probably still be lost, wandering around this two-block radius for the next hour if you hadn’t intervened.”
“It was my pleasure. Oh,” he stuck out his hand. “I’m Joe, by the way.”
“Claire,” she said, putting her hand in his. He had a strong handshake, and she was proud to be returning it just as firmly.
“You have a beautiful name, Claire.”
She smiled. “Well, I’d like to say I picked it out myself…”
He smirked. “None of us did, did we? I’m the third Joseph in my family.” He looked up at the church behind them as he let go of her hand, and she waited for him to step away and say goodbye, but then he asked, “Do you mind if I go in with you? I haven’t been inside the church since I was a boy.”
She shrugged, not seeing how she could bar him from public property. They stepped inside, one after the other. Since she was here to examine the place in full, especially the effigies in the basement, and he only to stick his head in, she expected them to soon separate. But, to her surprise and later delight, they ended up staying side by side almost all the while, exploring every nook and cranny of the old building. She hadn’t realized she was recounting practically the entire history of the space until he interrupted, and asked where in the world she’d learned all this.
She smiled, blushing, not having realized she’d carried on so long. She’d just meant to say one thing, but that led into another, and another, and she had probably bored him to death by now.
“I’m in the history department at Northwestern,” she told him, a bit reluctantly, as she always did when she described her field. While she didn’t find it so, she was well aware that, to most people, history was the most boring subject in the world. It probably would be to him, too. “I’m studying at King’s College for the year.”
She expected him to nod politely and change the subject, as most people did, but instead he looked intrigued, and asked her questions about her studies. She answered them, and was surprised at how easy he was to talk to. She not only enjoyed speaking with him, but listening to him speak, too. To match her knowledge of history, she soon found out, he had a vast knowledge of literature. She had never before been much interested in old writers, but when he talked about them, she found herself listening with rapt attention.
So, when they were finishing touring the church, and he asked if she wanted to go somewhere to talk some more, and maybe get something to eat, she agreed at once.
* * *
She didn’t tell her roommates about him. She knew Katherine would demand to meet him and then flirt obnoxiously, and Madeline—well, Claire didn’t have a good reason for not telling Maddie yet. For now, Claire supposed she just liked having Joe to herself. She liked talking with him so much, and she wanted some time alone with him to do that before everyone else butted in.
So, when her roommates asked where she was going whenever she left their dorm, she simply said, “To explore,” and left it at that.
In part, it wasn’t a lie. She and Joe had taken to walking while they talked, and she had seen more and different parts of the city with him in just a couple weeks than she had in her first couple months here.
And it wasn’t just the city she learned more about, but him, too. He’d studied English and American literature in school, he told her, and was currently looking for a full-time position as a professor. It was hard, though, he said, because he was young—only five years older than her; not even thirty yet—and neither faculty nor students seemed to respect or trust young teachers. So he was stuck being a professor’s aide most of the time, which apparently amounted to doing little more than endlessly grading essays when his boss was too lazy to.
She could tell he was dissatisfied with where he was in life right now, but, from the days she spent with him, she could hardly tell. He was a usually happy person, always quick with a smile or a laugh, and she liked that about him. His good humor was infectious, and more than once, she had to mentally remember to wipe the grin off her face after talking with him before returning to her dorm, just so there wouldn’t be endless questions about who had put it there.
* * *
They spent at least three days a week together, when he wasn’t working and she wasn’t in class, and, in the span of about a month, she found she’d learned more about him than she knew of even the girls she was living with. He had quickly become her best friend here, the easiest person for her to talk to, and the first person she thought to call when she had free time to spend.
One day, when they were sitting on a bench in Green Park, she asked him who his favorite author was. He’d brought her there after a long morning of walking, as a place to rest. It doesn’t have any lakes or monuments like Kensington or Regent’s, he told her, sounding almost apologetic, but I find the simplicity soothing. Sometimes we go a little over the top here.
He pondered the question for so long that she started to feel nervous and self-conscious, even though she was the one who had put him on the spot. His eyes watched the people as they walked past, thinking.
“I’ve become interested in Edgar Allan Poe quite a bit recently,” he said after a while.
“Oh, yeah?” she asked, mildly surprised. She couldn’t remember anyone ever telling her that their favorite author was Poe. Then again, she didn’t know many people who read early nineteenth century classical literature for fun. “How come?”
He shrugged. “Not sure. Sometimes you just stumble across something brilliant and it catches your eye.” He glanced over to her as he spoke, and when his eyes lingered a bit too long on her face, she wasn’t sure if they were talking about long-dead poets anymore.
But a second later, she brushed the notion away as he continued, looking back out across the park, “If you think about it, Poe’s the one who began a lot of the popular genres we have now—science fiction, mystery, detective stories, horror, psychological thrillers… It all came from him. The literary world owes a lot to him.”
“I only really remember the horror,” Claire admitted. “You know, the heart under the floorboards and all that. Thump-thump.”
“Well, there’s more to Poe than just The Tell-Tale Heart,” Joe replied. “He wasn’t a one-hit wonder.”
Claire rolled her eyes. “Well, I know that.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught him smirking at her defensive response. He turned in his seat towards her, folding his hands over his loosely crossed legs. “Okay, then, Ms. History—tell me something else he’s written. Since you know so much.”
Claire bit the inside of her cheek, but held her mouth firm. She wasn’t going to let him make a fool of her after she’d so stupidly goaded him into it… Though she knew it was much more likely she’d make a fool out of herself, with little help from him. It had been so long since she’d sat down and read anything that wasn’t assigned for class. She took a breath, summoning her memory. She had such a good mind for dates and events, for important historical figures and their lasting marks on the world… But the last time she’d studied literature had been when she was an undergraduate. Poe had been one of the most obscure footnotes to her education. Nonetheless, she wracked her brain for any scrap of information pertaining to him.
“Well, there’s that one about the raven…”
“Yes, there is.” He paused. “And that would be called ‘The Raven.’”
She bit back a scowl at his smug answer, searching for something else to say. Something that would impress him. But her mind was blank and her memory was empty, and finally she could only laugh, throwing up her hands. “Fine! I give up. I don’t know anything else! The only other one I know is ‘Annabelle Lee,’” she confessed, burying her face in her hands. “And everyone knows ‘Annabelle Lee.’”
He chuckled by her side, easing up. “Well, that’s nothing to be embarrassed of, Claire.”
She peeked out from around her fingers. “With you, it is.” She dropped her hands back into her lap, and looked at them as she muttered, “You know everything.”
He shook his head, laughing. “I certainly do not know everything.”
“I meant about literature, Joe.”
“You know everything about history,” he reminded her. He gestured around. “I bet you know more about this country than I do, and you’ve been here for, what, four months? I’ve lived here my entire life. How do you think that makes me feel? That’s embarrassing.” He turned to look her right in the eye, leaning forward to share a secret. “Do you know I took out two books from the library last week, to learn about my own hometown, just so I could have something smart to say to you about it while we walked around?”
She stared at him, trying to blink back the shock. “No, you didn’t,” she replied at once, not believing it. No one had ever done something like that for her before. No one had cared about her interests that much before. “You didn’t.”
“Would you like to see the books?” he challenged jovially. “Because I have them at my flat. The second edition of The London Encyclopedia and The Annals of London. Thought I was going to break my arms carrying them back. How in the world do you read those things for fun? Just one of them was over a thousand pages!”
She bit her lip, trying to hide a smile. “Why?” she asked finally, turning to face him more fully. “Why’d you do that for me?”
“Because I like you,” he answered at once. She blinked at his frankness. His eyes were still smiling as they gazed at her, but his expression was serious as his words: “I like talking to you, Claire, and spending time with you, and… I’d really like to get to know you better.”
“Okay…” She bit her lower lip. She wasn’t sure what to say to that.
He inclined his head towards her. “This is the part, I believe, where it is customary for you to let me know if you feel the same way.”
She didn’t have to think about how she felt. They’d been dancing around this for about a month now. She knew it was coming—at some point—but, as always, he found a way to knock her off her guard. “I like you too,” she finally said. Her eyes flickered up to meet his, and she couldn’t stop the smile that appeared on her face as she looked at him. “And I’d really love to get to know you better.”
“So…” He looked her over, a smile lifting up the edges of his lips. “Will you go out to dinner with me then? Tomorrow?”
* * *
“There is a man waiting by the front desk for you, Claire,” Madeline sung later the next night, as she made her way through their small, shared dorm space, and flung open the door to Claire’s room without bothering to ask for permission. “And may I remind you that I do not use the word ‘man’ lightly.” She fanned herself, pretending heat exhaustion as she hung onto the door. “Damn, Claire. Where did you find him?”
He found me, Claire wanted to say, but that would take too much explaining. She hadn’t yet had a chance to tell her about Joe, even though she’d really wanted to. She would explain it quickly now, but Katherine was here with them too, just a couple feet away on the couch, and she would spoil the mood. Kat found conversations boring if they didn’t involve sex, alcohol, or some kind of drug. Actually, she found real life boring if it didn’t contain one (or preferably all three) of those things. She and Claire did not get along very well, to say the least.
“I met him a couple weeks ago,” Claire told Maddie, checking her hair in the mirror, arranging the curls until they hung perfectly, before heading out of the room. Maddie followed right after her, close on her heels. “He helped me find a church I was looking for. We talked for a while, about the city, and books—he wants to be a literature professor, and he—”
“Jesus.” Kat scowled from the couch, looking up from her magazine as if they’d interrupted her doing very important work. “Maddie, what the hell are you making such a fuss about? He sounds like a dork.”
“He sure doesn’t look like a dork,” Maddie told Kat before Claire could say anything. “So!” She quickly returned her attention to Claire. “Where’s he taking you?”
“Not sure yet,” Claire replied, grabbing her purse and a jacket to wear over her favorite sleeved green dress. “But I’ll tell you when I get back tonight—”
“Oh,” Maddie cut in, shaking her head vigorously, “no! Don’t come back tonight. Are you kidding? No! No coming back tonight, you idiot!”
Claire laughed, rolling her eyes at her roommate. “I’m not going to sleep with him on the first date, Maddie.”
From the couch, Kat snorted, turning the glossy pages slowly. “Seriously? Why the hell not? I would. Especially if he looks as good as Maddie says he does.”
Of course you would, Claire almost said, but bit her tongue. Kat, Claire had found out early on in their year together, slept with practically every available man she came across. (And even some unavailable ones, Claire had heard other girls complain.) Claire shared a knowing glance with Maddie before telling Kat, as civilly as she could manage, “Well, there’s the difference between you and me, Kat.” I have standards, she wanted to add, but she knew that would probably be taking it too far.
Madeline snorted, but Kat wasn’t anywhere near as amused. Her eyes narrowed and her mouth grew pinched—but Claire didn’t spare a thought for her. She was late to meet Joe already, and she couldn’t keep him waiting any longer. He might start to think she didn’t want to go.
“I’ll see you both later,” she called out, throwing her purse over her shoulder and reaching for the door. “Don’t wait up!”
“Come back with a good story,” Maddie called after her. “I want details!”
“Yeah, don’t bother showing back up here unless you’ve gotten laid!” Kat added.
Claire made sure to shut the door extra hard behind her. She could hear her roommates laugh through the wood, and even as she shook her head at them, she couldn’t stop smiling.
* * *
They ended up at a little restaurant about a ten minutes’ walk away. It was inconspicuous, with just a tiny sign reading Benedict’s in painted gold, cursive script. If he hadn’t pointed it out and led her to the door, she would’ve easily walked right past it.
Inside, it was hardly much bigger than it appeared outside—there were just two small dining rooms, populated with about half a dozen tables each. Everywhere she looked, there were candles and soft lighting, and couples holding hands over the tables.
She stepped into the restaurant incredibly glad she’d decided to wear a dress. Every man—including Joe—was wearing a suit. (Claire had blushed when she’d seen him, and hadn’t even had to feign the heat she felt he way Maddie had.) Every woman was wearing a dress, accented by the gold jewelry adorning her fingers and wrists and neck. Claire looked over at him nervously as he took her coat, quietly asking if what she was wearing was appropriate enough. She had a feeling it wasn’t, but he told her softly that she looked beautiful, and then gestured for her to go first when the hostess led them to their table.
Despite what he had said, she was still anxious as they sat down and looked over the menus, and listened to the waiter give his recommendations. But then, once they started talking, she suddenly wasn’t nervous at all anymore. It was as easy to talk to him in a nice dining room as it had been on that bench in Green Park, or on any of the hundred London streets they’d walked down together.
The food was delicious when it came: small salads and nicely cooked meats and, later, a chocolate mousse so luscious she felt the need to actually close her eyes to enjoy it properly.
She had grown so comfortable, locked away in this small corner of the restaurant with him, but too quickly, the plates were cleared, and the bill came, and it was time to go. She tried to pay—at least for her half, since she knew it must’ve been horribly expensive—but he pretended he didn’t hear her when she asked to look at the check, and paid for them both himself.
Then he stood up, helped her into her coat, and soon enough, they were standing out in a cold December night, deciding what to do next.
“I don’t really want to go back to my roommates yet,” she confessed. “Do you mind if we… go for a walk around for a while?” She expected him to say no—the wind was picking up—but he nodded at once.
She fell into step beside him as they headed away from the restaurant, vaguely walking back in the direction they’d come, but much slower than before. “So you and your roommates don’t get along?” he asked.
“No, we do.” Claire shook her head, frowning at her own words. “That’s a generalization,” she corrected. “Most times we get along. Well, most times Maddie and I get along. But I don’t have much in common with Kat, my other roommate.” She sighed heavily, remembering the almost-fight before she’d left. “She assumes every relationship is meaningless unless its based solely on sex and I really, really don’t see it that way. So I don’t feel like going home and running into her after this. She’ll just yell at me for not being a slut.”
“She sounds like a sweet girl,” Joe muttered.
Claire couldn’t help but laugh. “She’s fine,” she allowed, knowing she was being too generous. “We just don’t see eye to eye.”
“But you and your other roommate get along? Maddie?”
Claire nodded, remembering how excited Maddie had been for her when she’d left. Not bitter or judgmental, but supportive. “I do. She’s really is sweet.” Claire ducked her head, remembering, “But she is waiting for a ‘good story’ when I get back, and even if I can escape Kat, I can’t escape Maddie.” Claire knew her roommate would barge into her room the moment she got back, coming to collect on the details she’d demanded.
“Hm… Well, I guess I have no choice but to send you back with a good story now, do I?”
Claire looked up, ready to tell him that No, he was not under any obligation to bend to her crazy roommates’ wills—he’d already done more than enough for her tonight—but then she caught the look in his dark eyes and her stomach flipped in her body, and suddenly, she didn’t feel like discouraging him anymore.
A bit nervous, but more than that, excited, Claire wondered quietly as their steps both faltered to a stop, “What do you have in mind?” For the second it took him to answer, she thought he was going to invite her back to his place. Despite what she’d said to Kat and Maddie, she wasn’t entirely sure anymore that she’d say no.
“Oh, I wasn’t thinking of much,” he murmured, and then he stepped closer to her, and bent down, and finally gave her the kiss that she’d been thinking about for far too long.
She shut her eyes as his mouth moved against hers, unable to stop her lips from smiling as her mouth moved with him, following where he led and letting go oh-so-reluctantly when he pulled away.
“Good enough story?” he asked, still standing so close that she could taste his breath and see every detail of his face in perfect clarity.
She smiled, leaning forward and letting her nose brush against his. “I think it could be a bit better,” she said. Holding his gaze with hers, she leaned forward and kissed him herself, leading this time, and letting him follow.
A month later, late on a Sunday night, they walked together along the river, taking some quiet time to enjoy each other’s company. At first, when she’d suggested a walk along the bank of the Thames, he had scrunched up his nose and refused—it was dirty, he said, polluted—but she’d insisted, and finally he graciously gave in with a sweep of his arm and only a slightly bitter After you. They walked mostly in silence, talking only occasionally. This left her with a lot of time to think, and as they walked, she played with asking the question that had been on her mind for months now.
It took her a couple minutes to work up the courage to bring up the subject, but finally she managed it.
“Why’d you offer to help me that first day?” she asked.
He opened his mouth to speak, and she waited for his answer, but then he shook his head and muttered, “Never mind.”
But she caught sight of the smile peeking at the edges of his mouth and she knew she had to know. “What is it?”
“You’ll think I was being silly.”
“I think you’re being silly right now.”
He took a deep breath, blew it out, and then said, “I saw you standing out there on the sidewalk and I thought… I thought you were incredibly beautiful. And I wanted an excuse to talk to you. So that’s why I helped.” It should have been a line, a ploy, but when it came out of his mouth, and he looked at her like that, it wasn’t. His eyes were as dark as the night around them, but she could see the tenderness in them, too. And she could hear the honesty in his voice.
Other men had called her beautiful before, but it had never felt like this.
Usually it was a word guys used as a passcode to get into the private club of her bedroom. Usually, it meant nothing. Usually, she brushed it off and changed the subject.
But this time she lingered on it and asked, “Really? You actually thought that?” because it sounded too good, too sweet, to be true.
“Yes,” he replied, still sounding a little embarrassed. “I actually thought that.”
For a moment, they walked in silence, until he tugged at her hand. She looked over, surprised to see an expectant look on his face.
“This is the part where you return the favor and tell me how unbearably handsome you find me.”
She frowned, tipping her head to the side, feigning confusion. “Hm… I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but…” She pretended to grit her teeth. “I don’t really find you all that attractive, sorry…”
“Ah…” He nodded, taking that in stride. “I’m sorry, that’s right. Must’ve been my other girlfriend. She tells me all the time just how attractive she finds me.”
“Oh, shut up!” Claire laughed, shoving him away. He laughed too; a deep chuckle that somehow managed to both make her smile but also put a pleasurable twinge in her stomach.
She was glad it was dark so he couldn’t see the pink on her cheeks when she digested his teasing for the meaning within. Her feet faltered to a stop, and he looked over at her while she slowed, curious. She rolled her lips together, staring up at him, wondering if she was making too much of what he’d said. It had been a joke, after all.
“You said girlfriend,” she began quietly.
He nodded, not even a trace of embarrassment flickering across his features anymore. “I did.”
“Do you mean…?” She looked up at him, letting the question hang there in the air between them. She could hear the traffic from the city above them, and the quiet sounds of people passing by. She could see the moonlight gleaming, moving, across the water of the Thames. But she only looked at him. Only listened for him.
“I meant,” he told her, “that I think of you as my girlfriend.” His dark eyes gazed into hers, and she felt again that pull in her stomach—that momentary shakiness in her limbs—that she’d grown to expect anytime he looked at her with any degree of tenderness, which was actually quite often these days.
“Are we making it official here?” she asked quietly. She could hear her heart pounding in her ears and she really hoped it wasn’t loud enough that he heard it, too.
“By the Thames?” He scowled. “I hope not. That’s not romantic at all.” He looked around. “There’s people walking all over the place,” he muttered sourly. “There’s trash by our feet.”
She smiled, taking his hands. “It’s romantic enough for me,” she told him, linking her fingers through his. She didn’t bother telling him that he could’ve called her his girlfriend while standing in a dumpster, and she probably would’ve still gone a little weak in the knees.
“Well, see, that’s your problem,” he teased, stepping closer and wrapping his arms around her back even as they stayed linked with hers. “You obviously don’t know the first thing about romance.”
“Oh?” Her eyebrows shot up, her mouth splitting in a grin. “And you do?”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, clearly. I have so expertly swept you off your feet. Haven’t you been paying attention this whole time?”
She chuckled, “Oh, right. I forgot.”
“‘I forgot,’” he mimicked, shaking his head. “What in the world am I going to do with you?” he wondered, but his voice was soft now as he spoke, and he no longer teased her.
She swallowed as she looked up and met his gaze; she felt her stomach flip again when she saw the look in his eyes. No man had ever looked at her like Joe did before. She’d had her fair share of boyfriends and she’d had a couple one-night stands, but none of them had ever stared at her like this. Even when she’d been having sex with them, they had never looked at her half so tenderly as Joe did now.
What am I going to do with you? The question pertained to him, too. And she didn’t have the first idea of what she was going to do with him.
But he was waiting for an answer, so she told him simply, “Kiss me,” and he did. He let go of her hands, pulling her to him with a strong arm wrapping around her back as he bent down towards her. He guided her mouth to his with a hand on her cheek, and she shivered with pleasure and want when she felt his tongue slip into her mouth.
Kiss me, she had said. But what she had really meant, she knew now as her hands pulled him closer, was, Take me to bed. For once, she wished she was as brave as Kat, and that she could just throw caution to the wind and say it aloud.
* * *
They now held hands when they explored the country together, and rarely ever let go. On weekdays, they stayed around London, but once he was free from work on Fridays, they headed out to the further reaches of the country. More than once, he feigned sick on Friday and she skipped class so they could leave early.
One weekend in late March, he told her he had found something he wanted to show her, and suggested she pack a bag. When she asked where they were going, he simply said, Ireland, as if it were a place down the street and not an hour’s plane ride over the sea. At first she thought he was kidding, but then he handed her her ticket, and that was it.
They flew into Dublin, and though he hadn’t told her what they were there to see—it was probably more than the city—she’d expected they’d at least spend some time in the capital. They didn’t, however—he rented a car right from the airport, and then they headed west, spanning the entire width of the country in just a couple hours. With every mile, they got further from the cities, and then further from the towns, and then finally, so far out that she wasn’t exactly sure where they were going at all, unless he was planning to drive the car into the Atlantic on the other side.
When they entered County Kerry, she relaxed, because she now knew where they were going. He’d start heading south soon, towards Killarney, and the beautiful national park that had been a private donation to the state in 1932—but even that didn’t happen as she’d expected. The more she asked, the more he told her to just wait, so finally that’s what she did. She sat in the passenger seat, stared out the window, and took in as much of the flat but beautiful countryside as she could.
When the road petered into a one-lane rugged path through the bluffs on the seaside, however, she couldn’t look out anymore. Sometimes the weatherworn road looked like it really was going to take them right into the Atlantic, and she had to shut her eyes or stare at him to keep her calm. Once they reached level land, however, and moved away from the edge of the ocean, she could open her eyes and enjoy the view.
Grasses surrounded them on nearly every side here. This far from the cities and towns—this far from anything—there was nothing to look at but grass and air and the ocean all around. There wasn’t a house in sight on this peninsula, and she guessed there wasn’t a person around for miles and miles. The sky was a dull gray, with barely any sun escaping, but the breeze was light, and when he parked the car in a small lot atop a hillside and they got out, she hardly noticed the change in temperature.
Taking her hand, he let her up a weatherworn asphalt path, to a bit of higher ground atop which sat a number of primitive structures made of stone. She smiled at the sight of them—she had no idea what they were, or who had made them—and that was exciting for her. Joe smiled back when her eyes flew to his, but he didn’t say a word, and gestured for her to explore.
There was a house-like building, made of rectangular-shaped dark-colored stones. Each was laid atop the other, without using mortar or any kind of other bonding agent to hold it together, and she wondered how long it had stood here. Hundred of years, at least. Maybe even a thousand or more. The walls of the building gradually came together to form a subtly pointed roof, reminding her of the way the bottom of a boat comes together—smoothly, seamlessly. It had one opening—a short door at the front—that even she had to stoop under in order to get in.
Joe followed her inside, but remained silent when she asked him what he thought. Out of the corner of her eye, she could catch him watching her as she examined the interior of the building. She touched the stones hesitantly, half-worried it would all come crumbling down if she disturbed it. When she asked what he thought of the building, he deferred to her and refused to even so much as guess. This is your area of expertise, he murmured, and then lapsed back into silence. She didn’t bother telling him it wasn’t, not exactly—she was no anthropologist or archaeologist. But she understood what he was saying, and she was both flattered and deeply moved that he’d go so far out of his way to show her something like this. They’d traveled hours and hours to get here. To look at rocks that—to most people—wouldn’t garner a second glance. But she knew he’d come here with her in mind, had sought it out with her in mind.
Outside the building, and to its left, there was a bed of rocks with one tall stone sticking out above the others. It had symbols carved into it, but they were not a part of any language or pictography Claire had ever studied. She stood staring at it for a long time, wondering what it meant.
Later, as they travelled back down the gently sloping hillside, parked the car by the side of the road, and walked out to the edge of the bluffs to look at the ocean, she asked him why he had brought her here. The wind had picked up a bit now, and the scent of the ocean grew saltier and saltier as they got closer to the drop-off of the land.
“I thought it was something you might like to see,” he told her as they walked amongst the tall grasses, the mud squishing beneath their shoes. “When you said you’d already seen Stonehenge, I tried to think of something you might not have seen yet.” He then admitted, “It wasn’t easy.”
She squeezed his hand, and leaned over to kiss his cheek. “Thank you,” she told him, knowing that, without him, she never would have seen that—not in a million years. “Thank you,” she said again, meaning it more now than she ever had. Meaning it not just for this, but for everything he’d done for her. Everything he was to her.
When they started to reach the edge of the cliff, they slowed down, taking careful steps now. They were so close that the sound of the ocean’s waves crashing against the cliff’s sides was almost deafening. Holding onto his hand for balance, she leaned out over the bluffs, and glimpsed the jagged, sharp rocks that peaked out amongst the spray as they were buffeted by the sea.
When he had said earlier that he’d wanted to take her to something she hadn’t seen before, and they’d headed immediately west out of Dublin, she’d been worried they’d wind up at the international sightseeing destination that was the Cliffs of Moher. When they’d headed further south towards County Kerry instead of County Clare, however, she felt relief wash through her. When she mentioned it to him as they drove up to the peninsula, he frowned, telling her he would have never even thought of taking her to Moher. It was too touristy, he said, and she smiled, because he remembered.
As she stood here now, hanging out over the cliffs that reached up hundreds of feet from the ocean, with only his hand to keep her from falling to meet what would unquestionably be a bloody end amongst the rocks, she thought of all the things he’d shown her. All the things she wouldn’t have seen, these past few months, if he hadn’t helped her that one day when she’d been lost. She closed her eyes, listening to the waves crash against the cliffs and feeling the wind whip her hair around her face. When he started to pull her back from the edge, she didn’t fight him, but fell back willingly into his embrace. She let his arms wrap around her middle, loving the way he held her tight against him, like he never wanted to let go of her. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and then whispered right into his ear, so he could hear it above the waves, “I’m so glad I met you.”
* * *
They stayed out by those cliffs for a long time. For hours, they sat, trading words and kisses and light touches. When it got into the late afternoon, and the wind began to pick up, she started shaking from the cold. He noticed at once, and pulled her into his arms, letting her rest her head against his shoulder. She breathed in his scent deeply as she sat beside him, and found she loved the way he smelled—well-washed but a little sweaty; rugged like the cliffs supporting them. She could feel the scratch of his stubble when he kissed the top of her forehead and murmured appreciatively, lifting her head a bit so their lips could meet this time.
He kissed her slowly, fully, taking his time to explore every inch of her mouth as if he were trying to map it out with his tongue. Not for the first time, she wondered if he would take the same care with the rest of her body, if she chose to open herself up to him. More and more, ever since that night by the Thames, she was thinking about it.
He pulled her closer after their kiss ended, wrapping an arm around her back to hold her to him. She liked the feel of the warm weight of his hand on her hip, and she nestled against him. She loved how easily their bodies seemed to fit against one another’s.
She looked back out to the ocean, letting her eyes roam over the unending expanse of water before them. She had started reading some more of Poe recently, when she had a chance, and his words came back to her now as she stared out at the gray-blue water.
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee…
She smiled as she thought of the poem, despite its sorrowful subject, and turned to look at Joe, whom she found was already staring at her. When she asked if he was thinking of the poem too—she knew he must be; how could he not?—he surprised her by shaking his head.
“Why in the world would I be thinking of anything but you right now?”
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Author’s Note: Reviews would be LOVELY! Thank you SO MUCH for reading! Part 2 will be up fairly soon.