The baths were ready for them and by the time trays were brought round with coffee, rolls and butter and cakes the girls were all safely in bed with hot water bottles to comfort them, and most of them so tired that it was hard work to keep awake.
The staff were not so fortunate. Rosalind Moore, with little beyond the basic outline to report, was swiftly dismissed to bath and bed. However, Nancy Wilmot, responsible for the perilous bridge crossing, and Kathie Ferrars, in nominal charge of the ramble, were detained a further twenty minutes giving Miss Annersley a more or less full account of all their adventures.
By the time Kathie Ferrars finally staggered bedwards, a good hour after the girls had been tucked up, reaction was setting in, and she was more than thankful to slip into her pyjamas and retreat to the comfort of her bed. She had just reached that haven when a gentle tap at the door heralded an unanticipated guest.
"What on earth are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Such a hospitable greeting," Nancy Wilmot chuckled as she shut the door softly behind her.
"Well, you know what I mean," Kathie said, unperturbed. "Why aren't you in bed? Aren't you exhausted? Goodness knows I am, and I only made that crossing once. I don't know how you're still on your feet."
"Neither do I, if you must know," Nancy admitted ruefully. "Oh, I'm sore. Muscles I didn't even know I had are aching."
"Then why on earth aren't you in bed?" Kathie repeated.
"I thought you'd probably be wanting this," Nancy replied, sitting down on the edge of the bed with an involuntary grimace as her aching muscles protested, and dropping a hot water bottle onto Kathie's lap. "You left it in my room at the end of the Christmas term, but after today's excitements I thought you might be wanting it back."
"It's exactly what I did need, Nance, thank you." Kathie gathered up the hot water bottle, which Nancy had already filled for her, and snuggled back against her pillows. "I'm feeling rather shaky - reaction, I suppose."
"It was an adventure," Nancy said meditatively. "No one can deny that!"
"An adventure I could have very well done without!" Kathie retorted. "I only wonder my hair isn't white! I never felt anything like the force of that water when we were crossing the bridge. When I thought that I had allowed some of the girls to come and go through it over and over again, I felt sick - and still do when I think of it!"
Nancy gave her a quick look. "Kathie, you goop! The responsibility of that part of it was mine and not yours. And do you really think I'd have agreed if I hadn't known that the girls could manage all right? There's a difference in weight between a shrimp like you and a hefty young thing like Joan Baker or Betty Landon. And now, that's enough about it!" She gave her friend a gentle shake. "Come on, Kathie, snap out of it."
Avoiding Nancy's concerned gaze, Kathie twined her fingers together nervously as she attempted to put her fears into words. "I was watching you, that first crossing, well, we all were, of course, but... you seemed to stagger, on the bridge, and just for a moment it looked... I was afraid..." She broke off, her eyes shadowed.
"Oh, Kathie, no!" Nancy exclaimed, her arms reaching out to embrace the younger woman. "Everything's fine. I'm here. It's alright now." Nancy found herself murmuring love words and endearments as Kathie clung to her fiercely.
Nancy's reassurances soon had their effect, but Kathie still looked very white and Nancy remained worried about her. Seeing the concern on her friend's face, Kathie attempted a smile. "Sorry, Nance. The last thing you need after a day like today is me weeping all over you. I just... well, I'm glad to have you safely back in school, that's all."
"My dear idiot," Nancy exclaimed, trying a different tack, "just what exactly do you think would have happened if I had slipped?"
"I haven't dared consider it," Kathie shuddered.
"Well, just you consider it now." Nancy's tone was carefully matter-of-fact. "I'd've gone down with a resounding thump and found myself taking an unexpected bath. Most undignified, but hardly life-threatening. In case you've forgotten, my love, I had a very tight grip on that handrail. I was hardly likely to get swept away - unless of course you're implying that my weight would have been enough to tear the handrail from the bridge completely?" Nancy raised her eyebrows in bland interrogation.
"Nancy!" Flushing, Kathie hastened to provide a disclaimer. "Of course not!"
"Then I don't see what you're getting so worked up about."
"Oh, don't you, indeed?" The mixture of emotions provoked by the day's events had left Kathie exhausted, confused, and rather inclined to snap. "For your information, I hardly had time, while you were prancing about in the water, to think it through quite as logically as you seem to have expected. Though I'm sure, by this time, I should be quite accustomed to risking death and disaster at every turn. Well, I beg your pardon for worrying about you, and I certainly shan't bother myself about it in the future. Now if that's all you came for, you can leave. And switch off the light on your way out." Turning her back decidedly on her friend, Kathie buried her face in her pillow.
Not given to flare-ups of temper herself, Nancy was somewhat taken aback at this outburst. "Kathie, you poor old girl," she coaxed, tugging gently at her friend's shoulder. "Kathie, I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I'm so, so sorry." A smothered sound escaped from the pillow, and a guilt-ridden Nancy wrapped her arms round her friend's shoulders. "Kathie, my love, I didn't mean to upset you. I was trying," she added ruefully, "to comfort you." A hiccup broke from Kathie as she turned in Nancy's arms, and Nancy was somewhat startled to see that the younger mistress was fighting to hold back her giggles.
"Oh, Nance, you can be completely aggravating at times!" Kathie twinkled up at her fondly. "You don't even know how to have an argument, do you, love? I can't keep being mad at you when you just stand back and let me - and take all the blame yourself into the bargain. Prancing about in that torrent wasn't one of your brighter ideas, but it wasn't life-threatening, as you well know, and I'm an idiot to get into such a state about you- about it," she corrected herself hastily.
"True," Nancy grinned down at her, and got a jab in the ribs in response. "Ouch! You keep your elbows to yourself, Kathie Ferrars. Although," she flushed slightly, "it's nice to know you care."
"Who's the idiot now? Of course I care." Kathie's own cheeks were tinged with pink and, hesitantly, she reached for the older woman's hand. "Nancy, don't you know-?"
"I know," Nancy responded quickly, curling up on the bed and settling herself more comfortably against her companion. "Oh my love, I do know."
Warm, comfortable and, for the moment, content, the pair were turning drowsy and might have fallen asleep in each other's arms had not a crisp voice from the doorway brought them to the startling realisation that they were no longer alone.
Despite always having felt that the CS books themselves suggest a reading of Nancy's and Kathie's relationship that EBD probably never intended, this author wishes to point out that she herself had not actually considered writing fanfic about it until she discovered the CBB. Consequently, nothing that follows this disclaimer should in any way be deemed the fault of the author, who was never here, has an alibi for the time of writing, doesn't know what fanfiction is anyway, and is currently occupied with looking innocent and plotting an escape route.
In addition to helping myself to EBD's characters, plots, and settings, I have also lifted some of her text directly from the Armada paperback of Richenda. These bits are in bold (although I'm sure all y'all could identify them without my assistance) just so it's clear that I'm claiming no credit for those parts - although there may be some stray commas added accidentally - I keep catching myself putting them in and then having to take them out again.
This was my first CS drabble - and it was supposed to be short. Don't ask me what happened, I blame the characters. ;)
Apologies for the fact that the chapter lengths veer all over the place - I tried to get them all more or less the same length, but as this wasn't originally written with chapters in mind, that has turned out to be impossible, unless I wanted to have sudden breaks in odd places. Which I didn't. ;)