Sandra rose to her feet, took the blazer from him and put it on. She followed him as he walked to the kitchen to grab a drink, where the pair received a slightly worried look from Rhyley’s mother who was chatting there with Mrs Steelfang. They came back out and walked through the dining room off the side of the hallway - which adjoined the living room, separated by a door with frosted glass panes in a light-coloured wood frame - and provided a side exit to the house. Rhyley led her around to the back of the house, stopping a short distance away from the French windows of the conservatory where the other adults were congregated. Sandra suddenly remembered what Roger had said about Rhyley taking girls outside... and decided not to think about it.
He leant against the back wall of the house and said “You came then.”
Sandra was confused. Had he been expecting her not to turn up?
“Well, I said I would,” she said.
“Everyone will know now,” Rhyley commented. He sighed, taking a sip from the can of beer he had picked up. He looked ... bothered.
“Well, I don’t know what you want me to do. Should I go back inside and kiss Roger?” Sandra asked.
Rhyley looked at her, startled.
“No. I said I wouldn’t let him have you. And why would you kiss him? Would you even kiss me?”
“I’m saving my virginity, not staying abstinent from all physical contact,” Sandra replied, cross and incredulous that he could think something like that.
Rhyley looked at the ground. He seemed slightly ashamed. The grass was yellowing in the shade of the house.
“Okay. But would you kiss me?”
“Not right this minute, no.”
“That’s understandable.” His tone wasn’t self-pitying or self-mocking; he was just making a statement of fact.
“You don’t get me, do you?” Sandra asked him.
“Not at all.”
“Why am I here?”
“Tradition,” Rhyley said simply. He sipped more of his beer. He offered it to her. “Want some?” Sandra had left her squash in the living room.
“All right.” Rhyley drank some more.
“Why are we just standing here?” Sandra asked, confused.
“I don’t really know. Perhaps I was hoping that you would kiss me.”
Something shivered inside Sandra, seeming to focus on the fact that Rhyley and she were alone out here.
“I’d like to get back in now.” She turned to go back the way they came, not wanting to face a sea of potentially disapproving faces by going through the conservatory, but Rhyley reached out to touch her hand.
“Just a few more minutes?”
Sandra turned back.
“For what?” she asked, even more confused.
“What d’you like to do at parties?” he asked, seeming to want to have a conversation with her.
“Um...” Sandra decided that she might as well answer him. “Chat, sing along to the music. If I’m really comfortable and there’s not much light, I’ll dance.”
Rhyley sighed, looking disappointed.
“Let’s chat, then.”
“What about?” Sandra asked, raising an eyebrow. “All our differences?”
“Well, how about the things that you like?” Rhyley suggested patiently. “I’m guessing you won’t like to hear about what I like.”
“Why are you even bothering?” Sandra asked, puzzled.
Rhyley frowned and looked straight through the air in front of him as he spoke.
“You deserve that, don’t you? It’s not your fault that you’re my soulmate; it’s not your fault that I don’t understand why you make everything so complicated for yourself... I have to try to have some sort of a relationship with you. I’ll be damned if I let Roger bloody Steelfang steal you from me.”
Sandra was amazed. Beyond the fact that he had said she complicated things for herself, beyond the fact that he had insulted her best friend, she had read a message in Rhyley’s words - a message that told her that he wasn’t actually a bad person and that he felt he owed it to her to make an effort, even though he found her hard to understand. And perhaps, in the end, that was what love and relationships came down to: the willingness to try at another level when the preferred outcome seemed impossible. In other words, compromise. She suddenly found herself closing the space between them and rising onto her tiptoes to kiss Rhyley.
Rhyley dropped his beer can in shock - Sandra heard it hit the ground and the liquid sloshing around inside it. She was intending to pull back after the first few seconds but Rhyley held her waist and kissed back, sending a wave of pleasure through Sandra, who had never kissed a boy before, and who had certainly not expected to be kissed back. Rhyley pushed her against the wall, causing her to feel the thrill of doing something forbidden as well as evoking what she could only describe as ‘excited reaction’. A distant part of her thought ‘All right, a little bit longer, but not too much - first kiss, remember?’ but she was so engulfed in how much she was enjoying being kissed and the novelty of that enjoyment that she barely listened to it. Rhyley’s hands were moving down her sides a little, stroking the top of her hips - which was really delightful - and her arms were around his neck, holding onto him as her mouth moved against his.
Surprisingly, Rhyley was the one to stop first. He ducked his head slightly and said, “I think that’s enough now, Sandra.”
She noticed that his grip on her hips had tightened slightly.
“Um, yeah,” she muttered, embarrassed, unwinding her arms.
Rhyley stepped backwards, gazing at her. Sandra saw that his eyes were darkened slightly. She guessed how she must look: flushed, chest rising and falling quickly, eyes slightly wide. She wondered whether that made her look beautiful or desperately scared.
“That ... was unexpected,” he said. “I ... Was it something I said or did you just suddenly find me attractive?”
Sandra looked away, the intensity of his gaze starting to make her feel slightly unbalanced.
“What you said,” she murmured. “You saying that I deserved it ... I felt like I understood you better. But I don’t want a long discussion on why I kissed you - I’m caught up in how it felt and I don’t want that to end.” She paused. “I want to hold you.”
Rhyley sat down, avoiding the beer can.
“Come sit and I’ll hold you.”
Sandra slowly lowered herself to the ground, sitting on his lap. Rhyley’s arms came around her and Sandra felt... wanted. Emotionally, and in a strange sort of physical way too. Rhyley’s body wanted hers against it in the same way that she wanted to be against it.
“I liked that, I really did,” Sandra murmured, more speaking her feelings out loud than talking to Rhyley. “I’m so glad I kissed you.”
Rhyley was silent. Sandra worried about what that meant.
“Oh, sorry,” Rhyley said, sounding a bit like she’d woken him up. “I’ve just got to stay... a bit distracted. Because I want you, you know? That’s why I stopped kissing you.”
“Oh, but it must be tempting with me sitting so close,” Sandra said, trying to move to get off him. Rhyley held onto her.
“Sandra, stop. You can stay there.” Sandra stopped moving. “It’s very tempting. But it’s kind of a nice pain.”
“Oh,” said Sandra, surprised. She was unsure was to whether ‘nice pain’ was good or bad. “Okay then.”
Rhyley was quiet for a few minutes. Then, he murmured, “I wish you would do it with me, Sandra.”
“Look, Rhyley, I think I should move off you.”
“No, I’d rather you didn’t, Sandra. Listen... if we’re soulmates, then isn’t it kind of guaranteed that we’re going to get married?”
Sandra saw where he was going and she didn’t like it.
“Rhyley, please. Even if I weren’t chaste, I wouldn’t right now. I don’t feel ready, that was just our first kiss... If you pester me about it, I will go to Roger.” Sandra regretted that instantly. The words had come automatically, as though they hadn’t been her idea at all.
Rhyley abruptly let go. Sandra stood up, feeling guilty.
“I’m sorry... You were scaring me,” she confessed.
Rhyley looked irritated.
“Is this how it’s going to be? Every time I mention sex you’re going to threaten to run to Roger?”
Sandra looked at her feet in shame.
“No,” she mumbled. “Sorry.”
Rhyley stood up and closed the small gap between them. He tilted her chin up so she was looking at him. His eyes showed annoyance and incomprehension.
“Did you not want me? Even just a little?”
“I did,” Sandra whispered. “But if I betray myself...” She trailed off, not even wanting to contemplate it.
Rhyley stepped back, giving her some space.
“How far would you go before marriage?” he asked bluntly.
Sandra blushed at the question.
“I - I don’t know much,” she confessed hesitantly. “But ... I’d take my clothes off.”
Rhyley sighed slightly, nodding.
“I’m sorry - for scaring you. I’ll try to go at your speed. But you have to understand that I don’t normally have to restrain myself when I want it. Just a warning.”
Sandra nodded slowly.
“I’ll try not to arouse you,” she told him quietly.
Rhyley smiled wryly.
“Good luck with that one. Shall we go back indoors then?”
Before Sandra turned for the door, Rhyley reached out and stroked her face. He kissed her gently and briefly.
“I’m glad you kissed me too.”