"I understand why. I know you were trying to make it all less complicated."
"Then I don't understand why you're getting angry at me!"
Ellesta pulled on her coat, nearly ripping the seams as she shoved her arms in the holes, "Because it's not simple. It was never simple, and to say that it was is offensive."
He grabbed her coat tails and pulled her back into the room, "Please Ellie, don't leave like this. It's not the end of the world, I'll make it right, you know I will."
She paused, keeping her back to him. He thought she was angry, but she wasn't. She was hurt. Tears were in her eyes and she refused to show him how much it hurt. Swallowing the congestion of emotion in her throat, she pulled her coat from his grasp. "I'm just going for a walk to cool down. I'll be back in an hour."
Without waiting for him to respond, she rushed out the door.
In the brisk autumn night, the wind bit at her wet cheeks. She was probably over reacting, but she didn't know why. After all, he'd only told a little lie. That she'd been raised by relatives after her parents died early in her life. Much more simple than her abusive parents tiring of having a child and leaving her on the steps of an orphanage in the next village over.
Her life had been better in the orphanage than it had at home. And she'd been adopted by a kind family. It was a fairy tale, as far as stories about orphans go. It was just complicated, more complicated than strangers needed to know.
But she wanted to tell strangers, "My parents abandoned me," as if it would explain that mystery in her eyes to them. Heath was right, though. Strangers didn't really care. They would react appropriately, but in the end it just made them pity her and think less of her, as if she had any control over the matter.
It wasn't the first time the tale had been woven, either. But tonight, when the words came out of his mouth, they seemed so much more bitter than they had previous nights. She didn't know why.
She stopped in her brisk walking and looked around. Wiping the last of the tears from her face, she realized she'd walked a good two miles and had been gone longer than intended. Pulling the collar up on her jacket, she turned to walk home when she saw him standing there. A guest from the party, his fine coat and hat pulled tight against the wind.
"Yes. I'm afraid you caught me."
"Were you following me?"
"Yes. Heath didn't want you wandering out here alone, since you seemed upset. Since, as host, he couldn't leave the party, he asked me to keep an eye out for you."
She shoved her hands in her coat pockets. "Thank you. I'm afraid I was acting childish when I ran off, but my head is much clearer now."
He motioned back the way they came, "Shall I accompany you back then?"
"Yes, thank you."
For a while they walked in silence, Ellesta in her own thoughts, barely aware of Tareq beside her until he said, "If I might, what is the story, if you weren't raised by relatives?"
Terror welled up in her chest. A minute ago, wanting nothing better than to tell him and the other strangers at the party, now it seemed like telling him would reveal something so deep that it would make her naked. "My…" her voice cracked.
He stopped, taking her elbow and turning her toward him. His eyes were the color of spring. His voice was steady and sure. "My mother died when I was born, and my father, struggling to raise me for five years finally gave me to a relative where I lived as his servant for years until I ran off and got a job working where I got paid."
"I didn't realize this was a 'who had it crappier' competition." She turned abruptly and started walking on.
She stopped, but she didn't turn toward him. She heard the slap of his soles against the pavement. And then his hand touched her shoulder; she surprised herself by jerking suddenly, as if his touch hurt her. He pulled it away.
When she walked on, he followed beside her, resuming the silence.
The walk seemed so much longer than it had when she'd been huffing about the evening's events. She wanted to be annoyed at Tareq for his random confession, but found herself rather endeared, acknowledging his intent. With a sigh, she started.
"My parents never wanted children, so when I was born, it was a heavy disappointment. Both were abusive, and finally they tired of having me around. When I was nine they drove me out to the next town over and left me at the orphanage, threatening that if I said where I came from they'd kill me. I was so happy in those first few days, no longer being beaten, and while there wasn't much for us children, we were as happy as we could be, considering.
"And I was only there for a little. I had just turned eleven when a couple came looking for a child. They wanted an infant, but when they saw me, they took me too. I was responsible for caring for Heath when they were away—and was to never tell him that he was adopted. Those were my only two worries. I was fed and loved otherwise. I was sent to school, was well educated, was…"
She hadn't realized she'd stopped walking. That she'd sagged to the ground and that Tareq was kneeling beside her, finishing her sentence, "Unfulfilled."
"Why?" But not why did he think that.
"Because you feel like you are meant for more than you've become." He took her hand and helped her stand. Looking into her face, he smiled slightly. "After all these years, do you think you are here only to take care of Heath?"
Ellesta couldn't answer. She was suddenly thinking of Peter Pan and dreaming that if she'd never grown up, she could have flown away and lived a magical life.
Tareq leaned close to her, his cheek brushing hers, "You still are that little girl."
She pulled away, looking for his intent in his face. But he just smiled, "Run away with me Ellesta."
"I don't even know you." But she didn't say it as a cause for not going, just as a statement.
"Well, perhaps for now we could just walk back to a boring party together? We can run away later." He offered his arm to her.
She slipped hers through his. "We'll be the oldest runaways in history."
And they did.