In Ross's room, I found my kingfisher crying on his bed.
"Ross, what's wrong, darling?"
Ross looked up. He seemed unable to believe his eyes. He jumped up and ran to gave me a hug.
"You left me!" he sobbed. "When you said you wouldn't, you did!"
"Ross," I said gently, "I was downstairs. I didn't leave you. I didn't want to wake you up - that's why I didn't tell you."
I patted his back awkwardly. Ross let go of me and stepped back. "You promised you'd be there for me, Rosie."
There was a terrible sadness in his eyes. It lessened the force of the accusation, but in doing so, spoke of defeat and resignation as if he'd accepted the assumption he'd made that I was going to break all of my promises.
"I'm sorry," I mumbled, feeling like I'd committed some unforgivable crime. I was intimidated by that beacon of innocence, and therefore goodness, before me, which radiated expectations of right behaviour. I felt incredibly small against this great source of wholeness and open emotion. I looked down.
"You've got to promise you won't leave me again, Rosie," Ross said, his stern, though childlike, tone quite effective at conveying the seriousness of the situation.
"I promise," I said, and looked up to meet Ross's gaze. Those cerulean eyes could break my heart at any stage during his vulnerability, I realised.
"Rosa, you can't promise that."
I turned to see Jack. My heart leapt with unexpected joy. I tried to resist the curious urge to run up to him and hug him.
"Rosa, you have to take back that promise," Jack continued.
"I can't," I said. "I can't leave him again."
"Rosa, think. What have you got tomorrow?"
I realised he was talking about school.
"Are you going to miss out on your education to meet the ridiculous demands of a child?"
"They're not that silly," I mumbled.
"Has he softened you up past the point of rationality?" Jack asked quietly.
I could only imagine how tough it was for him to say this sort of thing to me. He'd never really enjoyed being the stern type. He'd have made a great husband, I thought to myself.
"I suppose he has," I replied.
"You have to be firm and listen to reason."
"Look how heartbroken he is!"
"Yes, for a little thing like you going down to breakfast. If you're going to be like a parent to him, Rosa, you have to act like one."
I glanced back at Ross. He was sitting on his bed, arms crossed, waiting for us to finish our dispute.
Turning back to Jack, I murmured, "I don't think I'm strong enough."
"I know, Rosa, but did you ever think that parenthood would be easy?"
I didn't tell him that I'd always reckoned I'd be all right since I'd always imagined him as the strong, supportive man who'd complete the picture.
I shrugged. "I'm still not ready."
"Rosa," Jack said gently, "do you think anyone is ready?"
"You sound like I'm actually a parent."
"Well of course you're not, but things have got to seem that way so that Ross gets the right support as he ‘grows up'."
I sighed. I turned and wandered over to sit beside Ross.
"Rosa, I'm only saying these things because I don't want your life to be ruined by such a temporary thing. I care about you."
"I know, Jack; I know."
I turned to face Ross. He returned my gaze, his expression unfathomable.
"I ... can't promise never to leave you..."
At Ross's look of horror, I hastily amended my statement. "At least not in the way you mean it."
Ross looked confused. "I ... don't understand."
"I won't permanently leave you, but for things like school, I have to go: leave you alone for a while."
"But, I can go to school with you, can't I?"
"No, Ross, you can't. You look my age, but you're what, 7?"
"8, actually." Ross looked slightly offended.
"And even then, you act like 5 or 6."
"That's, er, not his fault," Jack said quietly.
"More complex psychology stuff?"
"No, it's just that Ross was always treated younger than his real age because people assumed he was the age he looked."
"What are you talking about?" Ross asked.
"Don't worry," I said quickly. "All that you need to know is that I'll never leave leave you, but I might have to go places without you."
"I want to come too."
"Well, you can't, Ross," I said firmly. "And if you don't accept that..., then I won't make hot chocolate and brownies with you."
"What?! That's not fair! I was looking forward to that!"
It broke my heart to be severe. "I was, too. I don't want to have to go that far."
Ross thought for a while. "Okay, Rosie," he said quietly. "You can leave me."
He made it sound like an awful crime. I wouldn't be surprised if that was how he saw it.
"Shall we go down to breakfast?" Jack asked, breaking the tense atmosphere.
"Might as well," I replied.
Making brownies was fun, if not weird. I don't think I'd made any sort of cake for about ten years and I'd never done an activity like this with Ross. It was great to see him carefree again.
After eating our delicious snacks, I went upstairs and left Ross in the living room where he sat contentedly, watching children's TV.
I started on the pile of work that had accumulated over the week. I always did as much as I could during study periods at school but there always seemed to be more.
I was surprised by a knock on the door. After all, it was Ross's bedroom, not mine.
"Come in," I called.
Jack walked in, smiling.
"Hey, Rosa. Getting some homework done?"
I nodded. "Never before would I have used the word ‘copious' to describe the amount of work I have to do."
Jack grinned. "I'm sure you'll get used to it. You've always seemed capable academically."
"You're sure that's not because you've been in love with me for about a year?"
"You think I've only loved you for a year?" He sat down at the foot of Ross's bed, inches away form where I was sitting at his table. My heart rate quickened. Something was definitely up with me.
"I've loved you since I reckoned I knew what love was," Jack said, gazing into my eyes with warm brown ones. I almost leant in to kiss him.
I remained motionless as he tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear.
"You know, I heard something you thought yesterday. I wasn't deliberately listening, but it's been harder to tune out your thoughts recently."
"Why d'you think that is?
Jack shrugged. "I don't know. Could be because I love you and so your thoughts are more interesting than they usually would be and perhaps that's because the first time we were over, it didn't seem real. It was only for two days; not even that."
"As if we were never over," I murmured.
"In a way, it didn't help that you thought we hadn't finished. Your ending of the relationship was like a dream."
"And this is a continuation of that dream."
"Exactly, although I doubt I'd have ever stopped loving you."
Jack smiled wryly. "I doubt I could ever resist you if you sought the wrong kind of support."
"Me neither," I confessed.
"I don't need support" Jack said gently.
Jack nodded. "And I think you know you do."
I sighed. Then I frowned. "You didn't tell me what you heard me think."
Jack's smile turned wistful. "You thought I'd have made a great husband."
I imagined telling him he would have and creating a great opportunity fro a kiss. Instead, I sighed and murmured "I really set myself up for pain and heartbreak, don't I?"
Jack shook his head. He looked slightly sad as if he realised that we might have been kissing now too.
"We went out for almost a year, Rosa. If you don't feel like we're closer than best friends, you're either extremely detached from your feelings or you've lied to yourself somewhere along the line."
"Doesn't mean I can't avoid negative thoughts and feelings."
"On the other hand, I don't think I could stand it if you didn't confess your love for me from time to time."
"That would hurt more," I agreed.
Jack grinned suddenly. "You're not getting any work done."
"I'd love to say I don't care, but you're right. Best to do it while Ross is occupied."
Jack nodded, standing up.
"It was nice talking to you," he said.
"I love you," he murmured sincerely as he left the room.
"Love you too," I said to empty air.
It took me a while to get back into my work. Jack had this wonderful way of totally distracting me when there was an important task to be done (minor tasks were usually pushed aside with one glance at his warm smile). He always made me long for things to complete themselves. It was strange how he was still having this effect on me when I was in a relationship with someone else but I couldn't say I was that surprised.
I'd just finished my penultimate piece of work when Ross came in.
"Hey, Rosie, want to play Hide and Seek?"
I turned and briefly wondered where Ross could hide before replying, "No, I can't at the moment. I'm doing homework. Sorry."
Ross's initially cheerful face fell.
"Can't you do that later?"
"It'd be nice to get it done now."
"I'm bored now."
"Why don't you ask Jack?"
"He's cooking lunch."
"You could help," I pointed out.
"I don't like him."
This surprised me. "Why not? He's your best friend."
"No, he's not! You are. And I don't like Jack because he loves you."
"He told you that?" I asked, frowning. It didn't sound very Jack-like.
"Well, not exactly but I heard him say it. He was talking to himself, but... his mouth didn't move."
My brow furrowed. I processed Ross's poor description.
I suddenly realised Ross had been hearing Jack's thoughts.
"Ross, you have to ignore Jack when that happens because otherwise, it's like eavesdropping."
"Listening to something you're not supposed to."
Ross's brow furrowed. "Oh."
"Will you promise me to try to ignore Jack unless his mouth moves when he talks?"
"Yeah, 'kay," Ross replied amiably, brow un-furrowing.
"Will you come and play with me, then?"
"Why don't you read for a little while? I'll come and find you when I've finished working."
Ross didn't look to happy as he left the room without responding. I half wondered what he was able to read.
I worked quickly, and finished just as Jack announced that lunch was ready.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully but Ross managed to completely wear me out, with a request to be read to after the game of Hide and Seek and then a game of tag in the surprisingly warm November air, followed by a teddy bear's picnic before he eventually fell asleep.
After dinner, I trudged up to Ross's room and collapsed on my sleeping bag. I decided to go to bed early so I'd have some degree of energy for school the next day.
In the night, though, I was prevented from completely recuperating when I was awakened by Ross's crying.
I sat up and thought, somewhat exasperated, ‘What's wrong now?' Instead, I asked, "What's up, darling?"
"I had a bad dream."
I sighed. I eased myself out of the sleeping bag and stood up. I walked over to sit on the bed beside my depressed-looking kingfisher.
"What was it about?"
"You. I dreamt you didn't love me. I woke up and re-a-lised it was true."
"What do you mean? You know I love you."
"No, you don't. Not really."
"What makes you say that?"
"You didn't actually want to play today. You just pre-tended you were having fun. And it was ov-i-ous that you love Jack."
"Yeah. You looked at him like he was your pet puppy."
I almost laughed at his childlike use of imagery to describe fond affection and deeper love.
"But Ross, just because I love Jack, doesn't mean I can't love you."
"Yes it does, though. Love is full a-ten-shun."
I sighed. "There's more to it than that, though. Even though I think about Jack a lot, I think about you all the time. Nothing's more important to me than you."
"I want to believe you, Rosie, but you've lied so much. You lied when you said you would hug me again."
"It's not easy..." I started, but then realised I didn't know where my sentence was going. Was I about to say it's not easy to have an open relationship when that's exactly what I had with Jack? Or had I been on the verge of claiming that children were more difficult to be honest with? I doubted either response to Ross's all-too-valid statement would go down well.
"You just have to take my word for it, Ross. That's all you can do when you're in love. I promise I love you."
"Promises are nothing," Ross muttered. I didn't blame him for his pessimism. He had a terrible way of speaking the harsh, cold truth like this and there was nothing I could do about it.
I returned to bed, feeling lost and disconsolate.