She doesn’t bother with stagedoor usually- none of the Ladies do. The stagedoor is for the Queens- they’re the ones with the fans after all, they’re the ones people recognise.
(There’s the odd music enthusiast, of course- someone who wants to ask Maggie what she plays, who wants to ask Maria about her technique- but they’re few and far between, and she can vividly remember Maggie coming to her almost in tears after coming across some fairly vitriolic tweets (‘ Who even cares about the LiW anyway?’ ‘God, not everything is about them’ ‘Why do you even both with them, they’re irrelevent’) after idly looking them all up on twitter.)
So no. She doesn’t bother with stagedoor. She’d rather take her time getting ready to leave- and it usually takes all three of them to pry Joan away from the theatre after a show anyway. (Bessie has a strong suspicion that Joan would just end up sleeping under her desk if given half a chance.)
Tonight though, she makes a rare exception. It’s not like she has anything to go home to- all three of her girls are away for once and it’s left the house feeling a little empty.
More than a little- she can barely sleep for how loud the silence is, and she misses waking up to voices, to arguments over the borrowing of conditioner and the smell of burned toast. Going up to bed alone feels strange as well- there’s no one to check on, no one to say goodnight to.
The whole house feels like it’s lost a wall- it feels unbalanced somehow. She feels unblanaced too- a little lost, a smaller more breakable copy of herself.
She makes the best of it though, she tries to fill the empty hours as well as she can. Hence the stagedoor.
It’s a mistake, she can tell that from the start.
Standing, ignored, on the sidelines isn’t helping her feel more grounded- she feels like more of a ghost than ever.
She knows it’s just because she’s not quite herself- tired and fragile from all the days and nights alone- but the way people look at her, eyes sliding past as if she’s not there, is making her mind go places she’d rather stay away from.
Nobody could look her in the eye at court. Some stared, unashamedly, at her swelling stomach, but others avoided even that. It was all very untimely, everyone agreed- etiquette stated that a mistress should wait to be pregnant until after the real wife had a child of her own, but nobody, it seemed, has told Henry that. Not that it likely would have made a difference- he was an impossible man to sway when his mind was set on something. Bessie knew that better than anyone.
She tries to keep herself under control- it’s ridiculous, sh knows, to be so sensitive.
(It’s not even like she had anything that bad to put up with- not like Anne, with her thick raised scar, not like Kitty, with everything those awful men had put her through. Kitty, poor thing, had been young for thirteen, just a child, whereas at least Henry had waited until Bessie was fourteen- nearly- and a woman grown. Not that she would have chosen for him to cast his eye on her but still….)
Clenching her hands to protect her fingers from the cold, she wonders how long it’ll be before she can make an excuse and go back inside- she doesn’t want to leave early, she just wants enough time to have passed that she’ll be tired enough to sleep when she gets home. (She’s never been one to shirk her responsibilities though- not even when she was bruised and sore from overzealous...attention, not even after that wrenching first time when she had walked around with the wetness of blood on her petticoats.)
She has to shake herself out of her own thoughts- she doesn’t want to go there. Not now, not here (not ever). She’s aware of the voice at her elbow- an older lady in a beige coat is talking intently to Aragon.
‘-such fascinating stories! Such detail!’ Aragon is beaming as the woman starts to list all the little references she picked up on- this is the kind of fan the woman likes, someone who cares about the historical side of things rather than what their respective makeup routines are or what secret rivalries exist. ‘And to include the Ladies in Waiting as the band, to tie it all together- it’s wonderful! Even if they’re not really part of the show, so to speak.’
Bessie listens, smiles, even though she’s aware she’s not really part of the conversation- it’s better to look friendly- but it’s a bit of a surprise when Aragon actually nods towards her.
‘Actually, Bessie here is one of our Ladies- we all think they do a fantastic job.’
The woman looks a touch embarrassed. ‘Of course- I just meant so far as speaking lines go-’
‘It’s fine’ Bessie hurriedly smooths things over ‘You’re right after all-’
‘Although of course, YOU actually get a mention-’ The woman thinks for a moment. ‘ Someone who don’t own a wedding ring - that’s you, isn’t it?’
It’s harder to keep her smile in place, but she just about manages it. ‘It is….’
‘The level of emotion there…’ The woman turns back to Aragon ‘The level of betrayal….goodness, it was wonderful. You can really feel the hurt, the anger towards her-’
She has to fight to keep herself from flinching away- from the words, from the memories. Of course she and Aragon are fine now- they’ve all had to let go of past resentments, since holding onto them would make actually doing the show impossible- but she remembers it still, the eyes burning into her, the barbed references to betrayal, the cold glares from those close to the queen, the painful loneliness and fear of what was to come…. She feels sick suddenly.
Aragon’s already somewhat fixed smile tightens even more. ‘We try to hit different levels when we perform….’
‘Oh and you do! It’s as if you really hate her- while of course anyone who knows the history behind it will know the irony that of course, the real Bessie Blount was beloved by the country’ The woman is obviously proud of her research- she rounds on Bessie again. ‘ Bless thee, Bessie Blount - did you know that that became almost a sort of phrase around the country? The people were so grateful she gave Henry a son- did you know you were playing such a national treasure, as it were?’
She never thought she’d have to hear those words again and to have them thrown at her so unexpectedly is like a punch in the chest- she feels her breathing speed up, her throat start to tighten. (Can Aragon feel her shaking at her elbow?)
Through her fog of confusion, she feels Aragon take her arm, supporting her, steadying her. ‘Believe me, she knows…’
The quiet of the theatre is welcome after the noise out on the street- Aragon ushers her back into the dressing room, presses her firmly down into a chair.
‘Are you alright?’
She nods, as convincingly as she can. ‘Yeah, fine. I’m fine. Really .’ She adds, off Aragon’s skeptical look (she should have known how hard it was to lie to the woman). ‘Just….was a shock, to hear it again.’
She realises suddenly that her hands are trembling and quickly folds her arms to hide it: of course, she is fine really. She just doesn’t want Aragon to get the wrong impression. That’s all.
‘I’m sure it was.’ Aragon drops into the chair opposite her. ‘I know you don’t often get to see it, but we get the weird historical ones every so often…. There was one last week who stood in front of me and just….recited my last letter to Henry. Verbatim.’
‘Yeah, it was….strange, to say the least. I think they expected me to be flattered.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I thanked them for their interest and asked if they had anything they wanted me to sign.’ Aragon shrugs. ‘They seemed happy enough when they left.’
Bessie is impressed. Being surprised with a whole letter sounds- one written on a death bed, no less- sounds so much worse than just a stupid phrase. Only four words, nothing to get worked up about.
Yes, maybe she still feels a little sick; yes, maybe she’s having to fight an unnaccountably strong urge to crawl under the dressing table when nobody can get to her right now…..but she’s ok really, she must be. If Aragon can remain so calm and collected while listening to a stranger repeat her own last desperate attempt to reach out to her estranged husband….well, she must be ok. At least her thing wasn’t private- far from it, there was a time when it felt like she heard it everywhere.
Granted, sometimes (oftentimes) it was said to her mockingly, cruelly, by people who begrudged her the sudden attention (and the reason for it).....but still. Hearing it said wasn’t a big deal.
She was fine.
But you wouldn’t be able to tell by how Aragon was looking at her- like she’s considering scooping Bessie up and wrapping her in duvets.
(Not that that’s something she’d want, of course. It’s not like she and Aragon have even really touched since the first slightly awkward hug upon their reunion months ago. You’d never be able to guess from looking at she had spent her first few years at court trailing around after Aragon like a baby duckling and taking every opportunity she could to cling to her hand, to sit at her feet.)
‘Are you sure you’re alright though?’
‘Of course!’ It’s perhaps just the tiniest bit too shrill but maybe Aragon won’t notice. ‘She’s just one over-zealous fan, right?’
‘Yes, but-’ Aragon tilts her head. ‘I know things were…..hard for you. Back then. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to be reminded of it.’
She opens her mouth- not to be pathetic or anything, but just to agree, because yes, things WERE hard, actually, and it feels sort of nice to have it acknowledged out loud (for once)- and then Aragon looks a bit rueful, adds ‘I certainly don’t’, and her mouth snaps shut again.
Because of course it’s selfish of her to want to make herself the victim in everything that happened- yes, it was unpleasant, yes, it was lonely and painful and so depressing that some days, she could barely drag herself out of bed….but it wasn’t as if it was easy on Aragon either, having everybody whisper whisper whisper about the strong baby boy born to her very own Lady in Waiting, little Henry Fitzroy; the living, breathing proof that the King was healthy, fertile, virile….everything he should be, in fact, save for the fact that he was sadly chained to a bitter, barren aging wife.
She may have suffered but Aragon surely had it worse, she knows that (just as Kitty had it worse than her, just as everyone had it worse than her)....and the right thing for her to do is to not try to gain sympathy or attention by over-egging her own story.
‘It’s fine, really. I’m ok.’
Aragon still looks a bit doubtful and Bessie suddenly feels a flash of irritation- she knows that it’s her place to step aside for everyone else’s grief, but must Aragon make it harder by pushing it like this?
‘Really, Catalina. So just leave it. Please?’
There’s a moment in which she half expects the woman to bark at her for her impertinence, half expects her to just snap and hit her or something- not because she has a history of either violence or bad temper but because Bessie can’t believe she’s actually snapped at her former mistress like that...but Aragon does neither, just gives a little nod.
They look at each other warily for a second before Aragon’s phone buzzes.
‘That’ll be Jane, I bet they’re leaving, it’s-’ She checks her watch. ‘Yep, getting on for half eleven. Do you want to come- we could drop you home?’ Bessie shakes her head. ‘Are you sure? I know you normally go home with Joan and the others but they’re still gone so-’
‘It’s ok-’ She makes herself keep smiling, although the reminder that she’ll be going home to an empty house is almost more than she can bear. ‘I quite fancy a walk actually. You know. Fresh air and everything.’
Aragon looks as if she might argue for a minute but then reconsiders, clearly not wanting to get her head bitten off again. ‘Ok. Be safe.’
There’s moment as Aragon’s about to leave where she could give Bessie a hug but she doesn’t. Again, probably just being cautious. (And it’s not like Bessie minds anyway. She’s fine, after all.)
(The walk home is very cold.)
(Her hands don’t stop shaking.)
She can feel his hands upon her as she walks- she rubs furiously at her sleeves, her shoulders, trying to scrub him away through the thick cloth of her coat.
It doesn’t really work. She’d like to be able to stand under a scalding hot shower- her usual way of dealing- until she can feel clean (or cleanish) but there’s a good few streets before she’ll be home.
She digs her nails in her palms instead, bites down on her tongue- tries to muster up enough pain that she’ll be distracted. The taste of blood fills her mouth but it doesn’t do anything to erase the feeling of fingers ghosting against her inner thighs.
It’s a quiet night. She can hear the conversations of the people who pass, little snippets here and there; cars hum by and she catches snatches of songs.
(Once, someone drove by playing Haus of Holbein when she was out with Maggie and the girl had been so excited to hear it that Bessie had to catch hold of the back of her jacket to stop her from rushing over to accost the driver when they stopped at a red light.
There’s no one to pull her back now- if she wanted to run into traffic, she- She stops the thought as quickly as she can. Intrusive thoughts don’t usually bother her too much unless she’s left alone long enough to overthink them. Which she is now. It’s not the thought itself that bothers her, it’s the fact that they remind her of a time when such thoughts weren’t quite so random and meaningless as they are now.)
Throw yourself out of the window, see if Catalina will send for you if you break every bone in your body. Stick your hand into the fire, just to see if it hurts as everything else does. Do it, try it, see if it helps and if it doesn’t, see if your suffering will bring her back.
Of course, she never did try any of it. She likes to think it’s because she has self control, but a part of her wonders sometimes if it’s just because she was afraid of what would happen if she did wind up grievously injured and Catalina still didn’t come for her.
Of course, they were foolish thoughts- the silly internal ramblings of a child, she knows that now. Selfish of her really, to try to keep mentally setting herself up as victim when it was Catalina who was really hurt.
(She knows it’s selfish, she does. Perhaps Henry saw that selfishness in her and figured she wouldn’t mind betraying her mistress. Perhaps Catalina saw that selfishness in her when she decided to send her away.)
The house is dark when she gets home: it’s quite ridiculous that even though she KNOWS that her girls are away and won’t be there, she still feels sad to see the house so empty and quiet.
(It reminds her of how quiet all her lodgings were after court: the silence just reminded her that nobody wanted her, that she’d cheated herself out of love and companionship and happiness in her sin.)
She knows what makes it doubly stupid is that even if they were all home, they’d be coming home to a house just as equally dark and silent….but of course, she wouldn’t be contemplating things like the state of the house in that case, she’d be asking if Maria has her keys, if anyone wants hot chocolate before they go to sleep, if Maggie rememebered to put a load of laundry on before they left. She’d be reminding Joan to actually go to sleep and not stay up half the night working, she’d be rushing to get the first shower before all the hot water got used up, she’d be falling asleep listening for the creak of her door opening and the dip in the mattress as someone joins her under the covers…
She shakes away the thoughts as best she can- they’re not helping. It’ll be days before anyone is due home and she needs to get over herself- just be an adult, for once . She needs to stop wallowing.
(Even if she feels sick, even if her heart feels as if it’s ready to beat it’s way out of her chest, even if she still can’t rid herself of the ghosts of his hands against her bare skin- rough and fumbling, every touch a bruise.)
It’ll be ok. She’s just tired.
(Unsurprising, given she hasn’t been sleeping.)
She’ll go inside, take a shower, get into bed-
In the exact moment that she reaches inside her bag for her keys, her stomach swoops and a very specific memory jerks her whole body- herself, getting ready to leave, carefully placing her door keys on the hall table, lacing her boots-
She knows it’s hopeless, but she forces herself to search her bag anyway, even laying things out on the doorstep and turning it inside out.
But it’s fine. It’s fine.
It’s not like she doesn’t have her phone. She can just call one of the queens, she can get the spare key (the key that has lived in the fruit bowl of the queen’s kitchen ever since Maggie sprained her wrist trying to climb the drainpipe to let herself in via Joan’s open window).
(Actually, she regrets thinking about Maggie. Missing her is an ache that only intensifies the more she thinks about it.)
She intends to be very apologetic when she’s explaining herself- she’s disturbing them quite late, after all- but also very calm about the whole thing. It’s just a simple mistake after all, and easily fixable.
But then she hears Aragon’s voice on the other end of the line, and suddenly she’s crying.
Not full-on sobbing, but her face is wet and her voice catches as she explains- or tries to explain- her predicament.
(It’s ridiculous that the concern in Aragon’s voice makes her feel worse rather than better- like it reminds her just of how utterly alone she really is, rather than making her feel comforted like a normal person would be. It just shows how childish, how self indulgent and pathetic she’s being. If Aragon had any sense, she’d tell her to pull herself together and sort out her own problems rather than listened patiently while she rambles.)
‘-and I just left it behind but now I can’t get in so if I could just borrow your spare key-’
‘Of course’ Aragon pauses. ‘Are you at the house now?’
‘Uh huh’ She sinks down onto the doorstep, ignoring the way the cold from the stone quickly seeps through her clothes.
‘Ok.’ She’s about to say she should be there in twenty minutes or so but Aragon interrupts her. ‘I should be with you in ten minutes or so- I just need to get my shoes and let Jane know I’m going out again-’
She’s confused. ‘What? Why? You don’t need to-’
‘Well, it’s better than you walking on your own- i know you’ve just come home but still, it’s easier than you walking here and then back again.’
‘Elizabeth. Just let me help you, alright?’
There’s perhaps the tiniest edge in Aragon’s voice- or perhaps she’s even just imagining it- but it makes her back down all the same.
‘....Alright.’ Her voice is very small.
‘Good.’ She can hear movement on the line- Aragon pulling on her coat, opening the door. ‘I’ll be with you soon.’
A couple of minutes pass before she realises the obvious- that Aragon will be able to see she’s been crying, that it’ll be harder to make her believe she really is ok if she does- and she has to tidy herself up as best she can, wiping her eyes on her sleeve and splashing her face with the dregs left in her water bottle.
(It’s ridiculous but it makes her think of how she’d hurriedly try to collect herself back then- how she’d paint a smile on her face and dry her eyes before going to Aragon’s rooms, hoping desperately that no one would ask if there was anything wrong and yet also feeling bitterly disappointed when they didn’t.
Of course, when everything eventually came out, there wasn’t much time for anyone to ask if she was alright- they were more concerned with Catalina. As they should have been, she has to remind herself.
After it all, it was Catalina she had hurt.)
She’s trying to finger comb her hair into some semblance of order (just to add to the ‘definitely not in the middle of a breakdown’ look) when Aragon’s car pulls up.
Her legs feel shakey as she stands up- she tries to make her face neutral.
She expects Aragon just to pass the keys out to her through the window but instead, she’s unbuckling her seatbelt, climbing out of the car.
She hands the keys over but she looks Bessie over as she does.
‘Are you alright?’
‘Fine.’ She tries to sound nonchalant. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘Well you were crying on the phone.’ It makes her cringe a bit. She’s forgotten how blunt Aragon can be.
‘I was just a little upset at being locked out. I’m really ok.’
‘Hm.’ Aragon raises a skeptical eyebrow and Bessie suddenly feels eleven years old all over again.
‘Honestly, I’m fine. Thanks for bringing the key.’
‘Of course. I’m just glad you called me instead of trying to break your way in…’
She feels compelled to defend her bandmate. ‘Maggie only did that once…’
‘What? Oh no, I was actually thinking of Anne.’ She winces at the memory. ‘She and Katherine both managed to forget their keys last week and decided that calling one of us was apparently too much trouble… apparently, their plan for Anne to boost Kat up so she could wriggle through the bathroom window made much more sense…’
‘Did it work?’
‘What do you think?’
Aragon’s fond irritation raises a smile in Bessie- she wonders if she looks the same when relating stories about her girls to the others- but it’s a bit pained too: she’s still on her own.
She looks up to find the other woman studying her.
‘Do you have tea?’
‘What?’ She’s wrong-footed by the surprise question.
‘Tea. Do you have it? And milk and some sort of mug for me to drink it from?’
‘Um. Yes.’ She really doesn’t know where Aragon is going with this.
‘Good.’ Aragon starts walking to the front door, as confidently as if it’s her own house. ‘Jane forgot to get teabags and Cathy used the last of the milk in her coffee’ she throws over her shoulder as an explanation leaving Bessie to trail after her.
(It’s a bit weird. But it’s also nice to not have to go in alone, and it’s this thought which leads her to direct Aragon away from the cupboard of easy-to-transport teabags and towards the cupboard where Maria’s tin of loose leaf is kept.)
It feels a bit strange to have Aragon in her kitchen, just the two of them. They’re not often alone together- the days back at court when she was Aragon’s shadow are long behind them.
She busies herself making the tea, taking longer than she usually would, while Aragon leans against the countertop and watches her silently.
‘Do you take milk?’
‘I’ll get it-’
A little spark of panic shoots through her and she curses herself for not having thought of this earlier. She really doesn’t want Catalina to look inside the fridge.
She wants to jump up and push the woman away, fetch the milk herself but before she can say anything, Aragon is opening the fridge door.
She removes the milk, takes her mug, adds a splash, passes it to Bessie and takes a seat at the table, and Bessie wonders for a second if maybe it’s going to be alright, maybe she hasn’t noticed (or if she has, maybe she just doesn’t care.)
It’s a vain hope, clearly: she feigns nonchalance.
‘Why do you have no food?’
She fiddles with the catch of the sugar caddy, feeling like a child- it’s the Catalina’s tone of voice that makes her feel eleven years old again.
She might as well be having to explain a torn dress, a muddied pair of dancing slippers- it’s a wonder she isn’t scuffing her shoes against the floor and squirming.
Except she isn’t eleven years old, she’s a grown woman, and she resents being made to feel like this, this helpless, this trapped.
(She promised herself she’ll never let herself feel like that again. Not in this life.)
She never asked Aragon to come in, she reminds herself, and surely the fullness of her kitchen cupboards are a concern for her and her alone.
‘I’m really not. Why do you have no food?’
‘It’s not a big deal, I just haven’t had time to get groceries.’
Aragon is watching her. ‘Elizabeth, your fridge is empty.’
‘It isn’t empty.’
Technically, it isn’t but Aragon does not look amused.
‘Elizabeth. Arguing semantics with me is not going to make me stop worrying about you.’
‘Look, you don’t need to. I’m fine.’ For some reason, it comes out a bit plaintive so she tries again. ‘I’m fine.’ Her second attempt doesn’t really sound much more convincing.
Aragon narrows her eyes. ‘Are you taking care of yourself?’
‘Yes! Look- I really appreciate the concern and everything but it’s getting late and you should probably be getting back home-’
‘I haven’t finished my tea.’ It’s true, she hasn’t. She sort of wants to take the mug away and tell Aragon that now she doesn’t get tea, that the tea was provided for her to drink while keeping company but that she definitely didn’t make it to provide Aragon with energy for asking awkward questions.
Of course she doesn’t. That would be the sort of thing a person who wasn’t coping would do. And she’s fine. (She’s fine.)
They both take a sip of tea. It’s too hot, she burns her tongue.
‘So. Are you eating?’
‘Honesty, it really isn’t your business.’
‘Answer the question.’
‘Why are you even asking?’
‘Because I care about you Elizabeth.’ Aragon doesn’t look annoyed anymore but this is almost worse: she doesn’t know why Aragon is insisting on keeping up this charade. It’s not making her feel better and it’ll make her feel worse when Aragon questions her, probes her and then leaves her to the silent empty house snd her own thoughts.
She needs her to stop, so she twists her face into a scowl.
‘Well that makes a change.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘Well, it’s not exactly been your main concern in the past.’
She can tell Aragon knows what she’s talking about, but as the woman visibly deflates, guilt takes the place of her irritation. Bessie feels absurdly bad about her jibe- but then seeing Aragon thrown off balance has always had that effect on her, whether it’s her fault or not.
(It’s not just in her head either. She knows that the others have noticed it- Cathy once made the mistake of trying to psychoanalyse it but had only gotten so far as the words ‘maternal figurehead’ before Bessie had snapped at her to go away.)
(She’d felt guilty about that too. Sometimes, she wonders if she’ll ever not feel guilty, or if this is just her natural state of being. Bred-in penetance.)
It’s not the first time she’s brought the past up like this to cut off questions too close to the bone- that’s the thing that makes her feel most uncomfortable, she’s used it once or twice before to needle the older woman, to make her back off.
Except it doesn’t seem to be working this time. Aragon doesn’t immediately stop talking or change the suject as she usually does.
Instead she takes a deep breath likes she’s steeling herself.
‘I’m sorry for sending you away. I shouldn’t have abandoned you and you have every right to be angry-’
She isn’t quite sure what to say- she knows Aragon is sorry after all. She isn’t looking for another apology- she’s looking for an end to her attention.
‘But I’d be shirking my duty if I let my guilt become an excuse for not taking care of you. For continuing to do so, I should say.’
‘I-’ This is not how things go. Aragon should have backed off, gone home, left Bessie to the quiet house and stopped asking uncomfortable questions about whether or not she’s eating.
(It’s unfair too- she is eating. Sort of.)
‘So...I'll ask you again. Are you taking care of yourself, Elizabeth?’
‘What do you care?’ She doesn’t want to be cruel. But she will be, if she has to be.
‘Of course I care.’ Her tone is far too calm- she had been hoping to provoke her into anger. Anger, she can deal with. If Aragon leaves annoyed, she won’t be looking into her personal life too closely.
‘You have a terrible way of showing it.’
‘Probably. When did you last get groceries? Do you need money?’
‘You didn’t care whether I was eating or not back then.’
‘I did. But I should have asked you myself. Not relied on others. The other girls aren’t back for a while- you need to eat in the meantime.’
She’s….unfazed. Bessie doesn’t understand why she’s so calm- but it’s awful. She can’t handle this- she needs to stay in control. That isn’t going to happen if she lets Catalina keep probing, poking. She doesn’t want to get into it all. She can’t. She steps on her feelings- that’s how she copes. It’s how she’s always coped.
‘I don’t need anything.’
‘You’ve always been very self sufficient. It was the first thing I noticed about you.’
The unexpected tenderness in Aragon’s voice makes her want to cry and her answer is rough.
‘I had to be.’
‘I know. You were so very brave, you know.’
‘I had to be. There was no one else.’
‘I know. It was a wonder you were brave enough to trust me at all to talk to me.’
‘It was my job. I somehow don’t think there’d be much demand for a mute Maid in Waiting.’
‘You know what I mean. I think….I think I forgot how young you were. I should have looked after you better.’
‘You...did you best.’
‘My best wasn’t enough.’ Aragon’s mouth twists. ‘You stil ended up alone. But- you needn’t be, not now. You have us.’
She has to bite her tongue hard to keep herself steady- Aragon doesn’t understand. She does have people- she has her girls. Her girls, who she takes care of, who she watches out for and watches over. She can take care of herself by taking care of them- she makes sure they all take turns cooking proper food for dinner, she makes sure they all get enough sleep and enough time to relax. Without her girls though- there’s no point.
(She’d abandoned her basket- just left it on the aisle floor of the Co-Op- the first afternoon on her own, when she’d realised how pointless it was to shop and cook for just herself. She wasn’t sleeping properly and she’d stopped caring after the first night, when she’d realised that she didn’t need to setting a good example- no one was going to come into her room at 2am to catch her mindlessly scrolling through internet threads, no one was squeezed up in the bed with her to sleepily whine for her to turn off the light…. She’s alone as she is always is, as she always will be.)
‘Querida?’ Aragon gently touches her arm and the old name makes her throat tight.
‘Please…’ Her voice is a small, broken thing. ‘Just….can you leave me alone?’
‘Please. Please, Catalina. I’ll- do anything you ask me to, but...please can you leave now?’
There’s a long pause and then finally Aragon nods.
‘Alright, carino. Alright.’
She gets up, presses a regretful kiss to the top of Bessie’s head and closes the kitchen door quietly behind her. She hears the front door click shut, and then she lets herself come undone.
It’s not dramatic- she doesn’t collapse, she doesn’t wail in anguish- but it feels as if her chest is collapsing quietly in on itself. She doesn’t try to muffle her sobs but the sound of herself whimpering is pathetic to her own ears.
She’d like to be stronger- she has no reason to be so weak. She’s not Kitty, she’s not Catalina. How does she think she can take care of her girls if she can’t even keep herself together?
She cries until her head hurts and eyes feel swollen and raw- she makes herself drink some water (it’s lukewarm and disgusting) but it doesn’t really help.
When she steps into the hall, en route to the bathroom medicine cabinet, and sees Aragon perched patiently on the stairs in the half light, she nearly jumps out of her skin.
‘Oh my god-’
Aragon jumps too, at her shriek, and quickly gets to her feet.
‘It’s ok-’ She puts a hand to her chest- her heart is racing. ‘I just...thought you left-’ It’s suddenly occurring to hear that Aragon must have heard…. well everything. She can feel her cheeks warming.
‘I know. I’m sorry.’ She looks embarrassed, but whether its at her own deception or at what she’s had to listen to, Bessie isn’t sure. ‘I was going to go, I just..’
‘I just….wanted to make sure you were really ok.’ Aragon looks apologetic. ‘I’m sorry, I know you asked me to go, I just….I didn’t want to leave you alone. Not again.’
She doesn’t move and after a moment, Aragon pats her arm and moves to the door.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow- I’m sorry for...going too far. I’ll leave you in peace now. Just….try and get some rest ok? You look exhausted.’
The door opens, theres a rush of cold air from outside, and with it, a sudden rush of crushing panic- Aragon is going to go, she’ll be alone, again, and-
It’s barely a whisper, but she hears- she turns. There isn’t any need for her to say anything else. In two steps, Aragon has crossed the hall and she’s being bundled up in familiar warm arms.
For all that she thought she was all cried out, her eyes start to sting again, and she buries her face into Aragon’s shoulder, and feels her hand gently move through her hair.
‘It’s alright. I’m here.’
She’s clinging, and she’d probably be embarassed if she had the energy- probably, she will be tomorow but for now, she doesnt have the strength. She’s tired, she’s lonely- she feels small and crumpled and empty and the only thing she can do is allow Aragon’s arms to shield her, to protect her, to hide her, to take the place of the ghosts of Henry’s hands still lingering.
‘I’m- I’m-’ She wants to explain, she wants to put words to the emptiness, the confusion, so that Aragon can understand but she isn’t sure there are words for it. ‘It’s all….it still hurts-’
‘I know querida. I know.’
‘I don’t know how to- I can’t, when they’re not here-’
‘What if they don’t come back?’
She hadn’t realised it was what she was afraid of until she hears herself say it.
‘Oh querida-’ Aragon pulls back and cups her wet cheek, until their eyes meet. ‘Of course they will.’
‘But what if they-’ She isn’t aritculating it well. ‘I’m not-’
‘They love you very much- of course they’ll come back.’
‘It’s just-’ A sob threatens to choke her. ‘I-I lose people. Somehow. No one….stays-’
‘Hush.’ Aragon pulls her back, rocking her gently. ‘Listen to me. Everything is going to be alright. I promise.’
‘I promise. First of all, we’ll get you sorted out so you can get some sleep. And tomorow, we’ll come up with a plan for what to do next. Ok? You’re not alone anymore. You’re allowed to have help.’
She lets herself relax back into Aragon’s arms, not entirely convinced but also not wanting to argue. Her head is still pounding- when she breaks away to press a hand to her temple, Aragon looks concerned.
‘Are you ok?’
‘Just- my head-’
‘You poor thing’ Aragon wraps an arm around her shoulders and starts to guide her to the stairs. ‘No wonder though- you’re dehydrated, you look as if you have barely slept in days...Painkillers, water and bed for you.’
‘I don’t know if we have any-’
Aragon smiles slightly and holds up her bag. ‘Lucky I have you covered then. Jane was right- you never do know what’s going to come in handy….’
She doesn’t laugh- she can’t imagine laughing. But she manages a small smile.
She gulps down the pills and then insists on taking a shower before she gets into bed- extricating herself reluctantly from Aragon’s warm side- and stays under the hot spray until her skin wrinkles. She wants to wash away the day, she wants to wash away the humiliation of her breakdown.
Mostly though, she wants to give Aragon plenty of time to slip away if she’d like to- there’s nothing more awkward that people feeling having to hang around on sufferance.
When she eventually emerges, pruney and pinkened, she finds her pajamas warming on the hallway radiator and in her room, her covers neatly turned back, the curtains drawn.
She’s combing out her damp hair when there’s a light tap on the door- it surprises her but it’s not unwelcome, to know that Aragon is still here.
‘I brought you some tea.’
Aragon places the steaming mug on the bedside table and studies her.
‘How are you feeling?’
She shrugs, then regrets it- she probably looks like a sullen teenager.
‘How’s your head?’
‘Stil a bit sore. Look- I’m sorry for-’
‘Shhhh.’ Aragon shakes her head. ‘You don’t need to apologise. You have nothing to be sorry for.’
‘I was...being pathetic.’
‘You were dealing with a lot.’ Aragon corrects. ‘On your own.’ Her hand covers Bessie’s own. ‘But you’re not on your own anymore, querida. You don’t have to deal with everything by yourself.’ She waits for Bessie to nod assent and then leads her to the bed. ‘Rest now. Things will feel better in the morning.’
‘That’s what you used to say.’ When she gets under the covers, she finds a hot water bottle at her feet. ‘Back then.’
‘Because it’s usually true, I say it still.’ She tucks the covers around her and presses a kiss to her forehead. ‘You look as if you haven’t slept for a year.’
‘It’s been…..hard. Dreams. And the quiet.’ She’s not usually so candid but she’s so warm and cosy that it makes her tongue loosen. ‘I’m not used to an empty house. Any more, that is.’
‘Well, we shall have to fix that…’ Aragon seats herself on the edge of the bed. ‘Perhaps it could be the first step of the plan? Perhaps...I could stay here with you tonight. If you would be comfortable with that. So that the house is not empty and you can sleep. I’m sure Maria won’t mind me using her bed. And I will sit here until you are asleep so that I can be sure you are obeying me.’
She can‘t trust her voice so she nods. The thought of that…. actually sounds good. It sounds comforting- to be watched over.
‘Good, then that is what we shall do. And tomorrow-' Aragon takes her cold hand, gently, between her own and chafes it warm. ‘We shall get some groceries.’
‘I can do that- you don't have to-’
‘Then you shall get them yourself and I shall just accompany you to the shop and share with you my interesting thoughts on all of your purchases, like overbearing mother-figures are meant to do. Or so I hear.’
Her smile is small and tired. But sincere. ‘I can’t wait.’
‘Excellent.’ There’s another kiss pressed to her hairline. ‘Now go to sleep, querida. We will sort everything out tomorrow. It will be easier from now on.’
‘Promise?’ She knows it’s a silly thing to say, a child’s question- but she’s so weary, so comfortable, she doesn’t care.