Rhyll was first to arrive.
She threw her suitcase down onto the platform at Innsbruck, before climbing down herself and casting a swift look up and down the platform. She needed to find somewhere to wash and brush up; after that, breakfast. The station was clean and well-equipped, if rather tired-looking, and she was quickly able to accomplish the former and then find a little cafe where she ordered coffee and a hot buttered roll. She chose a table next to the window, and as she waited she watched the morning bustle in the streets outside. The city itself was pretty enough - if also tired, which was only to be expected - but it was the unexpected backdrop of the Tirolean Alps which made the view so striking. She had woken somewhere in Switzerland, early that morning, and had been mesmerised by the mountain scenery ever since; now, with the coffee warming her and the bright October sunshine bathing the flagstone streets beneath her in golden light, she was no less enchanted.
Peggy would not arrive before noon. Breakfast finished and paid for, she found a porter and had her suitcase taken to the Hotel Europe. Thus relieved, she stepped from the station into the sunlight and crisp autumn air, and - at a whim - turned left down the street. She had declined Peggy's kind suggestions of things she might want to do this morning, sights she probably ought to see: she preferred to take this time to wander the city alone, absorbing its atmosphere, looking for nothing and therefore noticing everything - or as close to everything as she might reasonably hope for. Time enough for Peggy to show her the things she ought to see, enlivening them with her own easy commentary. They would have four days, after all.
The station clock ticked round to half-past twelve. Rhyll waited anxiously in the ticket hall, reminding herself that Peggy arriving on this train would be a stroke of good luck; far more likely, she would be on the half-past fifteen. She would return to the station cafe for lunch, if that were the case. Afterwards, she might go across to the hotel and check in. She could buy some flowers for the room, perhaps: nothing too extravagant, just enough to make Peggy smile later on.
She did not go for lunch in the station cafe, and she did not have a chance to check in at the hotel - much less fill it with flowers. Alighting from the half-past twelve was a familiar figure, dark and slight, and even at this distance Rhyll knew the moment when her eyes lit up in recognition, a split second before she broke into a canter which startled a fair few of her fellow disembarking passengers. Moments later, Rhyll found herself almost bowled over as Peggy dropped her bags at her feet and flung both arms around her: "Evvy!"
It had been eight long weeks - long enough for Rhyll to start slightly at the familiar feel of Peggy's hair nestling against her throat, the sinewy arms clutched tightly around her; the faint smell of violets. She reciprocated the embrace, breathed Peggy in deeply.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Peggy demanded, as at length she untangled herself, standing back to look at Rhyll.
"It is," Rhyll agreed wholeheartedly. So are you, she added mentally, but did not say it aloud. Mawkish sentimentality: likely her face said it all anyway. "Shall we dispose of your bags, sweetheart, and find ourselves some lunch? You must be famished."
"I'm always famished!" Peggy retorted cheerfully. "All the more so for running away before brekker, the better to catch the early train. Yes, your plan's a good one. Hi, porter!" and here she switched smoothly to German to direct and pay a passing attendant to take charge of her luggage. "I've an idea of where we might go for lunch, if you're happy to follow me? It shouldn't be more than ten minutes or so from here, if I can remember the way at the first time of asking."
"Perfect. But what do you mean, 'remember'? Surely not from - how old were you when you left? Eleven, wasn't it?"
Peggy grinned, slipping a slender arm through Rhyll's proffered elbow and steering her towards the station exit. "Perhaps you'd be surprised at how well I think I remember Innsbruck, at least! On this matter, however, you're quite justified in questioning me - it's a recommendation from my old friend Irma. She was Hungarian, but after her marriage she settled in Innsbruck. I wrote to her as soon as I had the idea of meeting you here. She would like to meet us while we're here, naturally, but I haven't promised anything."
"We should."Rhyll murmured, enjoying letting Peggy guide her through the streets. The train journey had not been a bad one, but she was aware of having had a restless night nonetheless. Having accomplished her one task for the day - meet Peggy - she felt pleasantly sleepy, compliant.
"There are plans we must make!" Peggy announced, once the waitress had taken their order and they had remarked on the charm of the quaint little gasthaus, cosily tucked away up a little cobbled side-street; there was no chance they would have found it without Irma's recommendation and detailed directions from the train station. "Christmas. I want to see you at Christmas, Evvy."
A slow smile spread across Rhyll's face. Peggy's words were as warming as the fire which roared in the grate, and her undisguised enthusiasm was as endearing as it always was. "I'd love to. Are you extending an invitation? You'd be very welcome to come with me to my folks', but I'm not the least wedded to the notion of visiting them. I went last year, and none of the others did." - an acccusation which was somewhat unfair on all three brothers, seeing as Ralph and Charles lived on the other side of the world and Julian had been on active service in the Royal Navy, but Rhyll did not let this detail of accuracy bother her unduly.
"Are you sure?" Peggy looked pensive. "Only I really would like to go to my folks, and take you with me, but I don't want to make things difficult for your own family..."
Rhyll laid a reassuring hand on top of hers, smiling openly at the waitress who had returned with the wine, in a manner she hoped was suggestive of sisterly kindness and nothing more troubling. Once the waitress had graciously departed again, smiling at their chorus of thanks, she answered. "Not at all. I don't go every year - as a general principle as much as anything else. I don't get enough time off work to justify spending it all on them, and more importantly I don't want to create the expectation that I will do so. Because that would make a problem when there's someone who matters more at Christmastime."
Unexpectedly, Peggy blushed deeply. She took a quick mouthful of her drink, and spoke again once she had restored her composure. "Have some time to think on it, if you'd like. But I'd love for you to be there, and I'm flattered to think you think I matter more."
"You do," Rhyll's eyes twinkled as a shadow of pink returned to Peggy's cheeks. "Oh, don't feel obliged to reciprocate! Your family isn't my family. I'm pleased you want to be with them, and all the more so that you want me to be with them too." She paused for a moment. "What are you going to tell them about me?"
"Only that you're a friend, from work," Peggy began, her eyes searching Rhyll for traces of disapproval. "It's not that I'd care too much if they guessed otherwise, only - I'd rather not talk about it openly with them. Not just now, anyway. Is that - is that all right? Do you mind?"
"Well, if you've had a fair guess at what will happen - have you?" She kept her voice casual, though in her heart she was deeply serious. "You'll say you're bringing a friend. They'll picture somebody like Biddy, maybe - someone like you, for that matter - young, pretty, charming. Probably she'll have to be tragically orphaned, or otherwise with parents a long way abroad, and so you've stepped into the breach to bring her back into the warmth of a wholesome family Christmas. Quite likely you went to school with her - or if not, she probably went to school with a cousin of yours, a neighbour's friend, maybe the vicar's nieces. And then you fetch up with me -" she paused for effect - "me, having to confess a wilfully neglected set of parents of my own, and looking decidedly - well; not so much like Biddy."
Peggy giggled, but did not look startled. "Thank you - and wholly pleased I am with how you look, thank you very much. Yes, I had thought of all that. That's what I mean, I wouldn't care too much if they guessed it. I know it's not such an unlikely event that they might."
Rhyll could not suppress a small smile - joy, at what Peggy was saying, mingled with embarrassment at having so underestimated her. "You're really sure, then?"
"They love me." Peggy's answer had all her usual certainty now; and though Rhyll had heard too many sad stories down the years to feel fully reassured by this assertion, she supposed that Peggy's absolute confidence had to come from somewhere. Unconditional love was at least as likely a source as any other. Doubt and suspicion were born of experience, but that did not imply that either made for a wiser or more mature response. And for what experience was worth, she knew at least twice as many families where the only rejection was the unswerving refusal to acknowledge love; painful though it might be, there was still great safety and comfort to be found lurking in those particular shadows. In any case, Peggy's relations were her own concern - and the prospect of being taken home with her for Christmas was too marvellous for her to invest herself in finding reasons it might be an unwise idea.