Clara was smiling fairly widely the next morning when she greeted Matt at the doorway to her office. He seemed taken aback.
"You seem cheerful this morning," he said. Clara shrugged.
"Got some good news," was all she said. Matt seemed confused by this answer but didn't press, following her into the office.
"Today, as you know, is the festival," he started, shutting the door behind him. "It starts at seven in the morning and goes until midnight."
"What activities are planned?"
"Dancing, music, games, a few friendly competitions, and big communal meals."
"Sounds like fun." Clara sat down, her smile widening at the thought of the festival. She hadn't attended the previous years. "Maybe I'll actually go this year."
"Seriously, what's going on?" Matt blurted. "This is starting to freak me out."
"Lewis isn't going to betray us," Clara said. "I found out for sure. We're in the clear."
Matt stared at her for a second before his face split in a grin that Clara hadn't seen in a long time.
"Holy crap!" he cried. "Are you serious?"
"Yup! Hopefully we can relax now, enjoy the festival."
Clara picked up a few papers on her desk, skimming over them quickly. Matt spoke again after a minute.
"How did you find out?"
"I heard him talking on the phone with his CO. He said that he didn't think the people he was investigating were a threat and asked for more time to extract himself."
"You caught him on the phone with his CO? How did he not notice you?"
"He thought I was asleep," Clara said, tossing the papers into her outbox. She looked up at Matt and saw a slightly shocked expression on his face. The weight of what she'd said hit her and her eyes widened. The two of them stared at each other for a second before Matt cleared his throat and averted his eyes. He straightened, clasping his hands behind his back.
"Well, that's good that you got the information," he said in a strained voice. "I'll see you at the festival."
But the door had already closed behind him. Clara stared at her closed office door, tears filling her eyes.
"Matt," she said, her voice breaking. She dropped her head forward, resting it on the desk, and let the tears run down her face. She'd finally done it. She'd pushed him away. The one person that had always stood by her side, always believed in her, always had her back, and she'd pushed him away with five little words.
Clara squeezed her eyes shut to push the hot tears out of her eyes and lifted her head from her desk, wiping her cheeks off. It was the day of the festival and Lewis wasn't a traitor. It wasn't a day to cry. She wasn't going to cry.
The festival started with a large breakfast at seven, served to everyone in the compound. Clara went to the bottom floor, which had been cleared out to make room for the various activities and events that would take place throughout the course of the day. She craned her neck, searching for Matt's tall frame among the people that were laughing and chatting at the breakfast tables. She didn't see him and drooped a little.
That's okay, her brain said, obviously trying to cheer her up. You'll see him at some point. He always goes to the festival.
She got her plate and sat down at a table. After a few minutes of small talk with the other people at her table, she looked down at the food that she'd taken. There was a small stack of waffles, a little pile of blueberries, and two strawberries. Clara smiled. So that was the kind of food they served at the festival.
I should have gone before now, she thought, spearing a few blueberries with her fork.
She tried to enjoy herself throughout the breakfast. The people sitting at her table were actually really nice and pretty good company. She found herself laughing more than she'd expected she would. For a little while, Molly and Matt and Lewis were pushed to the back of her mind.
After breakfast was the first of a long string of competitions that would take place throughout the day. Clara helped move the tables out of the way. A few people set up the competition. It was a relay race. Clara chose not to participate, standing on the sidelines and cheering on the people that were participating. It was nice to be just another face in the crowd. Nobody called her "sir" or came to her with urgent news regarding whatever. She was just Clara Petrov, a regular girl at the festival.
Some of the spectators had to go up a floor or two and cheer from there to make room for the contests on the bottom floor. Clara found herself looking down at the competitions from the third floor. There were a few more races before someone announced a push-up competition. Clara thought it over for a second.
"Ah, what the hell," she said to herself. She made her way to the stairs and headed for the first floor. Push-ups were her specialty, after all. She joined the small group of competitors on the bottom floor and listened to the rules.
"Push-ups will not be counted," the man who was running the competition said. "This is an endurance contest. Last man standing wins."
Last man standing? Odd choice.
"Oh, and there's one more thing," the man said, a slightly evil grin crossing his face. "You'll each have a weight on your back."
A few of the people standing in the group walked to the edge at that announcement. Clara just stood a little straighter, a little annoyed that she was the shortest person in the group, but proud that she'd stuck around.
"How heavy?" one of the men in the group asked.
Two more people headed for the edges of the room. That left ten, including Clara. She was starting to like her chances.
"Is there a cutoff time?" she called out, leaning around someone else so that the man could see her. He looked her up and down and snorted a little.
"Yeah. Fifteen minutes. Nobody's ever made it that far."
"Yet," Clara muttered to herself. The fact that the man had snorted at her pissed her off. She looked small and he figured she couldn't do it. She'd show him.
The competitors spread out. Clara picked a spot close to the man that had scoffed at her.
She quickly dropped into position.
"Bring out the weights!"
A few men carried out weights from the training area. They were large round flat discs. They carefully set the weights on the competitors' backs. Clara kept her body rigid and straight as they placed the heavy weight on her back. She smirked a little. She'd carried heavier.
She decided to pace herself and started her push-ups at a medium speed. She focused on the ground below her, counting seconds to keep her mind busy.
She'd reached 187 when she heard the crowd groan and the man in charge declare the first person out. That left eight other people.
328 – Two more were declared out.
420 even – Three were declared out. Only three others left. Clara could hear people placing bets on the remaining competitors.
529 – Another competitor out of the running. Clara was sweating profusely, her muscles beginning to ache. She ignored them and kept going. She wasn't about to give up.
Clara had reached almost 645 seconds when one of the two other remaining competitors dropped out. She was inhaling and exhaling through gritted teeth. She was going to make it to fifteen minutes if it killed her. There was only one other person still in the running and she was going to beat them, goddammit.
720 – The other competitor was still in it. They were getting dangerously close to fifteen minutes.
743 – Loud shouts and groans echoed throughout the entire compound. It took Clara a second to realize that this meant the other competitor had dropped out of the competition. She focused on the ground again, determined to make it to fifteen minutes. She'd done the math in her head. 900 seconds. That was all it was.
Her muscles were screaming in protest and she was drenched in sweat when a loud buzzer went off. She'd reached fifteen minutes. 900 seconds. Someone lifted the weight off her back. She lowered herself to the ground, then rolled over and stared up at the cheering crowds on the upper floors. She smiled a little, exhausted.
"Well, it looks like somebody made it to the cutoff time!" the man that ran the competition cried. "Congratulations, Miss…"
"Petrov," Clara said, grinning. "Clara Petrov."
The man's eyes widened. Clearly he hadn't recognized her.
"General!" He seemed flustered. "Well, congratulations."
"Thanks," Clara said, the grin widening a little. She was rather enjoying herself, despite the soreness in her arms. Someone offered her a hand. She took it and let them haul her to her feet. She turned to face whoever had helped her, planning to thank them, and felt the words stick in her throat.
Matt stared at her for a second before he stepped back, smiling at her.
"Congratulations, General," he said. "That's pretty impressive."
Clara blinked, pushing down the lingering guilt.
"Thanks," she said. She went to walk past him, wanting to take a shower, but he caught her arm.
"Can I talk to you for a minute?" he asked in a low voice. "Alone?"
Clara swallowed, suddenly nervous.
"Sure." She jerked her head towards the stairwell. "Let's go."
He followed her to the stairs. She climbed up towards the floor that held the living quarters and went straight for hers. She stood aside and let Matt walk past her into the room. She closed the door after him and pushed her hair, damp with sweat, away from her face.
"Look, about earlier today," she started, turning to face Matt. He cut her off.
"You did what you thought was right," he said. "Besides, I was the one who suggested using his emotions against him when they first arrived. I'm sorry. I overreacted."
Clara stared at him for a second, getting a little frustrated.
"Are you kidding?" she cried. Matt blinked. "Do you seriously think you're the one in the wrong here?" She turned away from him, stringing her hands through her hair. "Damn idiot," she muttered.
"You did what you had to–"
"I did what a coward would do!" Clara screamed, whirling around. "I took advantage of someone I cared about and even though it turned out sort of okay in the end I hurt somebody else I cared about! I hurt you!" She was walking towards him now, one finger pointed accusingly at him. "I've tried for two and a half years to get you out of my head and you want to know what? I've failed every single time!" She jabbed her finger into his chest and he flinched. "I care too damn much and it's been killing me!"
Matt stared down at her for a minute after her outburst, apparently speechless. Clara lowered her voice, a bit of the anger seeping away.
"I fell in love with you, Matt," she said quietly, staring at his chest. "I didn't want to, because I've lost everything and I was scared, I was so scared, that I'd lose you too. And today, after I said those things in the office…" She wrapped her arms around herself. "I was terrified that I'd finally pushed you away." She lowered her head, staring at her feet. "I'm sorry about everything. I'm sorry for everything that I've done."
Matt's arms wrapped around her. She leaned into him, closing her eyes and resting her head against his chest. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed him, especially after their trip to Nadia.
"It'll take a lot more than that to push me away, Clara," Matt said softly. Clara finally broke down, sobbing into his chest. His arms tightened around her. "I'm not going anywhere, okay? You're stuck with me, I promise."
Clara stood there in his arms for a few minutes, until her tears dried up. She hugged Matt back for a second, then let go and stepped away.
"I should probably take a shower," she said, wiping at her cheeks. She laughed a little. "You should have seen that guy's face when he realized who I was."
"Yeah, that was pretty great. I'll be waiting out here, okay?"
Clara nodded and grabbed a towel and a fresh set of clothes, then headed into the bathroom. She found herself smiling again as she stripped down and stepped into the shower.
Festival day was going pretty well.
"So what are we going to do about Lewis?" Matt asked. Clara shrugged, wringing out her hair into the sink.
"I haven't seen him since this morning. He's caught up somewhere in the festivities, probably."
"Hmm." Matt sat down on the edge of Clara's bed. "He said he needed time to extract himself?"
"Yeah. Whether or not he will is the question. I'm not sure the board will let him get away, especially now that Molly…" Clara trailed off, staring at the floor. She cleared her throat and started over. "Anyway, they're not going to let him go easily. We have to figure out a way to get him out of here without raising suspicion among the board and without letting him know that we're onto him."
"What if he doesn't want to go back?" Matt said quietly. Clara glanced up, surprised. There was something dark in Matt's expression.
"What do you mean?"
"He's doing pretty well here," Matt said. "He's made a few friends, he's convinced his CO that we're not dangerous, and… he's got you. Why would he want to leave?"
"Loyalty," Clara said, but even as she said it, she doubted it was true. Matt was right. Lewis wouldn't want to leave. "Dammit, you're right. The idiot's going to use his heart more than his head."
"Right," Matt said. "The smart thing would be to get himself out and back to the military. He's going to try to stay. For you."
Clara looked up at him again. He'd said the last two words so bitterly. He barely sounded like himself.
"Hey," she said, walking up to him. She set her hands on his face and tilted his head up so that he was looking at her. "Don't worry about Lewis. We'll figure something out. Until then…" She smiled. "It's the festival. Nobody's got a long face at the festival."
Matt smiled and his eyes softened again. Clara leaned down and kissed him softly, just once.
"Come on, Matt," she said. "Let's just enjoy the festival. It's only once a year, after all."
Before she could leave, he pulled her back down for a long kiss.
"Don't know how many times I'm going to get to do that," he said quietly, a smirk playing along his lips. "I might as well do it now, while I've got the chance."
Clara rolled her eyes, but was smiling.
"All right, get your ass out of here. I'll meet you downstairs. It's almost lunchtime."
He grinned and got up, shutting the door quietly behind him. Clara rolled her eyes again.
"I can't believe I'm in love with that idiot," she muttered to herself. She finished getting dressed and headed for the first floor, where they were setting up tables for lunch. She paused on the second floor, searching the people down below for a hint of Matt.
Clara spun around, her eyes widening. Lewis grinned, shoving his hands in his pockets. She calmed down, forcing a smile at him.
"Hi," she said. "What's up?"
"Just enjoying the festivities. The competitions were pretty interesting. I heard some scrawny little girl won the push-up contest."
"I wouldn't say 'scrawny'," Clara said, her smile becoming a little less forced. Lewis laughed.
"You get my point. Anyway, congratulations on that. What are you up to now?"
Clara took one last glance over the railing. She spotted Matt standing by the edge. He looked like he was scanning for her. She turned back to Lewis.
"Not a whole lot. Listen, can we talk for a second?"
Lewis's smile faded a little.
Clara pulled him towards the stairwell. She checked that they were alone before turning back to him.
"You've been here for a while now," she said, running her fingers through her hair. "I'm just worried about whether or not your CO is going to try to track you down. I know you said you deserted, but even then the military might try to get you back."
Lewis nodded slowly, staring at the floor.
"It's possible," he said. "I should probably get going, just in case."
"Leave, that is."
Clara felt relief course through her, tinged with a bit of guilt. She shouldn't want Lewis to leave.
"Okay," she said. "I can sneak you out. The board isn't going to like it, but I can sneak you out."
"Can I have lunch first?" he said, a smile starting up again. "I heard that festival food was the best."
Clara nodded, leading him down the stairs to the bottom floor. She quickly spotted Matt sitting at one of the tables and directed Lewis that way. Matt smiled at Clara, eyeing Lewis a little warily.
"Hey, Clara," he said, gesturing for her to sit. "It's grilled cheese, by the way. And fruit."
"Lots of fruit today," Clara muttered. "Grilled cheese?"
"You laugh now," Matt said. "You'll see."
"Don't you usually call her 'General'?" Lewis asked. It sounded more curious than hostile, so Clara let it slide. Matt shrugged.
"It's the festival. Ranks don't really exist today. We're all just a bunch of people getting together and having fun. She's the general every day except today. Today she's just Clara."
"I'm sitting right here," Clara joked. Matt rolled his eyes while Lewis laughed. Clara leaned over and whispered to Matt what had happened in the stairwell. He nodded.
"The board's going to be pissed," he warned. Clara shrugged.
"As long as we get him out," she said.
Matt wasn't kidding about the grilled cheese. A few people from the kitchen brought out huge platters of grilled cheese sandwiches. Clara took one, Matt took three. There were also platters of fruit like strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, watermelon, apple slices, and raspberries. Clara took a little of everything.
"Try the grilled cheese," Matt said, his mouth full. "It's good."
Clara rolled her eyes at him.
"You're twenty-six, Matt. You should not be this excited about grilled cheese."
She picked up her sandwich, muttering, "It can't be that good. This is ridiculous."
She took a bite.
Fifteen minutes later, she'd eaten four and Matt was saying, "Told you so, told you so, told you so!" She called him a child again and stuck out her tongue. Lewis was eating quietly, probably thinking about leaving. Clara tried to cheer him up, telling Matt stories about the dumb things they'd done in high school. Talking about Molly felt less like a punch to the gut and more like putting a Band-Aid on the wound. It was almost soothing.
After lunch were a few more competitions. Clara figured that that was the perfect time to sneak Lewis out. Everyone would be distracted by the events that they wouldn't notice. All she had to do was distract the guards at the exit. Or maybe she could trick them.
Matt wanted to come along and help get Lewis out, but Clara refused.
"Why not?" he asked. "You might need the backup."
"You said it yourself, the board's going to be pissed," Clara said firmly. "Mandlin will be on the warpath. I don't want you getting caught up in that."
"I can handle myself."
"You're not coming."
"That's an order, Matt," Clara warned. He stepped back, his jaw tightening.
"You're playing dirty," he said in a low voice. Clara smiled briefly.
"Isn't that what I always do?"
She hurried off before he could say anything else.
"All right," Clara said to Lewis. They were just down the hall from the door to the outside. "Do you remember your story?"
"I'm getting transferred to the east," Lewis recited. "You're just making sure everything goes smoothly and we're friends."
"Good. Let's go."
Lewis pulled her against him and kissed her, one last time.
"Just in case I never see you again," he said. Clara nodded, stepping back.
The guards standing at the door looked pretty bored, but snapped to attention when Clara and Lewis approached.
"Afternoon, General," one said. "What do you need?"
Clara gestured at Lewis.
"He's transferring to our eastern base. We need to go upstairs."
The guard nodded and stood aside to let them pass. Clara opened the door and let Lewis go in front of her. Once the door had shut behind them, Lewis laughed a little, climbing the stairs.
"When I first got here, I thought I wasn't going to go up these stairs," he said with a grin. "Now here I am."
"Here you are," Clara muttered. "Come on. Before someone important notices that you're missing."
They made it out of the warehouse without much trouble. Clara pointed Lewis down the road.
"There's a small town at the end of this road. From there you can catch a bus to the city or anywhere else you want to go." She turned to him. "Don't die, okay?"
He wrapped his arms around her. She returned the hug, shutting her eyes and savoring the last time she would see her friend.
"Goodbye," she said, pulling away and heading back towards the warehouse. She stopped at the door and watched him walk down the road. When she could no longer see him, she went back into the compound, where Matt was waiting.
The festivities were scheduled to go until midnight. More contests (apparently the anti-establishment movement was really competitive) filled up the afternoon, until a big dinner at seven. After that, the floor would be cleared and there would be music and dancing until midnight. Matt said they usually also had drinks served.
"The good beer, too," he said, leaning against the railing next to her. "Not the crap they usually have."
"Oh, right, because you drink so much beer," Clara said sarcastically. Matt laughed.
"Yeah, I do, occasionally. Sometimes when you give me the night off I'll go down to the kitchen and they'll give me a beer or two. It's nice."
"Huh." Clara looked down at the floor, where they had set up an obstacle course. "What kind of dancing and music?"
"Mostly old folk stuff. Traditional Castovenian dancing. There are a few couples' dances, if my memory is correct."
Clara smirked, not taking her eyes off the obstacle course.
"I bet you're excited for those, aren't you?"
"I've never taken part in those, or any of the dances, really."
"Why not?" Clara asked, looking up at him, surprised. He shrugged.
"Never had a good partner."
Clara felt a flush rising in her cheeks and looked back at the obstacle course, a little smile playing along her lips.
Dinner was a large affair, with plenty of options to choose from. Matt told Clara which were the best and ended up loading her plate for her. She liked to watch him talking, explaining the different choices animatedly. He'd gone to the festival more than she had, after all, so he was clearly the expert. His eyes would light up every time he looked over at her and the corners of his mouth would twitch up.
"Let's go sit down," he finally said, handing her the plate he'd gotten for her. She looked at the pile of food that he had determined suitable and raised an eyebrow.
"What is this?" she said, poking at it with her fork. "Ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, is that broccoli? What else… is that mashed potatoes again?"
"Weren't you listening? It's cauliflower casserole."
"Sounds like crap."
"It's delicious. Give it a chance."
"Some more vegetables, bread, and a brownie." She looked up at him, smirking. "Do you really think I can eat all of this?"
"I'm not starting this argument. We both know that you are fully capable of eating everything on that plate and I will turn into your mother if you don't."
Clara laughed, following him towards one of the tables.
"You've never met my mother."
"That's irrelevant. Besides, if I did, I would immediately charm her with my good looks and irresistible personality."
Clara rolled her eyes and sat next to him at the table. A few of the people she'd talked to earlier in the day sat with them and struck up a conversation. Clara let Lewis and Molly be pushed to the far corner of her mind. The festival was about celebrating the people that surrounded them, not the people they'd lost. So she smiled and laughed and listened to Matt's funny stories about the time he'd spent training in Central.
She helped push the tables away again and watched as the little band set up. Matt said they were people from less military-oriented positions in the compound. Office monkeys, he called them.
"But they're not bad musicians," he said with a shrug. "They play good music."
The first song started up after a minutes, a lively, fast-paced number. Matt grinned, grabbing Clara's hand.
"Oh, no," she said, pulling against him. He kept a firm grip. "No, I don't dance."
"Yes you do," Matt said. "Come on, General, it's just a dance."
After a second, she let him pull her onto the dance floor. A lot of people were already dancing around, laughing and clapping along to the song. Matt took the lead, setting one hand on Clara's waist and grasping one of her hands with the other. He grinned at her and started off immediately. Clara let out a shriek of laughter, trying not to trip over her own feet as they danced across the floor. Matt spun her under his arm a few times and did a pretty good job keeping up with the tune of the song. Clara found herself smiling widely, the hand that wasn't clasped in Matt's gripping his shoulder. She hadn't had so much fun in what felt like forever.
They took a break after a few songs to catch their breath and rest. Matt was actually a good dancer, Clara thought, glancing over at him. He was leaning against the wall next to her, smiling widely and watching the other dancers on the floor. She looked back at the dance floor, where people she'd worked with were laughing and clapping and twirling. She really should have gone to festival before. She hadn't realized how much fun it was.
"I can't believe I scoffed at this," she said to Matt. He snorted.
"You didn't just scoff at it," he said. "You also called it a waste of time and resources."
"I was wrong," Clara said, folding her arms across her chest. "It's incredible."
"Wait a second," Matt said. "Say that again so I can record it."
"No, no, the part where you said you were wrong."
"You missed your chance, buster. I only say that once every year."
Matt groaned, but a smile still lingered on his face.
"Dammit, I thought I could maybe catch you in the act of admitting that you were wrong about something. You never admit to being wrong."
"That's because I rarely am."
"And you're always modest, of course."
Matt laughed again. Clara liked the way his whole face would light up when he laughed and how the tension in his shoulders would release.
"Let me get you a drink," he said.
"I don't drink."
"First time for everything. Come on, General, lighten up. It's the festival."
Clara rolled her eyes but let him go get her a bottle of beer. She'd never had a drop of alcohol in her life. It wasn't allowed in the military and she'd been underage before then. Once she'd joined the anti-establishment movement, she'd never really considered drinking anything. Nobody had ever offered her a drink. Matt pulled the top off one of the two bottles he brought back and offered it to her.
"Like I said, this is the good beer," he said. "Just try it."
Clara sighed and took the bottle. She took a sip of the cold brown liquid inside. It didn't taste too bad and left a warm feeling in her belly.
"Well?" Matt asked. "Do you like it?"
He almost sounded nervous, like he was afraid she would say it was terrible and throw the bottle at him. Clara smiled.
"Yeah, it's good."
His face broke into a smile that lit up his eyes. Clara took another swig of the beer, enjoying the warm trail it left down her throat and into her stomach. She motioned for Matt to follow her and wove through the crowd over to one of the tables that had been pushed up against the far wall. She hauled herself up onto it, letting her legs swing. Matt laughed, sitting down next to her.
"Your feet can't reach the ground," he teased.
"Ooh, should probably remedy that situation. You're in possession of alcohol."
Clara glared at him for a second.
"Fine," she said. She took her guns out of their holsters and set them on the table next to her. Matt took off his jacket and balled it up, then used it to cover up the weapons.
"There," he said with a smile. "Now you're less dangerous."
"I can kill you without a gun."
"I did say less dangerous."
Clara had to laugh at that. She took another drink of her beer and surveyed the dancing people on the floor.
"This should really be a twice-a-year thing," she said after a few minutes, beginning to feel a light buzz from the alcohol. "Look how happy it makes everyone."
"It seems to make you pretty happy too," Matt said. Clara shrugged.
"It's nice to not be the general for a day. To just be another face in the crowd. That was what I originally signed up for when I enlisted, you know." She took a long drink from her beer bottle. "I just wanted to be a common soldier. I never wanted to be Colonel Petrov, or General Petrov, or anything like that. I just wanted to fight for my country."
"That's brave of you."
"Yeah," Clara muttered. "Brave." She looked up at Matt. "Did you ever consider joining the military?"
His jaw tightened a little.
"Yeah, actually, I did." He lifted his beer to his lips and downed about a quarter of the bottle. "I thought maybe I could be like my parents."
"That's why I enlisted," Clara said. "My dad was a soldier." She touched her dog tags. "I've got one of his dog tags right here." She hiccupped. "He died protecting the western border during the war."
"So did my parents."
"Maybe they knew each other."
The two of them sat there for another minute, watching the dancers. Clara finally set down her almost-empty beer and grabbed Matt's wrist.
"Let's dance," she said. He laughed, letting her pull him onto the dance floor.
"I should get you a beer more often," he teased. "I think you're a bit of a lightweight."
Matt just laughed again and set one hand on her waist. He paused for a second, probably getting the beat of the song in his head, before grinning and pulling her into the dance. Clara fell into the rhythm of it pretty quickly. She pretended for a second that when the night was over, they wouldn't go back to distancing themselves from each other. That they wouldn't go back to pretending that they didn't wish things were different. She pretended that everything wasn't a terrible game of waiting for the inevitable. That they wouldn't have to get up in the morning and greet each other outside her office with the same cold professionality that she'd put on for two and a half years.
She pretended that she and Matt were the only people on the dance floor, twirling alone with the music.
After a couple songs, the band began to play a waltz. Matt stepped back, a slight smirk crossing his face. He gave a little bow.
"Might I have this dance, milady?" he asked quietly, the corners of his mouth twitching up. Clara giggled and curtsied to him.
"Of course, good sir." She offered him her hand. To her surprise, he lifted it to his lips and pressed a soft kiss to the back of it. He smiled again and set his other hand on her waist.
"I'm assuming you know how to waltz," he said. The two of them were standing in dance position in the center of the dance floor, the rest of the dancers moving around them. Clara shrugged.
"I know the basic concept. It wasn't exactly something that the military gave lessons on."
"Well it's very simple," Matt said. He started out slowly, teaching her the steps. It wasn't long before Clara got the hang of it. It was actually really simple, something that Clara appreciated. She wasn't sure she would be able to handle a complicated dance in her slightly buzzed state.
"Clara," Matt said, pulling her closer so he could speak directly into her ear. "Clara, I don't know if you know this, but I love you."
Clara sucked in a short breath.
"The reason I'm telling you this is because I know you feel the same way, so I'm not scared to say it anymore. And I know that if anybody hears me say this… I don't even know what will happen. But the truth is, Clara… I love you. I think I've always loved you, ever since I found you on that bus. Ever since you came into my life and charmed me with your smile, however rare it is, and your big eyes that reflected the stars that night in Nadia. You were so busy watching them and the look on your face… It just made me fall more in love with you."
A few tears slipped down Clara's face at his words. She rested her head on his shoulder while he continued to speak.
"And I know, I know that this will never work because you're the general, but I just wish… I wish I could love you the way I want to. I wish that I could wake up in your bed and not have to worry about somebody seeing us because it wouldn't matter if they did. I wish that I could kiss you, right here, right now, in front of everybody, but I can't. I promise you, Clara, I love you with every piece of me."
Clara squeezed her eyes shut, her lips trembling as more tears slid down her cheeks.
"I know that tonight is the only time that we'll have, so I promise that I'll make the most of every minute. I want to be able to love you with no regrets, no worries, nothing."
Oh, God, Matt. Me too.
"You know, I heard somewhere that before you can truly love someone, you have to first love yourself." Matt laughed a little. "I'd say that that's bullshit. I've never loved myself."
Clara pulled him tighter against her, her fingers digging into his shirt.
Matt please this hurts too much please stop –
"God, I love you so much, I've forgotten what hating myself feels like."
Clara let out a single, quiet sob. The two of them were still slowly dancing, though they'd moved to a quiet corner of the dance floor, where there wasn't anybody around. It was getting close to midnight and many people had headed for the comfort of their beds. Matt stopped moving and wrapped his arms around Clara, burying his face in her hair. She stood motionless in his embrace, wishing she could do something to stop the pain that had started in her heart when Matt had said the three little words. She wished she could feel nothing at all.
Matt finally let go of her when the band finished playing the waltz. He pulled back, his hands on her shoulders, and looked down at her. His thumbs skimmed over her cheeks, pushing away the tears.
"What do you say we get drunk and forget about everything for a little while?" Clara found herself saying. "That way we don't have to feel anything."
Matt smiled a little sadly.
"Feeling nothing is an attractive option," he admitted. "Especially when what you feel sucks. I'll go get the beer."
He let go of Clara and headed towards the bar they'd set up. Clara wrapped her arms around herself, briefly missing the warmth that he'd provided. She sucked in a few shaky breaths and wiped away the rest of her tears. She was going to do what Matt said. She was going to make the most of the minutes they had.
She was going to love with no regrets.
It was twenty minutes until midnight, and then it would be the end of the festival. Clara and Matt were both at least slightly drunk, empty beer bottles sitting on the table behind them. They were watching the last of the dancers on the dance floor. Clara was lying on the bench, her head resting on Matt's leg. His fingers had found their way into her hair and were slowly moving through it, soothing her.
"Hey, General," Matt said, his words slurring ever so slightly. "Hows about you and I have one more dance?"
"No," Clara said. "I'm fine here."
"No more calling me 'General'," Clara declared. "I'm sick of it. You know my name. Use it. That's an order."
"All right, Clara. No more 'General'."
"Good," Clara muttered. "I miss the way my name sounds when you say it."
Alcohol, she discovered, destroyed the filter between her brain and her mouth. Anything that she thought of came straight out. It was an odd feeling.
"How does your name sound when I say it? Why do you like it?" Matt asked, looking down at her.
"Because you say my name like it's the most beautiful thing in the world. To me, you say my name like it's a holy word, something that is sacred and special. You say my name like it's the one connection you have left to me, like it's the only reason you have left to live. Like it's your lifeline. My name is boring and simple, but you make it sound beautiful. That's why I love the way you say my name."
Matt chuckled a little.
"That's some deep shit, Clara."
"Thank you. I take pride in my secret philosophical thoughts."
Matt leaned down and pressed his lips to hers.
"How about you take your secret philosophical thoughts and that beautiful, beautiful self of yours back to my room and tell me more?" he said quietly. Clara smiled.
"I'd like that," she said. "But only if you promise me one thing."
"No regrets. I want to love you with no regrets. Whatever happens from this point forward, I don't want to regret it and I don't want you to either."
"Clara," Matt said, tilting his head and brushing some of her hair away from her forehead. "The only thing about you that I've regretted is that I didn't fight for you harder." He smiled a little. "Now, I did manage to get you drunk…"
Clara grinned and sat up, allowing Matt to stand. He only swayed a little, grinning widely at her. She pushed herself into a standing position and immediately almost fell over. Matt caught her, steadying her.
"You are a lightweight," he laughed. Clara just laughed with him and headed towards the stairwell, leaning on him a little. They weren't making very good progress up the stairs, so Matt pulled Clara into the elevator once they'd reached the second floor. It was empty, which Clara's alcohol-muddled brain didn't find odd. It was pretty late, even if it was festival day.
The second the elevator doors closed, Matt had her pinned to the wall and was kissing her. She smiled and looped her arms around his neck. She hadn't properly kissed him in so long. It felt like finally coming home.
The elevator dinged pleasantly, informing them that they'd reached their floor. Matt pulled back and grabbed Clara's hand. He was smiling widely as he pulled her down the hallway. Clara stumbled a little, but her smile was also unshakable.
Clara pulled the door to Matt's tiny apartment shut, giggling a little.
"What if someone saw us?" she asked. Matt shrugged, taking her face in his hands.
"No worries and no regrets, remember?" he said. He leaned down and pressed a soft, chaste kiss to her lips. "Besides, it's the festival. Everyone's too drunk to care."
"Including you," Clara said. Matt shook his head.
"Nah, I'm cold-stone sober."
Clara giggled again.
"Sure, Matt. You're sober." She wound her arms around his neck and stood on her tiptoes to kiss the corner of his mouth. "Whatever you want."
For all of her life, Clara had built walls around herself and she only chose to let two people in. They were her safety net, the two best friends that she could count on. But even for Lewis and Molly, Clara had a lot of walls. She hid the pain of never knowing her father. She protected herself by refusing to even look at an attractive boy or girl because she'd seen Melody's heart break too many times. She didn't like to get close to people. That wasn't something she did. Lewis and Molly were the two people outside of her mother and Melody that she let in, and she barely let them in at all. She had so many walls that she'd begun to lose sight of who she'd been at the beginning.
Matt stripped away every single one of those walls. He revealed the girl underneath, the lonely girl who for all her life just wanted a father, the girl who fought with every fiber of her being for what she believed in, the girl who loved so completely that it scared her. The girl who wanted to serve and be loyal to her country. The girl who'd only wanted to protect her family.
The two of them were lying together, Clara's ear pressed to Matt's heartbeat, when Clara said, "I wish that how I feel about you didn't have to be a secret."
Matt sighed, rubbing her arm comfortingly.
"I know. Me too. Everything would be so much easier that way."
They laid in silence for a little while longer, Matt's fingers tracing patterns on Clara's shoulder. Clara closed her eyes and wished that she could stay there forever. She knew that she couldn't, though, and she said softly, "I should go."
"No," Matt murmured, pulling her closer. "Stay."
"Matt, I have to go. Please."
It took a second, but his arm pulled away. Clara slipped out of his bed and gathered up her things. She bent over and kissed his forehead. He caught her before she could pull away and gave her a proper kiss.
"I'll see you soon," he said with a sad smile. Clara nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She slipped out of his room, shutting the door quietly behind her. She pulled her arms around herself, inhaling shakily. She wasn't going to cry. She'd had her festival, and it had been the best day she'd had in a long time. Now it was over. It was time to get back to the real world.