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the dreadful need in the devotee (the immediate forgiveness in Eurydice)

Chapter Text

“Turn around.”

When Marianne hears that voice, all air gets knocked out of her lungs. She freezes, completely paralyzed just one step away from the exit of the theatre. She could just walk away, pretend she imagined the voice–maybe she did after all those years–and go on with her life without the agony that comes with clinging on to hope. But she cannot resist, like she couldn’t before. So, Marianne turns around, and when she does, her eyes fill with tears.

She is just as she remembered her, the image she immortalized in her art to always keep her close, hasn’t changed. Maybe it has, but Marianne is too wrapped in taking in the real, tangible version of Héloïse standing in front of her. No longer just an image but a body, a soul, with the same strong presence that had captivated her as soon as Marianne had laid eyes on her all those years ago. Héloïse is staring back at her, her eyes looking almost grey in the theatre light. Marianne feels pierced by them, by that intensity she hadn’t been able to find anywhere else, in nobody else. But all at once, those same eyes soften, much like the rest of Héloïse’s features.

“You still haven’t learned,” she says, and Marianne sees her lips stretch in the ghost of a smile, trembling and fleeting on her face. “Makes sense for an artist to make the poet’s choice.”

Marianne cannot help but smile despite the tears that threaten to fall down her face if only she dared to blink. She shakes her head, letting out a shaky exhale.

“I didn’t,” she whispers, remembering what she had done as if it had happened yesterday. “I just needed to look at you one last time.”

They walk towards each other at the same time, meeting halfway across the hall until they are standing barely inches apart. Neither reaches out to initiate contact, it’s as if an invisible barrier was keeping them separate even while standing so close. They’re in a public place, they’re both aware of it. An awareness that is physically painful for Marianne, because even with all her disbelief, even with how overwhelmed she feels, there is nothing she wants more in the world than to close the distance between them and bury her face in Héloïse’s neck.

“You were going to leave without saying a word,” Héloïse says, and Marianne knows she is talking about the present. She has no comeback, that’s exactly what she was going to do, walk away without looking back.

“I thought you didn’t see me,” she whispers eventually, feeling her chest expand with how glassy Héloïse’s eyes seem to get all at once.

“I thought you knew better by now,” the other girl replies. She is right, Marianne should have known better, she should have known Héloïse was never someone to just be passively observed. She had always looked back, stripping Marianne of any certainty and barrier she thought she had and leaving her completely vulnerable, happy to be so in a way she had never felt again after their separation.

The moment shatters in the span of a second. A gentleman walks past them and greets Héloïse and the two women instinctively take a step back, withdrawing from each other. Marianne becomes invisible all of a sudden, acknowledged only with a nod of courtesy by the man and she knows it’s not just because she is a woman. The luxurious clothes and jewels the man is wearing tell her that he isn’t one to bother with someone like her, not belonging to nobility. He refers to Héloïse with her married name, and suddenly Marianne feels cold.

They talk in Italian, the lack of any French accent to tinge Héloïse’s voice brutally reminds Marianne just how much time has passed, how different their lives are now. She is surprised when she realizes Héloïse is not going to introduce her to the man, and yet glad of it at the same time. She wouldn’t know how to explain their relationship to this stranger, and least of all does she want to lie. “I painted her wedding portrait” wouldn’t be enough, something she isn’t sure she could utter out loud without her voice breaking and her eyes filling with tears.

Marianne exhales deeply through her mouth when the polite conversation ends and the man makes his way to the exit, leaving them alone again. Something has shifted, though, the intrusion has disrupted the moment, and when Héloïse goes back to looking at her, Marianne feels a distance between them that wasn’t there before. It’s written all over Héloïse’s body, her posture rigid, her jaw locked. They’re back to their roles. Even the environment around them seems to tell them so, as more people make the way out of the opera room and starts walking past them, shattering that moment of stolen intimacy for good.

Marianne doesn’t know how to continue their conversation after that interruption, despite the whirlwind of thoughts inside her head. Her mouth is slightly open, but nothing comes out. She wouldn’t even know how to put into words what she is thinking, feeling. Héloïse is right there, she could just extend her arm and do what she dreamed about for years,  touch her. But as close as she is, Héloïse feels completely inaccessible. A married woman, in a different country, with a different life.

“A friend of my husband’s,” Héloïse says after a moment, with a coldness in her voice that Marianne doesn’t remember ever hearing from her. Marianne isn’t sure what hurts the most, if that cold tone or the very words pronounced by Héloïse, a reminder of their reality. For a moment, for the time of one concerto, Marianne had forgotten. She feels stupid when she nods, unable to think about a proper way to reply to Héloïse.

“I—”

“Did you see me inside?”

The sudden question, blunt and unexpected, doesn’t just interrupt whatever Marianne was going to try to say, it leaves her completely speechless. She shouldn’t have been surprised. Héloïse had dazzled her with her frankness, with her unapologetic commitment to honesty, from the very first moment they had uttered a word to each other. Never before, and certainly never afterwards, had Marianne encountered someone as straightforward and real as Héloïse. She had been able to deal with it only by adopting that exact same realness. Sharing with the other girl the vulnerability that came with it had been terrifying and beautiful. After all those years, though, she doesn’t know how to do that anymore.

“Yes,” Marianne hears herself say. Even with the paralyzing need to shelter herself, she is unable to lie to Héloïse, not when a past lie had caused them to waste so much of the little time they had. She doesn’t expand further either, though, and with each second that goes by in silence, Marianne sees Héloïse grow more and more rigid before her eyes, disappearing behind that mask that she remembers so well, one that had stayed impenetrable until Héloïse had chosen, had wanted, for Marianne to see her.

But Héloïse doesn’t want to be seen now, it is evident to Marianne. She understands it, she knows how upset she would be if she found out that someone secretly witnessed her in a moment of such raw fragility, but she doesn’t know how to defend her heart if not with silence. Thinking about what she saw inside the theater is enough to make the back of her eyes prickle with tears. Talking about it would simply leave her shattered and sobbing.

“So what brings you to Milan?” Héloïse asks, clearing her throat and tilting her chin up, everything in her body language screaming formalities. Marianne goes along, blinking back the tears and forcing herself to focus on the present.

“I’ve been commissioned a portrait,” she says, gulping heavily against the sudden dryness in her throat. “Contessa Lucia Arese.”

Héloïse nods.

“I know her.” She pauses for a moment, and suddenly her face softens, her eyes glinting with an imperceptible sparkle of humor. “And her eccentricities. You must be exhausted.”

It’s an unexpected comment, playful in a way that makes Marianne breathe a little more easily. She feels the tightness in her chest loosen, if only barely so, and the corners of her mouth curl up in a small smile.

“Do you know how many times she had me re-do her neck?”

“No wrinkles or folds allowed, I imagine. She won’t be pleased unless you make her look younger than her daughter.”

Marianne’s smile turns into a light laugh at that, one met by Héloïse with a genuine smile that makes Marianne’s heart swell. For a moment, everything feels easy again, so easy it hurts, how naturally they can slip back into the way they used to talk and smile together. It is only for a moment, though. Then, Héloïse’s smile falters, lips twitching and eyelids flickering as she tries to keep whatever emotion is threatening to surface at bay.

“I knew she had hired a French painter for her portrait. I didn’t know it was you.”

Marianne isn’t as good at hiding her emotions as Héloïse. She thought she was, Héloïse always wearing her heart on her sleeve and refusing to compromise her feelings for anything or anyone. But time reveals its power here too, because where Héloïse seems to have learned overtime how to conceal everything she doesn’t want to reveal, Marianne’s control over herself is much more elusive. She feels her features twist in response to Héloïse’s words. Maybe not enough to give away what she is feeling, but definitely enough to reveal just how much she is feeling.

“It wasn’t supposed to be me,” she eventually says, forcing herself to keep her voice steady. “She hired my father, but it clashed with another of his commissions, so—”

“So you took his place,” Héloïse concludes for her and Marianne nods.

“The contessa doesn’t bother to hide how annoyed she is with this replacement,” she says with a soft chuckle, but it holds none of the levity from before, and Héloïse doesn’t smile this time. If anything, her face seems to grow even more serious, to the point that Marianne finds herself looking down and away.

“Lucia will complain about anything,” Héloïse simply says. “It is not personal. I know she will love the end result, you are very talented.”

Somehow, the compliment doesn’t bring any joy or gratification to Marianne. She cannot help but think that it’s because of her talent that they are where they are now.

“Thank you,” she whispers flatly, receiving no response in return. She hates this, this rigidity forced upon them by time and society and everything unspoken between them. Indifference would be easier, but she doesn’t have that luxury, nor is she sure that she wants it.

“She is vexing,” Héloïse continues, “but harmless. Don’t let her behavior upset you.”

“It doesn’t,” Marianne replies absentmindedly, still too wrapped in her own thoughts to truly focus on a conversation about someone she has no interest in. In her distraction, she doesn’t pay enough attention to her own words either, and they slip from her lips before she even realizes it. “My annoyance is far greater than hers anyway.”

“Why?”

It’s only because of Héloïse’s question that Marianne becomes aware of what she just said, and that she said it out loud. Her eyes widen and snap up, meeting Héloïse’s questioning gaze. It is too late to backtrack, to pretend that she didn’t mean it, and Héloïse is far too intelligent to buy into any attempt at a diversion, or worse, any lie. Marianne feels her throat close, and the breath she lets out is released through her mouth as a stuttered exhale. She cannot lie, she doesn’t want to, not after seeing Héloïse’s tears during the concert. Making herself vulnerable in return feels as fair as it feels terrifying.

“I…” She closes her eyes for a moment, then she sighs heavily, forcing herself to say it. “I have been avoiding Milan as much as possible.”

When she opens her eyes again, she finds a frown on Héloïse’s face, the crease in the middle of her forehead much deeper and defined than what she remembered.

“I thought you loved Milan,” Héloïse says after a moment of silence.

“I do.”

“And yet you have been avoiding it.”

“Yes.”

Héloïse falls quiet again after Marianne’s reply. She doesn’t ask for an explanation. Her eyes are as piercing as her voice was sharp, tinged with a glint of hurt which tells Marianne that confusion has nothing to do with the hardening of her features. If anything, she has read Marianne’s words far too well.

“I see,” Héloïse eventually says, with a tone so unreadable that Marianne feels the stabbing urge to ask her what she is thinking, to beg her to say it. The look in her eyes stops her, though, her green irises burning with an unspoken emotion so profound and overwhelming in its intensity that Marianne finds herself having to look down again. She closes her eyes and wraps a hand around her neck, her through tight and dry preventing her from breathing properly.

She can feel Héloïse’s gaze on her even like this, and in a moment of cowardice, she regrets telling the truth. Formalities won’t work anymore after what she revealed, this facade they are both holding up feels even more constricting now, suffocating even. She thinks about the pain she would have felt if she had ignored Héloïse’s voice and had walked away without turning back, and she wonders if it would have been better than this, this unbearable pretense of indifference that neither seems ready to break. She doesn’t understand how it is possible to want to be close to someone more than anything in the world, and at the same time to want to run away as far as possible.

Marianne opens her eyes when someone walks past her and brushes against her arm with an apology. They are still in the hall, the buzzing around them slowly dying down as the people who attended the concert make their way out. When Marianne looks up, Héloïse is still looking at her in that same, troubling way. Marianne cannot bear it a second longer.

“Héloïse—”

“I should go home.”

Marianne’s breath catches in her throat. It isn’t the mere interruption that stuns her, it is the abruptness of the shift in the energy between them.

“It’s getting late, and they’re waiting for me.”

Marianne doesn’t know who they are, whether Héloïse’s maids and valets inside a carriage or her family, and she doesn’t want to know. Héloïse herself seems different all of a sudden. Whatever connection had sparked between them as soon as they had reunited, making everything around them disappear, seems to have faded away in the span of a second. All at once, Héloïse doesn’t seem like Héloïse anymore, but just another unknown noblewoman brushing past her.

It is such a jarring transformation that it leaves Marianne speechless, unable to protest even when Héloïse walks past her and starts making her way towards the exit. She doesn’t even move, staring at the now empty space in front of her and wondering if this is all a dream, if she is still in Paris and she is going to wake up with a fever after yet another night imagining someone she cannot have. It is not a dream, though. The ache in her chest would never be that strong if it were.

She turns around when the sound of Héloïse’s steps ceases. She expects to find herself alone, but to her surprise, Héloïse is still there, staring at her by the exit door.

“Will you stay in Milan for long still?” she asks, with a tone that Marianne is still too astonished to try to interpret.

“Yes,” she replies, not bothering to clarifying for how long exactly. Every day in Milan has always felt too long to her, till now.

“Then, if your commitment to the contessa Arese doesn’t keep you, I would like to invite you for breakfast tomorrow.”

Marianne blinks and her lips part in an expression of shock. She knows she must look stupid, funny at least, but no amount of attention to social etiquettes can hide her bafflement this time. She thinks it must be a joke, a cruel joke at her expense for having indulged in thoughts and feelings she should have suppressed years ago. Héloïse keeps looking at her, though, impassive in the face of Marianne’s bewilderment and waiting for an answer.

“I… I have a portrait session in the morning.”

“Then after lunch,” Héloïse replies, too quickly for Marianne to come up with an excuse to reject the invitation. She feels herself nod when Héloïse tells her the name of her residence, her husband’s last name immediately burning itself into Marianne’s brain, alongside made-up images of Héloïse with that man, of their lives together in the house she will now have to visit.

“It’s settled,” Héloïse says, wrapping herself in her expensive cape and opening the door. “I shall see you tomorrow, then. It’s been long, I look forward to our conversation.”

It’s the first time either of them addresses the time gone by since their separation, but just as she mentioned it, Héloïse doesn’t seem keen on discussing it further. She hesitates on the threshold for a moment and looks back at Marianne one last time. Their gazes lock and for one second, even at that distance Marianne recognizes her again, the Héloïse she knew.

“You haven’t changed,” Héloïse whispers. Then she turns around and walks out without looking back.

Marianne doesn’t move, standing in the middle of the hall and staring blankly at the doors that open and close with each person leaving the building. Soon enough, she is the only one left, and even then she cannot move. Instinctively, she reaches inside her pocket and clutches at the small, oval object she carried with her, tight enough to hurt her palm. Her chest tightens even more than before. She cannot scream, though, she cannot even cry. All she can do is remember Héloïse’s burning gaze, and breathe out through her mouth a long, shuddering breath.

Chapter Text

This is a mistake.

Standing in front of the entrance to Palazzo Colonna, Héloïse’s residence, that thought was twisting at Marianne’s stomach and triggering an unprecedented level of anxiety, strong enough to almost make her feel lightheaded. It had taken root inside her head as soon as she had finished her portrait session with the Contessa, or rather, as soon as the Contessa had dismissed her for the day. It had been a disaster, maybe the worst session in her career as a painter, constantly losing focus and having to start over or making trivial mistakes that, if she hadn’t caught herself on time, might have ruined the entire painting for good. Not even in her youth, when she was still practicing her craft by looking at her father at work, had she ever done such a poor job.

She should have taken it as a sign. Something—someone—that troubles her enough to threaten the skills she spent her life mastering, that makes her lose her sleep and her appetite, that makes her hope in the impossible even after all those years, can only lead to bad things.

This is a mistake, Marianne tells herself again, looking at the massive door. She finds herself imagining what is waiting for her on the other side. Héloïse in the comfort of her home, of her family, the evidence of a life she has no place into. It’s been years after all. Héloïse is a Milanese noblewoman, a wife and a mother, she shouldn’t just expect to see how well she adjusted to that life, she should be happy about it. She should want Héloïse to be happy, not miserable. And yet, what she saw yesterday is burned into her mind, the image of Héloïse crying to the same music she had tried to play for her so long ago.

Swallowing against the dryness in her throat, Marianne grabs hold of the heavy, embellished bronze door knocker and knocks twice against the thick wood. She waits with no answer long enough to almost act on the pressing impulse to turn around and run away, an impulse that had grown stronger the closer she had gotten to Héloïse’s house and the time of their meeting, but right before giving in to fear and deciding to leave, the door opens.

It’s a young girl greeting her. A servant or a maid judging by her modest clothes, with dark hair and big, hazel eyes. Marianne cannot imagine her to be older than eighteen or nineteen, and she suddenly finds herself thinking about another young maid. She feels a twinge of discomfort when she realizes just how long it takes her before she can remember what her name was, Sophie.

“Good evening,” Marianne says in Italian. “I’m expected by your mistress. I am—”

“Madame’s friend, yes,” the girl interrupts her, speaking with an accent that confuses Marianne in its familiarity. She opens the door fully and steps to the side, inviting Marianne to walk in. She does so slowly, hesitantly, breathing in deeply through her nose to try and calm her nerves. Still, she is so tense that the sound of the heavy door being closed behind her almost makes her flinch.

She follows the maid down the long corridor and up a wide flight of stairs. The sound of their steps against the marble of the floor resonate loudly in the silence of the building, loud enough to make Marianne aware of just how quiet the place is. She was expecting something entirely different: a swirl of servants and valets at work to make a residence that big function flawlessly day and night, the shrill laughs and rushed steps of a child running around, the imposing figure of Héloïse’s husband making his presence known as she entered his propriety. There is none of that instead, only silence.

They reach a a huge receiving hall, its walls and ceiling adorned with frescos and ornamental engravings carved directly into the stone. She has seen more luxurious places in her life, the rooms of Contessa Arese herself a display of pompousness and opulence meant to remind everyone of her superior status. The rich elegance of Héloïse’s house, though, is enough to make Marianne feel suddenly self-conscious about herself, about the plainness of her dress, despite having picked the fanciest in her possession for this meeting, and she cannot help but think about the simpleness of her brief existence with Héloïse on the French island. What they had shared had filled those bare rooms with enough warmth and light to make them richer in her mind than any golden palace hall.

She is surprised when the maid doesn’t make her stop there but instead guides her through and out of the hall. The walk another corridor and enter a different room, much smaller and plainer than the one before. A table and two chairs are waiting for her.

“Madame will be here shortly,” the maid says, then she bows and quickly exits the room, leaving Marianne alone.

As soon as the young girl is gone, Marianne lets out a shaky exhale, fidgeting with her hands to try and relieve some of the tension that’s making her feel like she is buzzing. She looks at the chair but she doesn’t sit down, unable to keep still while standing, let alone seated. She looks around the room, instead. It doesn’t seem to fit with everything else she has seen of the building. While still elegant, it lacks any sumptuousness, its walls white and plain, adorned only by a refined cornice with floral motifs. There is a sofa in one corner, a closed book seating on top of its cushions, while the front wall is occupied by a big harpsichord. She finds herself barely smiling at the sight of the instrument, feeling a warmth in her chest as memories fill her mind. That smile drops as quickly as it appeared though, when Marianne casually turns around and is stunned into stillness by the sight of the painting hanging on the wall.

She recognizes every feature, every small detail she memorized and immortalized on the canvas. The shape of her ear, the line of her throat, the intensity of her green eyes. She hadn’t painted anyone that way ever again afterwards, because nobody had been like Héloïse, and never again had she felt for anyone what she had felt for her, with her. Even now, staring at the portrait she made, she feels that fierce gaze on her skin, as if she was being observed by the portrait itself.

“My husband loved it.”

Marianne jumps, startled by the sudden voice behind her. She quickly turns around and a gasp gets stuck in her throat when she sees Héloïse there, the real Héloïse. She didn’t hear her enter, she wouldn’t even be able to tell for how long she was standing there, watching her watch the portrait she made.

“Héloïse…” is all she is able to say in that moment, raspy and whispered as her heartbeat slows down and she recovers from the sudden startle. Héloïse doesn’t seem at all troubled by her extreme reaction. She is looking at her with a tepid smile on her face, her expression lacking any coldness or severity but still completely unreadable, even more so than the hard, piercing gaze Marianne remembers from the first time they had met. She blinks when Héloïse tilts her head and looks up at the painting on the wall. Marianne’s stare doesn’t leave her.

“It was a success,” she says, her lips curling up in a way Marianne doesn’t like. “We traveled to Milan three weeks after you left. Giovanni was so impressed by the intensity in your portrait that he didn’t want to wait.”

It takes Marianne a moment to rationalize that Héloïse is talking about her husband. She had heard his name before, but hearing it come out of Héloïse’s mouth so naturally, as if used to saying that name everyday, speaks of an intimacy Marianne doesn’t want to think about. That feeling of discomfort only grows worse when Héloïse turns around and looks at her, the smile on her face now unmistakably mirthless.

“Who knows, maybe if you hadn’t destroyed the first painting, I wouldn’t have had to marry him. A funny thought, don’t you agree?”

Marianne doesn’t find it funny, she finds it sickening. Héloïse’s words re-open a wound that had never fully healed, one she had only grown numb to over time. She doesn’t know what to say. If she should apologize to Héloïse, if that is her goal with saying something so painful or if she has grown so desensitized to their past that she doesn’t realize how deeply her words would cut into Marianne. Héloïse doesn’t give her the time to figure it out, though, because she steps away from her and gestures towards the table.

“Shall we sit?” she says, moving before Marianne can answer. Her gaze follows Héloïse as she walks to the chair, fully taking her in for the first time since she appeared inside the room. She is wearing a blue dress, much more simple than the one she had seen her wear at the opera house. When she sits and folds her hands over her lap, for an instant Marianne feels like she is looking at the Héloïse from her memory. It’s a fleeting image, though, maybe just a figment of her imagination, because as she walks up to her, Marianne starts noticing all the subtle differences that separate the woman she remembers from the one she is looking at now.

Héloïse’s posture is more rigid, stuck in a forced, graceful position that Marianne doesn’t remember seeing if not during their portrait sessions. She seems thinner, or maybe it is only her dress hiding her forms, Marianne isn’t sure. The passage of time reveals itself at its fullest on her face, though, in the small lines at the corner of her eyes, the sharp crease between her brows, the tautness of her jaw despite her seemingly relaxed expression. Marks that are far too defined to be attributed solely to age. Although it feels like a lifetime to Marianne, only a few years have actually gone by since the last time they saw each other, and she cannot help but wonder about everything in Héloïse’s life that might have hardened her to such a degree.

Marianne cannot help but exhale when she sits down in front of Héloïse, tormenting the cuticles of her fingers and then clenching her right hand into a fist. She is surprised to realize just how unnerved she is by Héloïse’s apparent calmness. She doesn’t know what to make of it, anger or bitterness would be easier to understand, to process.

“This is… strange. Isn’t it?” Héloïse eventually says after long moments go by in silence.

“Yes,” Marianne whispers, forcing herself to hold Héloïse’s gaze. She opens her mouth to add something but she is suddenly interrupted by a gentle knock to the door.

“Come in,” Héloïse says out loud, without looking away from Marianne. The painter’s eyes dart to the door, feeling her stomach tie into a knot at the prospect of who it might be, dreading the idea of meeting any member of Héloïse’s family. She sharply breathes out in relief, though, when the door opens and the young maid who greeted her walks in.

She nods her head in a small bow and makes her way to them with a tray in her hands. When she places it carefully on the table, Marianne sees a teapot and porcelain cups next to a plate with biscuits and one with cheese and fruits. What really surprises her, though, is the bottle of red wine, paired with two small crystal glasses.

“I didn’t want to make assumptions, but I figured wine would be more appropriate for this meeting,” Héloïse says, making Marianne realize she noticed her stare. “And I remember it being something you enjoyed, if I’m not mistaken."

Marianne glances at Héloïse but the woman’s expression remains neutral despite the unexpected recalling of their past. Her features soften all of a sudden, though, when she turns to look at the maid, smiling at her with a warmth and genuineness so familiar that they seem to bloom straight from Marianne’s memory. She blinks rapidly to kill the prickling behind her eyes before it can turn into something more intense.

“Merci, Julie,” Héloïse says to the young girl without switching back to Italian to address her like Marianne was expecting. The maid smiles back and bows again to both before walking out and closing the door behind her. Marianne follows her with her gaze the whole way out, but when she turns her head and her eyes find Héloïse again, she immediately stiffens, all warmth gone from the other woman’s face again.

“She is lovely,” Héloïse says, picking a grape from the plate and bringing it to her mouth.

“Julie?” Marianne asks, the name piquing her interest.

“She is French,” Héloïse explains, confirming the reason behind an accent Marianne had recognized right away. “She has been with me for years. My mother hired her for me shortly after my wedding, to make the transition easier.”

Héloïse diverts her gaze for a moment, her eyes suddenly growing distant as if lost in some thought.

“I thought it was a ludicrous idea,” she whispers. “I wanted to hate her for thinking it would be enough to console me.”

It is the first time Marianne hears Héloïse address her feelings about the marriage and the life she was forced into, and she does so with enough melancholy in her voice and eyes that all those mental images of Héloïse as a happy wife that had plagues Marianne throughout the years—and that night more than ever—rapidly start fading away, replaced by much more unpleasant scenarios.

“In the end I was grateful to her, though,” Héloïse continues, shifting her eyes back onto Marianne. “Whether I wanted it or not, Julie was someone I needed. She is more than a servant or a companion to me. She is a friend.”

Marianne can only nod, not knowing how else to respond to these details about Héloïse’s life. Her gaze follows Héloïse’s movements as the woman takes the bottle of wine and fills both glasses with the red liquid.

“My mother wanted her to report to her about my marriage, but she never did,” Héloïse says, bringing the glass to her lips and sipping the wine. “She is completely trustworthy.”

“She must be fond of you,” Marianne replies, trying to do something more than just stare awkwardly at Héloïse in silence. “Being French in a foreign country, your bond must have formed very naturally.”

Héloïse doesn’t answer for a moment, she just looks at her with a face devoid of any expression, but something in her eyes makes Marianne feel as if she just uttered the stupidest sentence she could have thought of.

“It’s not because she is French, it’s because I treat her like a person.”

Héloïse’s voice has grown deep all of a sudden, much lower and strained than barely moments ago, and her words carry a bitterness so sharp and palpable that Marianne finds herself looking down in embarrassment, bunching up the fabric of her gown in her fist and squeezing with all her strength before loosening her shaky fingers.

“My mother never stopped treating people like objects,” she says, gulping down the rest of the wine and immediately filling up her glass again. “She did the same with Julie. Her parting gift.”

She makes a sound with her throat that Marianne isn’t sure is supposed to be a chuckle or a scoff. The painter tries to ignore that disturbing laugh, though, and instead focuses on what Héloïse said, her words catching her curiosity.

“Parting. Did she leave Milan?” she asks as casually as she can, leaning forward to take the glass Héloïse filled for her. She doesn’t receive an answer right away, but when she finally does, in the middle of drinking, she almost chokes on the wine.

“She died.”

Marianne coughs loudly, eyes going wide as the liquid enters the wrong pipe and makes her feel like she is drowning for a moment. She recovers much more quickly from the burning in her throat than from the shock of the news, and her eyes immediately snap up to meet Héloïse’s stare. The woman’s face has stayed impassive to Marianne’s reaction, but the dark look in her eyes is enough to tell Marianne she is telling the truth.

“I… my condolences,” she stutters, not knowing what else to say in the face of the unexpected bereavement.

“It happened long ago,” Héloïse merely says. It makes sense to Marianne, any recent death would have revealed itself in the form of black, mourning clothes. There is no sign of grief in her voice either, making Marianne think the woman must have processed her mother’s death a long time ago, if she cared at all. Marianne isn’t sure of it.

“She died one year after my wedding,” Héloïse continues, tracing the rim of the glass with her fingertips and causing a tinkling sound that makes Marianne shiver. “A sudden illness. The doctors couldn’t do anything. She didn’t get to enjoy Milan like she wanted.”

There is resentment in Héloïse’s words, so intense Marianne can almost taste it. She can understand that anger. Being forced into a life she never wanted to conform to the will of someone who died shortly afterwards must have made her fate seem even more unfair to Héloïse. And yet, when Héloïse looks at her again after glancing away for a moment, Marianne doesn’t find harshness in her eyes, or a twisted satisfaction, but rather an innocence Marianne was not expecting to see.

“When it happened, I thought of it as divine justice. Does that make me a bad person?”

It’s a genuine question, one Marianne doesn’t know how to reply to. She looks at Héloïse and for a moment she only sees the young girl she had fallen in love with, her green eyes wide and searching. They used to carry curiosity back then, an eagerness to learn and absorb as much as possible. They used to carry life, not all the sorrow Marianne can see now.

It’s Héloïse who looks away this time, after silence has stretched between them long enough to make any answer to her question utterly impossible. She blinks and sighs quietly, as if to collect herself, and indeed when she meets Marianne’s gaze again, the painter can see that she seems in control of her emotions again.

“And you? How is your life back in France? Forgive me for not asking yesterday, I thought it would be better to have a more private conversation.”

Marianne is initially taken aback by the question, not expecting the shift not just in mood but in topic as well. Having the attention placed onto herself and her life is destabilizing for a moment. She should have expected it, a conversation entails a mutual exchange. And yet ever since she saw her again, she has been so focused on Héloïse, so wrapped up in her own questions about the woman’s life, that anything she might say about her own sounds trivial in her mind, just another waste of time. It’s not something she can deny to Héloïse, though, if only out of politeness.

“It’s… good,” Marianne eventually says. “Things are good. My father’s work is very requested and I have an art school.”

“A school.”

“For young girls. Different backgrounds, social classes… it’s an experiment but I like it.”

“You do?”

Marianne nods. The tightness in her chest loosen momentarily at the thought of her classes, the memories evoking a light warmth within her that brings a tiny smile to her lips.

“I like teaching. Seeing my students' faces light up when they start improving. It’s a pleasant feeling.”

Héloïse nods in a conventional way of acknowledgment, but her eyes rapidly soften, revealing an honest contentment in response to Marianne’s words. After expecting the rigidity of a formal conversation, after being met with coldness at every turn since they started talking, seeing that unexpected tenderness in Héloïse’s eyes feels liberating to Marianne, a physical feeling akin to breathing better. Héloïse had always been unpredictable to Marianne, though, and just as she thought she had gotten a read on her, Héloïse’s eyes change again, taking on a teasing glint.

“I bet you’re a very strict teacher.”

Marianne is immediately taken aback by that. She opens her mouth to defend herself but she stops, seeing the smirk on Héloïse’s face. She is being playful, Marianne realizes, a realization that tugs at something deep within her chest and makes her purse her lips to suppress a smile that would be too wide to be appropriate.

“You cannot get better without discipline,” she says, quirking up a brow as if to challenge Héloïse.

“Do you whack their hands with a paint brush if they make a mistake?”

She has no doubt anymore about Héloïse’s seriousness, or lack-there-of. It’s such a lighthearted exchange and so in contrast with everything that has come before that Marianne feels authorized to be just as teasing and playful as the woman in front of her. It’s something she desperately needed, she realizes as stiffness gradually leaves her body.

“They need their hands to paint. That wouldn’t be smart.”

“Their backs then?”

Marianne laughs at that, covering her lips with her fingers and shaking her head.

“I want them to come to the school, not to dread it.”

When she looks at Héloïse, the woman is smiling at her. A pure, radiant smile, even more beautiful than how Marianne remembered it. As an artist, she had immediately been captivated with Héloïse’s strong features, the sharpness of her jaw, her lips full but always pressed together to give her an even more stern, unreachable aura. And yet she had discovered how those features could transform, softening and taking on a tenderness and light from her smile all the way to her eyes, an image so mesmerizing and rare that Marianne knew she would never be able to put it on a canvas. It didn’t matter, though, it was impressed into her memory forever. Never since their reunion has Marianne felt the need to kiss Héloïse burn this intensely.

“Serious and sensitive. A combination to swoon for,” Héloïse continues to tease her, clearly enjoying the playfulness of the conversation as much as she is. “You’re really telling me you never lose your patience.”

“I didn’t say that. I may lose patience, but punishing them for mistakes I’ve also done in my youth?”  Marianne shakes her head again and lets out a quiet laugh. “I know I’m not very funny, but I’m not cruel.”

“Who said you’re not funny?”

The words are there, hanging from Marianne’s lips. She almost utters them without thinking, so wrapped in their banter and the appeasing lightness of their conversation that she doesn’t realize what she is about to answer: “You did”.  She catches herself before actually saying it, but it’s too late anyway. Maybe it’s the abrupt way in which she hesitated that gave it away, how she caught her breath when she became aware of what she was about to say, but Marianne sees right away that Héloïse realized which answer she was about to give.

The change is instantaneous. Her loving smile falters and a veil of sadness immediately clouds her eyes, taking away that light that had made Marianne’s heart swell in her chest. They just look at each other in silence, the weight of that unspoken memory growing heavier and more unbearable with each second going by. Eventually neither can take it any longer. Their eyelids flutter rapidly and they look away at the same time to recompose each other. Marianne clenches her teeth tight enough to hurt her jaw. She wants to slap herself, she wants to go back in time to mere seconds ago just to be more mindful and let the moment they were sharing continue. She grimaces at her own naivety. Because for an instant, she had believed they could be just like they were before, as if nothing had changed between them.

When she looks up again and finds Héloïse already looking at her, her face once again an inaccessible mask, she realizes just how stupid that desire was. Everything had changed.

“So tell me more,” Héloïse says, clearing her throat. “Are you married?”

Marianne is glad she is not drinking right now because the sudden question shocks her enough that she knows she would have choked again. She looks at Héloïse with eyes wide and her brows knitted together, as if to silently ask if Héloïse really meant it. The woman’s face stays serious, though, telling Marianne that she is indeed expecting an answer. She forces herself to relax her features but the quiet, defeated breath she exhales still comes out as trembling. All she can do is lightly shake her head.

“No. No, I’m not.”

“Right…” Héloïse says, looking away from Marianne and staring blankly at a spot behind her. Marianne can tell she is thinking about something, she just wishes she could know what. “Right, you didn’t have to.”

There is no animosity in her voice, no grudge attached to her words that Marianne can detect. Still, her stomach tightens uncomfortably with a rising feeling of discomfort. She has the feeling that Héloïse isn’t blaming her, and yet Marianne cannot help but feel guilty for her own freedom. With all the struggles her life entails, she wouldn’t change it for the world, especially in the face of such an intimate imposition like having to marry a stranger.

The conversation makes her think about the one thing, one person, she had told herself not to think about the whole way there, and she finds herself instinctively glancing at the door, feeling immediately distressed at the thought of Héloïse’s husband walking in to introduce himself. Having to interact with him and act like she is honored to is something she isn’t sure she could do, no matter what societal manners dictate.

“Don’t worry, we won’t be disturbed here.” Héloïse’s voice makes Marianne snap out of her thoughts. She looks at the other woman again and finds her gaze focused and present again, once again fixed on her. “This room is for my particular use. Also, we’re alone.”

That catches Marianne’s attention. Curiosity prevails over her restraint and the words fall out of her mouth before she can stop herself.

“What about…” She hesitates, biting at her lip and not knowing how to continue, not knowing if she should continue at all. In the end, she decides to just go for it, inhaling sharply and focusing all her energies on sounding as impassive and unaffected as possible.

“Will I have the pleasure to meet your husband?”

She is surprised by the small chuckle that Héloïse lets out, tinted with derision in a way that doesn’t fit the girl she remembers. Even in her angriest moments, Héloïse had never been scornful.

“Would you consider it a pleasure?” she asks, throwing Marianne off her balance yet again. The painter immediately opens her mouth to object, to find an excuse or a remark that will make her feel like she is in control again, but no words come out. In the end, this bitter dance is too much for her to handle. She lacks the energy to feign indifference, so she just goes with honesty.

“Should I not even pretend I would?”

They hold each other’s stare for a long tense moment, as if both waiting for the other to show a crack in the mask they put up. Marianne wonders if her words are enough to get to Héloïse, if she should have been more assertive in admitting how much she hates the situation. “No, I don’t want to see your husband because it’s going to remind me of the life we couldn’t have.” She isn’t brave enough for that.

“Sorry to disappoint but you won’t meet him,” Héloïse says, breaking the silence. Marianne doesn’t even bother hiding her relief. “He is away. A business trip to Vienna. He took Nicola with him. I think he is too young but Giovanni believes he should start learning already about what his future role will be.”

She has no interest in whatever business Héloïse’s husband is conducting, the second name uttered by the woman captures her focus entirely. It doesn’t spark confusion this time, but recognition.

“Your son.”

“Yes…” There is perplexity in Héloïse’s voice as she answers, her features twisted in a small frown that reveals that Marianne’s realization confuses her in its quickness.

“I saw him before,” Marianne explains, already feeling her voice shake as she recalls the moment. “In Paris. I saw a portrait of you with him. A year ago, I believe.”

Her confession has an effect she was not expecting. The hardness of Héloïse’s features melts away instantly, together with the confused frown that had made her eyes even more piercing. They’re not piercing now, they’re filled with surprise, gleaming with something Marianne cannot identify but that makes the woman in front of her look innocent and vulnerable in a way she hadn’t been since the beginning of their conversation.

“You saw my portrait?” she asks, with a voice so small that Marianne finds herself having to swallow back a lump that suddenly formed in her throat.

“Yes.”

The reaction is immediate, as subtle as it is explosive. In the brief time they had been together, Marianne had grown so accustomed to capturing the smallest details of Héloïse’s face that as soon as cracks start opening in the woman’s mask, Marianne feels herself being able to read her once again. She isn’t confused by Héloïse’s expression this time, every small facet of the emotions she is going through reflect itself on her face. Héloïse's mouth opens slightly, the full bottom lip trembling almost imperceptibly but enough for Marianne’s trained stare to catch, she blinks slowly and repeatedly as if to keep herself from tearing up, but what affects Marianne the most isn’t the glistening of unshed tears. It’s the almost desperate hope she can see in Héloïse’s eyes, as if she is begging her not to stop, to say something that will prove they are thinking about the same thing, that they are feeling the same.

Marianne knows they are. Every time she thinks about the portrait she saw at the French gallery, there is always only one detail that fills her mind and heart, that small number painted at the top corner of the book held by the image of Héloïse, a detail too marked on the canvas to be considered a casual addition by the painter of the portrait. Marianne knows, maybe she just wants to believe it, that Héloïse must have asked for that 28 to be added there. The pleading look in her eyes seems to confirm it, as if imploring her to show that she saw it, that she knows what that number meant.

Marianne wants to say it, to say that she saw Héloïse’s message and hasn’t stopped thinking about it ever since that day. She wants to say it more than anything in the world. But her mind suddenly screams at her to remember another detail from that painting, the first that had shocked her and crushed her heart with sorrow. The child clinging to her mother’s arm, reminding her and everyone else viewing the painting of what Héloïse’s life is now. She thinks about where they are, a house Héloïse shares with someone else, a place where she is only a visitor. She thinks about how in a matter of days she will have to travel back to France and how Héloïse will once again disappear from her life. Admitting something that might bring them close only to lose Héloïse again promises a type of agony Marianne knows she wouldn’t be able to bear again.

She looks away, forcing herself to ignore the hopefulness in Héloïse’s eyes, and lets cowardice shelter her heart.

“Your son is beautiful,” she says, looking at Héloïse again and doing everything she can to keep the emotion out of her eyes and voice.

It’s horrible to witness, the way Héloïse’s face changes again. A new emotion twists at her features, making her eyes burn in a way that fills Marianne with a deep, consuming shame. It’s betrayal, plain and simple. This time, when Héloïse blinks, it isn’t just to force back the tears, but to kill any trace of the emotions she let herself disclose for a moment. Eventually, even betrayal disappears from her eyes. She locks her jaw and her face become cold, colder than ever before, an icy barrier Marianne knows she won’t be able to crack this time.

“He looks like his father,” Héloïse says, her voice just as chilling as her stare. “Except for the hair. For everything else, he’s entirely his son, and Nicola only has eyes for him. You should see them together, it’s a shame they’re not here.”

Marianne winces at that last sentence, the exact opposite of the reassurance Héloïse had given her that she wouldn’t have to meet her family. This feels like rubbing in her face the everyday life she has no place in. She knows she is the one who enforced this formal distance between them, she knows it’s not fair to feel offended that Héloïse would stick to it. Feelings don’t follow logic, though, and the pain remains.

“You must love him deeply,” Marianne says, rubbing salt into a cut opened entirely by her lack of courage. She doesn’t know what she hopes to achieve with this conversation. She doesn’t want to know about the private details of Héloïse’s life and at the same time she is desperate to know as much as possible. Maybe her goal is just to punish herself.

“I love him like my mother loved me and my sister.”

Héloïse’s answer is one Marianne was not expecting, obscure and yet straightforward enough to send a shiver down her spine. Her mind suddenly conjures an image of Héloïse’s mother, her coldness and the sadness in her eyes. Héloïse had such a vibrant spirit that she had never really managed to reconcile the two as mother and daughter. From their short conversations, Marianne had never doubted the genuineness of the countess’ love for Héloïse, but the way Héloïse talked about her death makes her wonder about how she perceived that love, if she perceived it at all. The image of a warm, loving mother she had envisioned thinking about Héloïse and her son doesn’t fit with the comparison Héloïse just established, and it’s such a sad, grim thought that Marianne finds herself hoping that Héloïse is exaggerating in equating herself to her mother.

“There is no higher cause for a woman than to be a good wife and a good mother. That’s what they teach us, isn’t it?” Héloïse continues, to Marianne’s surprise. She had imagined her not wanting to open up about her life after the way Marianne had backtracked, but she keeps talking, each information wringing Marianne’s heart more and more.

“But I gave birth to Nicola and he was given to my husband before I could even hold him. All the congratulations were for him. So, you see. There is a disconnect between the cause and reality. They don’t teach us about that, though.”

Marianne is shell-shocked by Héloïse’s honesty, even more so by the emptiness in her eyes as she reveals something so sinister and intimate. She doesn’t know what to say, rendered almost speechless in the face of such brutal frankness. She did this, she led their conversation onto this path so now she should be able to sustain whatever Héloïse throws at her. It becomes increasingly clearer to Marianne just how excruciating that is.

“I thought a child was supposed to be a mother’s greatest love,” she hears herself mumble, hating the sound of her voice and even more so the words that come out of her mouth, stupid and meaningless in the face of what Héloïse just told her.

“It’s supposed to be, yes,” Héloïse replies after a particularly long pause. “But I struggle to separate him from the way he was conceived.”

Marianne feels herself blanch as a violent wave of nausea makes her stomach churn. Héloïse  doesn’t elaborate further and she doesn’t have to, the images her words evoked are enough for Marianne to almost feel sick. There is nothing she can say this time in response to what she just heard, her lips twitch in a barely restrained grimace and her eyes start filling with tears. She has to blink and look down to hide them, but she has no doubt Héloïse saw the glistening in her eyes anyway.

Instinctively, Marianne clutches at her belly, suddenly finding herself thinking about when she was a little more than a young girl, lying on a mattress and shaking in fear while waiting for the woman she had hired to free her from her unwanted baby. She swallows back the bile and forces herself to look at Héloïse again. The woman isn’t staring back, her gaze is set on the floor, distant and tired in a way that makes Marianne’s chest tighten to the point of pain.

“I’m glad he is a boy,” Héloïse says with a quiet voice. “He’ll be able to choose what to do with his life.”

Marianne has to close her eyes this time to suppress the urge to cry freely. The implications behind Héloïse’s words feel like blades under her skin, slicing at her and reminding her of the the injustice in their fates, and in the difference between them. However hard her life might get, she has that choice that was denied to Héloïse, and she knows she wouldn’t exchange it for anything. She cannot imagine an existence where freedom is precluded to her. Imagining that for the only person she’s ever loved is even more painful.

She lets out a shaky exhale and opens her eyes again. When she looks up, she meets Héloïse’s gaze, no longer blank but set on her face.

“We’re not in public, Marianne.” It’s the first time Marianne has heard Héloïse utter her name since they reunited, and it hits her hard enough to almost knock the breath out of her. “Can we stop pretending?”

The question is even more shocking than hearing her name on Héloïse’s lips. Marianne stares at her in utter astonishment, struggling to cope with all the twist and turns their conversation went through since she entered that room. This is the most jarring one by far. Héloïse had always been direct, but this is a different type of candor, sharper, destabilizing, one that demands nothing less than honesty in return.

“I don’t know if we can,” Marianne whispers eventually, not knowing how else to answer. She is telling the truth, she doesn’t know if they can, or if it’s been too long and pretending is the only thing still keeping them intact. It’s a disheartening thought to have, though, her sadness immediately reveals itself on her face, for Héloïse to see. She doesn’t comment on it, but when she hears her next words, Marianne knows that even if she refuses to compromise herself, Héloïse is trying to make things easier for her. Maybe for both.

“Ask me anything,” Héloïse says. “Anything you want to know. I will answer. Not formalities, not if you’ll have the pleasure to meet my husband, just… what you want to know.”

Countless questions immediately start swirling inside Marianne’s mind, every thought that tormented at night since they separated, everything she’s been dying to know and ask since she saw Héloïse cry in the theater.

“Does your husband treat you well?”

“Do you still think of me?”

“Why were you sobbing yesterday?”

“Do you still love me like I love you?”

She cannot utter any of them out loud, every question dies in the back of her throat, making it progressively harder for her to swallow around the dryness of her mouth. She cannot stay silent, though, not this time. So, she settles on something else instead, the worst thing she could have asked in their situation.

“Are you happy?”

Silence would have been a better choice. Marianne realizes it the second she sees Héloïse’s expression, she looks just as heartbroken as years ago, when Marianne had yet again let her selfishness prevail and put the blame for her pain on Héloïse.

“You’re asking me if I’m happy…” Héloïse whispers even more quietly than Marianne, her voice revealing all her incredulity. Marianne knows what she means. After everything Héloïse revealed, it should be clear just how not happy she is with her life, each confession sounding more and more like a cry for help the longer Marianne think about Héloïse’s pained tone of disbelief.

It’s all she can ask, though. Anything else, anything more unequivocal and sincere requires a vulnerability and a courage Marianne does not possess.

“I need to know,” she chokes out, keeping her voice steady. “So I can—”

“Leave?”

The accusatory tone in Héloïse’s voice pierces Marianne like a knife to her stomach. When she fails to reply, something akin to raw disappointment fills Héloïse’s eyes, stretching her features in a way that brings forth all the lines of time and everything else in Héloïse’s life that hardened her. The corner of her mouth twitches in a way that makes Marianne wonder if Héloïse is actually disgusted with her, she’d understand her if she were.

Héloïse doesn’t say a word about what she is feeling, though. She blinks once, slowly, and in that infinitesimal amount of time, every visible emotion disappears from her face.

“I am happy,” Héloïse says with a voice as hollow as her eyes. “My husband is a good man, I have a young, bright child, and I’m wealthy enough to have every comfort I could ask for.”

It’s like facing a wall of ice. Marianne didn’t want this. She’d rather be confronted with Héloïse’s hatred than with this, this cold shell that used to be the most vibrant, alive person Marianne had ever met.

“Are you saying the truth?” she asks, her voice cracking at the end as the need to cry comes back stronger than ever.

“I’m giving you the answer you need, Marianne.”

That’s not an answer, and definitely not the one she needs. Marianne is so upset she doesn’t know what to think anymore, what to feel, whether she should want for Héloïse’s words to be real because imagining her unhappy or in pain is horrific or whether she should want for her to be lying, to keep her foolish hopes alive. Deep down she knows the truth, but it’s no longer in her hands.

“Héloïse, I—”

“I think I’ve kept you long enough. The tea has gone cold.”

Marianne freezes.

“What?”

“You must have had a very tiring day with your portrait session this morning, and I don’t mean to tire your further by holding you here longer than necessary.”

For a moment, Marianne doesn’t understand what she just heard, as if there was a disconnect between her ears and her brain. But Héloïse’s cold, stern expression tells her there were no mistakes, she means what she said. But what she said seems unbelievable, unthinkable, after what they revealed to each other, through their words and their looks and their silence.

“Are you asking me to leave?” she asks, with the same disbelief she had heard in Héloïse’s voice mere moments ago.

“We have reacquainted ourselves with each other,” Héloïse replies with an indifferent voice. “That was the purpose of this meeting. I thought we might have had more to discuss, but you proved me I’m mistaken. Nostalgia is a tricky thing.”

Marianne looks at Héloïse in shock, feeling more and more lost as Héloïse speaks in a way that voids their reunion of any real importance, making her feel stupid for thinking there could ever be more to it than just a formal meeting. Worse, making her feel like she is the one who destroyed any real chance at making this moment meaningful.

“We have more to discuss,” she protests, physically leaning forward from her chair as if to reach for Héloïse while a growing sense of despair crawls up her throat when Héloïse remains impassive.

“We do?”

It’s a provocation, Marianne realizes it right away. Héloïse is waiting for her to take a step forward, maybe to put herself on the line like she did all those years ago when she had destroyed her first painting. She had been impulsive back then, and she had learned not to be so anymore, preferring a self-imposed detachment to an another heartbreak she would have no control over. It’s not something she can unlearn in a matter of seconds, and she hesitates one moment too long.

“I’m very glad to hear that everything is going well for you,” Héloïse says before Marianne can even try to say something. “I hope we’ll be able to do this again before you go back to France, but I’ll understand if we can’t. Meeting you again was a pleasure, Marianne.”

Marianne stares at Héloïse in utter dismay but the woman has turned her face away from her, fixing her eyes on a spot on the wall and refusing to meet her gaze. The finality of that pose and of her words before that is crushing.

This isn’t a mask she’ll be able to break through, it’s definitive. Héloïse has entirely cut herself off from interacting with her, putting an end to the conversation without giving Marianne any choice. Maybe if she stood up and shook Héloïse by the shoulders, if she reminded her of all the time they wasted in the past and told her that her feelings for her haven’t changed, then Héloïse would listen. But she doesn’t even feel like she is staring at Héloïse anymore. She feels like a stranger, another Italian noblewoman dismissing her after being done with her.

It’s with a mix of defeat and resentment that Marianne stands up from the chair, flattening the wrinkles of her gown and straightening her back. She keeps her stare on Héloïse as she waits to see if she will get up and walk her out, if she will acknowledge her at all, but Héloïse doesn’t move. That’s when resentment prevails.

“Thank you for inviting me, Signora Colonna,” Marianne says bitterly. As soon as she says that, she sees a muscle clench in Héloïse’s jaw, tight enough to be visible through the skin.

“Julie will escort you to the exit,” Héloïse replies with a croaked voice without looking at her.

Marianne doesn’t prolong this shared misery any longer. She bows stiffly and leaves the room without turning back. She walks down the corridor twice as fast as she had when she had arrived. She has almost reached the receiving hall when she hears a loud crash behind her, the piercing sound of something shattering against a wall. She thinks about the crystal glasses on the table, or the porcelain plate with all the untouched food on top.

She doesn’t have to imagine the pain one must feel to need to let it out by throwing something across a room, she knows it intimately. Still, she keeps walking, not once turning around.

Chapter Text

“This is marvelous!”

The Contessa’s strident laugh pierces through Marianne’s eardrums, making the awful headache that had been plaguing her for days even more annoying. She does her best to hide it, though, pursing her lips together and forcing a tight smile on her face.

“Are you pleased, Contessa?”

Lucia ignores Marianne’s question, making her way across the huge room to fetch her husband from the couch where he was reading. Marianne is surprised by the lack of protest on his part when the woman snatches the book from his hands and makes him get up, guiding him in front of the painting Marianne had just finished.

“Come look at it, dear. Isn’t it beautiful?”

The man makes a humming sound Marianne isn’t sure how to interpret. He barely looks at the portrait at all before mumbling something about work commitments and leaving the room without another word. Any other time, a reaction of that kind to her work would have troubled her, but the complete disregard on the Contessa’s part for her husband’s behavior is enough to tell Marianne about who is the real dominating personality in the household.

“I have to say, I didn’t think you would manage,” the Contessa says, observing the painting from up-close while rubbing at her chin with her fingers. “I had to guide you so often, it would have never happened with your father.”

Marianne has to bite the inside of her cheek to hold back a snappy remark. The woman is right in a way, Marianne herself wasn’t sure she would manage to finish it, but where the Contessa seems happy to lay the blame on her, Marianne remembers all the times she had stopped her and made her fix details she wasn’t pleased with. She had complained about every wrinkle and line of age until Marianne had realized what she truly wanted and had made her look like a porcelain doll despite being at least twenty years older than her.

“My talent is nowhere near my father’s, Contessa,” Marianne merely says, favoring professionalism over pride.

“Yes, yes, true. But after that awful session, you finally committed to the work. You captured my essence beautifully.”

The pounding in Marianne’s head expands behind her eyes and grows close to unbearable when the Contessa’s words suddenly make her recall that portrait session, and the events of that day.  Four days ago. She hadn’t seen Héloïse since, hadn’t heard a single thing from her either. She had thought about meeting her again over and over during their years apart, she had dreamed their reunion, to be able to see her again, to touch her. Nothing could have prepared her for how brutally different reality had turned out to be compared to her dreams. Just thinking about how they had separated brings back the tightness in her chest, strong enough to make her ache.

“Are you listening, Marianne?”

The Contessa’s piercing voice pulls Marianne out of her thoughts. She blinks rapidly to regain focus and nods, fixing her eyes on the woman’s face and smiling again.

“How long are you planning to stay still?” Marianne opens her mouth to answer but the Contessa doesn’t even let her speak before interrupting her. “Because if you don’t have to go back to France immediately, I could consider having you paint a family portrait in addition to mine. It would look beautiful in the entrance hall.”

That, Marianne was not expecting. After the constant whining and complaints the Contessa had voiced against her throughout her work, the painter could have never imagined her to commission her another painting. Her mind immediately goes to what it could mean for her, the added money she could bring back home and use for her school. A zing of pain behind her eyes, though, quickly reminds her just how horrible it had been to work for the Contessa. She imagines doing it again, for even more members of a family she has no liking for, and the thought almost makes her grimace.

She has always been extremely professional, working even under the most extreme duress or for the most horrible clients. But that was always when she was at her best. She isn’t at her best now, not mentally and especially not emotionally, and all she can think about is just how desperate she is to leave Milan and forget everything that happened, to go back to an existence where she can preserve the memory of what she had with Héloïse without it being tainted by reality.

“Thank you, Contessa, but I’m not sure I—”

“Do not make me ask again, it’s terribly vulgar,” the Contessa cuts her off with a scoff. “You should consider it an honor, to be asked for more work by one of the richest families in Milan.”

Marianne can hear the disdain in the woman’s voice. She knows the type, used to always getting what they want, never receiving a ‘no’ for an answer. Marianne had met plenty of people like that in her career, and they had all only made her more resolute in sticking to her positions. It had been often been a reason for contention with her father, they’d had countless arguments about how her strong character had kept her career from fully flourishing, but Marianne had met enough arrogant, pretentious male painters to know that her personality had nothing to do with it. The more she had been told to submit, the more stubborn she had become.

“It is an honor,” Marianne says with the fakest smile she is capable of. “And I’m sure you would have no issue with honoring someone else if I were unable to stay.”

She takes great satisfaction in the comically loud, outraged gasp that comes out of the Contessa’s mouth.

“You are very insolent, do you know that?”

“I didn’t have the privilege to be raised in a noble family like yours.” She bows her head in a parody of the respectful gesture. “My father did what he could after my mother’s passing, but I am clearly lacking, as your ladyship reminds me.”

“Clearly…” The Contessa says slowly, with a voice cold enough that Marianne is sure she perceived the mockery in her tone. The woman doesn’t comment further on it, though, and goes back to looking at the painting with a frustrated huff.

“Well, at least you can paint,” she says, sizing Marianne up and down with a glance. “Tell me, are you married?”

Marianne shakes her head.

“Now, that does not surprise me. I don’t know a man who would want to put up with a woman so impudent.”

Marianne ignores the comment. She knows the Contessa meant to insult her, but her words don’t touch her in any way. Independence is the thing she cherishes the most about her life, not having a man in it to dictate what she should or shouldn’t do is a blessing to her, not a tragedy.

“I will talk to my husband about the painting,” the Contessa continues. “If he agrees, I hope I can considered your services reserved already.”

“I will let you know, Contessa.”

“I can’t believe this!” the woman bursts out after yet another rejection. “You’re such a—”

Whatever offense was about to slither out of the Contessa’s mouth is cut off by a sudden knock on the door.

“What?!” the Contessa all but yells. The door opens a moment after, and a young servant walks in. She bows quickly, keeping her eyes on the floor as she addresses her mistress with a meek, timid voice.

“Forgive the interruption, Contessa.”

“Well, you interrupted us already, Emilia,” the Contessa replies with an annoyed voice. Marianne doesn’t miss the way the maid flinches, and her antipathy for the woman who was trying to demand more of her services grows tenfold. "What is it?”

“Your guest just arrived. She is—”

“Already?” the Contessa interrupts her with a loud puff. “She is early, does nobody care about manners anymore?”

“Should I make her—”

“Let her in, Emilia.”

Marianne turns to look at the Contessa once the maid nods and leaves.

“If you have guests, I can leave.”

The Contessa shakes her head.

“I can introduce you to her, you can stop with us for tea.”

Marianne wasn’t expecting the invitation. Even with her deep dislike for the woman, she knows declining the offer would be an insult too big after all the defiance she had already shown. She is quick to nod and accept this time, with the hope of being introduced to a very chatty guest who will entertain the Contessa and allow her to disappear in the background.

“Of course,” Marianne says. “I’d be very—”

She doesn’t finish the sentence. The sound of the door opening again catches her attention and the moment she turns around to look, she freezes, going completely still at the sight of Héloïse walking inside the room. The blonde woman stops, too, when she locks gazes with Marianne, the shock evident in her green eyes as she stands completely stiff on the door step.

“Héloïse, my dear. You’re early!”

The Contessa is loud in the way she greets Héloïse, striding across the room to welcome her guest. Héloïse doesn’t seem to even notice the woman approaching her. She keeps her eyes on Marianne instead, her features even more rigid than the rest of her body. It’s clear to Marianne that she is just as surprised as her. It shouldn’t be this shocking, Marianne remembers their conversation in the theater, how Héloïse had told her she knew the Contessa. It made sense that she would come visit a friend. For some reason, though, she never would have imagined to meet the other woman again under these circumstances. She wasn’t even sure they would meet again at all after the way they had separated.

It’s only when Lucia is standing almost in front of her, obscuring Héloïse’s view of Marianne, that the blonde woman seems to remember where she is. In the blink of an eye, she looks away from Marianne and smiles flatly at the Contessa, her face changing yet again in that same way Marianne witnessed during their troubled reunion. She hates it, Marianne realizes, just how easy it seems to be for Héloïse to put on mask after mask and make herself inaccessible for everyone, her included.

“Am I really?” Héloïse says, kissing the older woman’s cheek. “My apologies, Lucia. I didn’t realize.”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter now. I’ll use this opportunity to introduce you two. Come.”

Marianne feels uncomfortably tense when she sees them walk up to her, her stomach twisting the closer they get. The feeling only gets worse when she sees Héloïse’s face from up-close, seemingly completely indifferent to her presence after recovering from the initial surprise. It’s so upsetting it takes Marianne a moment to remember that she is supposed to bow, Héloïse belonging to a much higher social class than her.

“Marianne, this is Héloïse Colonna, the wife of Giovanni Colonna. She is French, like you,” the Contessa says with an amused smile not shared by anyone else in the room. Marianne keeps her head down, prolonging her bow longer than formalities require. She doesn’t know how she is supposed to act, whether she is supposed to pretend she never met Héloïse before or not. Getting any hint from Héloïse’s impassive face is utterly impossible.

“Marianne est peintre,” the Contessa tells Héloïse in French when Marianne pulls herself up. She seems awfully proud of the few words she managed to put together in the foreign language, uttered with such a terrible accent that Marianne almost didn’t recognize her own language. She is glad when the woman switches back to Italian. “She just finished my portrait, she’s going to do one for my family too.”

She doesn’t even care about protesting with the Contessa this time. The discussion from before seems completely unimportant now, and Marianne is unable to do anything if not looking at Héloïse, trying to find a sign in her green eyes, an emotion, that will tell her what the other woman is feeling. She cannot help but remember the coldness with which Héloïse had exhorted her to leave, and the even colder way in which she had retaliated, addressing Héloïse by using her married name.  Marianne doesn’t see anything, though. Whatever hurt she might have caused, Héloïse is guarding it carefully.

“Do you know her work, Héloïse?” the Contessa asks, reminding Marianne they weren’t alone in the room. For a moment, Héloïse doesn’t say anything, holding Marianne’s questioning stare. Then she turns to face the Contessa.

“Vaguely,” she says. It’s the answer Marianne was looking for, that single word enough to confirm the distance Héloïse is choosing to put between them, as if they shared nothing in the past if not a business transaction.

“I’m sure you have talent if Lucia is requesting you,” Héloïse continues, barely glancing at the painting. Her voice is as empty as her eyes, re-awakening that same pain and bitterness Marianne had felt during the last moments of their disastrous reunion.

“Thank you,” she just says, taking on the same detachment that Héloïse decided for both.

“Oui, oui,” the Contessa cuts in, completely oblivious to the tension between the two women. “She is as talented as she is stubborn. What is the French word for stubborn, Marianne?”

“Têtue.”

Têtue,” the Contessa repeats, butchering the word with her pronunciation. “I’ve been asking Héloïse to teach me French for years but she always has an excuse. I’m starting to wonder if impertinence is a trait peculiar to all French women.”

She laughs, and Marianne loathes the sound. She has met enough people like her to know that jokes and humor of that kind are just a way to be insulting without having to bear any consequence.

“I’m hardly impertinent, Lucia, you know me,” Héloïse replies, keeping her voice light and friendly, but the smile on her face is so fake and artificial that Marianne for once has no doubt about Héloïse’s real feelings towards the woman. “Much like I’m hardly French anymore.”

For some reason, Marianne hates that final comment more than any offense or disrespectful remark she had to hear from the Contessa all day. It seems to put even more distance between them, like she and Héloïse have absolutely nothing in common anymore, not even where they come from.

“Are you saying that marriage changes one’s identity?” The words are out of her mouth before Marianne can stop herself. She holds Héloïse’s stare when the other woman looks at her, frowning just barely at the unexpected question.

“See? What did I say? Impertinence!” the Contessa with a baffled huff, but Héloïse fails to react. Not in any apparent way at least, but Marianne doesn’t miss the pronounced crease that appears on her forehead when she knits her brows together, the slight twitch at the corner of her mouth.

“It’s mere curiosity,” Marianne replies, bowing her head briefly to the Contessa before setting her eyes back on Héloïse. “Forgive me if I overstepped, Signora Colonna.”

That twitch Marianne had noticed becomes even more evident, turning into a nervous tic in Héloïse’s jaw. Despite her apparent calmness, Marianne can tell she was affected by how she chose to address her, the same way she had when they had parted ways.

“What I’m saying is that my whole life is here,” Héloïse eventually replies, her voice quiet but hard in a way Marianne feels like punch to the stomach. “France has nothing to offer me anymore.”

They are hurting each other, each word seems to carry an invisible, sharp edge made to cut through their barriers and wound them. And every new wound doesn’t just make them hurt, it makes them aggressive.

“Thank you for explaining,” Marianne says, never taking her eyes off Héloïse. “I wouldn’t know, I don’t have to marry.”

This time, Héloïse’s reaction is unmistakable. The Contessa doesn’t notice anything, but Marianne takes in every detail of the almost violent way in which her words affect Héloïse. Her body goes rigid like a block of ice, she tugs her bottom lip between her teeth, and that hard, blank expression in her eyes fades away, replaced by such stark disbelief and hurt that Marianne immediately regrets letting her emotions get the best of her.

Guilt washes over her in waves, twisting at her stomach and making it unbearable to keep facing Héloïse like this. Still, she holds her stare, trying to communicate a silent apology through her eyes. She has no doubt Héloïse saw it, but it’s too late. Her green eyes darken and she turns away from Marianne with a sharp intake of breath, cutting herself off entirely from the painter’s reach.

“We were discussing exactly this before you arrived, Héloïse,” the Contessa says with a smile, unaware of the deeper meaning behind their exchange. “Marianne seems to have very different values and priorities than the ones you and I share.”

“Have you known each other for long?” Marianne asks, squeezing her eyelids shut clearing her throat to keep any trembling out of her voice. The word ‘share’ doesn’t sit right with her. She cannot imagine Héloïse sharing anything with a woman like Lucia. But maybe she is wrong, because she thought she and Héloïse had shared something that, even if fleeting, was profound enough to resist time and space, but everything that’s happened makes her doubt that certainty more and more. It seems grotesque to even think about it, that even someone like the Contessa might have come to know Héloïse better than her, but after all those years, it’s not as impossible as Marianne wants it to be.

“Our families are often in business together,” the Contessa explains, making her way across the room to pull at the velvet cord hanging from a wall and call for tea. Marianne tries to keep her annoyance away from her face as the Contessa walks back to them. She dreads the prospect of spending the afternoon there and entertaining pointless, formal conversations without being able to truly talk to Héloïse.

“My husband has known Héloïse’s husband since he was younger than her,” Lucia continues, stopping right next to Héloïse and looking at her with her huge, exaggerated smile. “Dear Héloïse didn’t know anyone when she arrived, so I took it upon myself to introduce her to the Milanese society after her wedding. Or at least I tried, she turned out to be much more evasive than I thought.”

Marianne cannot help but glance at Héloïse. She remembers that evasion, how difficult it had been for her to even get a glimpse at Héloïse’s face when she had arrived on the island. How laying her eyes on her for the first time had left her craving for more of those features, far beyond what she needed to complete the portrait.

“I came from a very different reality, Lucia,” Héloïse merely replies with a neutral tone.

“Of course, of course. It takes time to adapt. Milan definitely made you warm up, though.” The Contessa lets out a small laugh and then turns to Marianne. “You should have seen her at the beginning. I’ve never seen a bride smile so little on her wedding day.”

Marianne stiffens at the mention of Héloïse’s wedding. She doesn’t want to imagine her on that day, but curiosity eats at her, generating images in her brain about Héloïse in her wedding dress, a man she has never seen kissing her in front of a crowd, her face serious and inaccessible. There is no good scenario for her, imagining Héloïse happy or unhappy hurts the same, just in very different ways.

“Were you at the wedding, Contessa?”

“She was,” Héloïse quickly answer with a muted aggressiveness Marianne was not expecting. She glares at Marianne for a moment before looking at the Contessa again, but it’s enough to make Marianne’s throat close painfully. She understands Héloïse’s hostility after what she said, but knowing she deserves it only makes it hurt more.

“What a beautiful day!” The Contessa claps her hands, sighing loudly as if lost in the memory for a moment before smiling again at Héloïse. “I will admit, I was holding on to the hope that Giovanni would eventually marry my Anna, but when I saw you in your wedding dress, I understood him.”

She is smiling the whole time but Marianne observes and studies people for a living, and she immediately notices the malice underneath that mask of pleasantries, the real envy hidden in her words. There is something insulting in how she looks at Héloïse and says: “Héloïse was like a Siren. The allure of a foreign beauty is irresistible.”

She doesn’t have to wonder what Héloïse is feeling this time. They have changed but some telling signs have remained the same, and seeing Héloïse quickly rub her thumb over her lips and look away is more revealing than a thousand words.

Marianne is glad when they are interrupted by the same maid who had announced Héloïse’s arrival, timidly walking inside the room to serve tea before being dismissed just as rudely as before. For a long time, they sit at the table and talk about nothing. Mostly, it is the Contessa who speaks, at such a constant rate that Marianne thinks she must love the sound of her voice more than her own family. Héloïse replies whenever the Contessa addresses her, but she looks just as disinterested as Marianne is, and the painter finds herself thinking about the conversations she had shared with her, how fascinated she had been by the young woman’s intelligence, superior even to her beauty despite being raised to care only about the latter.

There is nothing of that intellectual stimulation now. The Contessa chats about curtains she purchased, she compares them to the awful decorations newly installed in the house of a noble family Marianne doesn’t know, she gossips about the questioned virtue of a young bride-to-be. It’s the kind of vacuity Marianne despises, so she is glad to be mostly ignored throughout the conversation. Silence is a better alternative.

“Nicola is growing up so fast,” the Contessa says after taking a long sip of tea. In the midst of all the nothingness she had been talked about for more than one hour, that catches Marianne’s attention. She immediately recognizes the name of Héloïse’s son.

“How old is he now?”

“Almost five,” Héloïse answers.

“Heavens, time goes by so quickly,” the Contessa says, moving her hands to her face in an expression of surprise. It’s the one time Marianne finds herself agreeing with her. Every day after their separation dragged slowly, achingly, and yet at the same time it feels like no time at all has passed since she had to leave Héloïse. Forever, she had thought back then.

Lucia’s next question takes her out of her thoughts again, and this time her words don’t only elicit curiosity within Marianne, but rather a discomfort intense enough to make her almost nauseous.

“Any exciting news I should be privy to?” the Contessa asks with a mischievous grin, looking down at Héloïse’s belly. “A little brother or sister for Nicola on the way?”

Marianne can feel her own features twist, her eyebrows knit together in a frown and her lips part, but she cannot stop it. She looks at Héloïse and this time the woman holds her gaze, long enough to make Marianne’s stomach tie into a knot. There is nothing weird about the question other than maybe its inappropriateness, but Marianne hates the Contessa for asking. The possibility that Héloïse might be expecting a second child hadn’t crossed her mind and she dreads the answer, the implications behind it. It hits her just as hard as seeing Héloïse’s child painted next to her had.

Héloïse stays quiet for long seconds, slowly finishing up her tea. She puts down the cup on the table, staring at it for a moment. Then, she looks up at the Contessa, and Marianne feels a wave of relief wash over her when she sees her shake her head.

“I’m not pregnant, Lucia.”

“Now, that’s a shame,” the Contessa says with a disappointed huff. “You should give your husband a second child. Nicola is old enough he doesn’t need his mother’s full attention anymore.”

Marianne is relieved when she sees the noblewoman stand up. She and Héloïse do the same after finishing their tea, and follow the Contessa in a walk around the room, to stretch their legs after being seated for so long. She was hoping Lucia would change the subject, that she would go back to gossiping about scandals, but she has no luck this time.

“You should try once Giovanni is back,” the Contessa insists on the same topic, emboldened by Héloïse’s lack of protest and growing more and more invasive. “I have no doubt he’d be thrilled. I still remember my dear Paolo’s happiness when I told him I was with child the second time.”

“We are fine for now,” Héloïse simply says. Marianne cannot see her face, they’re walking each on one side of the Contessa, any attempt at looking at her would be seen by Lucia too. Still, she cannot help but try to steal a glance, looking to the side as much as possible without turning her face. She can only see the blurry shape of Héloïse profile, her full lips curved down in a serious expression, the square jaw clenched tight.

“That’s just nonsense. I’m sure Giovanni desires it more and more as time goes by.”

The Contessa stops after completing a full round of the room. She turns around, facing Héloïse, and Marianne takes the chance to do the same and fully look at the woman. She hates what she sees as much as she hates the conversation they’re having, Héloïse’s expression of cold resignation doesn’t resemble at all the fire that used to characterize her.

“In all frankness, since I’m older than you and we’re friends, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner,” the Contessa says, sizing Héloïse up and down and then looking at her with a suggestive glint in her eyes. “I would imagine him unable to take his eyes off of you. And well, his hands.”

Marianne feels her stomach churn violently. The Contessa’s words act like a poison, infecting her mind with thoughts and images she doesn’t want. Picturing Héloïse’s wedding was bad enough, but picturing her husband touching her is close to unbearable. She hasn’t forgotten Héloïse’s words, how she had alluded to the most disturbing consequence of having to marry a stranger. The tired, hollow look in her eyes had haunted Marianne for days afterwards.

Marianne looks at Héloïse, no longer knowing what to hope to see on her face. The woman isn’t looking back, she isn’t even looking at the Contessa. Instead, her eyes are downcast, fixed on the floor, her hands are clasped together in front of her only apparently in a resting position. Marianne remembers studying Héloïse’s hands, feeling them on her body, so it’s easy for her to notice the tension underneath the skin, the taut tendons betraying all the distress she is keeping out of her face. More than anything, Marianne wishes she could reach out and hold her hand.

“Don’t you find that Héloïse has one of the most peculiar faces you’ve ever seen, Marianne? I was struck by her features as soon as I saw her.”

Marianne barely registers the question. She keeps looking at Héloïse, desperate for the other woman to meet her gaze. She cannot bear this distance, she loathes herself for having added to it with her pride and bitterness. The anger she had felt seems so petty now, it had vanished immediately, but the guilt she feels in response to the hurt she caused grows more and more crushing with each second.

Héloïse eventually looks up, and the moment her green eyes find her, Marianne immediately tries to convey how sorry she is for everything that happened and everything she did. She no longer cares about outsmarting Héloïse , about figuring out what emotions she is trying to hide. She just wants to repair their connection, whatever is left of it.

“Marianne? Have you lost your tongue all of a sudden?”

The Contessa’s insisting, high-pitched voice snaps Marianne out of the moment. She blinks rapidly and looks at her, doing a brief, apologetic nod with her head.

“I’m sorry, Contessa. Yes, she does.”

She turns her head in Héloïse’s direction. Despite the Contessa’s words, she doesn’t have to study her face. She has carried it in her heart for years.

“You are remarkable,” she whispers, and when Héloïse’s eyes soften in response to her words, Marianne’s chest tightens with the aching need to close the space between them and kiss her until they forgot they were ever apart.

“She has one of those faces artists just love, doesn’t she?” the Contessa continues. “If I was still young and I looked like her, I would— oh!”

She stops, suddenly, her silence even more noticeable after her constant chattering, and both Marianne and Héloïse stare at her, taking in the excited expression that appears on her face.

“I just had an idea! Marianne, why don’t you do a portrait of Héloïse?”

Marianne freezes. The curiosity sparked by the Contessa’s reaction turns into dread, so sudden and intense that a shudder runs down her spine.

“You mean… you mean now?”

“Yes, of course. We’re here and you have your tools. I’d love to see what you can create with her as your model. Would you like that, Héloïse?”

Marianne turns to look at Héloïse, and a painful lump forms in her throat at the sight. That elusive softness she had seen in the woman’s eyes has disappeared entirely. Marianne sees no warmth there, but no coldness either. The hard mask Héloïse had put on for most of their meeting would have been a less troubling sight, because the discomfort Marianne sees on Héloïse’s face is so evident and intense it seems to verge on fear.

“Lucia, thank you but—”

“You could do the sketching today,” the Contessa continues, interrupting Héloïse. “Because at this hour of the afternoon maybe the light isn’t that good anymore. And then you can come back tomorrow to continue.”

“Lucia.” Héloïse repeats, with a firm enough tone to make the older woman listen to her. “I don’t need a portrait. I don’t enjoy posing.”

“Every woman enjoys posing when it is for a good artist and Marianne is a great artist,” the Contessa says with a dismissive wave of her hand, completely undeterred by Héloïse’s protest. “There’s no need to act shy, my dear. Marianne is going to make you look beautiful, aren’t you, Marianne?”

Marianne remains silent, completely at loss for words in the face of the unexpected, unsettling turn of events. She doesn’t want to do it, she doesn’t want to paint Héloïse for someone else’s entertainment, not with what her last portrait of her meant for both. She cannot bring up their past as a reason to refuse, though, and even if she could force her brain to function and come up with a decent excuse, the Contessa cares about her opinion less than she cares about her servants. Her desires are the only thing that matters to her.

“It could be a gift to Giovanni, for when he comes back!” the older woman says, making everything infinitely worse. Marianne immediately searches for Héloïse’s eyes, but Héloïse isn’t looking back. Her gaze is fixed, unblinking. She has moved past looking distressed, Marianne realizes with concern, she looks positively nauseous.

“Lucia…”

“Oh, what a splendid idea I had. This is perfect!” the Contessa says, clapping her hands. “And don’t worry, Héloïse. I’ll pay for it, this is a gift to a friend. Marianne, fetch your things.”

When Marianne fails to move, the Contessa loudly snaps her fingers, drawing Marianne’s attention from Héloïse’s face to hers, her small eyes scrunched up in an irritated expression.

“What, you didn’t hear me? Move, quick!” she orders, glaring at her. Marianne looks past the Contessa, desperate for Héloïse to meet her gaze and give her a hint on what to do but Héloïse seems paralyzed, completely still if not for the involuntary clenching of her jaw. When the Contessa says her name again, almost threateningly so, not knowing what else to do, Marianne moves.

She walks up to the stall next to the easel with the Contessa’s painting still on, collecting her dirty brushes with shaky hands, but she stops after a moment, glancing in Héloïse’s direction. Her complying to the Contessa’s order seems to have shaken Héloïse out of her paralysis. Marianne is shocked to see that she is looking right back at her, with an expression she doesn’t know how else to describe if not as panic.

“Walk closer, dear. Marianne needs to be able to look at you,” the Contessa says, walking up to Héloïse and taking her arm to try to make her move. Héloïse doesn’t budge, though.

“Lucia, I told you I don’t want to.”

“Why are you so stubborn? You’ve posed before, there’s no reason to be shy. Besides, you know how beautiful you are. Isn’t she beautiful, Marianne?”

Marianne doesn’t answer, feeling more and more disturbed by Héloïse’s anguish, so evident not just in her eyes but in the sudden paleness of her face.

“Come on now, don’t be rude,” the Contessa says. “This is a gift after all.”

“I said no.”

“Contessa, maybe I shouldn’t—”

“Marianne, come here so you can study Héloïse’s features,” the older woman continues unbothered, cutting off Marianne’s feeble attempt at protesting. Marianne doesn’t move, but her eyes go wide when she sees Lucia reach up with her hand and grab Héloïse’s face.

“What— stop it,” Héloïse chokes out, pulling back to evade the Contessa’s touch, but she persists, trying to twist Héloïse’s face from side to side like a doll to expose.

“Marianne, want to hurry before we lose the remaining daylight? I don’t want you to miss a single detail of this marvelous face.”

“Lucia—”

“And Giovanni will be delighted! He will see the portrait and—”

“ARRÊTEZ!”

The silence that falls into the room after Héloïse’s scream is louder than an explosion. Marianne feels her brushes fall from her hand but she doesn’t react, unable to do anything if not stare in shock at Héloïse. She has teared herself away from the Contessa’s touch, violently enough to make the older woman stumble back in horror. Her chest heaves with her heavy panting, the only sound that can be heard in the room, and her eyes are glistening, the green of her irises standing out even brighter behind the veil of unshed tears.

It’s a horrible scene, one that Marianne doesn’t remember having ever witnessed before. She remembers their argument on the island, the tears in Héloïse’s eyes and the trembling in her voice. She remembers how much seeing her like that had hurt, but even at the highest moment of her anger, Héloïse had never had an outburst of that kind. She doesn’t want to imagine what Héloïse must have felt now to react so violently, but then their eyes meet for the briefest moment and Marianne sees that emotion behind Héloïse’s tears, something indefinable but visceral enough to tie Marianne’s stomach into a knot and make her want to cry too.

“I’m…” Héloïse mumbles, her eyes darting back and forth between Marianne and the Contessa. She angrily rubs her face and pushes out of the way a strand of hair that had come loose.

“My apologies, I—” Marianne has never seen her like this, so completely lost. She glances at the Contessa and loathes what she finds, her dark eyes fixed on Héloïse and an expression of bewilderment verging on revulsion. It takes Marianne one look to know the older woman is not going to forget or forgive Héloïse’s reaction, despite being the one who triggered it to begin with.

“I feel unwell. Forgive me, Lucia,” Héloïse says with a stiff voice. Then, she bows her head quickly and without warning, she walks away and leaves the room.

Marianne flinches when the door falls closed. She stares at it, completely stunned by what just happened. She keeps seeing Héloïse’s eyes, the sheer intensity of the pain and anger reflected in them. She had been wondering about Héloïse’s spirit, that fierceness that had enraptured her from the start, and whether it had survived a life of impositions. She had secretly hoped it had after seeing the hidden number in Héloïse’s portrait, and had lost that same hope after their terrible reunion. The outburst she just witnessed only complicates everything for Marianne, making her even more unsure about what she should think, or feel. The only thing she knows is that she cannot go back to France without talking to Héloïse first, not after having seen that look in her eyes.

“I can’t believe this…” The Contessa’s voice catches Marianne’s attention, reminding her she is still there in the room with her. Marianne turns to look at her when the older woman steps next to her, red in the face and frowning.  “Can you believe this? Did you see how violently she pushed me away?!”

She scratches at the exposed skin of her chest, just as flushed as her cheeks, and lets out a sound akin to a growl. She doesn’t wait for Marianne to reply to her question, more interested in venting out her anger than in discussing what happened.

“That woman…I’ve always thought she was strange. She should have stayed in France, let Giovanni marry my Anna. He is wasted on her.”

Marianne closes her eyes, rubbing them with her fingers and letting out a quiet sigh. She doesn’t want to hear her insult Héloïse, she doesn’t even want to be there. She opens her eyes and looks at the closed door again, trying to fight back the urge to run after Héloïse.

“He isn’t even happy with her, you know?” Marianne turns to the Contessa at her words. The older woman nods vigorously to highlight what she just said, and starts walking towards the sofa to sit down.

“My husband told me, Giovanni confided in him. He told him she is as cold as a corpse, how horrible is that? He suspected she had a lover, even. That poor man… my daughter would have never behaved like that.”

Marianne stops listening. Her eyes dart back to the door, all restraint forgotten. She just hopes it’s not too late already.

“I’ve tried to be kind to her but—”

“Excuse me.”

Marianne rushes out of the room, completely ignoring the Contessa calling out her name. She runs through the large corridor as fast as her shoes and heavy gowns allow, praying to have not waited too long.

She catches Héloïse in the entrance hall, already wearing her cloak and making her way towards the exit of the building.

“Héloïse, wait,” she says, but Héloïse doesn’t turn around. The lack of answer makes Marianne sprint through the room even faster.

“Héloïse!”

She grabs Héloïse’s hand before she can open the door. Héloïse stills at the touch, not moving for a long moment. Then, she turns around, and Marianne’s breath catches in her throat seeing how red and glassy her eyes are.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she whispers, swallowing heavily and panting with the effort of running after the woman. It’s only when Héloïse glances down that Marianne realizes she is still touching her, her fingers wrapped around a strong hand. It’s the first time they have touched in years. She knows she should let go, nothing about what she is doing is in any way appropriate, but Marianne doesn’t, going back to looking at Héloïse without removing her hand.

“Please, we need to talk. Really talk, not like this.”

Marianne feels herself grow more and more desperate when Héloïse doesn’t reply, doing nothing except looking at her in silence.

“I’m in Milan for a few days still,” Marianne tries once more. “Please, let’s talk.”

Héloïse doesn’t say anything, she doesn’t even move. She just stares at Marianne, a knifelike stare that almost makes Marianne want to look away. She holds her gaze, though, hoping Héloïse will see in her eyes that she is serious and doesn’t want to back up anymore.

Her hopes are shattered in an instant. Without uttering a single word, Héloïse pulls her hand away and turns around again, putting her hood on and walking away. She is out of the building before Marianne can say anything, leaving her standing there, alone.

 


 

Marianne stays with the Contessa for at least another hour after Héloïse’s abrupt departure. Most of that time is spent apologizing, coming up with excuses for how she had run after Héloïse. She utters nonsense about how she had wanted to make sure Héloïse hadn’t taken offense in Marianne’s silent agreement to painting her, blaming the difference in their social statuses and how she had wanted to be sure the incident wouldn’t ruin her career. She doesn’t believe a single word that comes out of her mouth, she doesn’t even think about the things she is saying. She slips into a state of detachment, from the Contessa’s chattering and from her own words, consumed by a sense of pure hollowness after the way Héloïse had rejected her plea.

The sky is dark by the time she leaves the Contessa’s house. She tightens her worn coat across her chest, shuddering when a gust of wind hits her face, and starts making her way towards her residence on foot. It’s a long walk, she knows she won’t get there before less than an hour, but she doesn’t care. The Contessa had enough carriages and servants that Marianne could have tried to ask for one to get home faster, but she hadn’t even thought about it, not with her mind completely fixed on how she had destroyed everything with Héloïse.

Even if wrapped in her own feelings, Marianne starts walking faster when she turns from the main road into a narrow, quieter street. There is barely anybody walking there, and with such dim light illuminating the path, Marianne instinctively becomes more alert. Years of being a woman traveling on her own have taught her just how careful she needs to be. She has trained her eyes and ears to be cautious, to take in every detail that might raise concerns. So, she immediately notices the sound of a carriage making its way in her direction.

She only glances back at it at first, continuing to walk down the street without caring much for it. When the carriage approaches her, though, and slows down to stay by her side, Marianne starts worrying. She quickens her pace, pushing herself closer to the building to her right, but when the street narrows down into a curve, the carriage surpasses her and stops right in front of her, blocking her path.

Marianne’s heartbeat speeds up with a sudden rush of anxiety, but before she can turn around and try to walk away in the direction she came from, the door opens, revealing a hooded figure inside. Marianne recognizes the cloak even before seeing the face.

“You said you wanted to talk,” Héloïse says. The moon rays hit one side of her face through the small window on the back of the carriage, making her green eyes shine in contrast with the shadows on the rest of her face.

Marianne hesitates only for one moment. Then, she steps inside.

Chapter Text

They don’t say a word to each other the whole way to Marianne’s place. They sit on opposite sides of the carriage, the sound of the outside penetrating the silence of the cubicle. From time to time, Marianne glances at Héloïse. It’s always fleeting, never long enough for the other woman to meet her gaze. Héloïse has her face turned away from Marianne, looking out the small window with an expression Marianne wouldn’t be able to decipher even under the brightest sunlight. In the darkness of the moment, with shadows dancing over her face and constantly altering her features, it’s completely impossible. And yet, Marianne cannot keep her eyes away from her.

She isn’t even sure Héloïse is blinking, her features as rigid as her body, completely still despite the constant rocking of the carriage. On her part, Marianne has to keep twisting the folds of her gown with her fingers to keep herself from fidgeting. Her heart is thumping so hard against her ribcage that she wonders, were it not for the outside clattering of the horse’s hooves on the ground, if Héloïse would be able to hear it.

She feels strangely out of breath by the time they reach the street where her house is and get off. Even more so when Héloïse dismisses her coachman for the night. A myriad of questions fill Marianne’s mind right away.

How is Héloïse supposed to get home? Is she planning on staying there? Should she let her to begin with?

They all die at the back of her throat when Héloïse turns around and stares at her, beautiful and austere in a way that compels Marianne to blink and look away, pushing past her to reach the front door.

Héloïse follows her in silence when Marianne guides them inside. Her Milanese house is by all means simple, even more modest than her house in Paris. Marianne has never cared, perfectly at easy with plainness as long as she had good light and a canvas to paint. But crossing the threshold of her mostly bare, particularly unkempt residence with Héloïse, Marianne feels a surge of self-consciousness she doesn’t remember experiencing even with her richest clients. As they pass the entrance and move up the stairs to the upper floor, the main section of her house, she tries to take deep breaths to calm herself down. It only results in a quivering exhale, though, one so shaky that she has no doubt Héloïse heard it.

She wishes she could blame her tension on Héloïse’s nobility, that she could tell herself she would be just as nervous if it were the Contessa Arese stepping into her humble house, but she knows money and class have nothing to do with it. It’s Héloïse. It’s her presence next to her, the way Marianne is aware of each of her breaths as if Héloïse was sighing against her ear. It’s her green eyes, inspecting her surroundings and freezing on the small bed at the end corner of the room. She glances at Marianne for the briefest moment before quickly looking away and tilting her chin up to appear unbothered, but it’s enough for Marianne to know what Héloïse thought of, what memories came to her. Even then, though, Héloïse is elusive enough to keep her feelings an enigma.

“Does this house belong to you?” Héloïse asks, taking off her cloak and laying it on a chair.

“To my father,” Marianne replies, following suit and taking off her coat. “I always stay here when I’m in Milan.” She has to restrain the instinct to grimace when she sees Héloïse’s eyes travel around again, taking in the evident lack of management during Marianne’s long absence. 

“Sorry, it’s not as…” Marianne starts, feeling the instinctive need to apologize. “It should be tidier.”

She was going to say ‘fancy’, but she had stopped herself at the last second. It makes no difference. She can tell from Héloïse’s stare that the woman figured out exactly what she had been meaning to say. She should know Héloïse’s bluntness by now, she should be used to it, even. And yet, being on the receiving end of it never fails her to take her by surprise.

“Do you think I care that it’s not luxurious?” Héloïse replies, looking at her with a hard expression. Marianne thought her reprimand would stop there but Héloïse continues, cutting through her with words Marianne was not expecting. “Besides, the untidiness makes sense. You said it yourself, you’ve been avoiding Milan.”

Marianne has nothing to reply with. From wittiness to excuses to apologies, words leave her entirely. Héloïse spoke nothing but the truth, like she always did ever since Marianne met her, and yet it’s presented so directly, so unfiltered, that Marianne struggles to deal with the brutality of it. She feels her ears grow hot with shame when she casts her gaze down, unable to collect herself and maintain Héloïse’s sharp stare at the same time. She thinks about apologizing, but she doesn’t even know what she should apologize for. For avoiding Milan, for not looking for Héloïse, for coming back. She apologizes for what she knows she is guilty of instead.

“I’m sorry for what happened at the Contessa’s house.”

Marianne forces herself to look at Héloïse as she speak. She spots a twitch under the skin of her jaw, but Héloïse’s face remains impassive otherwise.

“She insisted on the painting, not you,” she merely replies. “I shouldn’t have accepted her invitation to begin with. I don’t even like her.”

Marianne shakes her head, refusing for once to let things go unspoken.

“I don’t mean just that. What I said… I made you feel—”

“You don’t know what I felt.”

Héloïse’s interruption takes her by surprise. She wasn’t expecting to be cut off so abruptly, and she definitely wasn’t expecting the defensive tone in Héloïse’s voice, so unlike the perfected mask of hardness and restraint. That facade doesn’t work that well anymore, though, not after that outburst that had shocked both. Marianne can still hear the despair in Héloïse’s scream, she can still see the barely restrained tears in her eyes. This game of pretense has only led them towards pain, and as terrified as she is, Marianne is tired of it.

“Don’t I?”

This time, Héloïse’s surprise is much more overt. A crease appears between her brows as she frowns, her gaze turns to piercing steel in the clear attempt at unnerving Marianne. This time, though, the painter doesn’t look away, holding Héloïse’s unblinking stare long enough to see the other woman’s anger and annoyance rise to the surface.

“Right,” Héloïse scoffs after a painfully long moment of silence. “I forgot how well you can read me.” Marianne wasn’t expecting her to give in so easily, to admit that her barriers aren’t as impenetrable as she made them out to be. She should have known better, though, because Héloïse is quick to even the ground. “Maybe you forgot that I can read you, too.”

In a way, Marianne is glad for the biting remark. It stings, but it tells her that the Héloïse she remembers is still there, that not everything has been crushed and consumed by time. She’d take this brutal honesty over the hollow politeness of their previous meeting without a second thought. It’s surprisingly easy for her to admit that Héloïse is right.

“I haven’t,” she says, looking at the other woman. She can see the fire in her unblinking eyes, the desire for a challenge even before she speaks.

“What do you think I see, then?”

Marianne is painfully self-conscious of the way she instinctively lowers her head and touches her forehead, stopping midway through the gesture to glance at Héloïse again, her green eyes fixed on her, piercing and knowing. There are so many ways she could answer her question and none of them would be satisfactory. The only real answer is that Héloïse sees her, all of her. She always has and she can even now, her talent seemingly untouched by time. Maybe it’s because she hasn’t changed much while instead Héloïse has lived an entirely different life. The way her heart thrums faster under her gaze has remained the same.

“I’ve never been good at being looked at,” she eventually says.

“No, you haven’t. But you love to look, don’t you?” There is an accusation in her voice. Marianne realizes what it’s about only when Héloïse continues. “You looked at me in the theater.”

Marianne feels the way her lips part, the sharp, quiet intake of breath she can’t quite restrain. She had asked Héloïse to talk, but it’s only in that moment that she realizes she was not fully ready for such a straightforward confrontation. Concern and anxiety dry up her mouth, they make her chest go tight with the need to avert her gaze, to backtrack on the whole conversation, really. She does neither. It would go against everything they are trying to accomplish.

“I did,” she whispers, not even bothering with hiding the shakiness of her voice.

“And what did you see, Marianne?” Héloïse pushes. She holds her head high, but her voice and her eyes betray her vulnerability. Or maybe it’s intentional, Marianne is not sure. The only thing she is certain of is that they’re both done with any pretense. She stares at the woman in front of her and remembers her tears, the movement of her shoulders as she shook with each sob, the sudden smile that had appeared on her face, a look as she inhaled that Marianne had never seen before. She remembers every detail and knows she cannot describe any. There are no words that could do justice to what she saw, to what she felt. She knows Héloïse will understand, because if Marianne witnessed it, she is the one who experienced it.

“You know what I saw.”

She will forever be mesmerized by Héloïse’s face, how it has the gift of revealing such profound emotions even when she seems to be concealing them. This time, there is pain attached to the marvel she feels, because Héloïse remains quiet but her eyes glimmer with sadness and anger, kept at bay if not for the pronounced frown that appears on her face. Marianne hates knowing that she deserves it.

“And then you ran away.”

The bitterness in her voice is so intense Marianne can almost taste it on her own tongue.

“I didn’t know what else to do. What was I supposed to say?”

“You could have faced me,” Héloïse replies sternly. “I didn’t know what to say either but I was brave enough to do it.”

“You were always braver than me.”

“And you were always freer.”

Marianne wonders if Héloïse is sizing her words and picking the ones she knows will cut the deepest. She seems to have a talent for it. What really hurts Marianne is that none of what Héloïse is saying is born out of mere spite, a remark constructed just to inflict pain. It’s just the truth. The truth is infinitely more painful than any malicious retort.

“Even in that theater,” Héloïse continues. “You had the freedom to look at me and leave. You took what you wanted and—”

“No, don’t make it sound like I stole something from you,” Marianne cuts her off, refusing to accept that accusation. Her voice is the firmest it has been since they walked inside her house.

“Why, does it make you feel guilty?”

“I feel guilty for many things, but seeing you is not one of them.”

Silence falls between them, both women staring at each other with an intensity that carries everything they’ve bottled up since that moment. Marianne doesn’t have to state what she feels guilty for, she could spend hours listing everything that has been haunting her for years and she knows Héloïse would be aware of every single thing before she even utters it. To say that she wishes she could have taken her place, that she should have tried to save her from her fate, that she should have fought harder, it all feels pointless. Wishful thinking cannot change reality, or atone for it. But even with all the guilt she feels, Marianne refuses to be equated to the same people who forced Héloïse into a life of impositions.

“I was scared,” she says, nodding and shrugging at once. “And I ran, because I could. I would do it again.” She hesitates for a moment, gulping hard against the nerves that are stopping her from continuing. As terrifying as honesty is, though, holding back feels utterly impossible. “And I would feel the same relief and joy at being stopped by you.”

Héloïse doesn’t say anything. The quiet admission hangs in the room, reverberating through the thick silence between them. Marianne can see her think just by looking at her, taking in the minuscule changes in her features, the twitch at the corner of her mouth, the rapid blinking. Predicting what she is going to say is impossible, predicting anything is when it comes to Héloïse.

“Maybe I made a mistake in stopping you.”

The whisper is like a punch to Marianne’s gut. She had hoped for the same honesty, but she hadn’t thought it could be so destructive.

“Do you believe that?” she asks, her voice as hollow as she feels.

“It forever altered my memory of you. Things cannot be the same now.”

Marianne feels herself blanch, growing almost lightheaded with how brutally painful Héloïse’s words are, making her chest tighten so hard her lungs feel crushed. But then, after a moment in which Marianne feels weak enough her legs might give in beneath her, she sees the change in Héloïse. The woman slumps her shoulders, her body visibly loses most of the rigidity she had been carrying since they’d gotten off the carriage and the frown disappears, her eyes growing soft instead.

“You didn’t make me feel stolen,” Héloïse says. “Yours is the only gaze I ever enjoyed feeling on me.”

Marianne lets out a shaky exhale through her parted lips, feeling as though her lungs and throat were unlocked by the quiet confession. They are supposed to talk and yet words fail her. She tries everything she can not to think about the past, not in that moment, but she can’t do anything against the insisting power of her memories, vivid enough that her fingers itch with it as she remembers moving them on Héloïse’s body, needing just a touch or a look to communicate with her. She clenches her hand into a fist. That was all taken away from them.

“I don’t know what to do, Héloïse,” she admits, letting her head drop and passing a hand over her neck before going back to look at Héloïse.

“Do you think I do?”

“No, and yet you fault me for it,” Marianne cannot stop herself, remembering the way Héloïse had shut down and made her leave the house.

“I fault you for not being honest.”

Marianne knew Héloïse had reasons to be mad at her, but she was not expecting her reproach to come in that form.

“I was always honest,” she replies with a strained voice and she has to suppress the urge to squirm when Héloïse lets out a sarcastic chuckle.

“You’re doing it even now,” Héloïse says, waving her arm in Marianne’s direction. “You are the one who wanted to talk and still, you cannot bring yourself to be true.”

“I wanted to talk because you pushed me away before we could have a real conversation, and—”

“I asked you to stop pretending,” Héloïse cuts her off, with a voice so resolute that Marianne instinctively purses her lips and swallows back whatever attempt at a protest was building at the back of her throat. “I told you to ask anything you wanted. And you gave me a reply set up to sustain that pretense.”

Héloïse doesn’t merely sound angry, there is a genuine hurt that tinges her voice and makes her eyes shine, making it impossible for Marianne to come up with a snappy remark to defend herself.

“Why can’t you be honest?” she asks much more quietly, begging almost, and Marianne feels the prickling of tears build behind her eyes. She blinks nervously to try to suppress the feeling.

“Because I don’t want to hope,” she eventually says, and even with all the restraint she is imposing on herself, she cannot keep the trembling out of her voice. “Because it can lead to nothing.”

“So, it’s better to lie?” Héloïse replies, taking a step forward. Her voice is steadier than Marianne’s, but when she blinks, the painter immediately sees the glinting veil of tears that has formed in her eyes, making them seem almost grey in the dim light of the room. “To forget?”

Blinking isn’t enough to stop the tears this time, Marianne is forced to tilt her head back and look up at the ceiling to keep herself from crying. She knows exactly what Héloïse is talking about, her own promise thrown back to her to show how time can erode anything. She has hated herself for several reasons during the past days, but none matches the self-loathing that immediately consumes her when she forces herself to meet Héloïse’s gaze and answer her.

“Maybe it would be less painful.”

There is no barrier now, no hard mask put up to save appearances or to guard her emotions. The sadness and pain on Héloïse’s face is far too visible and just as unbearable to witness.

“Is that how you really feel?” she whispers, her throat visibly bobbing up and down as she gulps down hard. Her body is stiff but there is so much vulnerability in her eyes that Marianne feels the burning need to look away. This is exactly the kind of pain she wanted to avoid, the pain she is terrified of, sharp and consuming and unavoidable. It rises and twists at her stomach the longer she keeps her eyes on Héloïse, but she refuses to look down. She owes that to Héloïse, at least.

“I cannot look at you and pretend you’re just an acquaintance of mine,” she admits after a long moment, clearing her throat and trying to keep the emotional turmoil that’s gnawing at her out of her voice. “You said it yourself, your life is here.”

“Do not use my words to make yourself feel better.”

The remark is sharp, angry, and entirely legitimate to Marianne. It’s what makes her resolution waver and forces her to avert her gaze for a moment, overwhelmed by a shame so thick she feels nauseous.

“You’re being honest, at last.”

Marianne looks at Héloïse again, compelled to push past her guilt by the sadness and resignation in Héloïse’s voice. It was a mistake. Because when she meets Héloïse’s gaze again, the woman is crying. It’s quiet, collected. Her body is still and completely unaffected, but her eyes are wet, a single tear has escaped her restraints and trickled down from the corner of her right eye.

“You should have avoided Milan harder,” she says, with a voice so quiet and pained that Marianne wants to fall to her knees and beg for forgiveness. “That way, I would have been able to keep my memories intact. Now even that has been taken from me.”

“Héloïse—”

“Are you going to say anything else?”

Héloïse abruptly cuts Marianne off, rubbing the tear away with the heel of her hand and letting out a deep, shaky exhale, clearly attempting to put up her walls again. Marianne wants to, there is so much she wants to say, but she feels she has boxed herself into a corner. Anything rational she might say would be devoid of meaning, anything driven by emotions would disrupt them even more. She feels torn, desperately trying to think about what to do in the face of a possible definitive separation.  Her silence prolongs for far too long, though, and Héloïse takes it as an answer in itself.

“Very well, then,” she says, straightening her back and growing as cold as she is capable of in those circumstances. “My husband is going to come back soon and you’re going to leave even sooner. We’ll go back to our lives, the ones we belong to.”

Marianne feels as lost as she had when Héloïse had made her leave, even more so because it feels final. She can tell, she knows, that if Héloïse walks out of her house now, they will never see each other again. She had tried to rationalize it, to tell herself that she had survived it once already, but faced with the sudden reality of it, she is overwhelmed by panic.

“Héloïse, I—”

“What hurts isn’t your lack of courage,” Héloïse interrupts her again, collecting her cloak and putting it on, barely tightening its ties so hasty her movements are. She doesn’t look at Marianne once throughout her action, but her words pierce the painter worse than a knife to her chest. “It’s how easy it was for you to forget.”

“Héloïse, please…”

“Goodbye, Marianne.”

Terror crawls up Marianne’s body as soon as Héloïse turns around to leave, deaf to her attempts to stop her. She was a fool to think she could ever let logic prevail over her heart. There is no logic, no rational thought, just Héloïse walking away from her and the visceral awareness that she cannot lose her a second time.

Marianne doesn’t go after her. She rushes to the other side of the room instead, where her traveling chest lies open on the floor. She all but falls to the ground in the rush to get what she needs. She doesn’t have to look for it, she hadn’t touched the small object since the night at the theater, when she had taken it out of her jacket and carefully placed it in the inside pocket of the chest. She gets it out in a matter of seconds and runs back across the room. Héloïse had just crossed the threshold when she stops her, colliding with her back and wrapping her arms around her. They both stumble with the impact but Marianne feels Héloïse’s body resist her touch, her neck craning forward to put distance between them in a way that makes Marianne’s eyes burn. When the first sob pushes out of her throat, she does nothing to stop it.

“I didn’t forget,” she says, pressing her forehead against the back of Héloïse’s neck and crying against her skin. “I didn’t forget.”

“Marianne, let me—”

Héloïse never finishes her sentence. The words die in her mouth when Marianne extends her arm and shows her the small object in her hand, the miniature of the portrait they had painted all those years ago.

“I spent every day remembering. Every day.”

Marianne feels Héloïse’s body tremble lightly in her hold but otherwise she remains completely rigid. Her stillness makes Marianne cry harder, her tears wetting Héloïse’s skin and trickling over the fabric of her dress. Even pressed against each other like this, Marianne feels the barrier between them, and there’s a voice at the back of her head torturing her and telling her that she waited too long, that it’s too late to repair anything. She buries her face in Héloïse’s neck and drowns it with her tears.

Héloïse doesn’t react but she doesn’t try to pull away either, standing still while Marianne tries to catch her breath amidst choked sobs. Even in her despair, Marianne understands her resistance. After all her failed pleas for honesty, a lack of trust only makes sense. All their thwarted conversations cross Marianne’s mind, everything they had hinted at but that she had been too afraid to mention out loud, everything she had refused to acknowledge to try and protect her heart. She forgets all her fears, drops all her restraints. She doesn’t want to protect her heart, she wants to expose it to Héloïse.

“I saw the page on your portrait.” The reaction is immediate, and even through her heavy panting, Marianne hears Héloïse’s sharp inhale. “28. I saw it.”

There is only a moment of hesitation as the confession hangs between them, heavy and resonant, like an echo from a shared past. Then, Héloïse turns around. Fresh tears run down Marianne’s cheeks when she sees how red and glassy her eyes are.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” The question comes out as a whisper.

“I was scared,” Marianne replies with broken voice. There is no indecisiveness this time in making herself completely vulnerable. “I was so scared because it would have made it real, and after all these years I don’t know how—”

She cannot finish the sentence, squeezing her eyes shut and sucking in a stuttered breath as she tries and fails to stop the tears. The fear that had paralyzed her for days feels so superficial now, so utterly unimportant compared to the terror of losing Héloïse again. She feels that same ache in her chest, the same vise that had crushed her heart when she had wrenched herself away from Héloïse’s arms. But unlike back then, when for days after her departure, for weeks, Héloïse’s absence had haunted her like a physical torture, she isn’t alone. Her eyes snap open when she feels the warmth of Héloïse’s palm against her cheek. Héloïse’s eyes are glistening with tears and yet, she is smiling. Imperceptibly so, Marianne doubts anyone else would call it a smile, but she sees it, the way her features has lost all hardness, the tiniest upward curl of her full lips.

“I thought myself a fool…” Héloïse whispers, and that smiles stretches further for the shortest moment, before she lets out a trembling exhale. “For hoping you’d still carry me in your heart.”

Marianne instinctively opens her mouth and sighs quietly against Héloïse’s fingers when she feels them trace the line of her lips. Her body is shaking but she cannot move. All she can do is look at Héloïse, taking in the way her eyes travel across the features of Marianne’s face, lingering on her mouth like her fingers. And when Héloïse meets her gaze again, Marianne realizes her resistance had always been futile.

“It never stopped being real.”

Marianne leans in at the same time as Héloïse does. It’s the sweetest form of surrender, one she wishes she would have succumbed to sooner, as soon as she saw Héloïse in that theater. Because the moment she feels Héloïse’s lips against hers, all the pain and fear she had tormented herself with fade away. Time itself becomes meaningless because kissing Héloïse feels as natural as breathing, as if she never stopped doing it, as if that’s all she did every day for more than five years.

Héloïse’s hand moves from her face behind her neck, keeping Marianne close even as their kiss remains soft, an urgent press of lips that feels overwhelming even in its simplicity. Marianne tilts her head forward when Héloïse unexpectedly breaks the kiss, instinctively chasing after Héloïse’s mouth before even realizing what happened. She opens her eyes with the sudden loss, wondering whether she misread the situation and made a mistake. But all it takes is one look at Héloïse for her concerns to dissolve. The other girl is staring right back at her, her cheeks red and her lips parted as she breaths heavily through her mouth. But it’s her eyes that enrapture Marianne, suddenly so dark and yet shining with an emotion that she can’t quite place, a mix between solace and happiness and disbelief. It’s indefinable and yet utterly familiar and Marianne is sure the same exact expression is reflected on her face. When Héloïse leans in and kisses her again, there is no going back.

It’s a deeper kiss, demanding in a way that leaves Marianne breathless and hungry for more. She feels Héloïse’s fingers scratch at the base of her scalp and immediately replicates to the touch, cupping Héloïse’s face with a hand and wrapping her arm around her waist, their bodies pressed flush as their lips glide together. A small sound crawls out of her throat when she Héloïse runs her tongue over her bottom lip, even softer than her fingers had been while tracing it only moments ago. All she can do is open her mouth in response to it, sighing in relief at the feeling of Héloïse’s tongue against her own. She remembers Héloïse’s mouth, its taste, its softness, the way her full lips seemed to have been made to fit with hers, but she had forgotten how intoxicating it could be. Years of nothingness had made her forget the complete exhilaration of being free to kiss the only woman she ever loved. She never wants it to stop, and the way Héloïse changes the angle of the kiss and pulls her even closer tells her she feels the same. It is as though they were both starving for years, and all they can do is kiss each other senselessly to keep from dying.

They break apart, even then barely so, at the same time, their foreheads bumping and their hot, ragged breath mixing in a way that makes Marianne’s body buzz with need. She opens her hooded eyes when she feels Héloïse reach in the small space between their bodies, hastily pulling at the ties of her cape and shrugging it off her shoulders. She moves her hands just as quickly to the front of her dress, tugging at the intricate thread of ties and laces to free herself. She gives up halfway through and kisses Marianne again, cupping her face with both hands and pulling her in so hard they both stumble and almost lose their balance. Marianne understand that desire, that despair. She is feeling it herself, so intensely it soaks all her senses.

Marianne hears and feels Héloïse whimper against her mouth when she moves her hands to the front of her chest and undoes the remaining ties that keep the top of Héloïse’s dress together. Her movements are clumsy, slowed down by the fact that Héloïse won’t stop kissing her, but eventually she tugs the final knot and the dress falls open. She pushes it off Héloïse’s shoulders and pulls back while Héloïse unties her flowing skirt and steps out of the voluminous garment, taking the chance to get out of her own dress. It’s much simpler than the one Héloïse is wearing, made to be worn without needing any aid to put it on. She is out of it much faster than Héloïse and soon they are standing in front of each other in nothing but their corsets and white gowns. The elaborateness of their clothes forces them to slow down, and with each detail she takes in—Héloïse’s blown pupils, the blonde locks fallen over her face, the skin of her chest flush with a red tint—Marianne feels her desire grow more consuming, visceral in a way she can’t or want to stop.

Her eyes linger on Héloïse’s chest, heaving visibly with each panted breath. It’s in that moment that she realizes just how tight her corset is, much tighter than the one she remembers her wearing on the island, even before they had been left alone and free to shed all their restraints, physical and emotional. The one she is wearing now is the embodiment of restraint. It’s meant to keep her back straight, to lift her breasts unnaturally and exhibit her cleavage, to make her appealing, as if her beauty wasn’t enough on its own and needed to be emphasized with painful alterations. Marianne remembers how she had done this too when she had painted Héloïse, accentuating the line of her cleavage. She has seen her breasts free from constraints, though, she has felt their softness with her hands and her mouth, and she doesn’t find anything attractive in this distorted display. All she wants to do is free Héloïse from it.

“Turn around,” she whispers, and Héloïse obeys right away. She lets out a shaky exhale when Marianne rests her hands on her shoulders, caressing the exposed strip of skin above the hem of her gown. Marianne cannot help herself and lingers there for a moment, breathing hotly against the back of Héloïse’s neck as the feeling of Héloïse’s warm skin beneath her palms sparks a twinge of need deep within her stomach. She can see Héloïse tremble when she slides her hands down her back until her fingers find the tight laces of the corset. Her movements are smooth, sure, and with each tie that comes loose she sees the plane of Héloïse’s back relax, hears her breathing deepen with the way her lungs are allowed to expand. And once the whole contraption finally comes apart, Héloïse leans back and lets her body sag against Marianne’s, sighing in pleasure and relief when Marianne’s hands slide over her stomach and chest beneath the corset and pull it off of her.

They are pressed together, Marianne’s arms remained wrapped around Héloïse’s waist even after taking off her corset, but no touch seems to be enough for Héloïse because without pulling away, she reaches around to cup the back of Marianne’s neck with her hand and tilts her head to the side. Her  request is silent but unmistakable and Marianne doesn’t make her wait. She leans down and kisses her, instinctively tightening her arms around the other woman as their kiss grows deeper even in that position. Her open palms caress Héloïse’s soft stomach above the fabric of her gown, inching up until her fingertips brush against the swell of her breasts. It’s not enough for her either. Her chest feels tight against the corset, her breathing labored, and with each hot kiss she grows more and more eager to free herself and Héloïse of any remaining barrier, to bare herself and feel the heat of Héloïse’s naked body against her own.

When Héloïse turns around in her arms so that they are facing each other again, Marianne takes the chance and reaches behind her own back to open the corset as quickly as possible. Her hands falter and she gasps, struggling to keep her eyes open when Héloïse suddenly moves her mouth below her jawline and starts kissing at the sensitive skin there, sending a zing of pleasure from her neck all the way down to her core. Her mind tells her to slow everything down, so she’ll be able to focus on what she is doing and get out of the garment, and yet she finds herself abandoning the ties and tangling one hand into Héloïse’s hair, trying to keep her closer than physically possible as she kisses and sucks at her neck. It takes all her willpower to take one step back and detach herself from Héloïse’s mouth. It’s the sudden lack of that warmth against her skin that makes her realize just how much the rest of her body is burning, just how suffocating even the thin fabric of her gown has become.

She all but tears at the remaining ties of her corset and gets it off of her in a matter of seconds. As soon as she does, she pulls Héloïse back in, giving in to a need she had tried to mute for over five years and impossible to resist now that they have found each other again. There is no stopping now, no more holding back. Marianne moves one arm around Héloïse’s shoulders and sneaks the the other around her waist, pressing the woman flush against her and kissing her like she never wants to come up for air. Their hands grow restless with every swallowed whimper and glide of their tongues, reaching for every inch of skin their gowns leave exposed. Their movements are frantic in a manner so unlike their slow, unhurried discovering of each other on the island. Héloïse especially seems unable to still, running her palms on Marianne’s back and arching into her with each new kiss in a way that makes their naked breasts press together through the fabric of their gowns. It’s the type of desire that never found release for years, Marianne can tell by the way Héloïse’s body trembles against hers, by how each kiss and touch pulls a small sound from her throat, as if ready to fall apart already. Marianne aches to give her that release much more than she aches to soothe the throbbing between her own legs.

Their minds seem to be connected because Héloïse starts pushing Marianne towards the bed at the same time as Marianne starts pulling her. They move blindly, kissing the whole time without watching their steps. It’s a push and pull that lacks that initial despair, they’re not driven by instinct but by a mutual, purposeful want. By the time Marianne falls on the bed and drags Héloïse with her, she is already feeling like she has been set ablaze from the inside. She is perfectly happy to burn alive as long as Héloïse keeps kissing her like that.

She smiles when Héloïse murmurs an apology against her lips and readjusts her position on top of Marianne, pulling herself up enough not to crush the painter with her body. Marianne doesn’t feel crushed, Héloïse’s weight on top of her is a feeling she had tried to cling to for months after their separation, desperate to keep that memory alive even when her body couldn’t access it any longer. Cupping Héloïse’s face and kissing her again, soft and languid, is enough to make Héloïse forget about her concerns and lean down again, until the lengths of their bodies are pressed together.

Only the fabric of their gowns is separating them, thin and yet hindering in an almost offensive way. Marianne detaches herself from Héloïse’s mouth and tries to lean up to take off her gown, but Héloïse doesn’t let her, keeping herself pressed over Marianne and capturing her bottom lip to suck on it in a way that makes Marianne whimper. She forgets what she wanted to do and gets lost in the feeling right away, replying to each insisting kiss just as passionately. Her chest is heaving by the time Héloïse pulls back to move her lips across the line of her jaw, making her pant and shiver at once.

“Héloïse…” she whispers, not even knowing what she wants to say, maybe just needing to utter Héloïse’s name out loud to ground herself, to tell herself that this isn’t one of the countless dreams she had over the years. Her mind blanks out when Héloïse latches her lips onto her neck and starts sucking gently at her pulse point. The throbbing between her legs intensifies immediately, hot and demanding enough that Marianne starts squirming beneath Héloïse, trying to squeeze her thighs together to get some sort of friction. She swallows against the dryness of her throat when Héloïse pulls down the hem of her gown to press a wet line of kisses from her collarbone all the way to her shoulder, each spreading a tingling feeling across Marianne’s skin. She tries to pull the gown further down but the seam holds tight, preventing her from reaching more of Marianne’s body without ripping the fabric. It’s the thing that reminds both that they’re not naked yet.

They move as one, Héloïse sitting up on her haunches and Marianne arching up from the bed. Marianne bunches up her gown with her hands to pull it off, but her eyes immediately snap down when she feels Héloïse’s hands brush against her own, grabbing at the fabric and tugging urgently. That eagerness, so bright and earnest, makes Marianne’s heart swell in her chest and the knot of tension in her belly coil even tighter, and she doesn’t hesitate to lift her hips and facilitate Héloïse in her desire to her completely naked.

Marianne gasps as soon as the cool air hits her burning skin, but the small sound dies at the back of her throat when she looks up and sees Héloïse strip herself of her own gown, baring her body completely. It’s a sight that knocks the breath out of Marianne’s lungs, just like it had the first time she had seen Héloïse naked. She is nothing short of a vision like this, her chest and neck deliciously flushed, her parted lips red and swollen from all the kissing, the blonde hair cascading over her face and shoulders. It fell out of the soft bun when Héloïse pulled the gown over her head and only now does Marianne realize just how long her hair has grown.

For several seconds, Marianne can do nothing except look at Héloïse, taking in every detail she remembers and what changed from the memories she had cherished for years. Her breasts seem fuller, sagging lower without the painful sustain of the corset, her stomach softer, moles she doesn’t remember seeing, kissing, have appeared on her skin. Still, Marianne’s eyes go back to Héloïse’s face.   Héloïse is the most beautiful woman she has ever seen, but the sight of her like this goes beyond attraction or fascination. It’s a sight of relief, a mixture of disbelief and unadulterated joy at having found again what she thought she had lost forever. It’s not a dream and it’s still hard to truly believe it after all the years she spent dreaming exactly about this, but the weight and warmth of Héloïse on top of her are the most exquisite way of grounding herself into the reality of the moment.

The dark look in Héloïse’s eyes, heavy with desire, tells Marianne that the woman wants this as much as she does. And yet, her hands are hesitant in touching Héloïse. Marianne realizes they are shaking even, when she rests them on Héloïse’s thighs, tracing the soft skin there with her thumbs. Whatever concern, whatever hesitation might have stopped her, they are killed in their inception when Héloïse reaches down and takes her right hand, guiding it slowly and steadily up her body. Marianne thinks her heart will burst through her chest when Héloïse presses her hand over her breast, keeping it there and moving her fingers to encourage Marianne to squeeze. They both let out a shuddery exhale when Marianne does, massaging gently the soft skin and brushing her thumb against a stiff nipple. She can feel Héloïse’s body tremble with the touch, sees the way her eyelids flutter with the need to close her eyes and get lost in the feeling. She doesn’t close them though, she keeps looking at Marianne, that burning, piercing gaze that makes Marianne feel naked in a way that has nothing to do with the nudity of her body. She has always felt vulnerable to Héloïse’s eyes, to that element of inaccessibility that has always characterized her. Even now, Héloïse is looking at her with an emotion in her eyes that goes beyond desire, or love even, something Marianne isn’t really sure how to define. All Marianne is sure about is that she wants that gaze to consume her.

They both give in to their yearning at the same time, with Héloïse leaning down right when Marianne moves her other hand to Héloïse’s hip and pulls. Their mouths meet again as soon as Héloïse settles atop Marianne, a deep, drawn-out kiss as if not having kissed for those few, short minutes deprived them of air itself. That’s not the only feeling they missed. They both sigh against each other’s lips as their naked bodies press flush together, every inch of smooth, hot skin tingling with this newfound closeness. Marianne slides her hands around Héloïse’s shoulders, above the curve of her blades, and splays her fingers up and down the line of her spine before moving one hand below Héloïse’s jaw to angle her face and deepen the kiss. Héloïse on her part is even more untamed in her desire. She runs her tongue across Marianne’s lip and then shamelessly slips into her mouth, instinctively rolling her hips when Marianne lets out a muffled moan. Her hand slides up Marianne’s side, the other clutches at the back of her neck and tugs dark strands of hair out of the ruined chignon. Marianne feels feverish, completely lost in the feeling and never wanting to find the way back. Her hands work on their own accord with every kiss she receives, grabbing at Héloïse’s back, caressing and squeezing at her shoulders, neck, hair. She had slept with other people after having to separate from Héloïse, desperate to find a comfort or distraction that would make the ache in her chest more bearable. None of them could have ever compared, none of them could have filled that void, that place in her heart carved in the shape of Héloïse.

Everything about it feels right, not simply good. Marianne sighs when Héloïse shifts on top of her and their breasts rub together but grows utterly breathless when she hears Héloïse whimper against her mouth and realizes that the other woman has started a grinding motion with her hips, pressing down on her abdomen and causing the throbbing between her legs to intensify to an almost painful degree. She meets Héloïse’s movements, instinctively chasing after the soothing friction her body demands as her mouth and hands grow even more restless than they already were. She is so far gone that a whine of protest actually pulls out of her mouth when Héloïse suddenly stops rocking her hips and pulls back with a sharp intake of breath.

“Hélo—” Her protest gets lost in a gasp when Héloïse latches on to the skin of her neck with her lips, kissing and sucking at every sensitive inch.The unexpected drag of teeth right over her pulse point, immediately followed by the soothing warmth of Héloïse’s tongue and lips makes Marianne’s entire body jolt. Never before in her life has she felt like this, so utterly wrecked and ready to fall over the edge with so little. She hears Héloïse say her name against her neck, the only word she makes out amongst breathy whispers. It makes her mind muddled, driving her need to be even closer to Héloïse to new heights. Despite the throbbing ache between her legs, Marianne barely cares about sating the demands of her body. She just wants to feel Héloïse.

Just as Héloïse starts moving her mouth down her chest, Marianne suddenly sits up, making Héloïse jump in surprise. She moves her hands under Héloïse’s thighs and pulls her in and over her lap, immediately sneaking a hand around her body to keep her close. She cups Héloïse’s face with the other and kisses her again, a kiss Héloïse responds to as if she is trying to forget everything she’s ever felt and replace it with Marianne’s taste and a consuming, blazing pleasure.

She instinctively wraps her arms around Marianne’s neck and starts rolling her hips again, her movements even more unrestrained now that her center is pressing against Marianne’s abdomen, as low as the joint of her thighs. Marianne can clearly feel her wetness against her skin, a heady feeling that makes her tighten her hold around Héloïse.

They are both quivering by the time Héloïse breaks the kiss to suck in a breath. She pants hotly against Marianne’s mouth and presses their foreheads together, as if trying to anchor herself through the intensity of what she is feeling. Marianne immediately softens her touch in response to Héloïse’s pause, pushing the blonde hair out of her face and nuzzling at her cheek. Kissing her gently is just as rewarding and overwhelming as the wild, insistent glide of their lips from before. She wants to be Héloïse’s anchor. She wants her to lose herself to unbridled pleasure in the safety of her arms. So when Héloïse whispers her name again, Marianne adjusts her hold on her and slides her other hand down the front of Héloïse’s body, until it reaches the space between them. They both gasp sharply when Marianne’s palm presses between Héloïse’s legs.

They still for an instant, trapped in the heat of a moment so overwhelming it feels like it’s their first time together all over again. In a way it is. Time has changed them and has changed their feelings for each other. Marianne had feared it had tarnished them. Now she realizes it had only made them burn stronger.

She does nothing except holding Héloïse at first, feeling Héloïse clench her fingers into her hair to press their foreheads together again, her breath more and more shuddery with each second. They’re both hyper-aware of the delicate press of Marianne’s hand over Héloïse’s flesh, and heat rises to Marianne’s cheeks with how slick Héloïse feels beneath her touch. She takes it as a sign that they both want the same thing, so she starts moving her fingers, drawing up slowly through Héloïse’s folds. She stops the motion right away when something wet suddenly trickles down her cheek. Confused, she pulls back to look at Héloïse. She freezes and her eyes go wide when she realizes that Héloïse has started crying.

“Héloïse.”

Marianne calls out her name but gets no reply except for a sniffling sound that makes her mind immediately grow sharp with a rush of concern. Héloïse has her eyes closed, but Marianne can clearly see the tears running down from behind her eyelids.

“What’s wrong? Did I do something?”

Héloïse shakes her head without saying anything, not enough to ease Marianne’s worries. Marianne moves her arm to withdraw her hand and pull away, but she is surprised when Héloïse’s hand suddenly shoots down and grabs at her wrist, keeping her hand pressed between her legs.

“Don’t,” Héloïse whispers. More tears trickle down when she opens her eyes, looking almost grey behind the shiny veil of tears.

“Héloïse, you’re crying. I—”

“Please, don’t stop,” Héloïse cuts her off with a voice filled with such a desperate, visceral need it leaves Marianne speechless. “Don’t stop touching me, please. Don’t stop.”

Héloïse drowns her own plea against Marianne’s lips, kissing her again and rocking her hips into Marianne’s hand to emphasize her request. Even in her confusion, Marianne cannot help but respond to the kiss, letting Héloïse take whatever comfort she needs. They don’t get lost in it. Héloïse pulls back again shortly after, but her eyes remain open this time. Marianne doesn’t remove her hand but she doesn’t move either, staring intently at Héloïse and searching her eyes for an answer. Despite the glistening of tears, she finds no pain or sadness there, no trace of discomfort. Héloïse’s gaze carries the same passion that had darkened her eyes before. It’s a gaze of desire, of a love Marianne didn’t dare hope was still there after so long, all veiled by a hint of incredulity and fear Marianne recognizes far too well. It’s reflected in the way Héloïse clings to her, as if Marianne is going to slip away and disappear again if she doesn’t hold her hard enough.

Marianne wants to stop the tears, she wants to kiss them away and replace them with all the tenderness she is capable of. She and Héloïse have always processed emotions in a different way, though, and if this is what Héloïse needs, if this is how she needs her, Marianne will give. She will give Héloïse anything she needs, her devotion is absolute. So, when Héloïse rocks her hips again into Marianne’s palm and mouths, “Touch me” against her lips, Marianne obeys, sliding her fingers through Héloïse’s center and finally truly touching her.

There is no hesitation in her touch this time, she caresses Héloïse delicately but with purpose, drawing her fingers up in a way that makes Héloïse jolt in her arms and then let out a stuttered breath. Marianne feels her fingers dig into her back and yet her body loses all tension and goes pliant against Marianne’s, shaking softly with each swipe of Marianne’s fingers at the top of her slit.

Héloïse kisses her again, a messy, lingering press of lips before she opens her mouth to breathe heavily against Marianne’s cheek. Marianne instinctively tightens her hold on her, caressing the Héloïse’s waist in a way she hopes feels soothing, grounding. Her skin is soft everywhere Marianne touches, smooth across Héloïse’s back and akin to hot silk between her legs, and each tremble she feels going through Héloïse’s body emboldens Marianne more. She hears Héloïse whisper her name again, right before Héloïse arches up in her arms, grinding against Marianne’s fingers more and more insistently the longer Marianne strokes her sensitive skin. Marianne recognizes that need, that hunger. The pressure in her own belly has grown so tight that she is sure she could come with just a few seconds of stimulation. She isn’t thinking about herself, though. Even the most burning need fizzles out when compared to her desire to see and feel Héloïse fall apart in her arms. They both gasp this time, when Marianne slides a finger inside Héloïse and stills, both just as breathless and overwhelmed.

Neither moves for a moment. Héloïse’s hands clench tight over Marianne’s shoulders, her mouth open without letting out any sound. When she sees Héloïse bite at her own bottom lip, Marianne can’t help herself and leans in, drawing that full lip from Héloïse’s teeth into her mouth for a soft kiss that makes both exhale heavily. They pull back at the same time to look at each other. Their eyes are half-open, hooded with desire and yet so focused, so intimately fixed on each other that Marianne struggles with controlling the pace of her heartbeat. She feels the pressure of Héloïse’s fingers on her back ease, feels those hands she had studied every detail of move up her neck and cup her face, her thumbs rubbing at her cheeks impossibly delicate for hands so strong.. Her gaze falls to Héloïse’s lips when she sees them move. Barely so, like she is mouthing something she doesn’t dare give voice to. Marianne can imagine what it is, she has carried those words in her heart for over five years. They both remain quiet, though, speaking their love and devotion for each other with their aligned gestures, Marianne moving her fingers just as Héloïse slowly rolls her hips.

Marianne slides in and out slowly, giving Héloïse and herself the time to adjust to the feeling, but it’s not long before that tentative thrust isn’t enough for either anymore. She can tell when Héloïse needs more, for once she is able to read her with surprising ease, taking in the barely restrained sounds coming from deep within her throat and the way her body moves and jerks. They kiss again through panted breaths and muted whimpers, but it’s cut off much quicker than before because with her next push, Marianne adds another finger and Héloïse goes rigid, dropping her head down against Marianne’s and trying to suck air into her lungs.

Her hips start moving after a moment, following Marianne’s thrusts and clinging to her as she lets herself be consumed by the waves of heat Marianne keeps igniting deep within her. Marianne watches mesmerized as Héloïse moves in her arms, chasing after the steady, overpowering rise of pleasure with a freedom that feels almost sacred to witness. Marianne wants more, too, wants to feel as much of Héloïse as she possibly can. Her lips move everywhere she can reach. She tilts her head up to kiss Héloïse’s jaw, moves down the tempting length of her neck, presses her mouth on her breasts every time Héloïse arches her chest into her with each upward stroke.

Héloïse is louder than Marianne ever remembers her be, and it’s easy for her to tell when she is getting close, a realization that makes the ache between her legs grow so sharp she has to squeeze her eyes shut for a moment to stay focused. She slows down her thrusts, replacing them with a knowing curl that pushes Héloïse to heights impossible to sustain for long. Héloïse gasps at the feeling, her hands growing restless again and grabbing tighter at Marianne as her body is racked by tremors. Marianne feels sweat break on her lower back where her other hand is pressing, the smooth skin now burning under her palm.

Marianne is transfixed by how Héloïse seems to be doing everything in her power not to close her eyes even now, torturously suspended right at the edge of falling apart. She seems like a wild creature like this, with her long hair falling freely over her face, her lips red and parted, and her pupils so blown her eyes seem almost black. She is a sight of pure, untamed pleasure and for a moment Marianne finds herself thinking she must be staring at Eros herself. It never made much sense to her for the god of love and desire to be a man.

She slides her free hand up Héloïse’s back and moves it under her jaw, pulling her face inches from hers and curling her fingers with even more determination.

“Marianne—”

Marianne silences Héloïse with a deep, sucking kiss that makes her whimper, then she leans back, just enough to watch. Héloïse trembles more than ever before, tensing and bending her back like it’s going to snap in two if she stays frozen in that position for long enough. Then, on the next curl, she topples over the edge and comes. She gasps and moans freely against Marianne’s face, riding each wave as Marianne steadies her and takes in the sight of the orgasm washing over her. It seems to affect every inch of her body, scrunching up her features as blind pleasure overpowers her resolution to keep her eyes open and making her shudder uncontrollably until she is completely spent.

It’s everything Marianne wanted, everything she had dreamt of, and yet she was not at all prepared to see and hear Héloïse so wrecked, so beautifully consumed by the pleasure she gave her. It’s something so overwhelming to witness, to feel, it threatens to push Marianne over the edge like that, untouched.

Héloïse’s body grows slack in the aftermath of her orgasm. Her breathing turns deep, shuddery, and her limbs cling loosely to Marianne, a thin layer of sweat covering her flushed skin. Marianne feels her twitch and clench around her fingers, now still inside her, and she doesn’t move, she has no desire to. She waits patiently, pressing her lips gently on Héloïse’s cheek, on her jaw, at the corner of her mouth. She could stay like that forever, surrounded by Héloïse and draping her with all the love she has.

She lets long moment go before she carefully pulls away, keeping her palm between Héloïse’s legs after hearing a small whimper come out of her mouth at the loss. She isn’t concerned this time when she feels Héloïse’s tears against her cheek again. She just rubs her hand soothingly up and down the plane of her back and holds her, making herself that anchor of safety in a moment of utmost fragility.

Eventually, Héloïse lifts her head, her movements slowed down by the tiredness following her release, but her eyes are clear when she meets Marianne’s gaze, soft and delighted in a way that instinctively makes Marianne smile. Héloïse smiles back, a smile as warm as her eyes. Then, to Marianne’s surprise, she laughs.

It’s quiet at first, nothing more than a chuckle, but soon it grows louder, bubbling up from her throat with no restraint, and as incredulous as she is, Marianne cannot help but smile and laugh with it too. There is something so liberating and healing in that moment, in how Héloïse rubs carelessly at the tears in her eyes and smiles wider, that Marianne feels like the pain of those five years just vanished at once, like Héloïse’s happiness was enough to restore the patches of her soul.

Héloïse pulls her in and hugs her. Not just clinging to her like before but fully hugging her, like she wants to inhabit her soul and wants Marianne to inhabit hers. Marianne can feel her breath of relief against her neck, immediately followed by a string of kisses there and on her jaw and then again on her lips.

She leans back again only for a moment, just long enough to look at Marianne again. The smile is still there but her eyes have gone dark again, a contrast that is almost intoxicating to Marianne. She doesn’t have time to take it in, because suddenly, Héloïse kisses her. A hard, bruising kiss that makes Marianne’s mind foggy with desire, and before she realizes what’s happening, she feels herself being pushed down on the bed.

It lacks any grace, Marianne hits the mattress with a gasp and Héloïse slips, her lips ending up on Marianne’s chin before she fits their mouths together again. Marianne wasn’t expecting it and maybe exactly because of it, she feels everything more intensely. Her hands immediately grab at Héloïse’s back and she arches up into her, completely absorbed in everything she is feeling. Héloïse’s tongue in her mouth, repeatedly licking into her, her hand curling behind her neck as if that spot belongs to her now, the weight of Héloïse's body on her own, pressing her down. If she had ignored her own arousal till then, now it’s so powerful it’s threatening to make her mad.

Héloïse is relentless, kissing her way down from Marianne’s lips to her neck, Marianne’s throat vibrating as she gasps and whimpers with each press of Héloïse’s mouth. Her trail of wet, hungry kisses continues down Marianne’s body, pausing to cup her breasts and kissing each pebbled nipple in a way that makes Marianne’s hands clench around the sheets. Héloïse doesn’t give her time to settle into any sensation, though, moving even lower to drag her lips across Marianne’s stomach and dip her tongue into her navel. By the time she reaches Marianne’s thighs and starts kissing and sucking at the sensitive skin there, Marianne is so out of breath she cannot even gasp Héloïse’s name.

In a moment of stalling that lasts but a few seconds, Héloïse looks up and locks gaze with Marianne. The sight of Héloïse’s head right between her legs is alone almost too much to take in, holding her dark, hungry stare as well sends Marianne into a state of exhilaration she has never experienced before. She feels herself clench around nothing with that look alone. And then Héloïse leans down and puts her mouth on her.

Marianne’s body jerks sharply at the sudden explosion of pleasure between her legs. They moan in unison, and Marianne feels the echo ripple from her heated, sensitive flesh all the way up her spine. She cannot help herself and instantly bucks into Héloïse’s mouth, closing her eyes and chasing after the hot slide of her tongue, shallow at first and then working deeper. Héloïse kisses and licks through her with an eagerness deprived of technique or precision but Marianne doesn’t care, nothing has ever felt better, no pleasure has ever been so intense as to render her a mindless, writhing mess at the mercy of her lover, of her one love.

Héloïse too is restless, her hands going from kneading at Marianne’s thighs to caressing her stomach and breasts while she sets up a rhythm between Marianne’s legs that makes Marianne’s back tense and her belly tighten with an unbearable pressure. She blindly reaches for Marianne’s hand by her hip, clasping it with her own, just as her mouth finds a spot that makes Marianne’s mind go blank with pleasure.

It doesn’t last long, it was never going to last long, and Marianne barely has the time to feel her orgasm approach, the way her legs grow restless, her breathing ragged and her mind sharp and foggy at once as her senses zone in on the hot press of Héloïse’s mouth against her most sensitive spot.

And then it hits her, harder than ever before. It feels like there isn’t enough air in her lungs. Her body bows and goes rigid, her head pressed back against the pillow and her neck strained, pushing out a broken, high-pitched gasp as her muscles clench and release over and over, until she feels she is never going to come back from it.

Héloïse keeps licking through her until Marianne runs out of energy and her body slumps back on the bed, feeling liquid and boneless. She continues until Marianne blindly shoots her hands down to stop Héloïse, twitching and shaking with oversensitivity. Héloïse stops but she seems unable to entirely pull away in those first few moments after Marianne’s orgasm, delicately pressing her lips or just barely flicking her tongue over Marianne’s clit. It’s careful and slow and so impossibly gentle that Marianne feels a low throb at the base of her spine and she wants to whine because she just came down from her high but she wants to grind back into the warm feeling of Héloïse’s mouth.

Eventually, Héloïse draws away completely and crawls up Marianne’s body,  forcing Marianne to inhale deeply at the sight while she is still trying to catch her breath. Héloïse’s mouth is shiny and wet, her long lashes heavy and a flush high up on her cheeks. She is panting, just like Marianne, but that smile has stayed on her face, now even softer than it was before. She is beautiful in a way Marianne struggles to comprehend, and whatever future pain their choice might lead to, this moment alone makes it worth it.

She doesn’t hesitate in pulling Héloïse down for a long kiss. The soft collision of their lips makes her sigh right into Héloïse’s mouth. She tastes herself on Héloïse’s lips and instinctively deepens the kiss, wrapping her arms around the woman on top of her. There is no hint of despair in how they kiss this time, just the type of urgency that demands more closeness, even when impossible, their bodies fully pressed together.

They roll over until they’re lying side by side, arms and legs entwined as they keep kissing without any will or desire to stop. Marianne feels like she is swaying, sated and content in her soul even more than in her body.

“Are you okay?” she whispers when Héloïse leans back and strokes her cheek with her thumb, tucking a dark lock behind her ear. Héloïse just nods, once, before smiling again. Seeing her like this,  so completely at peace because of what they just shared, that is true happiness, Marianne realizes, what people search for all their lives, what poets write about.

Their kiss is slow when their lips meet, Héloïse’s hand even more unhurried as it slides down Marianne’s body to settle between her legs again. It’s a form of bliss, being able to take all the time they want in rediscovering each other after time had been the one thing most cruelly denied to them. They cherish each moment, each second, determined to prove it’s possible to recover five years of wasted time in a single night.

Chapter Text

It is the orange light seeping through the window that wakes Marianne up. A ray of light hits her face and she scrunches her eyes shut, instinctively raising an arm to cover them with the back of her hand while still half asleep. She indulges in the relaxation that is making her body feel loose and heavy, so unlike her usual habit of getting out of bed at the first light of day. She has no desire to move now. She stretches her legs underneath the sheets, sighing contentedly as her muscles tingle with a delicious ache before loosening. Her lips curl up in a lazy smile as her mind, even in that groggy state, fills with the memories of what caused that feeling to begin with. Who. She extends one arm to her side, instinctively looking to draw close to her the warm body she had fallen asleep next to, but she is surprised when she only feels the mattress beneath her hand.

Sleep leaves her entirely and Marianne opens her eyes to look beside her, confused by the realization that she is alone in the bed. Still a bit drowsy, she lifts her head to search the room with her eyes, but whatever concern was growing in the pit of her stomach, it dissolves right away the moment her gaze sets on the open window on the other side of the room, replaced by a blissful warmth at the sight of Héloïse sitting on the window sill with her back resting against the frame, staring right back at her with a content expression on her face.

“Good morning,” Marianne says with a smile, relaxing back on the bed and propping her head up on her hand to keep looking at Héloïse comfortably. Héloïse doesn’t say anything, she just tilts her head back against the frame and smiles back lazily. The fuzzy, thinner strands of hair at the top of her head have fallen over her face and in front of her eyes but she makes no move to push them back. It gives her a younger, disheveled appearance that causes a flutter in Marianne’s stomach and makes her want to get up and kiss Héloïse right by the window, in front of the whole city.

She doesn’t move, though, because her eyes crave to take in Héloïse as much as her mouth and hands do. And she feels blessed that someone as elusive as Héloïse accepts her gaze because she is the type of beauty art was invented for, and that at the same time no artist could ever truly capture. The morning light shining through the open window graces her skin with a golden glow and makes her green eyes gleam. Her long hair has fallen over one shoulder, wavy and wild, and Marianne’s fingers itch to run through it like she had done the night before. She is naked but for her gown hanging loosely at the level of her hips and leaving her chest completely bare. It’s the kind of nudity that entrances Marianne rather than arouse her, so serene and carefree Marianne wishes they could stay like that forever, Héloïse free from constraints and Marianne free to watch her.

“What are you doing there?” Marianne asks after a long moment just spent looking at each other. Héloïse doesn’t reply right away, she just blinks slowly and keeps looking at Marianne. Then, her soft smile widens.

“Regarding you.”

The answer takes Marianne by surprise and a small laugh comes out of her mouth.

“Regarding me?” She laughs again when Héloïse nods and shrugs, her green eyes visibly traveling down the length of Marianne’s body and then back up to meet her gaze again. The shameless stare makes Marianne’s skin tingle, and her legs involuntarily cross beneath the sheet as she finds herself thinking about the night they’d spent together, how Héloïse’s gaze had set her body alight even before her touch.

“Can’t you regard me from the bed?”

Héloïse smiles again and turns her head towards the open window, directly facing the sunlight and closing her eyes. She looks utterly at peace like that, basking in the warmth of the sun and in no rush to move or speak. They never had the privilege of having much time together, but now much like all those years ago, that time goes to savoring every moment, and Marianne is sure she could turn those few minutes since she woke up into countless paintings, one for each of those precious moments.

“I wanted to feel the sun on my skin. The breeze,” Héloïse finally says. As if to highlight her words, she inhales deeply through her nose and exhales just as heavily. She does it more than once, and Marianne cannot help but look at the way her chest moves with each breath, her left nipple appearing and disappearing through the blonde locks.

She looks up at Héloïse’s face again when the woman turns her head in her direction and opens her eyes. Her expression remains serene, but there is something in her eyes that wasn’t there before, a sort of heaviness that doesn’t match the peacefulness on her face. Then, Héloïse speaks again, and Marianne understands.

“I woke up feeling like I could breathe for the first time in almost six years. I wanted more of it.”

They didn’t talk about it the night before, there was no room in their bed for anything other than heated whispers and soothing touches, and no desire on their part to taint the moment with grim thoughts. Neither forgot, though. The reality of their separation is what made finding each other again all the more sacred, and the more Héloïse discloses about the life she led, the more Marianne realizes that even with all the sorrow she carried with her throughout the years, Héloïse’s fate was much more tragic than hers ever could be. Even if unhappy, she was always free. It’s hard to tell herself Héloïse’s life was in any way happy when every little thing she discovers makes it look more and more like an imprisonment.

Marianne looks at Héloïse in silence for a moment. The smile fades from her face, replaced by a more melancholic look, but Héloïse doesn’t seem bothered by her own admission like Marianne was. Unlike the painter, her features remain soft, free from trouble, and when Marianne moves to get out of bed, Héloïse quickly stops her.

“No, don’t get up,” she says, making Marianne freeze with her body propped up on one elbow. She is confused by the request but she complies, relaxing back on the bed and looking at Héloïse with a silent question in her eyes. The sadness and concern that had washed over her after Héloïse’s admission struggle to survive under Héloïse’s warm look, and they succumb altogether when a toothy grin spreads on Héloïse’s face, one that makes it impossible for Marianne not to smile back.

“Pull back the sheets.”

The request is the last thing Marianne was expecting. Her eyes go wide with surprise and she raises her eyebrows, a gesture she has grown painfully aware of after Héloïse had pointed it out to her. Even now, she doesn’t miss the pleased glint in Héloïse’s eyes as she notices Marianne’s involuntary reaction. Marianne opens her mouth to reply but she opts for not saying anything instead. She looks down at her body, hidden by the white sheets from her stomach down, and she can’t help but laugh quietly at the bluntness of Héloïse’s desire. It’s disorienting and amusing and entirely irresistible.

She goes back to looking at Héloïse, keeping her eyes locked with hers. Then, she does what Héloïse asked, pulling away the sheets and fully exposing her body to her.

Héloïse’s eyes immediately move down Marianne’s body, darkening as they take in every inch of newly exposed skin. They settle on Marianne’s chest for a moment and then blatantly linger between her legs, and even from that distance, Marianne has no trouble seeing the flush that suddenly colors Héloïse’s cheeks and ears.

“Do you enjoy looking?” she teases, unable to stop herself.

“Very much so,” Héloïse replies with her usual candor, not moving her eyes for a few more seconds before finally meeting Marianne’s gaze again. “If I knew how to paint, I would make you pose for me.”

The suggestion makes Marianne laugh.

“I could teach you,” she says. “But I’m not a good model.”

“You’re being one now,” Héloïse replies. “You don’t evade my stare.”

“I have no reason to.”

Héloïse just smiles softly at that, leaning back against the frame and moving her gaze up and down Marianne’s body again. She had done that during the night, too, observing every detail of Marianne’s body and then feeling it with her hands or her lips, as if she was trying to commit it all to memory as vividly as possible.

“I love looking at you,” Héloïse says after a while, breathing deeply. “I almost consumed your drawing throughout the years.”

The confession is unexpected, even more moving because of how nonchalantly it is uttered, and Marianne cannot help but imagine Héloïse looking at the self-portrait hidden between the pages of what once was her book, the first thing she had shared with Héloïse, touching the drawing enough to smudge the charcoal.

“Before seeing your portrait, I didn’t dare hope you’d still have it.”

“You underestimated my need for solace, then.”

When Héloïse smiles this time, there is a wistfulness to it that makes Marianne’s heart ache. She doesn’t know how to respond to these confessions, she isn’t even sure she should, maybe Héloïse just needs to voice feelings that had to go unspoken for years.

“It did console me when I needed it,” Héloïse continues, glancing at Marianne’s body without really lingering over any specific part, just taking in the whole before looking into Marianne’s eyes again. “But I could only trace the contours of your image. It couldn’t touch me back.”

Marianne’s breath catches in her throat when Héloïse pulls herself up from the window and walks back to the bed. She isn’t nervous, and yet she feels the change in her heartbeat, stronger against her chest rather than faster. She follows Héloïse’s movements with her eyes until the other woman is standing by the bed, looking down at her. There is no hesitation on either’s part. Marianne scoots back on the mattress and Héloïse climbs into bed again, immediately pressing her body against Marianne’s just as Marianne wraps her arms around her.

Héloïse’s skin is warm against hers after the time spent in the sunlight, her hair smells like fresh air and Marianne cannot help but inhale deeply as soon as Héloïse is back in her arms. Holding her like that feels like the most natural thing in the world, maybe her body was made to merge with Héloïse’s because comforting her with her touch is just as soothing and gratifying as if she was the one being held. She instinctively draws Héloïse closer when the woman curls into her, resting an arm over Marianne’s side and tucking her face into Marianne’s neck. Her lips ghost over the length of her throat, her warm breath tickles Marianne’s skin with each sigh, and it’s such a calming feeling that the only reason Marianne doesn’t close her eyes and falls back asleep is because she doesn’t want to miss out on a single moment.

For a while, Héloïse remains so still in her arms that Marianne wonders whether she is the one who succumbed to sleep again. But then, she feels the press of Héloïse’s lips against her neck, soft but sure, lingering enough to know it’s voluntary. Héloïse does it again after a couple seconds, barely an inch above the patch of skin she first kissed, and then again, pressing a trail of lazy kisses over Marianne’s neck and jaw until they are facing each other. When they kiss, it is delicate, like everything about that moment. Their lips glide slowly, neither feeling the need for anything deeper or more intense.

Even when Héloïse hooks her leg behind Marianne’s thigh and presses herself closer, their kisses remain soft, much like their hands on each other. Héloïse seems content with just tracing the skin of Marianne’s waist with the tip of her fingers, but Marianne is more eager. Not to consume, or to set Héloïse’s body alight with pleasure like the night before. She just wants to feel her, to tend with her touch to that ache Héloïse had evoked with her words. Marianne splays her palm across Héloïse’s back first, caressing the vast plane from her neck all the way down to her backside. Then, her hand slides in the space between their bodies, to feel Héloïse’s soft stomach, and lower, over her prominent hipbones. She laughs quietly into the kiss when Héloïse wiggles her hips enough to make her hand slip and slide over the curve of her buttocks.

Héloïse is smiling too when she eventually breaks the kiss and pulls back.

“Do you have food?” she asks.

“In the kitchen. Downstairs.”

Héloïse nods and pulls herself up, tugging her bunched up gown up from her waist and sliding her arms into its sleeves.

“I will get us breakfast,” she says, getting out of bed. Marianne moves to get up and follow her but Héloïse puts a hand on her shoulder.

“You stay in bed,” she says with a smile, pressing a quick kiss on Marianne lips and walking out of the room before Marianne can say anything.

A laugh pushes out of Marianne’s mouth and she flops back against the mattress. For a while she does nothing except stare at the ceiling, unable to stop smiling with how serene and happy she feels. She absentmindedly runs her fingers over the pillowcase, still warm where Héloïse was resting her head. For so long, that’s what Héloïse had been in her life, an echo of warmth. She had made countless paintings and drawings of her, her brushes had caressed the canvas like her hands had once caressed Héloïse. But she could only ever reproduce her image, and even as an echo, no one had been able to match or substitute that warmth.

Despite Héloïse’s orders, Marianne pulls herself up after a while, rolling her neck and sighing contentedly. She doesn’t get up. She stretches her body towards the floor and reaches for her gown, lying there abandoned after Héloïse had tugged it off her body the night before. She puts it back on right when the sound of Héloïse’s steps reaches her ears, and a couple moments later, the other woman walks back inside with a wooden tray in her hands. Marianne smiles when she sees her pipe between Héloïse’s teeth.

“That’s mine,” she says as Héloïse places the tray on the mattress and sits next to Marianne with her legs crossed. Héloïse takes a long drag and then pulls the pipe from her lips, blowing out the smoke and smiling.

“I helped myself. I haven’t smoked in years.”

“How come? I remember you liking it.”

“I’m not allowed to. It’s not lady-like.”

Héloïse stares at Marianne with a teasing glint in her eyes and takes another drag, so purposefully long and defiant that Marianne cannot help but laugh.

She steals the pipe from Héloïse’s mouth and takes one puff before giving it back to her, moving her attention to the food in front of her, two cups of black coffee and cheese and bread. Nothing fancy like the food that had been offered to her at Héloïse’s house or at Palazzo Arese, but Marianne wouldn’t exchange this for the richest meal in the world.

“Do you have to go back soon?” Marianne asks, chewing on a piece of cheese and offering another to Héloïse, who takes it and shakes her head.

“I don’t have to do anything when Giovanni isn’t here. The only people at my house are a few servants who don’t ask any questions and Julie.”

“And won’t Julie worry?”

Héloïse shrugs, unbothered in a way that tells Marianne they have nothing to be concerned about.

“I can inform her later,” Héloïse says. “That I’m spending time with a friend.”

A smirk appears on their faces at Héloïse’s word choice, one that stretches wider until they both end up grinning.

“What about you?” Héloïse asks.

“Unless the Contessa summons me…”

“I doubt she will after what happened yesterday,” Héloïse says with a chuckle. “I think I must apologize for making you lose a commission.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. I can be quite persuasive.”

“Do you want to persuade Lucia to hire you again?”

“By God, I do not.”

They laugh together, with a lightness Marianne hasn’t felt in years. She has always considered herself a serious person, she has lost count of the times she has been criticized as sullen or aloof, but Héloïse brings out a playfulness in her she never knew she needed to feel in her life. Only now does she realize how much she missed it.

Without thinking, she leans down and presses a soft kiss on Héloïse’s shoulder, where the sleeve of the gown had slid down and exposed her skin.

“I suppose this means we’re free.”

Marianne doesn’t miss the way Héloïse’s eyes soften with her words, taking on a warmth that needs no explaining. It’s something Marianne feels too. It’s as if time froze and they caught up where they had left off, as if they never stopped being together, always a ‘we’ even throughout the years.

They eat in silence, simply basking in each other’s presence as the sun gets higher in the sky. They share the pipe from time to time, seemingly unable to stop smiling at each other whenever their eyes meet. When the tobacco finally wears out, Héloïse drops the pipe on the small table next to the bed and lies back against the headboard of the bed, squeezing a pillow behind her back to be comfortable and closing her eyes with a pleased sigh. Marianne can’t help but smile as she watches her, thinking about how at ease Héloïse looks just relaxing next to her, how at home.

“This really is the freest I’ve been since leaving France,” Héloïse suddenly says, opening her eyes again and tilting her head in Marianne’s direction. There is no heaviness in her gaze and yet Marianne’s smile falters. She suddenly finds herself imagining Héloïse alone on the island after her departure, wondering whether her mother had reverted back to locking her inside the house to keep her from doing something impulsive that would ruin the carefully planned marriage. Héloïse’s married life is something she has tried not to imagine instead, and yet Marianne keeps thinking about it, feeling a sense of discomfort grow more in her stomach with each small, casual reveal.

“Is your husband very controlling?” Marianne asks eventually after a moment, glancing at Héloïse while taking a sip of coffee.

“He’s not,” Héloïse replies with a shrug. “But being married entails being controlled. I’m his property to all effects, even when he believes he treats me as his equal.”

“Does he?”

“He bought me. Any equality is illusory.”

Héloïse’s frankness is hard to absorb this time, her answer honest in an almost brutal manner and Marianne finds herself diverting her gaze for a moment, unable to stop the sudden stream of worrying thoughts evoked by Héloïse’s words.

“May I ask you something?” she asks after a while, caving in under her own concerns. She feels a twitch in her stomach when Héloïse nods affirmatively, aware that backtracking is no longer an option.

“When I asked you if you were happy…” Marianne hesitates, unsure about how to continue. Unsure about whether she really wants an answer to the question that’s tormenting her. She can feel Héloïse’s stare on her, though, and she knows that if she were to stop now, halfway through her question, Héloïse would insist to know the rest anyway. So, she forces herself. “You said you were, and that you were giving me the answer I needed.”

Héloïse tilts her head to better look at her, quietly studying Marianne’s face for a moment.

“Do you want to know if I lied?” she asks eventually. Marianne doesn’t answer, but the expression of concern on her face is enough on its own.

Silence stretches between them for long seconds. Héloïse turns her face away and stares into nothing, as if lost in her thoughts or trying to think about how to answer Marianne’s silent question. She remains quiet for far longer than Marianne was expecting, so much that Marianne feels her worries increase, but as she searches Héloïse’s eyes for the truth, she finds no overwhelming sadness there. No pain either, nor the happiness that had lit up her face until then. Just an intense concentration, spreading from her eyes to her face and making the crease between her brows deepen slightly. It’s in that moment that Marianne realizes that Héloïse is struggling with her answer just as much as she struggled with her question.

“That I’m not always unhappy would be the closest thing to the truth, I suppose,” Héloïse says at last, turning to look at Marianne again. “Especially after Nicola was born. He brought me more joy than I could have ever imagined.”

She pauses, then, and the spark of genuine happiness that had made her green eyes shine with the mention of her son darkens and dissolves just as quickly as Marianne had seen it appear. 

“He also made the ache in my heart grow stronger,” she adds more quietly before sighing and shaking her head, as if displeased with her own reply. “I’m not sure. It’s a difficult answer the one you’re asking for.”

Marianne knows Héloïse’s answer is the most honest she will ever get, they’ve dropped any pretense the night before, baring each other like they had bared their bodies. Even knowing that, though, she struggles to find the answer satisfactory. She isn’t really sure any answer would be satisfactory to begin with. Happy or unhappy, there is a gap of almost six years in their lives, one Héloïse has shared with someone else.

For once, Marianne finds herself wishing Héloïse would be even more forthright than her usual self, that she would tell her directly if she suffered during her marriage, or how much. It’s a question that had haunted her throughout the years, never quite sure what was more painful to imagine, if Héloïse happy in the arms of another man, or imprisoned in a miserable life. After seeing her cry the night before, Marianne has no doubts anymore.

“You also said your husband is a good man,” she says, another question she’s too scared to formulate properly.

“He is. Which is why he’s so upset that I don’t love him.”

“Upset?” Marianne asks, not liking the sound of that word.

“He doesn’t understand why I cannot love him back despite treating me with respect.”

Marianne drops her gaze to her hands in her lap to hide the frown she feels forming on her face. She should be relieved by Héloïse’s answer, she is in a way, but another feeling itches at the pit of her belly, an uncomfortable twinge that she is embarrassed to realize comes from jealousy.

“So, he loves you,” she says, not quite managing to hide the animosity in her voice. When she goes back to looking at Héloïse, she finds the other woman’s eyes staring right back at her, with a knowing glint behind her green irises that makes Marianne immediately ashamed of her reaction. She wants to apologize but before she can say anything, Héloïse speaks instead.

“He doesn’t know me,” she says, probably the last thing Marianne was expecting to hear after years of marriage. Héloïse smiles then, though, a wistful smile that softens her eyes. It’s tender and heartbreaking at once, explaining everything Héloïse means even before her words do. “I made sure he never did.”

With the confession, Marianne feels the urge to pull Héloïse in and hug her, to hold her close until they both forget they were ever forced apart. She’ll never stop being amazed by Héloïse’s strength. Héloïse not sharing her husband’s feelings despite the years spent together isn’t what touches Marianne so profoundly, it’s her deliberate choice to close herself off to someone so present in her life just to stay true to herself. Marianne isn’t sure that in the same situation, she would be as strong.

“That’s in the past, though,” Héloïse continues, letting her head lull against the headboard and stretching her legs in front of her. “His feelings have changed. He barely touches me anymore. And it has been years since we have shared a bed for anything other than his needs.”

Marianne remains quiet but she can feel her lips twist with a grimace she cannot restrain. Her jaw has clenched shut, something she realizes only after a moment, and only because of the sudden pain in her teeth. She tries to relax the muscles of her face but the discomfort remains, just like the nauseous feeling at the bottom of her stomach. It’s the last thing Marianne wants to imagine, and the one thing that tortures her incessantly, even more so after finding out just how detached Héloïse feels from her husband.

“Even that has faded with time,” Héloïse says, with a neutral tone that clashes with the uneasiness Marianne feels. “I’m not the ardent wife he was expecting after seeing your portrait.”

She laughs all of a sudden, a quiet sound but sharp enough to take Marianne out of her grim thoughts and spark her curiosity.

“At some point, he convinced himself I was being unfaithful. That if I wasn’t passionate with him, it had to be because I was giving myself to someone else.”

The words take Marianne by surprise, and at the same time they ring familiar to her. She suddenly remembers the Contessa’s venomous outburst after Héloïse had rushed out of her house, how she hadn’t wasted time in insulting her and reveal details about Héloïse’s marriage that no true friend would have shared.

“Were you ever?”

The word are out of her mouth before she even realizes she uttered them out loud, making her go rigid. She holds Héloïse’s stare, though, when the woman tilts her head towards her and raises her eyebrows questioningly.

“Unfaithful?”

Marianne nods. Héloïse remains quiet for a moment. Then, her gaze shifts, trailing down Marianne’s half naked body and her own, leaving no doubt as to what is going through her mind. When her eyes meet Marianne’s again, they’re wide and teasing in a way that makes Marianne feel stupid for asking that question to begin with but that also tugs a smile from her lips, one that threatens to stretch wider the more she tries to contain it.

Héloïse laughs softly, visibly pleased with the effect she had on Marianne with a simple, cheeky stare. Then, she scoots closer to Marianne, enough to rest her head against the painter’s shoulder.

“I had no desire to be with anyone,” Héloïse says, glancing up at Marianne and giving her a more straightforward answer. “But Giovanni is handsome. And charismatic, and rich. He’s been raised to believe that any woman would consider herself lucky to be chosen as his wife. So it’s hard for him to understand why I would have no interest in him. A dishonorable wife with a lover is an easier answer.”

“That sounds awfully self-righteous.”

“He’s not,” Héloïse replies. “He’s simply a man.”

She looks at her own hand, resting on Marianne’s thigh, and moves it towards Marianne’s lap to brush against the painter’s hand. Marianne takes it in her own as soon as she feels the contact, softly rubbing her thumb back and forth over Héloïse’s palm.

“The Contessa told me your husband suspected you of having an affair.” Marianne says, but the confession only pulls a small, scornful laugh from Héloïse’s mouth.

“Of course she did. Lucia has always wanted Giovanni for her daughter. I wouldn’t put it past her to have put that idea in Giovanni’s head.”

“So, he still believes that?”

Héloïse shakes her head.

“Not anymore, I don’t think so. But at first, he was certain of it. I laughed in his face when he accused me. I’ll never forget the way he reacted.”

Marianne’s fingers go still over Héloïse’s hand. She waits for Héloïse to elaborate but when she doesn’t, Marianne’s chest tightens with an awful feeling of apprehension, strong enough to affect her physically and forcing her to swallow hard against the sudden dryness of her throat.

“He got angry?” she whispers stiffly. Héloïse doesn’t answer right away. She is staring ahead, her face partially hidden to Marianne’s view from the position in which they’re resting.

“Like never before.”

When Héloïse’s reply eventually arrives, Marianne grows even more rigid than she already was. She has to consciously make herself loosen her hold on Héloïse’s hand once she realizes that her fingers have started digging into her skin. She tries not to let her distress come to the surface, but her imagination has always been too vivid for her own good, and it’s horribly easy for her to imagine scenarios in which Héloïse is vulnerable to the rage of her husband.

Unable to ease her anxiety, Marianne lets her eyes travel down Héloïse’s body as discreetly as she can. Her crumpled gown covers most of it, only leaving exposed her legs and one of her hips, but still, Marianne studies her skin, looking for marks. She tells herself that if there had been any, she would have seen them the night before, when she had traced and kissed every inch of naked skin. She had been so taken by the moment, though, so lost in being able to finally be with Héloïse after all those years that she doesn’t trust her memory to be accurate. Despite her concerns, she finds nothing worthy of alarm on those parts of Héloïse’s body not hidden to her.

She freezes in the middle of taking in a breath, though, when she meets Héloïse’s eyes again. The woman is staring right back at her, the expression on her face tells Marianne she stared at her the whole time she checked her body, not as subtly as she thought, clearly.   Her gaze lacks any hardness, but it’s so piercing that for a moment Marianne wonders if she did something that upset Héloïse.

Before she can think of anything to say, Héloïse’s question makes Marianne’s blood run cold.

“Do you want to know if he hurts me, Marianne? Is that the reason for all your questions?”

For a moment, Marianne is unable to speak, only feeling more upset by Héloïse addressing her apprehension so directly, as if that in itself were a confirmation that she has a reason to worry. She searches Héloïse’s eyes for the answer to a question she doesn’t dare ask, but Héloïse’s face remains unreadable.

“Angry men are violent,” Marianne finally whispers, giving voice to the fear that’s gnawing at her insides. Héloïse only stares at her in silence for a while, long enough that Marianne starts believing she’s not going to answer. And then, Héloïse does.

“He slapped me that time,” she says, and Marianne’s stomach churns violently. “It was the only time.”

Marianne feels no relief in hearing it happened only once. Tears of anger quickly start burning behind her eyes, stinging harder the more she tries to force them back. It was one time too many.

“Afterwards, he fell to his knees and begged for forgiveness,” Héloïse continues with a detached tone that only adds to Marianne’s distress. She pauses, then, diverting her eyes from Marianne’s face to stare blankly into emptiness. Long seconds pass before she speaks again. “Then he took me to bed and made love to me. He apologized the whole time.”

Her eyes remain distant, devoid of any recognizable emotion like anger or pain. The bitterness in her voice betrays her, though, giving away far too clearly that it was anything but making love, and Marianne tastes bile at the back of her throat. She should have never asked. She should have kept her concerns to herself and treasured the safety of not knowing. She was never going to be able to bear the truth about Héloïse’s married life, a truth in which the woman she loves is stuck with a man who can do as he pleases with her because he owns her.

“Does he…” She chokes on her words, looking up and blinking rapidly to keep the tears in her eyes from falling. Even just thinking about the question she wants to ask is enough to make her feel sick.  “Does he ever—”

“He never forced me,” Héloïse cuts her off right away. When she turns around to look at Marianne again, her eyes are truthful, and Marianne cannot help but let out a relieved, shaky breath through her teeth. Her body trembles, too, when Héloïse reaches up to her face and rubs away with her thumb a single tear stuck between her eyelashes.

“He never did, because I never resisted. I never participated, either.” Héloïse continues with a quiet voice, dropping her hand back into Marianne’s lap. The painter immediately takes it between her own, trailing her fingers back and forth over the soft skin as if one gentle caress was enough to undo five years of unwanted touches. The small smile that appears on Héloïse’s face in response to it is so tender it brings back the sting of tears behind Marianne’s eyes.

“He mistook my passivity for a sign of innocence at first, he found it endearing. It didn’t take long for him to realize that experience wouldn’t make me want him more.”

It takes everything in Marianne to keep her touch soft and not crush Héloïse’s hand into a tight fist. The feeling of nausea has faded, but it has been replaced by a type of anger she doesn’t remember ever feeling before in her life. She doesn’t even know what Héloïse’s husband looks like, but he doesn’t need a face for her to feel a burning hatred towards him.

“He still comes to you, though,” she hisses, unable to keep her anger out of her voice.

“Less and less with the years. He spends such little time with me that I’m sure he must be finding relief somewhere else. It doesn’t concern me. I do what he asks the times that he asks, in bed or out. Then we go back to ignoring each other.”

Marianne should be reassured by Héloïse’s almost unconcerned tone but the main effect it has is to fill her with a deep sadness instead. Her heart aches thinking about someone as alive as she knows Héloïse to be growing to become so indifferent to what happens in her own life. She remembers her resistance to marriage back on the island, when they still didn’t know each other, how fiercely she had clung to her freedom as long as she could. It’s impossible to reconcile with the passive existence Héloïse is describing to her, impossible to reconcile even with the woman in her arms right now, just as full of fire as almost six years ago. It troubles Marianne so much she almost wants to ask Héloïse how she can keep her spirit intact while submitting to a life so empty.

“Marianne?” Héloïse’s voice catches her attention. She looks down at her and finds Héloïse’s eyes on her. “I don’t want to talk about my husband when I’m in bed with you.”

It catches her by surprise. There is no irritation or anger in Héloïse’s voice, but Marianne feels guilty right away, worried that she might have tainted the serenity of the moment with her inappropriate concerns.

“I’m sorry,” she rushes to say, but Héloïse shakes her head.

“I don’t want you to apologize.”

Marianne holds Héloïse’s stare as the other woman cups her cheek with one hand, rubbing her thumb across the skin. She watches silently as Héloïse adjusts her position on the bed so that they’re facing each other. The instinct to apologize again itches on the tip of her tongue, but she forces herself to stay quiet, ready to follow Héloïse’s wishes and do anything she asks. Then, Héloïse smiles, a soft, loving smile like the one Marianne had woken up to. Even with that, Marianne is taken aback by Héloïse’s next request.

“I want you to kiss me.”

Marianne’s lips part in surprise but just as quickly, they curl up into a smile. She feels the muscles of her face relax and tension drain away from her body. Maybe she needed it just as much as Héloïse, because when she leans in and kisses her, she is the one to sigh in relief against Héloïse’s warm mouth.

They kiss slowly, it’s even more tender than the way they had kissed earlier. Marianne feels Héloïse’s fingers curl behind her neck and she cups her face in return, drawing Héloïse closer to her and adding more pressure to their lips. A rush of warmth spreads across her entire body, melting away her unrest and replacing it with that feeling of absolute peacefulness that seems to take over whenever she is touching Héloïse.

Marianne kisses Héloïse’s cheeks, too, moving her lips over the soft skin on each side of her face before going back to Héloïse’s mouth. She does it without thinking, moved by an instinctive need to erase a past hurt through a gentle touch, and when she kisses Héloïse again, she feels Héloïse’s lips against hers curled in a smile.

Minutes pass before either is willing to break the kiss. It’s Marianne who eventually pulls away first, just enough to look Héloïse in the eyes. She keeps running her thumb across the line of her cheekbone, unable to fully detach herself from Héloïse.

“I’m still in Milan for—”

Before she can finish, Héloïse presses her fingers against her lips and shakes her head, shushing her.

“Not yet,” she whispers. She doesn’t have to explain, Marianne understands what Héloïse means right away. Any concern about the future can wait. Marianne just smiles against Héloïse ’s fingers and nods. It’s surprisingly easy for her to empty her mind of her worries this time. Héloïse’s lips back on hers help with it.

It’s a shorter kiss than the one that preceded it, and Héloïse sits up on the mattress once she pulls back.

“If Lucia sends for you, tell her you’re no longer available,” she says. “I’m hiring you.”

Marianne immediately pulls herself up at the unexpected announcement, her eyebrows knitting together in an expression of confusion.

“You’re hiring me?”

Héloïse nods, looking at Marianne with a light smirk on her face that betrays her amusement at constantly being able to throw Marianne off her game.

“I want you to make a portrait of me.”

A quiet, surprised laugh pushes out of Marianne’s mouth at that.

“What kind of portrait?”

“I don’t know yet” Héloïse says with a shrug. “A small one. One I can keep.”

“I thought you didn’t enjoy posing.”

“It’s different with you. You’re the only one who can capture my essence.”

The compliment is spoken so casually that Marianne feels a warmth spread in her chest in response to it, touched by the intimacy and trust those words reveal. She feels the need to lean in and kiss Héloïse again, but suddenly, a teasing glint illuminates Héloïse’s eyes and her smirk widens.

“That is, if you haven’t lost your touch without my help.”

Marianne’s mouth falls opens, too astonished to come up with a witty remark on the spot, and the longer her silence stretches, the more Héloïse’s eyes shine with an almost childlike amusement. She lets out a huffed chuckle and purses her lips, trying not to look any more affected by Héloïse’s teasing than she already did.

“I’ve managed quite alright so far, thank you,” she says, only partially joking about defending her pride.

Héloïse bites her bottom lip and shrugs again, the smirk never leaving her face.

“I guess we shall see.”

“I guess.”

Héloïse’s smile grows wider until it turns into a full laugh, bright and delightful and visible on her whole face, bringing out the small wrinkles at the corner of her eyes and softening the sharp edges of her features. It’s a vision of relaxed, unrestrained happiness, not just beautiful but contagious too, and right after Héloïse started laughing, Marianne follows suit and laughs with her.

“How would you like me to paint you?” Marianne asks once their laughters have quieted down. She is amazed by how easily she went along with the request, how natural for her it feels to want to do this. “Do you have a specific pose in mind?”

“I want something different. I don’t know what yet.” Héloïse pauses, looking away and meditating in silence about the question for a few seconds. When she finally looks at Marianne again, there is a determined expression on her face. “I want to be painted in a way no woman has ever been painted before.”

It’s not a specific instruction by any means, but Marianne couldn’t think of anything more in line with Héloïse’s spirit and more exciting for her as an artist and a woman in love. The prospect of painting Héloïse with such complete freedom, without having to follow any rules or conventions, is so thrilling that she feels her fingers itch with the need to pick up her brushes and start right now.

“I have some ideas in mind,” she tells Héloïse.

“So do I.”

Marianne smiles and nods.

“We will decide it together, then.”

For a moment they do nothing but look at each other. There is a softness in Héloïse’s eyes that Marianne knows is reflected in her own. It’s an intoxicating feeling, this freedom to be together, for however long it may last. It fills her with such an overwhelming happiness that Marianne has no doubt that, even if the world doesn’t let them, this is is how they were always meant to be, together.

She is so affected by that joyous feeling that she feels playful all of a sudden.

“Being hired without notice for such an extraordinary work must demand a special compensation, don’t you agree?”

It’s almost impossible for her to restrain the need to smirk when she sees the surprised expression on Héloïse’s face, the way her eyes go wide and then the spark in her green irises as she realizes she’s being subjected to the same teasing she had directed at Marianne.

“Tell me,” Marianne continues, “how do you plan on paying me for my services? Because I—”

She cannot finish the sentence because Héloïse pushes her down on the bed and crashes their lips together. Marianne laughs into the messy kiss and wraps her arms around Héloïse, keeping her close to her as Héloïse moves her mouth to her neck. Her laugh turns into a moan when Héloïse’s hand moves up her inner thigh and slides under her gown.

Chapter Text

On the first couple of days, they don’t get much painting done. Héloïse is determined to keep Marianne in bed as much as possible and Marianne has no strength nor wish to resist her. Marianne has never felt as wanted by anyone in her entire life, Héloïse seems to crave her like she craves air in her lungs or food in her stomach.

It goes beyond a sexual desire. After coming back from a brief visit to her house to ensure discretion from Julie, Héloïse finds Marianne in the kitchen in the midst of preparing lunch and wraps her arms around her from behind, resting her face against the back of Marianne’s neck and breathing her in contentedly. Small gestures of affection like that mark all their time together. They hold hands while eating, Marianne plays with Héloïse’s hair while Héloïse lies with her head in Marianne’s lap and reads a book aloud, they wash each other in Marianne’s wooden bathtub, so small they can barely fit in together, and laugh when Héloïse’s clumsy movements make all the water splash out.

And in bed, they spend hours mapping each other’s bodies, re-discovering every minute, intimate detail. How Héloïse is ticklish across her ribs and the light drag of Marianne’s lips or fingertips makes her whole body squirm. How Marianne sighs Héloïse’s name without even realizing it and will all but purr if Héloïse threads her fingers through her hair and scratches at her scalp. How Héloïse’s cheeks and chest stay flushed for long minutes after an orgasm. The moles and freckles on her skin stand out even more in those moments, and Marianne can’t resist kissing them, especially the ones on Héloïse’s nose.

They go out together, too, at the insistence of Héloïse. They dress her with Marianne’s most modest clothes and cover her golden hair with a a white cuff. Marianne worries it’s an unnecessary risk, that the disguise won’t be enough to hide Héloïse’s identity, let alone her beauty. She doesn’t have it in her heart to deny anything to Héloïse, though, and when they walk to the market in the bottom level of the city, away from the aristocratic neighborhoods Héloïse is familiar with, Marianne is surprised to realize just how unfounded her fears were. Nobody recognizes Héloïse, nobody even pays attention to them in the chaos of the market, and it takes Marianne only a few minutes to relax and enjoy herself.

Héloïse stops at every stand, accepting food tastes and admiring the artisanal works on display. Marianne’s heart swells watching Héloïse’s bright, delighted smile as she stops at a flower stand and selects a big bouquet to take home. They would need so little, Marianne thinks, to be absolutely happy.

When they come back to Marianne’s house after purchasing some food and wine, Marianne pulls Héloïse to her and starts kissing her neck before they can even place the food in the pantry. They make their way upstairs stumbling and laughing as they try to walk and kiss at the same time. Marianne is grateful for the simplicity of her clothes, how easy it is to get out of them compared to Héloïse’s luxurious, intricate dresses. They’re naked on the bed in less than a minute and Marianne eagerly kisses her way down Héloïse’s body. She smiles between her legs when Héloïse clutches at her hair and arches her hips into her mouth with a moan.

They dine late, neither eager to get out of bed until their stomachs start rumbling and make them laugh. Afterwards, Héloïse lounges on the couch while smoking the pipe and reading one of Marianne’s books. She has one leg tucked under herself, her night gown has bunched up, leaving part of her thighs exposed, and her long hair is splayed out messily on the pillows propping up her head. She looks so relaxed and at the same time completely focused, her eyebrows scrunched together in a small frown that makes Marianne smile as she watches her. It’s in that moment that the idea comes to her.

“I think I figured it out,” she says. Héloïse doesn’t look at her immediately, she makes a questioning hum with her throat but keeps her eyes on the page. Marianne’s smile widens at seeing her so absorbed in the reading, always eager to know and learn more. Her intellect and curiosity are one of the main reasons Marianne fell in love with her.

“The portrait you asked me for,” Marianne continues. “I think I know how I should paint you.”

Her words finally catch Héloïse’s attention. She pulls the pipe out of her mouth and turns her head towards Marianne.

“How?”

Marianne smiles and nods towards Héloïse.

“Like that.”

Surprise fills Héloïse’s eyes. She looks down at herself and then back at Marianne.

“Why like this?”

Because you’re so beautiful it hurts, Marianne wants to reply instinctively. It’s not what she says, though. That’s not the reason why that image of Héloïse burned itself into her mind, and she isn’t sure she can properly put it into words. Still, she sits up on the bed and tries.

“You are enjoying yourself, free from rules and propriety.” She nods towards the pipe in Héloïse’s hand. “I have never seen a painting of a woman who is smoking. I don’t think any exists. It’s an image that’s not—”

“Appropriate,” Héloïse concludes for her and Marianne nods with a smile before continuing.

“There’s no sense of restraint. The way you’re sitting, the way you’re dressed… You don’t look like you’re doing something that’s expected of you, just something you want to do, without caring about what other people think.”

Héloïse looks at her intently, Marianne can see the intrigue in her eyes, how she is meditating on her words.

“Is that how you see me now?” she asks and Marianne nods, looking at her with fondness and admiration.

“I look at you like that and I see your mind behind all that beauty. A burning spirit. You look…” She pauses for a moment, trying to find the right word to express why she feels like she just fell in love with Héloïse even more. She can only think of one.

“Untamable.”

Héloïse doesn’t say anything for a long moment. She pulls herself up in a sitting position and looks at Marianne in silence, with a softness to her expression that clashes with the hard edges of her face in the most mesmerizing way. A faint blush spreads across her cheeks that makes her look much younger than she actually is and the corner of her mouth curves up just barely, in a smile so small it feels shy almost. Whatever higher force allowed them to meet again, Marianne is grateful for it, if only for allowing her to witness all those small, precious facets of Héloïse that art could never reproduce.

She feels the aching need to walk up to the couch, cradle Héloïse’s face in her hands and kiss her, but Héloïse precedes her. She puts the book and the pipe down and makes her way to the bed. Marianne immediately wraps her arms around her waist when Héloïse sits on her lap, curling her fingers behind Marianne’s neck and brushing her thumb across her cheekbone. She kisses Marianne slowly, lingering against her lips and opening her mouth to deepen the feeling. She tugs at Marianne’s bottom lip before pulling away.

“I like it,” she says. Marianne smiles, huffing out a quiet laugh.

“Yes?”

Héloïse nods.

“I have one request, though,” she says.

“Of course. Tell me.”

“I won’t be reading just any book. I want to choose it. And I want the title to be very clear in the painting.”

The confidence and determination in Héloïse’s voice sparks Marianne’s curiosity.

“Do you have something specific in mind?”

Héloïse nods, an excited glimmer making her eyes shine.

“I’ll get it tomorrow.”

Before Marianne can ask other questions, Héloïse kisses her again. She goes willingly when Héloïse pushes her back down and lies on top of her.

“Aren’t you tired?” Marianne asks with a laugh. Héloïse pulls back just enough to take off her gown, leaving herself bare to Marianne’s gaze. The painter’s eyes immediately darken at the sight of Héloïse’s naked body.

“Are you?”

Marianne pulls Héloïse down and kisses her.

 


 

Somehow, they manage to wake up early. Getting out of bed, though, proves much more challenging. Marianne had never been one to indulge in idleness, but with Héloïse, she could spend the whole day in bed just kissing and touching each other without feeling the need for anything else.

Eventually, they find the strength to pull away from each other. Héloïse leaves after getting dressed and Marianne spends the morning setting up everything she will need for the portrait. She rearranges the room and moves the couch under the window, at an angle where she knows the sunlight will hit Héloïse’s blonde hair and give it a golden glow.

She grinds the paint pigments until they’ve turned into a powder and adds oil to the mix, creating a smooth paste for each primary color she will need. As she starts applying a foundation layer to the white canvas, she realizes she hasn’t been this excited about a painting in years.

When Héloïse comes back after a few hours, her mere presence and the smile she directs at Marianne are enough to fill Marianne with the urge to rush across the room and kiss her, one so intense she struggles to contain it. She realizes there is no reason to contain it though, because Héloïse walks up to her and presses a lingering kiss on her cheek while Marianne is still wiping paint off her hands.

“Was your visit successful?” Marianne asks while Héloïse takes off her cloak. Héloïse nods and places a small canvas bag she had with her on the table.

“It took me longer than I expected,” Héloïse says. “Julie cleaned my room and mistakenly placed the book back inside the library so I couldn’t immediately find it.”

“Do you have an extensive library?” Marianne cannot help but smile at the image of Héloïse’s focused frown as she devours book after book.

“Massive,” Héloïse replies. “It’s one of the things I truly cherish about my life here. I have access to an endless amount of texts. Even the ones Giovanni doesn’t want me to read.”

The comment piques Marianne’s attention. She has received such conflicting information about Héloïse’s husband that she isn’t able to make up what kind of person he really is, whether a good, loving spouse or a temperamental, controlling one. She imagines the truth to be somewhere between the two extremes.

“He limits your reading?”

Héloïse smiles hearing the hint of annoyance in Marianne’s voice.

“Rarely. But there are texts he thinks women shouldn’t read. They’d give us wrong ideas about the world. I don’t fault him for it. We’ve all been raised with the idea that men are superior. Even women hardly question it, I don’t expect a man who bought his wife to do it.”

There is no bitterness in Héloïse’s tone but Marianne still feels drawn to reach out and take Héloïse’s hand in hers, delicately rubbing her thumb across its back in a way that makes Héloïse’s eyes soften. They take on a humorous glint after a moment.

“You should’ve seen his face the first time he caught me reading Descartes.”

Marianne laughs at the comment, immediately followed by Héloïse, and an aura of levity goes back to permeating the air between them again. Marianne looks at the bag and gestures towards it.

“Is Descartes the forbidden text you have in there?”

Héloïse shakes her head.

“Giovanni doesn’t even know this one exists. If he did, he’d throw it away without a moment’s pause.”

Héloïse pulls away from Marianne and opens the bag. She takes out a book and hands it to Marianne. It has a simple leather binding, no inscriptions on it to indicate what it could be about, something Marianne will have to rectify in her portrait as she remembers Héloïse’s instructions about wanting a clear, visible title for the text. She opens it carefully and reads the title page.

The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine de Pizan.

Marianne has never heard of either the book nor the author.

“What is it?” Marianne asks. She leafs through the book, catching sight of the miniatures every few pages, mostly of women.

“I found it not long ago, after taking an interest in medieval texts,” Héloïse replies, stepping closer to Marianne and looking at the book in her hands. “I was going through some of the more obscure volumes and discovered this. Obtaining a copy was much more challenging than I imagined. I’ve only just started reading it. I have to do it in secret.”

“What is it about?” Marianne asks, intrigued by the clear excitement in Héloïse’s voice.

“It’s about a woman who is troubled by the depiction and treatment of women at the hands of men. She is visited by Reason, Rectitude and Justice and they teach her about the virtues and achievements of women throughout history, which she must use to build a city that will shelter womankind from slander.”

At first, Marianne feels the impulse to laugh, convinced that Héloïse must be mocking her with a made up story, because such a book could not exist, let alone written by a woman centuries ago. It’s an impulse that fades away after only a moment, though. Héloïse’s serious expression tells her right away that she is not lying. Marianne looks at the book in her hand again, her disbelief having now shifted to curiosity and deep fascination.

“How did you find it?” she asks, shifting her gaze to Héloïse. “This isn’t a book a casual reader just stumbles upon.”

“I have a lot of time on my hands,” Héloïse replies with a shrug, but then, she goes quiet for a moment, taking on a more intense expression.

“I don’t live an exciting life, Marianne,” she continues after a pause. “But I’ve tried to make it as fulfilling as I could. Literature does that for me.”

For a moment, Marianne can only look at Héloïse. There is a solemnity to her face, tempered only by the warmth of her green eyes and the slightest upward curve of her mouth. She had always known Héloïse was strong, but in that moment, Marianne truly finds herself in awe of that strength, how it revealed itself through Héloïse’s refusal to let her undesired fate define and limit her. She thinks about their time on the island, how Héloïse had been in constant search of new experiences to absorb and let enrich her. The love and admiration Marianne already felt for Héloïse grow tenfold in that very moment, with the realization that Héloïse resolved to keep her spirit alive and burning even in a life of impositions.

Marianne becomes aware she’s been staring at Héloïse for too long only when she sees Héloïse quirk up a brow and look at her questioningly. She blinks rapidly and looks away, collecting herself before moving her eyes back on Héloïse.

“I’d love for you to teach me,” she says softly. Surprise colors Héloïse’s features in response to the unexpected confession.

“You would?”

Marianne nods, smiling at the clear glee in Héloïse’s eyes. She would share every experience with her, just to keep seeing that happy glimmer in her green eyes.

“And tell me, I’m curious,” Marianne says, “What is it about this text that would make your husband throw it away?”

Instead of replying, Héloïse takes the book from Marianne’s hands. She flips through the pages until she stops on a specific section. Then, she reads out loud a passage from that page.

“Not all men, and especially the wisest, share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.”

Héloïse finishes reading the sentence and looks at Marianne.

“Giovanni struggles to understand that a woman could want something more than being a wife and a mother.”

Her gaze is sharp, fiery with that type of intelligence that could rival and surpass any male thinker. There is something dignified to it, too, as if refusing to accept the restrictive role imposed on her wasn’t a source of shame, but rather of pride. It’s in that moment that Marianne truly understands why Héloïse insisted on wanting such book in the painting, how reflective it is of who Héloïse is as a woman: more than what her husband and society want her to be, even more than what Marianne made her out to be, she is just more.

Marianne cannot help herself. She leans in and kisses Héloïse, lingering against the woman’s plump lips. She has been deprived of the freedom to kiss her for far too long. Now, she will do it every time she can, even if just to express something she cannot put into words, a silent gesture of comfort and understanding. The loving way in which Héloïse looks at her once Marianne break the kiss feels even better than Héloïse’s mouth on hers.

Marianne looks down at the book in Héloïse’s hands before meeting Héloïse’s eyes again.

“Read it to me,” she says, nodding confidently when Héloïse looks at her with surprise. “While I paint. So one day I can displease foolish men too.”

The comment makes Héloïse laugh, a sound that puts a smile on Marianne’s face. Héloïse nods in agreement and puts the book down. Then, she gestures at her dress.

“Help me get out of this,” she says while laugh is still tinging her voice. Marianne obliges, tugging at the laces on the front of Héloïse’s dress while Héloïse slips out of the skirt until she is left in only her gown. She pulls out the the pins that keep her bun together and lets her hair fall down, massaging her scalp and pushing the wavy locks over one shoulder. Marianne has to restrain herself from threading her fingers through her hair and pull her in for another kiss.

“So, are we starting now?” Héloïse asks, picking up the book and looking at Marianne for directions.

“Yes,” Marianne replies, then she guides Héloïse to the couch.

“Lie down. Get comfortable.”

Héloïse obeys, reprising the lying position that had inspired the painting to begin with.

“May I?” Marianne asks, gesturing at Héloïse’s head. After a consenting nod on Héloïse’s part, Marianne puts her hand behind Héloïse’s neck and gently props her head up, pulling out Héloïse’s hair from beneath her and letting it splay out freely over the pillows. The effect is exactly what she was hoping for. Héloïse’s hair looks golden thanks to the sunlight, almost white where the rays hit a lighter strand, making it look like shiny streaks run through her hair.

“Good?” she asks after Héloïse lets her head drop down again. Héloïse nods again, smiling at Marianne’s focused expression as the painter takes a step back to observe the full image she is going to paint.

“Any other adjustments?” Héloïse asks, her voice tinged with amusement.

“No, I want this to look as natural as possible. Just…”

She rushes across the room to pick her pipe from the bedside table. She lights it up and hands it to Héloïse.

“Show me, please.”

Héloïse smirks.

“You want this to look natural but you also want it to look perfect.”

Marianne’s eyebrows shoot up at the teasing comment.

“I take my art very seriously,” she says with a mock severity that makes Héloïse laugh.

Very,” Héloïse remarks, but then she does as Marianne asked, pulling up the book with one hand and bringing the pipe to her lips with the other. She fidgets on the couch for a couple seconds until she finds a comfortable position. Then, she looks at Marianne.

“Does this position work?”

Marianne looks intently at the details of Héloïse’s figure, the position of her legs, the folds of her gown, the soft curve of her left shoulder, sticking out just barely from beneath the fabric of the gown.  She is so beautiful that Marianne’s breath grows shaky. The painter and the lover in her feel the exact same exhilaration.

She nods in response to Héloïse’s question and walks back to her easel.

“We can stop if you get tired or want to stretch,” she reassures Héloïse, but the other woman seems even more eager than her to start.

“Do you really want me to read it to you?” Héloïse asks while Marianne sharpens her charcoal. There is a softness to her voice that takes Marianne by surprise, and she suddenly finds herself wondering whether Héloïse ever had the chance throughout the years to share what she loves with someone. That vulnerability in her voice only makes Marianne more resolute. She couldn’t imagine anything better or more rewarding than doing what she loves while the woman she loves makes her part of what she is passionate about.

“Please,” she simply says, and her heart swells in her chest at the sight of the smile that stretches across Héloïse’s face.

They don’t wait any longer. After another focused gaze, Marianne starts sketching Héloïse’s outline while at the same time, Héloïse takes a drag from the pipe and starts reading.

“One day as I was sitting alone in my study surrounded by books on all kinds of subjects, devoting myself to literary studies, my usual habit, my mind dwelt at length on the weighty opinions of various authors whom I had studied for a long time.”

And she doesn’t stop. She just keeps smoking and reading aloud for a surprisingly long amount of time, even when Marianne thinks her mouth must be getting dry. She only asks for a glass of water, which Marianne fetches for her, taking the chance to steal a quick kiss, and then she resumes reading. It’s enthralling, both the text itself and the fervor with which Héloïse reads it.

It does slow down Marianne’s progress with the portrait, but she doesn’t mind. It’s a more than welcome distraction and they have no deadline to stick to. Slowly, an image starts taking shape on the canvas. It’s only a series of sharp lines at first, a collection of geometrical figures that get drawn, erased and drawn again. But with each small adjustment, Héloïse’s silhouette becomes more and more defined. Even without a face still, Marianne makes sure to sketch out the lines she will use as reference to later paint the pipe, in case Héloïse were to get tired of smoking.

With each glance towards Héloïse, Marianne notices the growing excitement on Héloïse’s face. It will never fail to amaze her how Héloïse can be at times completely unreadable and other times have the most expressive eyes she has ever seen. She itches to finish the preparatory part of the portrait to be able to paint Héloïse’s features and capture the intensity of those eyes.

At some point, when Marianne has finished the outline and has started drawing the smaller details of the portrait, Héloïse suddenly stops reading out loud. Marianne doesn’t make much of it, she just thinks she must be tired. When she looks at her again, she sees Héloïse’s eyes run through the page at a much faster pace than how she’d been reading till that moment. Then, even more suddenly, Héloïse laughs. It’s a sharp, loud sound that bursts out of her throat and makes Marianne’s charcoal slip on the canvas.

“Listen to this,” Héloïse says with a full grin on her face. Marianne wipes away the incorrect mark and  obliges, giving her full attention to Héloïse.

“Those men who have attacked women out of jealousy are those wicked ones who have seen and realized that many women have greater understanding and are more noble in conduct than they themselves, and thus they are pained and disdainful. Because of this, their overweening jealousy has prompted them to attack all women, intending to demean and diminish the glory and praise of such women, just like the man— I cannot remember which one— who tries to prove in his work, De philosophia, that it is not fitting that some men have revered women and says that those men who have made so much of women pervert the title of his book: they transform ‘philosophy,’ the love of wisdom, into ‘philofolly,’ the love of folly. But I promise and swear to you that he himself, all throughout the lie-filled deductions of his argument, transformed the content of his book into a true philofolly.”

Héloïse’s laugh bubbles out again on the last word of the paragraph. The giggle ripples through the air, bright and joyful like the one of a child, and Héloïse’s face changes with it. Small wrinkles appear at the corner of her eyes, her features soften at once, and her eyes shine with such unrestrained delight that Marianne can see that laugh as clearly as she can hear it. Before she knows it, Marianne is laughing alongside her.

“How was this woman allowed to write something like that?” Marianne asks between chuckles.

“I don’t know, but she is right,” Héloïse replies, re-reading the passage with a wide smile. “I’ve met plenty of men whom I would consider masters of this philofolly. And women, too.” She puts down the book and meets Marianne’s stare. “Could you imagine Lucia’s face if she were to read this?”

They laugh together again. Héloïse bites at her lip and Marianne feels a different kind of urge all of a sudden. Looking at Héloïse isn’t enough anymore. She puts the charcoal down and crosses the room to stop by the couch. Héloïse follows her silently with her gaze, the smile still on her face but taking on a different shade once she notices the look in Marianne’s eyes.

“Are we stopping?” Héloïse asks.

“Yes,” Marianne simply says. She takes the book from Héloïse’s hands and sets it aside, a commanding gesture that makes Héloïse laugh quietly.

“I don’t remember saying I was tired.”

Instead of answering, Marianne climbs on top of Héloïse. She draws her face up with both hands and kisses her. They both forget about the painting.

Chapter Text

The next few days go by in the same way, marked by a serene sharing of their respective passions and the lack of restraint typical of young lovers. They paint and read until one of the two distracts the other and sends them falling back into bed. Héloïse is usually the main culprit, looking at Marianne in a way that will spread heat across her body or purposefully shifting around so that her gown will expose more of her skin, a full thigh or the swell of a breast. And if she is the instigator, Marianne on her part is incredibly easy to tempt. More than once, her fingers have left paint stains on Héloïse’s body because she gave in to her desire and rushed to Héloïse without even taking time to wipe her hands.

They go out again from time to time, masking Héloïse’s identity to take long walks and bask in the sun and fresh air after such a long time inside Marianne’s house. Marianne stops being anxious about it after the second time they do it, and finally allows herself to fully enjoy the experience. They walk through a public park on a particularly warm day. It’s one Héloïse has never been to during all her years in the city, far too modest to be frequented by members of aristocracy who most of the time own their own private, luscious garden.

They sit under the shade of a tree and eat the fruits they brought with them. Héloïse laughs out loud when Marianne bites ungracefully through an apricot and its juice spills down her chin to the hem of her dress. Marianne wishes she could kiss her right then, out in the open without caring about who sees them. She rests a hand on the grass, inches it towards Héloïse’s until their pinkies are brushing against each other, hidden by the large skirts of their dresses. Héloïse smiling at her under the sunlight is a joy that is as simple as it is sacred to Marianne.

It’s easier to talk about their lives now. The nervous tension of their first conversation has dissolved, and indulging in curiosity no longer raises any intolerable discomfort. Focusing only on the good things does help with it, there is enough of them in both women’s lives to occupy hours of their time together with rich discussions.

Marianne is astounded in learning the true extent of the education Héloïse has cultivated for herself throughout the years. From ancient philosophy to the most contemporary radical thinkers, she has studied everything she could get her hands on, even learning more than one new language to be able to understand the more inaccessible texts that weren’t translated to French or Italian. Héloïse’s eyes glimmer with pride when she tells Marianne how she has been sharing what she learned with her son and how easily he has picked up on her teachings. Marianne has never met Nicola but she feels instinctive affection towards him, if only for having been a source of love and good for Héloïse.

“He may most admire his father but he has my intelligence,” Héloïse says, dignified and unapologetic about her own qualities. “And he has the freedom to put it to good use. I know he will one day.”

The few times Héloïse has talked about the little boy, the evident love that colors her face and voice has always been accompanied by an underlying melancholy. Marianne recognizes it but isn’t sure how to interpret it, or how to ask Héloïse about it without overstepping or bringing about unpleasant emotions in the other woman.

Héloïse never lingers on the topic enough to allow any deep exploration of those feelings and Marianne accepts it, going along with what Héloïse would rather focus on, which happens to be Marianne’s life. Héloïse is fervent with curiosity and Marianne satisfies all the questions she has about the years they’ve spent apart. She tells Héloïse about her school and makes her smile when she tells her that her favorite student reminds her of her. She talks about her travels, how she visited the Royal Academy in England and listened to Bach in Germany. She is surprised when Héloïse reveals that she has been trying to learn how to play the harpsichord throughout the years.

“Trying and failing,” she clarifies, with a bashfulness so unlike herself that makes Marianne smile.

“Well, you cannot be gifted at everything,” she teases Héloïse. “Leave something for the ordinary people.”

“You’re not ordinary.”

“I’m offended that you’d think I was including myself.”

They laugh together, and when they’re back home, Héloïse all but tackles Marianne onto the bed.

It rains that night and temperatures drop, the unpredictability of the Italian spring. They drag the mattress from the bed right in front of the fireplace and let the heat from the flames warm up their naked bodies. Marianne lies on her stomach, her head pillowed on her folded arms. Her eyes are closed, her breathing slow and deep, she is relaxed in that type of way that makes the body warm and heavy. Héloïse sits by her side, trailing her fingers up and down the line of her spine. Her touch is soft, it tickles Marianne’s skin, spreading pleasant shivers all across her back. After another night spent sating their desire for each other, Héloïse’s curiosity has come back. This time, in a much more intimate form.

“Have you had many lovers?”

Marianne opens her eyes at the question. She twists her head just enough to look behind her shoulder and meet Héloïse’s gaze. The other woman stares back at her, her face impassive if not for one raised eyebrow that tells Marianne she is expecting an answer. Marianne drops her head back on her arms and closes her eyes again, an amused smirk curling her lips.

“It depends,” she says, sighing when Héloïse’s fingers reach the edge of the sheet that’s covering her backside. “Even taking one lover outside of the marriage bond would be considered promiscuous behavior by many.”

“I know you had more than one.”

“Are you calling me promiscuous while sitting nude next to me?”

Marianne hisses and tenses when Héloïse slides her fingers under the thin fabric of the sheet and drags her nails across the sensitive skin there. She looks back at Héloïse again and finds an almost childish defiant glint in her eyes that makes her laugh quietly. When she settles down again, Héloïse’s fingers go back to being gentle on her body.

“I did have more than one,” she concedes.

“More than two?”

“Yes.”

“More than three?”

“Héloïse…” Marianne says, admonishing, and she struggles to suppress a grin when a sound that she can only describes as a grumble leaves Héloïse’s throat. Héloïse goes quiet for a little while after that, and even with her head turned away from her, Marianne can imagine the twitching in her jaw as she refrains from asking the same thing again. When she finally does speak, her question is slightly different.

“Were they all men?”

Marianne’s eyes slowly open again.

“No.”

There is a brief pause after that. Even Héloïse’s fingers go still on Marianne’s back.

“And did they seduce you or was it you that…”

She doesn’t finish the question because Marianne shifts on the mattress and turns over completely this time, to lie on her back and look up at Héloïse. The other woman is staring back at her, her hand now laying on Marianne’s stomach, unmoving.

“Why are you asking?” she asks with genuine curiosity. “Does it matter to you who I’ve bedded?”

Héloïse shakes her head.

“Not who. Why.”

The answer takes Marianne by surprise. She frowns, confused, keeping her eyes on her while she waits for Héloïse to explain herself better.

“Why I’ve slept with people during these years, you mean?” she asks when no further explanation arrives. Héloïse shakes her head again.

“Before that, too,” she says. “Even before Brittany.”

She goes quiet again and for a few moments, there is only silence between them. When Héloïse finds her voice again, Marianne recognizes a timid tinge in it that wasn’t there before, barely noticeable but unmissable to her, especially with the way Héloïse diverts her gaze away from Marianne before forcing herself to look at the painter again.

“Did you love them?”

It’s an unexpected question, even more than the one that started the whole conversation. Marianne holds Héloïse’s stare without saying anything at first, and she realizes that this seems to be one of the rare times in which it’s Héloïse the one struggling to maintain eye contact.

“No,” she replies quietly and Héloïse nods, once, but Marianne can tell her answer won’t be enough to her.

“Then why did you?”

“Because I wanted to.”

Héloïse nods again but this time she drops her gaze and fixes it on her fingers on Marianne’s stomach. Her full lips are pursed in a small pout that makes Marianne want to rub her thumb over them.

“It could have been for comfort,” Marianne goes on even if Héloïse didn’t ask further. “For pleasure. To keep warm at night. I don’t have one reason. And I didn’t have to love them to sleep with them.”

She falters when Héloïse looks at her again in that piercing way that immediately makes Marianne’s breath catch in her throat. The fireplace casts a moving wave of light and shadows across her face that softens the sharp lines of her features and darkens her eyes at once.

“I envy your freedom.”

The confession is whispered, so quiet it is almost drowned out by the crackling of the fire. There is no heaviness to it, not in voice nor in her eyes, it’s simply the truth stated out loud, and Marianne accepts it without feeling crushed by guilt. Her voice is calm when she replies, “I know.”

They slip back into silence. Marianne reaches for Héloïse’s hand on her stomach and caresses its back with her fingers while Héloïse’s thumb does the same on her skin. She lets herself be studied by Héloïse’s gaze, which keeps slowly traveling back and forth over her body with the same tenderness of her touch. At some point, Héloïse bites at her own lower lip and meets Marianne’s eyes again. That’s when Marianne knows she is going to ask more.

“Can it be good?”

“What?”

Even in the darkness, Marianne notices the flush that spreads across Héloïse’s cheeks.

“You know, it.” She bites at her lip again, pulling it between her teeth and all but chewing on it before letting go. “Sex. Without it meaning anything.”

Marianne has never been the subject of such direct questions before meeting Héloïse, and even with the carefree, brazen way she lives her life, she still finds herself hesitating for a moment. Even if they hadn’t already talked about Héloïse’s married life, the question alone gives Marianne an even too clear picture of Héloïse’s relationship with intimacy in the time after her wedding and her heart aches at the thought.

It doesn’t last long, though, there is no room in that moment for pain. She cannot help but think about Héloïse’s body arching in pleasure, her legs trembling around her and her moans between kisses. The ache is replaced by a surge of warmth that soothes her. She gave Héloïse that pleasure, and after what she asked, Héloïse doesn’t have to spell out her feelings for Marianne to know what they are.

“It can be,” she says. She was going to stop there, but the curious, almost innocent look in Héloïse’s eyes pushes her further. She tilts her head on the pillow and smiles softly at Héloïse before adding, “But it’s not the same.”

It’s in moments like this that Marianne has no idea how she could live for almost six years without being able to look into Héloïse’s eyes. Héloïse doesn’t say anything but her gaze alone is like being enveloped in a warm blanket, the barely-there upward curl of her mouth enough of a sign that she understood what Marianne meant.

They have just had sex. Marianne is spent, her thighs sore in the most delicious way. And yet that look in Héloïse’s eyes is enough to make her want to pull the other woman down on top of her. She wants to feel Héloïse’s weight on her again like she feels her hand on her stomach, she wants to breathe in her sighs, to bury her face into her neck while their limbs are entangled.

Héloïse leaves her no time to do any of that.

“So it is only about pleasure,” she says with a pensive expression that makes Marianne smile.

“Most of the time.”

Héloïse nods, moving her concentrated gaze across Marianne’s body. Her eyes are a darker shade of green when they meet Marianne’s again.

“Show me.”

Marianne frowns at the demand, but after she realizes what Héloïse is asking for, a small laugh pushes out of her mouth.

“I can’t,” she says with a shrug, her smile growing wider. “I can’t with you. Not without feelings.”

Héloïse doesn’t reply immediately. Marianne can see her mind at work behind her hooded eyes, even without any idea about what is that Héloïse is thinking about.

“Then not with me,” Héloïse eventually says. Marianne wants to ask but the question dies in the back of her throat and turns into a short, quiet gasp because Héloïse reaches down and pulls away the sheet that was covering the lower half of Marianne’s body.

Goosebumps rise over Marianne’s skin after being bared, but what really sends a shiver down her spine is the feather-like trailing of Héloïse’s fingers over her inner thigh. Marianne keeps her eyes on Héloïse’s face but the other woman isn’t looking at her. She has her stare fixed on the spot she is touching, achingly close to the apex of Marianne’s thigh. There is a determined and heated look in her eyes that makes Marianne believe she is going to touch her directly, a low throb starts in the pit of her belly at the thought.

Héloïse doesn’t touch her, though. Her fingers move higher, pass the jut of Marianne’s hipbone, and stop on her stomach. Then, she takes Marianne’s hand and guides it down between her legs. Her intentions are clear and Marianne’s mouth goes completely dry.

“I want to see what it’s like,” Héloïse says. “To focus only on pleasure.”

This time she turns to look directly at Marianne. The throb becomes a burning pressure, Marianne feels her own body react in response to Héloïse’s actions and her legs spread slowly without her even realizing it. Héloïse notices the movement, though, and Marianne sees the bobbing of her throat as she gulps down hard.

Her hand is still covering Marianne’s, the painter can feel her fingers twitch above hers, but instead of pushing Marianne to start any movement, Héloïse takes Marianne’s hand again and pulls it away. Marianne has no idea what Héloïse wants to do, but her gaze is locked with Marianne’s and it feels scorching. Her arm is loose, she lets Héloïse move her hand up to her face, until her hot breath tickles Marianne’s fingertips and her lips brush against them.

“Show me,” Héloïse says again, pressing small kisses over the tip of Marianne’s fingers. Her eyes never leave Marianne’s face, her cheeks red with a heat that has nothing to do with the fireplace. She singles out two of Marianne’s fingers and Marianne inhales sharply before altogether ceasing to breathe because Héloïse opens her mouth and draws Marianne’s fingers in.

It’s a sight and a feeling that makes Marianne want to whine. Héloïse sucks and nibbles gently at her fingertips, her tongue wets Marianne’s skin down to the second knuckle before she slowly pulls them out again and breathes shakily against the hot skin.

Marianne clenches against her own wet fingers after Héloïse lowers her hand and presses it again against her center. She sits back, letting her own hand rest over Marianne’s thigh, and watches her, waiting.

And Marianne shows her. She touches herself under Héloïse’s burning gaze, getting lost into the feeling without any restraints. Héloïse’s eyes are always on her, constantly moving from her face to between her legs, so dark Marianne can barely see any green in it. Her own eyes flutter closed at some point and she lets them, making herself feel more and more pleasure while Héloïse watches. Even with her eyes closed, she knows she is watching. It’s one of the most erotic thing she has ever done.

After she comes, Héloïse kisses her with an urgency that steals the breath from her lungs when she hasn’t even fully recovered yet. And once she does, she pulls herself up and makes Héloïse sit between her legs, her back to her front, and shows her how to do it herself.

 


 

There is something about painting her lover and for the pleasure of her lover that fills Marianne with an exhilaration that’s as physical as it is emotional. Her focus is sharper, she notices things about Héloïse’s figure that she wouldn’t notice on other models, minuscule details that no painter would bother trying to reproduce in their work. The small mole next to Héloïse’s collarbone, the tendons of her hand jutting out when she tightens her grip on the book, the deep crease at the center of her forehead and the fiery glimmer in her eyes when a particular passage she is reading makes her angry.

The fleeting moments Marianne has been taught to leave out of her art, now she wants to capture them all and reproduce them, until her portrait feels alive enough to rival the real Héloïse. She has set herself up for failure but she doesn’t care. What she is doing is only for her and for Héloïse, and for no one else. Where she is slow and meticulous with the painting, Héloïse devours the book at a pace Marianne struggles to keep up with, even with the slowing factor of choosing to read out loud and with all the interruptions caused by their lack of self-restraint.

As the days go by and their shared creation progresses and improves, so does their knowledge. Marianne learns about Hippolyta and Menalippe, the Amazon warriors strong enough to unhorse and fight back against the mighty Hercules and Theseus; about the queen of the Galatians who cut off the head of the Roman officer who had violated her and brought it back to her husband; about Pamphile who first learned how to weave silk cloths and about Thamaris and Irene, whose skills in the art of painting found no match during their lifetime. Héloïse lingers on that passage, and Marianne sits by her side while she reads it, completely enraptured by the stories of women who shared her same passion.

Héloïse learns from Marianne how to make paint from pigment powder and oil and how to mix colors together to create new ones. A happy grin spreads across her face when Marianne encourages her to try her hand at painting on the portrait.

“I’ll ruin it,” she tries to protest at first, but it’s short-lived. Marianne guides her movements and once she manages to give shape to the pillow at the edge of the couch, Héloïse lets out a bubbly giggle that fills Marianne with pure, unadulterated joy. After Héloïse gives her back the brush, Marianne finishes that section with Héloïse by her side, without making her pose again.

“You are really good,” Héloïse tells her softly after she is done. Marianne cherishes the comment more than any critical praise she has received throughout her life.

 


 

“Here?”

Héloïse holds up Marianne’s left hand, tracing the raised white line of a scar that runs across Marianne’s index finger. They’re relaxing on the bed after dining, their stomachs full and their heads light with the wine they drank. Even now Marianne is sipping some from the half empty glass in her hand.

“I was sharpening the tip of my charcoal,” Marianne explains. “My blade slipped and took away a chunk of my fingertip.”

Héloïse winces, touching the scar even more carefully than she already was.

“It sounds painful.”

“It was. There was so much blood I thought I’d sliced it down to the bone.”

Marianne smiles when Héloïse brings her finger to her lips and kisses the bumpy spot. She has come to discover that wine makes Héloïse particularly affectionate, pressing herself against Marianne and seemingly unable to stop touching her.

After pulling away, Héloïse looks at Marianne with wide, curious eyes, only slightly glassy with the tipsiness.

“Another?”

The eagerness in her voice makes Marianne laugh. For minutes now, Héloïse has been asking Marianne to show her the scars and spots on her body and to tell her what caused them.

“Why are you so curious about my scars?” Marianne asks. “They’re just ugly marks.”

“They tell a story about you.”

“Yes, a story about pain.”

“It doesn’t matter, it’s still a part of you,” Héloïse replies. “It’s something real. About you, and I want to know.”

Marianne rolls her eyes and lets out a small chuckle.

“I didn’t know wine made you so philosophical.”

“I can find them myself,” Héloïse says, smirking in a suggestive way that Marianne finds too amusing to resist. She gives in and obliges to the other woman’s request, extending her right arm and twisting it to show off her elbow. Héloïse leans in immediately and touches a rough spot right above the jut of the bone.

“A speeding post chaise knocked me down on the road to London,” Marianne explains.

“What?!” Héloïse looks up at Marianne in shock.

“I think my priorities aren’t in the right place because I was more worried about my bag ending up in the mud. It took me a moment to realize I was bleeding.”

Héloïse looks at the ridged spot again, rubbing it gently with her thumb.

“Did they stop to help you?”

When Marianne shakes her head, Héloïse lets out a muttered curse that should never belong in the mouth of an aristocratic lady, and Marianne only grows more enamored with her exactly because of it.

“It’s how I got the one on my knee as well,” Marianne says. Without waiting for Héloïse to ask, she tugs at the fabric of her gown and exposes her right knee. A similar but bigger scar stands out below the kneecap. Héloïse scoots down the bed to get a closer look and after touching Marianne’s knee she curses again, making Marianne laugh.

“If I’d been there…”

“You would have been on that post chaise,” Marianne interrupts Héloïse, laughing again at the agape, offended expression that immediately appears on Héloïse’s face.

“I wouldn’t have.”

“True,” Marianne says with a grin. “You would’ve had your private carriage to knock me down with.”

Héloïse sharply pokes Marianne in the ribs, making her jump and laugh quietly. When Héloïse tries to do it again, Marianne catches her wrist and pulls, making Héloïse lose her balance and flop down on top of her. Marianne wraps her arms around her waist and kisses her, smiling when Héloïse grumbles against her lips before falling into the kiss and responding to it. Her mouth is soft, it tastes of wine and even more addictive than usual. It’s a while before either finds the will to pull away.

“I would have made the coachman stop,” Héloïse says after breaking the kiss, lying on her side next to Marianne.

“I know,” Marianne smiles. “You’re a very commanding presence.”

“Am I?”

Marianne nods.

“It’s hard to resist you.”

Marianne can admit it without any trouble. So used to having control over every aspect of her life, she feels liberated in relinquishing it around Héloïse, in knowing she can let go and be vulnerable and trust Héloïse not to exploit that vulnerability. The soft smile that appears on Héloïse’s face before presses her lips against Marianne’s shoulder to hide a rising blush is a confirmation of it.

“So,” Marianne says, looking at Héloïse with a playful smile. “Any other questions, my lady? I’m not sure I have any more scars left to tell stories about, you’d have to look for them.”

Héloïse laughs and looks down at Marianne’s body while Marianne sips the remaining wine in her glass. She doesn’t notice the way Héloïse’s expression changes, becomes more meditative, hesitant almost, as she sets her gaze on Marianne’s stomach, rising and falling with each breath.

“What about this?” she eventually asks after a long pause, resting her hand over Marianne’s stomach. The touch attracts Marianne’s attention and she looks down where Héloïse put her hand.

“There? I don’t have any scars on my stomach.”

“No, I don’t mean scars.” Héloïse doesn’t immediately explain and Marianne cannot help but look at her with a frown, confused by the cryptic words. But then, Héloïse moves her hand lower, stopping on Marianne’s belly right below her navel. “I mean… this.”

She doesn’t say it out loud, but the tenderness of her touch combined with the sudden hesitancy in her voice are more than enough for Marianne to finally understand what Héloïse is truly asking. Her eyes stay on Héloïse’s hand for a long while before shifting to meet Héloïse’s stare.

“That’s not a scar,” she says.

“I know.”

“I’m not damaged.”

“I didn’t imply you were.”

It’s the nervous twitch of Héloïse’s lips that makes Marianne realize that her voice grew much harsher than she’d intended. She lets out a breath, letting go of any prejudice about Héloïse’s reasons for asking. She knows Héloïse not to be judgmental, she was a witness to it when she agreed to help Sophie all those years ago without asking any questions, but even with all her confidence and dignity Marianne isn’t always impenetrable to society’s shaming conditioning. 

“What if I told you there is nothing interesting to know?”

“It’s about you,” Héloïse replies. “I’m interested in everything about you.”

There is something about Héloïse asking her that makes Marianne feel naked and vulnerable. It’s not something she has ever talked about to anyone before, nor has she had the wish to. A memory buried deep that at the very best brings about uncomfortable feelings.

“I will stop asking if you tell me to.”

Marianne doesn’t say anything but Héloïse’s careful consideration of her feelings makes the ghost of a smile appear on her face. She knows she isn’t obligated to explain any detail about it, and no one before has ever made her wish she would, but Marianne cannot imagine feeling safer and more seen than with Héloïse. She is the only one she trusts enough, the only one she ever felt she could share fragilities with.

“My father had been commissioned a portrait for a nobleman,” Marianne begins explaining. She doesn’t miss the way Héloïse’s eyes grow sharp and focused, the glassy veil of alcohol completely gone by now. “He wasn’t high aristocracy like you at all, but he felt his title gave him the right to look down on people like me and my father. He was extremely unpleasant, but he paid well and at the time my father didn’t have the reputation he does now.”

Marianne sits up slightly, resting her back against the headboard of the bed. In retrospect, after having learned how to stand up for herself with the years, the arrogant attitude of the man seems even more intolerable to her. Had she been the one commissioned to paint him now, she knows she would have never had the patience of her father.

“He was a very demanding man, one of the few people able to unnerve my father. He would come to the studio every day and they would paint for hours. And with him, his son.”

Marianne pauses. She isn’t sure if it’s her body that grew suddenly stiffer or Héloïse’s next to her, but the words don’t come out as easily as they initially had and Marianne instinctively glances at the empty glass on the bedside table and finds herself wishing she had some wine left.

“He was the opposite of his father,” she continues after a moment. “Kind, polite. At first he would just accompany his father to the studio and pick him up afterwards, but at some point he started staying during the portrait sessions, saying he was interested in my father’s work.”

Marianne lets out a small, snorting sound at her own words. Time makes everything clearer and she can’t help but sneer at the lack of awareness of her past self, how it had taken her so long to realize that his desire to stay at the studio hadn’t started ‘at some point’, but precisely after she had opened the door for him for the first time.

“He was… charming,” she admits with a sigh. She chances a look towards Héloïse and finds a steely gaze in her eyes, her jaw locked and her features hard with the tension under the skin. Marianne feels the instinct to lean in and kiss her, to reassure Héloïse that she is okay and bring back the softness to her face, but she isn’t sure that stopping only to have to start again would make her telling any less hard.

“We spent time together while my father painted his father. When I told him I painted too, he begged to see my work and after I showed him, he said one day I would be known across the country.”

“Did you love him?” Héloïse asks suddenly, her voice even colder than her eyes, but she can’t help the small laugh that comes out of her mouth.

“No,” she answers with no hesitation. Even with her past innocence, she never mistook what she felt for him for love. “I loved his attentions. He made me feel seen.”

It feels silly to Marianne to admit it, now that she knows what being seen truly means. And yet, his words have stayed with her through the years, how convincing he had seemed when he had told her that she would become even more skilled than her father, how she had blushed when he had called her a blooming talent. She only feels cold thinking about it now.

“One night he convinced me to sneak out and go with him to watch the stars from a garden he loved.”

Marianne realizes Héloïse’s hand was still on her stomach only because she suddenly feels it tense, the long fingers twitching and tightening instinctively in response to her words. She isn’t actually sure if it was in response to what she said or the way she said it, suddenly aware of the way her voice has grown low and detached. She takes a long breath, closing her eyes and shifting on the bed, as if it will help shake off the discomfort she feels rising. A sense of calm washes over her when Héloïse moves her hand away from her stomach and entwines her fingers with Marianne’s. She turns her head to look at Héloïse and smiles softly.

“I don’t think I was so naive as to not realize what he really wanted, but I can’t be sure. It’s hard to remember what made me decide to go,” Marianne says, frowning as she thinks about that night. “But I did go.”

It’s only the insignificant details that have stayed with her: how she had walked out barefoot with her shoes in her hand to avoid making the wooden floor creak and waking up her father, the bright blue of the coat he had put on her shoulders, the sting of a crooked tooth on her lip when he had kissed her. She glances again at the glass and lets out a breathy chuckle.

“He had wine. Which definitely doesn’t help with the memories,” she jokes but Héloïse doesn’t smile with her. Her face seems even tenser than it already was but her eyes are brimming with emotions. She doesn’t give voice to them though. She remains quiet, waiting for Marianne to finish her story.

“I wanted it,” she says. Whether she says it to reassure Héloïse or herself, she isn’t sure. “Or I think I wanted it. He made me believe that I did.”

Marianne frowns thinking about that moment. She has no issue remembering what happened, the look in his eyes when he had told her she was beautiful and had put his hand on her thigh, the cold of the grass against her naked back even through the cape he had laid down, the new sensations taking over her body. Trying to remember what she felt while it happened is much harder, her emotions are contaminated by time, her memory altered by the experience of what came after.

“After that night, he never came back to the studio. And a few weeks later, I found out I was pregnant.”

For a moment, silence falls between them, so deafening that Marianne hears the gulping sound Héloïse makes almost as clearly as she sees the motion of her throat. When Héloïse opens her mouth and exhales shakily, her voice comes out as a whisper.

“How old were you?”

If there is one thing Marianne remembers clearly is how mature she felt back then, how much of a woman she thought she was. She cannot help but laugh quietly at the thought.

“Sixteen.”

When Marianne looks at Héloïse, she is surprised to find her eyes glistening. The tears never fall down, though, Héloïse blinks them away before they can even fully form and rubs at her lips with her fingers before tugging the bottom one between her teeth, like she is forcefully muting herself. When she looks away, scowling so hard that the line between her eyebrows becomes the deepest Marianne has ever seen it be, Marianne cups her cheek with her palm and makes Héloïse lift her head again. They hold each other’s gaze until Héloïse’s features slowly soften again.

“Did you tell your father?” Héloïse asks quietly and Marianne shakes her head.

“After my mother’s death, he raised me by himself the best he could. I didn’t want to be a source of pain, or disappointment.”

Marianne pauses at that, inhaling deeply with the memory of the shame she had taken years to get rid of, how every silent stare from her father had filled her with fear of a question that had never arrived.

“I think he knew, though,” she says. “I was sick afterwards and he tended to me. He never asked anything and I could never bring myself to tell him.”

“Afterwards?” Héloïse asks after a moment.

“I found a faiseuse d’anges and took care of it.”

Instinctively, Marianne looks away and rests a hand over her belly, clenching her fingers around the fabric of her gown. Almost two decades later, her chest still feels tight when she thinks about those moments, about the paralyzing terror while she was lying on the mattress and waiting, and the pain that had shot through her during the procedure.

“Marianne?”

“From then on, I learned how to protect myself,” Marianne says with a flat voice, ignoring Héloïse. “How to be in control. Always, even when the men with me thought they were.”

“Marianne.”

The quiet but concerned way in which Héloïse utters her name takes Marianne out of her thoughts. She blinks, and it’s only in that moment that she becomes aware of the wetness in her eyes. She looks at Héloïse and smiles but as she does, a single tear escapes from her eyelashes and trickles down the side of her face.

“I had never been so scared in my life.”

Héloïse doesn’t say a single word. She looks at Marianne with an almost unbearable tenderness in her eyes and a thin veil of tears that makes her green irises seem grey. Marianne feels the instinct to tell her that she doesn’t need to cry, but she remains quiet instead, and it takes her a moment to realize that she feels something akin to comfort in seeing those tears.

It’s an old pain, one she has processed and overcome, and in losing Héloïse she had reconsidered every source of hurt in her life and found that none matched. But the sadness and love with which Héloïse is looking at her makes her feel like she has the right to still be affected by what she went through, like someone is finally validating that fear she had kept to herself.

In realizing that, Marianne feels unburdened at once, a similar emotion to what she had experienced in Brittany when Héloïse had made her paint Sophie’s abortion. It’s a much more complete feeling this time, though, and when Héloïse gently presses her lips against Marianne’s, it’s like a soothing wave has washed through her.

She responds to the kiss just as softly, quieting the quiver of her mouth against Héloïse’s. Héloïse curls her fingers around Marianne’s neck, her thumb against that spot behind her ear that Marianne feels belongs to her at this point, and Marianne sighs with the feeling. She has grown enamored with the pressure, and she can’t help but bring her hand up and cover Héloïse’s before sliding her palm down the length of Héloïse’s arm.

Héloïse draws back after a moment, before the kiss can get deeper. She scoots down the bed without saying anything, moving her hand back across Marianne’s stomach to cup her waist. Marianne watches her, breathing heavily. She senses what Héloïse wants to do, what she is going to do, but it makes no difference. When Héloïse leans down and kisses her belly, it’s a gesture so overwhelmingly delicate, so purely rooted in love, that Marianne’s vision blurs with tears again. She smiles wide and lets out a shaky breath, sinking into the soothing feeling.

Héloïse doesn’t move back up. She hugs Marianne’s waist and rests her cheek on her stomach, her head rising and falling with every breath Marianne draws. They settle like that, breathing slowly and in synchrony while Marianne threads her fingers through Héloïse’s hair and caresses her head softly. For a long time, there is no need for words. They have the type of closeness Marianne knows most people won’t experience their whole life.

“We go through so much we don’t deserve,” Héloïse whispers after a while, “because of other people’s doing.”

Marianne glances down. She can only see Héloïse’s profile from that angle, notices how she has her eyes open, staring out into nothing. Her words from before come back to Marianne, how she had equated pain to realness. Marianne hadn’t made much of it in that moment, but now she wonders whether Héloïse too needs an unburdening of sorts, maybe unknowingly so.

“Do you want to tell me something real, too?” Marianne asks quietly. No answer arrives for a while. Héloïse remains quiet, not even the rhythm of her breathing changes. And yet, with the way she is lying on top of her, Marianne can feel Héloïse’s heartbeat against the lowest part of her belly, and the way it suddenly ticks up after her question. She tries to think about possible answers that would explain that reaction. What she gets is unlike anything she could have imagined.

“The night of my wedding was the first time I envied my sister’s choice.”

Marianne’s fingers go still in Héloïse’s hair. She looks down at the other woman with her mouth agape, but Héloïse has no reaction to her sudden rigidity. Marianne cannot see her face clearly, but her green eyes look distant in a way that sends a shiver from her neck all the way down her spine.

“For a long time, I was angry at her,” Héloïse continues. Her voice is quiet, steady but whispered, as if she told herself what she is revealing to Marianne countless times before, but never gave voice to it. “I didn’t get how she could do it. But that night, I understood why she preferred to die than to submit to that fate, even if it meant leaving it to me.”

Marianne opens her mouth to say something, but she is lacking words. Her throat feels dry, her insides clench and unclench uncomfortably despite her attempt at a steadying breath. She wants to listen to anything Héloïse might want to share with her, but she slowly realizes she may have asked a question she wasn’t ready to hear the answer for.

“He was gentle. As gentle as he knew how to be.” Héloïse turns her head while saying it, just barely so, as if she uttered those words only to reassure Marianne. Her eyes never meet Marianne’s, though, and Marianne feels no reassurance anyway, only a growing ache in her chest. “I hated it more than if he had taken me by force. He thought he was loving me. That I could love what he was doing to me.”

A lump builds at the back of Marianne’s throat, a painful knot that seems to thicken the more she tries to swallow it back. Héloïse has evoked details from her marriage before, but never like this. Her emotions had always felt slightly out of reach, always protected by a barrier, whether thick as a wall or thin as a veil. But now Marianne feels so close to them that she could touch them, taste them, and they burn and choke her like a sudden onslaught of tears she knows she won’t hold back much longer.

“You think there is only so much pain you can to go through without dying, but it’s false.” A throaty sound akin to a laugh tumbles from Héloïse’s lips, but it’s so dark and twisted, such a far cry from the brightness of her real laugh, that Marianne shudders with it. “You cross that line and still, it doesn’t kill you. You’d be surprised by how much we are able to endure and still survive.” 

Héloïse lets out a wet, shaky breath, the loudest sound in the room apart from the crackling of the fire. Marianne wishes she knew better how to comfort her, that a touch or a kiss could be enough to erase Héloïse’s pain. A part of her is relieved that Héloïse isn’t looking at her, she isn’t sure she would be able to bear a gaze that matches the sorrow in her voice. The more Héloïse reveals, the more chaotic Marianne’s feelings become. The line blurs between her wish to bring relief to Héloïse and her need to ask her for forgiveness. Marianne doesn’t know how to put into words that muddle of emotions.

She opens her mouth to try, but Héloïse doesn’t give her the time. Marianne’s words die down before she can utter anything.

“And I resented you.” The stiffness that overtakes Marianne’s body is so intense she starts shaking with it. “I resented you for showing me what love really felt like, because when he touched me, it only made it more unbearable.”

Héloïse’s words echo within Marianne, re-awakening that consuming guilt that had never really left. It spreads like rust through her veins and lungs, paralyzing her and making her feel like she can no longer breathe properly.

“Héloïse—”

“And it was unbearable,” Héloïse interrupts her. “The knowledge that that would be my life from then on. That it wouldn’t get better, that I would just get used to it. And I did.”

A small spot on the fabric of Marianne’s gown grows suddenly cold and wet, sticking to her skin. She doesn’t have to look to know Héloïse has started crying.

“With time, I did. But that first night… I can never forget that feeling.”

Silence fills the space between them. Marianne’s hands slide away from Héloïse’s head, become dead weights on her stomach. Marianne’s eyes burn but she does nothing to prevent the oncoming tears from falling. Her insides turn with the enormity of what was revealed, a vise clamps down on her heart and hurts — physically hurts.

She lets her head drop against the headboard and fixes her wet, unblinking eyes on the ceiling. They had agreed, all those years ago, to preserve only the good that had come from their love affair. But Marianne can’t pretend that guilt and sorrow don’t inhabit her body, especially in the face of the reality of what Héloïse lived through.

Every word of comfort feels pointless, every attempt at solace too late to have any effect. Her throat closes around the words when she tries to utter them but still, Marianne says the only thing she knows how to say, even if she knows it will mean nothing, that it won’t change anything.

“I’m sorry.”

The apology hangs in the room, and Marianne’s heart seems to pound harder with each second that goes by in silence. She doesn’t expect an answer from Héloïse, she doesn’t think herself deserving of one, least of all of a “I forgive you”. When she feels Héloïse shift from her position and climb up her body to lie half on top of her half next to her, Marianne initially keeps her eyes on the ceiling. She doesn’t move at all until Héloïse’s face enters her vision. Only then does she dare to look at her.

“Why?” Héloïse asks. Marianne sees the tears that have welled up in her eyes, the same tears she had felt trickle down her stomach, and it’s such a painful sight that Marianne feels the instinct to divert her gaze. She doesn’t.

“Because I led you to this life.”

Marianne’s resolution to hold Héloïse’s stare fails after croaking out those words and seeing a sudden frown twist at Héloïse’s feature. She closes her eyes, squeezes them so tight that tiny, bright spots color her vision. She can feel tears pooling at the corners of her eyes, getting trapped between her lashes while trying to escape. She isn’t trying to hold them back anyway, she feels stuck in a stranglehold that gets progressively tighter with each quiet, sharp breath.

She flinches when she suddenly feels Héloïse’s fingers on her jaw, and without meaning to, for a moment, she squeezes her eyes even tighter. After seeing the way Héloïse’s face had hardened, a part of her is scared of meeting her stare. She doesn’t know how she’ll be able to bear seeing all that blame she thinks she deserves reflected on Héloïse’s face. Héloïse’s touch becomes more demanding, though, and Marianne forces herself to go against her instinct and open her eyes. She owes it to Héloïse to at least look at her.

She finds Héloïse’s stare serious, determined. But to Marianne’s surprise, there is no harshness to darken her eyes, no trace of the resentment Marianne would have expected after hearing Héloïse’s story, not even the ghost of it.

“I never had much control over my life, Marianne.” Héloïse says with a low voice. “Don’t disrespect me by undermining what little agency I did have.”

Taken aback, Marianne opens her mouth to apologize again, but Héloïse presses her fingers against her lips, stopping her before Marianne can say anything. Her voice is quiet, cracking halfway through the words, but there is no hesitation.

“I chose you.” Her bottom lip trembles on the end of the sentence. “You were the only real choice I ever made.”

There’s a sob stuck at the back of Marianne’s throat, demanding to crawl out, but she cannot bring herself to release it, even if it’s physically painful to hold it back. It would be too loud, too intense for a moment like that one, where each shaky breath and unshed tear hold years of unspoken words.

She still remembers the shock she had felt when Héloïse had stopped her mother from dismissing her and had agreed to be painted, the relief she had felt without stopping to find an explanation for it. She had wondered for years afterwards, what had made Héloïse decide to let go of her resistance and pose for her, only for her. She doesn’t dare ask, not even now. Especially not now. It’s a confession to her heart, not to her mind, and Marianne’s heart pounds with it because only now does she understand that maybe that choice wasn’t about giving up resistance, that choosing her was a resistance in itself.

She thinks she might fall to pieces and that everything she is feeling will pour out in the open when Héloïse cups her face and smiles at her in that way that barely shows on her lips but shines in her eyes, with a tenderness and warmth Marianne feels privileged to witness.

“All these years, I spent them with you,” Héloïse whispers. A lonely tear rolls down her cheek. “I fell asleep with you at night and woke up to you in the morning. I never stopped loving you, no matter how painful it was.” Her eyes are glimmering when she pauses to let out a trembling breath, her face now wet. She curls one finger under Marianne’s left eye and Marianne realizes the tears she had tried to hold back have fallen over. She doesn’t care. She cries more when Héloïse catches one of those tears with her thumb and says: “And I never loved you harder than that night.”

If there is one thing Marianne is sure about, is that she has never felt so much, so wholly, her entire life. It’s sorrow and healing melting together, years of suppressed emotions spilling out with the tears that won’t stop coming now. Quietly, calmly. Because it feels less like falling apart and more like putting back together the small, vital fragments that had been missing in each other’s lives.

She whispers the words back but the smile Héloïse gives her tells her it was never needed, that Héloïse always knew.

Their lips come together gently, a delicate kiss that lingers without the need to turn into anything more. When it finally breaks, Héloïse rests her head on Marianne’s chest and Marianne’s arms find their natural place around her body, her fingers trailing aimlessly back and forth across Héloïse’s back.

Entangled the way they are, the warmth of their bodies is nothing but soothing. In the silence of the room, Marianne can hear the moment Héloïse’s breathing deepens, can feel her body slacken slightly on top of hers. Her lips curl up slightly. After all those years, Héloïse’s sleepiness is even more endearing to her.

After a while, she feels her own eyelids grow heavy too. She doesn’t fight it. Falling asleep in the arms of the woman she loves is peace in its highest form and she wants to treasure it as long as she can.

“Marianne?”

Marianne opens her eyes at the sleepy whisper. Héloïse doesn’t move, she is more asleep than awake.

“I’m glad we have time.”

The words go straight to Marianne’s brain, waking her up completely. A sinking feeling builds in her stomach, replacing the peacefulness she wanted to cherish so bad. Her smile is gone.

Chapter Text

“Two days.”

“Two days?” Marianne repeats in a somewhat high-pitched tone, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice. The postmaster barely acknowledges her with a nod and continues checking the bridles of the horses in the stable. 

“Either then or on the 23rd.”

Marianne frowns.

“That’s weeks from now. Isn’t there another date?”

“Not if Paris is your destination.”

He turns around and finally meets Marianne’s stare. He looks her up and down without even trying to hide the annoyance in his eyes. Marianne has been on the receiving end of that type of look countless times in her life when dealing with men used to treating women with contempt or like they don’t exist. That day she has too many thoughts on her head to be confrontational about it.

“Is there anything else I can…”

She stops mid sentence when the postmaster suddenly looks behind her. In a split second, his entire demeanor changes, he straightens up and raises his chin, adjusting the lapels of his jacket while his thin lips stretch in a well-practiced smile. The reason for the abrupt change becomes clear to Marianne when she turns around and sees a man and a woman standing at the entrance of the stable. She only needs one glance, their clothes and posture scream aristocracy.

They don’t have to say a word to attract the postmaster’s undivided attention, and he walks past Marianne as if she were invisible.

“Sir, could you—”

“Look, if you want to go to Paris, I told you the dates,” he cuts her off, not even making an attempt at politeness. “Now, if you don’t want to reserve a place, I have business to attend, miss.”

The postmaster leaves her to greet the couple of aristocrats with a honeyed voice, and Marianne lets him without protesting. She walks out of the stable mumbling a “thank you” that goes completely ignored and leaves the posting station, only feeling more troubled than when she had arrived.

She walks slowly, burdened by the same thoughts and worries that had been haunting her ever since her conversation in bed with Héloïse. Héloïse’s words had stayed with her, resonating in her head over and over, and she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the implications attached to them.

Ever since finding Héloïse again, since they had fallen into each other’s arms and had let go of all pretenses, Marianne had made a promise to herself. To savor each moment, to cherish every second of her newfound bliss with the love of her life. To not waste time, because time had always been finite for them, always leading up to an end that was as certain as the pain that would come with it. And Marianne had resolved, beyond logic, not to let herself feel that pain until their time together was over.

She had never thought about an after for her and Héloïse, had never allowed herself to truly envision it, and she had thought Héloïse had done the same, a tacit agreement to share this moment granted to them before going back to their lives. But Héloïse’s words replay in her head, speaking of a completely different assumption, and Marianne’s chest tightens at the thought of a confrontation she knows she won’t be able to avoid much longer.

She finds her home empty when she gets there, and feels a strained mix of sorrow and relief in response to Héloïse’s absence. An air of solitude permeates the room at the top of the stairs, one she had never felt before despite being on her own almost every time she had visited Milan, so thick and heavy to make Marianne stop on the doorstep. Everything is quiet except for the occasional gust of wind through the window. It’s a space that without the life brought about by her and Héloïse now feels empty and abandoned.

And in the middle of it, Héloïse’s painting.

Marianne walks up to it slowly and stares at it. It’s all but finished, it would only need a final polishing to be considered complete. Like this, it has a roughness to it that makes it feel more animated than anything Marianne has ever painted, like Héloïse’s image could suddenly rearrange her position on the couch and huff out a puff of smoke without there being anything shocking about it.

Marianne extends her hand towards the canvas, but stops before her fingertips can touch Héloïse’s face. She painted her with a focused frown, completely unappealing according to artistic standards of beauty and appropriateness in a woman. But she has caught the intensity of her stare, the green-grey shade of her eyes and how they brim with light, and Marianne feels sorry for all the artists who are never going to paint an image that feels so alive to give the impression it could turn around and stare back. She feels sorry for herself, too, because she knows this is the last time she is ever going to paint someone like this.

The clanging sound of the front door opening downstairs makes her flinch. She drops the arm that was still hanging mid-air, but for the rest, she doesn’t move, breathing deeply against the tightness under her ribcage that increases with each step that reaches her ears.

She stays facing away from the door even after Héloïse enters the room and silently walks up to her. But when she feels the press of warm lips on the nape of her neck, Marianne instinctively closes her eyes, forcing herself to stop the welling of tears in its inception. The result is a painful lump in her throat that she cannot swallow back.

“You’re back early,” she says, clearing her throat when her voice comes out of her mouth as a raspy whisper. Héloïse only makes a humming sound and presses another kiss on Marianne’s neck, this time below her ear.

“Giovanni’s mother doesn’t love long conversations,” she replies. “And with whatever he must have told her about me, she likes me even less than I like her, and she doesn’t bother hiding it.”

Héloïse had informed Marianne that she would have to go visit her mother in law that day, something expected of her especially with her husband away. Héloïse had disregarded common decorum by ignoring her for weeks, but after she had received a formal invitation for lunch, Marianne had convinced her to go.

“Was she very unpleasant?” Marianne asks, feeling guiltier with each kiss for having taken advantage of the situation to carry out her business behind Héloïse’s back.

“It doesn’t matter. Soon, none of this will matter anymore.”

Marianne’s stomach flips over with Héloïse’s words. She feels Héloïse’s hands run up and down her arms, her breath tickling her neck, but the small physical gestures that had brought her so much comfort in the past now fill her with an ache she doesn’t know how to deal with.

The awful feeling doesn’t go away even when Héloïse pulls back and steps away to take off her cloak.

“You’re quiet today,” Héloïse says, dropping the garment on the bed. “Do you wish me to go get wine? To ease whatever it is that’s on your mind.”

Marianne doesn’t even have to turn to hear the smile on Héloïse’s face. Héloïse had always been able to read her like no other, from their very first encounter. She had deceived her back then, because Héloïse had allowed herself to trust her despite reading through her. Manipulating that trust any more than she already has is intolerable to Marianne. It takes a monumental effort for her to turn around and finally face Héloïse.

“I went to the posting station today.”

The small smile Marianne had recognized in Héloïse’s voice falters as soon as the words come out of her mouth. Surprise colors Héloïse’s face before turning into that well-known intensity that makes her eyes spark whenever she is absorbing new information.

“You did?”

Marianne nods, swallowing hard.

“Yes. I asked about post chaises going to Paris. There is one leaving soon.”

“How soon?”

Héloïse’s question makes Marianne’s mouth run dry, but she cuts straight to the point, unwilling and unable to prolong the pain any more than necessary.

“Two days from now.”

Héloïse’s lips part with a quiet intake of breath, a much more collected reaction than the one Marianne had had after finding out about the date. For a moment, Héloïse says nothing, looking away from Marianne and fixing her stare on a spot on the floor. Marianne can see her mind already at work behind that stare.

“Two days,” Héloïse repeats quietly, almost to herself, but Marianne replies anyway.

“Yes.”

Héloïse nods slowly, just once, before silence fills the space between them again. It’s tense and heavy and Marianne doesn’t know if it’s the air in the room that’s suddenly grown thick or it’s the rising guilt that’s making her feel out of breath.

She waits for Héloïse’s reply, itching to break the silence and scared of what she is going to hear at once.

“That’s…” Héloïse lets the words hang for a moment, but after blinking a couple of times as if physically responding to the sudden information, she looks at Marianne again and nods one more time. “It’s sooner than I expected. I’ll have to rush my arrangements.”

A wistful look descends over Héloïse’s eyes like a veil and when her lips curl up in the slightest hint of a smile, Marianne’s resolution not to cry wavers violently.

“I wish I’d had more time to prepare. Because of…” She gulps down hard and frowns, and Marianne knows she isn’t the only one trying to hold back tears. “Only because of Nicola. But no amount of time would be enough to prepare anyway. Maybe it’s better like this.”

Héloïse keeps talking but Marianne struggles to take in her words. Her heart has sunk, the moment she received confirmation of what she had been suspecting since the night before. She stares blankly ahead of her and her vision blurs, whether because she isn’t focusing on anything or because of the rise of fresh tears, she isn’t sure.

“I’m going to speak with Julie today, she’s the only one I trust. You should go back to the station and arrange the post chaise so we can secure the places. Then…”

Marianne is pulled back into the moment by the sudden silence that drops in the room. And when she moves her gaze onto Héloïse, she finds the other woman staring right back at her, eyes sharp and questioning.

“Why are you so quiet?”

Marianne wishes the wooden floor underneath her feet would collapse and make her disappear. Her body feels so stiff and heavy that she feels it actually might make it happen.

“I’m not,” she answers, and it’s such a weak, pathetic attempt at lying that she could scoff at herself. Héloïse does it for both.

“You know you are,” Héloïse says. “What are you not telling me?”

Marianne’s silence only grows more weighty and suspicious. She doesn’t try to lie again, she doesn’t have to. Héloïse is far too smart and any pretense that things are normal is short lived.

“Why did you go to the posting station without telling me, Marianne?”

The question drips wariness. Héloïse’s voice, quiet and one tone lower than her usual pitch, reveals  that she is aware a deception took place, and Marianne can read in her stare that Héloïse is expecting her to explain of what kind.

“Because of what you said last night,” Marianne whispers.

“What did I say?”

“That we have time.”

“Don’t we?”

Marianne’s jaw locks. It’s out in the open now, the brutal reality they had been ignoring in the bliss of their time together. Being aware that that time must come to an end and stating it out loud to the  woman she wishes she could spend the rest of her life with are two very different things, and Marianne cannot bring herself to do the latter.

She tries, but the words slither around her vocal cords and squeeze, muting her and making her feel like she is choking. Her silence is just as loud an answer, though, and Héloïse looks at her with such a burning betrayal in her eyes that Marianne feels five years younger, on the receiving end of a stare just as intense and painful after she had blamed Héloïse for a fate out of her control.

“So when you talk about going back to Paris, you only mean yourself.”

“Héloïse…”

“Is that it?”

The accusatory tone makes Héloïse’s voice strident to Marianne’s ears, in a way that leaves her wanting to shrink away. She doesn’t move, she doesn’t even look away. It’s a tone that demands a straightforward answer, and this time, Marianne swallows hard and forces herself to comply.

“Yes,” she admits. “I always thought that would be the case.” She  pauses, doing her best to keep her voice steady. It’s a complete failure. “And I assumed you had done the same.”

Not even to her ears do her words sound like a fair explanation, but more like injustice, or hypocrisy even. She isn’t surprised when Héloïse looks at her like she is an executioner waiting to carry out her death sentence, but she knows in that moment that she is never going to forget the pain caused by that stare.

“Assumptions are dangerous,” Héloïse says. Her voice is ice now, her features back to that hardness Marianne hadn’t seen since their last fight before reconciling. Even then, Héloïse hadn’t looked at her with this much pain and betrayal in her eyes. “I assumed, too. Just, the wrong thing, it seems.”

“Héloïse, we need to talk about this.”

Marianne walks towards Héloïse but stops when the other woman takes a step back, recoiling from her as her face scrunches up in a frown.

“What is there to talk about?” she asks bitterly. “You want to leave. And you want me to stay behind.”

“I don’t want to leave you,” Marianne protests. “It’s the last thing I want, and you know it well. But what am I supposed to do? Ask you to run away with me? And then what?”

She throws her arms in the air, shaking her head. She isn’t frozen anymore. The guilt is still there, gnawing at her insides, but there is a desperation inside her that burns just as intensely, the hopeless need for Héloïse to understand her position without shutting her out.

“What future can we have, Héloïse? Nothing has changed since Brittany.”

“Everything has changed.”

Héloïse’s reply is sharp, cutting Marianne off before she can try to continue.

“I was an item in someone else’s business transaction. My mother relied on it, she sacrificed both me and my sister to get what she wanted. And now,” she pauses, the twitch at the corner of her mouth revealing a pain she is trying to suppress with anger. “She is dead now. Nothing ties me to the fate she chose for me.”

Marianne feels a shiver run down her spine with Héloïse’s words. She has no trouble understanding Héloïse’s anger, but this type of anger feels only poisoning. It feels wrong to her that  Héloïse would direct it at someone who is no longer there, someone she knows Héloïse loved despite everything.

“Don’t make your mother into the enemy she never was. She was—”

“Don’t you dare patronize me.”

Whatever Marianne wanted to say, she swallows it back after Héloïse’s hiss cuts her off. That burning anger is no longer directed at the dead, but at her. Marianne can feel its bite on her body, more and more painful the longer she holds Héloïse’s piercing glare, like a blade across her skin.

She wishes it was only anger. She would bear it much better than the pain that’s making Héloïse’s eyes glimmer.

“Do you know how desperately I wanted to resist?” Héloïse whispers after a moment, her voice much quieter than before. “Even after you closed the door behind you and left me forever. I wanted to run after you. But I couldn’t.”

She bites on her bottom lip when it starts trembling lightly. Marianne could sob at that sight alone. Tears have been building behind her eyes since Héloïse’s arrival, but this is the first moment she has to bring her hand to her eyes and wipe away a tear before it can fall down. She does what she had sworn she would never do, she imagines Héloïse on the stairs, falling to the floor in tears while still wearing her wedding dress, and another tear immediately follows the one she had caught, getting stuck between her eyelashes.

“You are right,” Héloïse continues, blinking rapidly to try to keep herself together. “Back then, we would have had no future. There would have been no way to leave the island unnoticed, and my mother would have immediately known it was you who took me away. We would have been ruined.”

Her voice has been firm till now, much more confident than anything Marianne could have managed, and the painter finds herself wondering if this is something Héloïse told herself before. A story she has repeated to herself, over and over, to convince herself that there was nothing they could have done. She knows she has done the same, and has felt her chest cave in every time.

Marianne is surprised when after a pause, Héloïse’s eyes soften all of a sudden. Her frown disappears, the hard lines on her face give way to a much more delicate expression, and Marianne’s mouth opens lightly when Héloïse walks towards her and the faintest hint of a smile curls at her lips, the last thing she would have expected after how Héloïse had flinched away from her.

“But now it’s different,” Héloïse whispers, with a fragility in her voice that Marianne has never heard before. “She is gone. And nobody knows you are here, that we are together. We can do it.”

The quiet despair hidden behind those optimistic words cuts straight into Marianne’s heart and threatens to be her undoing. She closes the distance between them and cups Héloïse’s face with both hands, holding back a sob when Héloïse lets her touch her and softly wraps her fingers around her right wrist.

She wants to say ‘yes’. There is nothing she wants more in this world than to tell Héloïse to come with her, that she is right and nothing matters except what they have together. Her throat is clogged with unshed tears.

“It’s too much of a risk,” she whispers.

Héloïse jerks away from Marianne’s touch just as quickly as she yielded to it, making Marianne almost gasp with the abruptness of her movement. Marianne wants to reach out and pull her in again, but she stops herself.

“You know it too, Héloïse,” she insists. “In your heart, you do.”

“What is the risk?” Héloïse replies, her voice dripping bitterness. “What do I have to lose? My reputation? My wealth? Do you think I care about any of that?”

Marianne shakes her head, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment and rubbing at the center of her forehead.

“It’s not just you.”

“Then speak the truth about what it is that really worries you.”

Marianne’s eyes snap open when she hears the angry remark, and she finds Héloïse close to her again, standing right in front of her with her eyes glassy and bloodshot.

“It’s not me, or my reputation. It’s yours,” she spits out. “You don’t want to lose that freedom and independence you have always had, because you don’t know what it’s like to have never been free, since the day you were born!”

The room goes deathly quiet. Marianne looks at Héloïse in shock as the other woman pants heavily with the violence of her outburst. A single tear has trickled down the corner of her eye, but Héloïse seems to become aware of it only when Marianne’s gaze settles on it. She angrily rubs it away with her fingers, using enough force to leave a red spot next to her eye that Marianne wishes she could kiss. Offering any sort of physical comfort is out of the question, though, because the moment she raises her arm, Héloïse flinches away from her. It hurts like a slap to the face.

“You know, all these years, I told myself not to blame you,” Héloïse says suddenly, and Marianne goes rigid. “I blamed my mother. I blamed my husband. I blamed myself, even, but never you.”

Her voice cracks on the last word, and Marianne drops her gaze to the floor, unable to sustain the disappointment in Héloïse’s eyes. An unsettling wave of shame washes over her for having been held to such high standard in Héloïse’s mind and heart. She remembers how adamant Héloïse had been back then, how resolute about refusing to take on any responsibility for what had been done to her. Marianne hates knowing that that confidence wavered with the years. She wants to tell Héloïse that she should have never blamed herself, but she knows that in that moment, words that she means to be reassuring would only be perceived as condescending.

“Look at me.”

The request arrives blunt and unexpected, making Marianne stiffen even more, her chest so tight she struggles to breathe properly. When she refuses to comply, Héloïse lets out a throat sound that chills Marianne’s blood.

“The world forced us apart and I accepted it, because there was no other choice,” Héloïse continues, digging deeper and deeper through Marianne’s barriers. “But now that we were granted a second chance, you want to keep me captive.”

The second Marianne looks up, she realizes her mistake, because the pain and disillusionment in Héloïse’s eyes cut through her worse than a knife.

“Back then, you accused me of lacking courage. Do you remember?”

Marianne does. So vividly that tears veil her sight at the memory.

“Where is your courage now? I knew you’d be scared, but I couldn’t have imagined that you’d make yourself complicit in—”

“But I am complicit!”

The scream is out of Marianne’s mouth before she even realizes it, stunning Héloïse into silence.

“I have always been complicit, right from the beginning! Me being complicit is the reason why we met!”

She is cracked open, raw and exposed, and her face is wet with the tears she had worked so hard to keep at bay. Héloïse’s shocked silence only makes Marianne sob harder.

“You never blamed me? I blamed myself every day! I’ve never been as brave as you. And I ran away when I saw you at the theater because I knew.” She sucks in a breath but the tears turn it into a choked hiccup. “I knew that I wouldn’t have the strength to let you go a second time. But you speak to me as if I take joy in leaving you, when the truth is that it’s k—”

Marianne is unable to finish the sentence. She pushes the heels of her hands against her eyes, pacing back and forth and breathing raggedly like a madwoman. She feels mad, for thinking she would be able to survive this pain twice.

When she stops and finally looks at Héloïse again, the other woman’s face has set into an unreadable expression. For Marianne, it’s just as painful as being faced with her anger.

“I am scared,” she finally admits, wiping away a tear only for another one to immediately take its place. “I am terrified of losing that freedom, it’s true. But I would be able to bear it, whether you want to believe it or not. But—”

She pauses, swallowing against the clog in her throat and trying to calm her breathing. She manages only for a few seconds before her eyes and nose start burning again.

“But I cannot lose you.” Her voice shakes so hard she barely recognizes it. “That, I wouldn’t be able to bear. And I fear… I fear that is what’s going to happen if we do this.”

“What are you talking about?” Héloïse asks after a tense pause. The dreaded question makes Marianne frown, and she passes a hand over her scrunched up features, letting out a deep sigh that brings her no relief. She was hoping till the end that it wouldn’t come to this, that she wouldn’t have to state out loud the source of her fear.

“Héloïse, you are married. You…” she hesitates, before forcing herself to finish. “You have a son.”

Marianne’s explanation is only met with silence. Héloïse holds her stare, but her eyes are inscrutable behind the glassy layer of unshed tears. Marianne isn’t sure what to make of it when Héloïse turns around and takes a couple steps before stopping again, facing away from Marianne without saying a word.

She stays still long enough that Marianne wonders if she should say anything or reach out for her. But suddenly, Héloïse turns around again, and when she does, it’s like looking at another person, because all her emotions are written on her face now, her eyes burning bright with them.

“Do you think I need to be reminded of that?” Héloïse asks, with a voice that makes Marianne realize what an enormous mistake it was to bring up Héloïse’s son.

“I gave birth to Nicola. I carried him inside me.” Héloïse instinctively clutches at her dress right above her belly, and Marianne can see the tautening of the tendons under the skin of her hand. “Those nine months were some of the happiest in my married life, and it wasn’t just because Giovanni didn’t touch me during.”

Marianne’s stomach twists uncomfortably with the comment, but she swallows back the rising bile and forces herself to hold Héloïse’s stare. She is standing straight, her chin held high, but the dignified look in her eyes is distorted by pain and sorrow and the end result is close to unbearable for Marianne.

“It was because I had something to look forward to,” Héloïse reveals. “Because I hoped that once he was born, my love for him would cancel out the pain. But it didn’t.”

This time, when a tear falls down her cheek, Héloïse does nothing to stop it.

“He made me happier than I could have ever imagined, but every time I looked at him and told myself he was enough, I felt deep in my heart that he wasn’t. And shame added to pain because I felt horrible for not loving him as much as I should have.” She bites her lip and sucks in a stuttered breath through her teeth. “Can you imagine what that feels like, Marianne?”

Before Marianne can think about answering the question, Héloïse brings a hand to her mouth and closes her eyes, pushing more tears out from behind her eyelids. It’s a sight that makes Marianne’s heart break to pieces.

She feels useless, standing there while Héloïse breathes shakily and tries to regain control over herself. Marianne finds it an injustice in itself, having to suppress your emotions for so long that finally letting them out threatens to make you crack in two. In Héloïse’s place, she knows she would have, years ago even.

But Héloïse doesn’t crack, and after a long moment, her breathing finally starts evening out, and tears stop coming so incessantly.

“You’re not horrible,” Marianne hears herself whisper. She isn’t sure how Héloïse will take it, but she cannot stop herself from rectifying that lie. “You’re not. And I know you love him.”

Héloïse opens her eyes and looks at Marianne. Her irises look silver gray with the sunlight hitting the crystalline veil of tears. She nods slowly after a moment.

“I do,” she says with a raspy voice. “I’m going to love him until the day I die. And if I could, I would take him with me and have you both, but I can’t. Giovanni would surely hunt me down if I were to take Nicola away from him. And even if he didn’t, I could never do that to Nicola anyway.”

“Is abandoning him a better choice?”

“No, but it is to leave before I grow to hate him.”

It’s only when Héloïse snaps back at her that Marianne realizes she had asked the question out loud.

“He’s going to grow up, and he’s going to have a full life, one that he’ll be free to live however he wants.” She pauses for a moment, clenching her teeth hard to stop the twitching tic that was building in her jaw. “I spent mine doing what was expected of me. I don’t want to waste the rest of my time living a life that doesn’t belong to me.”

Héloïse lets out a long sigh after that, one that carries so much heaviness that Marianne isn’t sure how Héloïse’s body can still stand without crumbling to the floor. She herself feels on the verge of collapsing, crushed by the weight of Héloïse’s sorrow and of her fears. She wishes more than anything in the world that she could just shut them down, especially after Héloïse laid the truth bare about her feelings and carved into Marianne’s heart with her brutal honesty.

But it’s exactly the intensity of those emotions, the power Héloïse has to feel more than anyone Marianne has ever met, that makes it impossible for her to let go of what scares her to her core.

“It’s not him you’re going to hate.”

“What are you saying?” Héloïse asks, frowning in confusion. It’s Marianne’s turn to laid her truth bare, but she cannot do it like Héloïse. Emotions don’t fire out of her, they dribble out slowly, like the tears that are once again filling her eyes.

“You’re his mother, Héloïse. And if we do this, one day you’re going to look at me and see nothing but the person who forced you to abandon your child. And you’re going to hate me.”

The slow realization that takes over Héloïse’s face, distending her features and making her lips fall open slightly only makes Marianne cry more. She is silent in her anguish, looking away from Héloïse and wiping her eyes repeatedly, her fingers coming away wet every time.

“Marianne,” Héloïse says, her voice the softest it has been since the beginning of their discussion. “I’m not going to hate you.”

“Yes, you are,” Marianne replies sharply, unable to to restrain her despair now that she had to bring it to the surface. “You are, you’re going to hate me and I’m going to lose you forever, and I—”

She sucks in a hiccuped breath, letting the sentence hang unfinished. It’s a while before she can meet and sustain Héloïse’s gaze without feeling the need to look away again. There is a sternness to her expression that wasn’t there before.

“You want us to give up because you’re scared of something that hasn’t happened,” Héloïse says, breaking the tense silence that had been building between them. “Something that’s not going to happen. I know my feelings.”

“You know them now.”

All the softness that had smoothened Héloïse’s voice and mitigated her anger vanishes with Marianne’s reply. Héloïse presses her lips together and knits her eyebrows together in a deep, indignant frown.

“You don’t trust me. You think you know better.”

“I trust you. I just—”

“My heart is mine to give,” Héloïse cuts her off, with a tone that leaves no room for complaints. “You have it, and Nicola has it, and it can belong to both of you. But you don’t want that.”

When Héloïse shakes her head and looks her up and down, Marianne feels the depth of her disappointment burn her like a red-hot brand to her skin.

“You want full possession of me or nothing. You’d rather keep me frozen.” She gestures to a spot behind Marianne and it takes Marianne a moment to realize she is pointing at the portrait. “A relic you can own.”

“I don’t want to own you,” Marianne protests, wincing on the word and hating being associated to it. “I want to love you without making a choice that might ruin what we have. What would be left, then?”

Héloïse falls silent at that. The frown remains on her face, but she doesn’t reply to Marianne’s question. They are standing only a few feet away from each other, but Marianne feels like with each word they lashed out against each other they put brick upon brick until an invisible wall was standing between them.

Marianne feels Héloïse’s exhaustion as if it were hers when Héloïse slowly walks away from her only to sit down on the bed, her body sagging forward as she rests her elbows on her knees.

“This is how the world works for us,” Héloïse says quietly. “I have to choose between my son and the woman I love. I’m going to hurt regardless of the choice.” She lifts her head and looks up at Marianne again. Her eyes are almost entirely red by now. “But it should be my choice.”

Marianne feels her throat constrict, the tightening of fresh tears. She loathes how cold her voice sounds when she says: “I am part of it.”

“Then what do you suggest?” Héloïse retorts. “That we see each other for two weeks every five years and paint a portrait together before parting again?”

Héloïse’s snide tone stings Marianne. She finds there is something broken about making a mockery out of something they chose to do together, something she knows Héloïse cherished as much as she did.

She bites back a remark about how it was Héloïse who asked her to paint her, she doesn’t want to taint the memories further.

“We could keep in contact,” Marianne says instead. She is hesitant at first, but when Héloïse looks at her silently and doesn’t stop her, Marianne musters all the confidence she has and keeps going. She wants this to work just as desperately as Héloïse, even if Héloïse doesn’t believe her. “And I could come to Milan and we could arrange to meet. Secretly, like we did now. We could make it work. We could—”

The words die in Marianne’s mouth when Héloïse, suddenly, lets out a laugh. A mirthless, chilling sound that wraps its coils around Marianne and makes her stiffen.

A small smile remains on Héloïse’s face after she stops laughing, but it’s nothing but a twisted grimace. No emotion reaches Héloïse’s eyes, not even the contempt Marianne was expecting, and an overwhelming sense of sadness and discomfort washes over Marianne at seeing the woman she loves like that.

“I don’t even know what state I’ll be in the next time you come to Milan.”

Marianne’s discomfort grows, magnified by the confusion brought about by Héloïse’s words.

“What do you mean?”

Héloïse doesn’t reply initially, letting an uncomfortable silence spread between them for a while. But when she finally does speak, her answer makes Marianne freeze.

“Giovanni wants another child.”

It’s the last thing Marianne was expecting to hear. Her mind immediately goes back to the hideous afternoon at the Contessa’s house, and to all the invasive questions she had asked Héloïse.

She wants to ask, but she doesn’t have to. Héloïse is so good at reading her that she guesses what’s on her mind without her having to say a word.

“I lied to Lucia. He has been wishing for a second child for years.”

“Then…” Marianne frowns, doing her best to absorb the unexpected news. With how many years Héloïse had been married, she too had expected her to have more than one child, but she had accepted Héloïse’s explanation at the Contessa’s house without giving it another thought. Now, she doesn’t know anymore. “Then, why didn’t you…?”

When Héloïse doesn’t say anything and fixes her stare on the floor, Marianne chances a hesitant step towards her.

“Héloïse?”

The longer she remains silent, the more worried Marianne grows. It stretches for so long that Marianne considers the possibility that Héloïse might not answer at all. And then, she does.

“Nicola’s birth was a difficult one,” Héloïse says without lifting her head. Her voice is quiet, she hardly sounds like herself. “I was very ill afterwards, they thought I might not survive.”

Marianne feels herself blanch. Throughout all the years spent apart, she had imagined countless details about Héloïse’s life. It had never crossed her mind that something might bring it to a sudden end.

Marianne imagines it happening, Héloïse dying of childbirth and her going on with her life without even knowing it had happened, and she only feels closer to fainting.

“I did,” Héloïse says with a shrug. “But it left me damaged.” She finally looks up and meets Marianne’s stare. “Practically barren, were the words the doctor used.”

Something worse than shock overcomes Marianne. It’s as if someone had injected ice-cold water into her veins, draining all heat from her body.

“We consulted several physicians through the years, they all said the same thing,” Héloïse continues, not giving Marianne the time to process what she just heard. “At some point I asked Giovanni to stop and he obliged. Until now.”

A dark look suddenly veils Héloïse’s eyes. It’s something Marianne wouldn’t know how to describe, something that goes beyond sadness, or defeat. Marianne doesn’t have a word for it, but that look in Héloïse’s eyes is so quietly consuming that Marianne feels a rush of pain in her chest.

Héloïse looks tired more than anything. More tired than any human being should be, and Marianne abhors this distance between them, because she has never been good with words. Silent gestures have always been her way to express herself, her means to comfort and to be comforted. That is out of the question now, though. She isn’t sure how Héloïse would react if she tried to comfort her, and she doesn’t know how many more times she would be able to bear to see Héloïse recoil from her.

“He thinks another child is going to bring us closer,” Héloïse says, before letting out a quiet scoff. “Or maybe he thinks it’s going to melt my coldness, I’m not sure.”

She lets out a heavy sigh and rests her forehead on her joined hands. Marianne has hardly felt more out of place or useless than in that moment. Not knowing what else to do, she clings to logic, trying to make sense of everything Héloïse just told her without letting her own heightened emotions take over.

“But you said you can’t,” she whispers.

“Giovanni found a doctor in Turin,” Héloïse explains with an emotionless voice. “He told him that with his treatments and regular efforts on our part, it is possible to succeed.”

She pauses, then, and even without lifting her head, Marianne can hear the loud, forceful gulping of her throat.

“Giovanni informed me that we’re going to start trying once he is back.”

Marianne feels the sting of tears again. Her tongue is stuck to her palate with how dry her mouth has become. That word, informed, used in the context of what Héloïse is talking about, is violent like few things are. It painfully screeches in her ears, and she hurts herself further by imagining the situation. She imagines being in Héloïse’s place, and being informed about what is going to be done with her body, when and how it’s going to be used without having a say in it.

She scrunches her eyes shut and rubs her hand across her forehead. She is a fool, she thinks. She can imagine everything in the most minute details, she still would never grasp what it truly feels like to be in that position, and she hates that that’s the reality Héloïse has to live.

When she opens her eyes again, Héloïse’s dark stare is fixed on her.

“What is it you said about sleeping with your lovers because you wanted to?” she says, suddenly. “It must be nice to be able to choose.”

A violent wave of nausea makes Marianne’s stomach churn.

“This is cruel,” she chokes out.

Cruel?”

Héloïse huffs out another small laugh, but it’s much more short-lived than the first one, and in a matter of seconds her joyless smile disappears and her features twist in a frown that fails at holding tears back.

“Will cruelty make you take me with you?” she asks, as a single tears runs down her face and across her trembling lip. “Then I guess I’m being cruel.”

Héloïse closes her mouth but she isn’t fast enough and a whimper still escapes. And then, she is crying again, without attempting to restrain herself. Marianne feels breathless, the pain of seeing her like this sits like a rock in her chest and expands forcefully, until she thinks her ribcage will splinter open with it.

She cannot bear it anymore. She rushes to Héloïse and drops to her knees, cupping her cheeks between her hands. Fresh tears form in her eyes and immediately fall down when Héloïse leans into her touch.

“You’re not cruel, I am,” Marianne whispers between tears, and Héloïse lets out a sob, shaking her head. Marianne shushes her, murmurs words of comfort that she cannot commit to, rubs Héloïse’s tears away with her thumbs only for new ones to fall right after.

They kiss, it happens as natural as breathing. Marianne isn’t sure who leans in first, but when their lips come together, Marianne feels something crack deep within. It’s messy and soft at the same time, their teeth knock together with each hiccuped breath, they can taste the saltiness of their tears on each other’s lips. 

“I did what you told me,” Héloïse says once they break the kiss and pull back just enough to look at each other. “I held on to our memories, and it was enough.”

Héloïse smiles through the tears, her real smile, the one that has always left Marianne completely vulnerable and happy to be so. She watches as Héloïse’s eyes wander across her face, as if she was taking in every detail of Marianne’s features. Her smile falters when her gaze sets on Marianne’s lips. She runs her fingertips across them, the ghost of a touch that tells more than any love declaration ever could.

“But not anymore,” Héloïse whispers, her chin trembling like she is about to burst into sobs again. “It cannot be enough anymore.”

Marianne feels guilt in her veins like a disease. She wonders what unspeakable sin they must have committed in a past life to suffer so much in this one. Touching true happiness with a finger and having it ripped away is an agony worse than knowing no happiness at all, and Marianne hates herself for her role in perpetuating that agony, for not being able to take the leap Héloïse is asking her to take.

Just as quickly as she had fallen into her touch, Héloïse draws away from it. She leans back and stands up, while Marianne stays on the floor and looks up at her with confusion and tears in her eyes, startled by the sudden lack of warmth against her.

“What are you doing?” Marianne asks before pulling herself up. She gets no reply. Héloïse wipes away her tears and breathes slowly, inhaling and exhaling evenly until her breathing doesn’t sound as wretched. Marianne opens her mouth to ask again, but she freezes, and a noose tightens around her throat when she sees Héloïse pick up her own cloak and put it back on.

“Héloïse?”

“I can’t do what you said, Marianne,” Héloïse finally says, tightening the ties of the cloak with shaky fingers without looking up. Terror and despair blend together inside Marianne. She stands still, unable to speak or move, until Héloïse finally meets her stare. There is a pained resignation in her eyes, and Marianne feels something die inside her.

“There is a door at the back of my house,” Héloïse says, to Marianne’s confusion. “Through the private garden. No one goes through there.” She stands straight, but her eyes are red and puffy, and her voice no louder than a shivering whisper. “I will wait for you. If you come, I’ll know that we are together.”

It’s only in that moment that Marianne realizes, truly realizes. It’s a goodbye. One she isn’t remotely ready for.

“Héloïse, wait.”

Héloïse ignores her. She turns around and heads for the door, but Marianne grabs her wrist and tugs her back.

“Wait!”

Marianne can’t breathe properly. Her chest heaves violently but so little air is reaching her lungs that she feels lightheaded. It’s fear, pure and simple. Cold, white fear piercing her like a thousand fine needles.

“Don’t go now,” she pleads, “We still have two days. We still have time together.”

“It won’t make any difference, Marianne,” Héloïse replies softly. Anger and bitterness have left her entirely, there is only pain in her voice. To Marianne, it’s infinitely worse.

“Please, Héloïse. Please.”

Marianne can count on one hand the times she has begged someone in her life, and remembers each with a deep discomfort. Now, she would fall to her knees and cling to Héloïse’s skirt if it meant  making her stay.

“Don’t let this be the end,” she says, her voice broken by tears. Héloïse looks at her, then, her own eyes glassy and shining and terribly beautiful even now. Her gaze is no longer searching, but rather knowing instead. She has seen everything of Marianne, she knows her more intimately than anyone ever did and ever will, but every time Héloïse’s gaze is on her, Marianne feels like she is being discovered anew.

She quivers when Héloïse brings her fingers to her lips again.

“My poet,” Héloïse whispers. The ghost of a smile illuminates her green eyes. Then, she pulls out of Marianne’s hold and slips away, walking out without looking back.

Marianne doesn’t register what happened right away. It takes a moment for the silence to settle, for the loneliness to take over and a desolation unlike anything she has ever felt to consume her. She thinks her legs will give out beneath her, that she will collapse to the floor and cry and sob and unleash her heartbreak until her her throat is raw and her eyes dry.

She doesn’t move. She doesn’t make a sound. Too numb for anything, even the small relief of despairing violently is denied to her.

She has nothing. It’s only her and emptiness.

 


 

Héloïse knows the truth.

She has known it for days now. It has settled deeper and more cruelly inside her with every hour she spent by the door of her house, waiting for it to open and watching it remain closed.

She knows the truth and yet she tortures herself, and two days after the last time she saw Marianne, she goes to her house.

She opens the door with the spare key Marianne had given her during the days they had spent together. It already feels like a different life, the one she always wanted and was never allowed to have.

She knows the truth as she makes her way up the stairs and the only thing greeting her is the sound of her steps.

She knows. But she isn’t ready for it. And when she enters the room, her heart turns into a piece of ice.

Everything is gone. The room is bare, empty. Any trace of Marianne’s presence, any trace of the life they had lived together, has vanished, as if it had never existed. Almost any trace.

Because the painting is still there, standing in the middle of the room like a ghost from a past life. If it weren’t for it, and for the agonizing pain in her chest, Héloïse would think it was all a dream.

A dream would have allowed her to preserve her memories. A dream would have let her be hopeful. She doesn’t have that anymore.

Marianne is gone, and everything else with her. There is only her painting, staring back at Héloïse and taunting her with a freedom she is no longer going to have.

She destroys it.

Chapter Text

“This feels nice.”

“This?”

The warm lips pressed against Héloïse’s neck inch higher, making her shudder.

“Don’t stop.”

Héloïse feels Marianne smile against her skin. The painter obliges to the request, tightening her arm around Héloïse’s waist and placing a trail of soft kisses up and down the length of her neck. Héloïse smiles, too. She had no idea shivers could feel so good. She had no idea anything could feel as good as what she had felt that night, but Marianne had shown her just what kind of pleasure her body was able to experience.

“I love your neck,” Marianne whispers, tracing with her nose the same path her lips had covered, all the way to Héloïse’s ear. “I longed to touch it while I was painting you.”

“It isn’t the only thing you touched.”

Marianne’s soft laugh tickles the back of Héloïse’s ear and she, too, finds herself grinning. She revels in the blasphemy of her thoughts, because every wicked thing she did with Marianne and to Marianne feels more right and divine than any prayer she devoted to God in her time in convent.

She turns around in Marianne’s arms until she is lying face to face with her. There is hardly any light left to illuminate the room, nothing but embers remain in the fireplace, but Héloïse can still see how Marianne’s smile has reached her eyes, making the golden specks in them glimmer in the candlelight.

“That’s true,” Marianne says. “But I cannot paint those other things.”

Héloïse’s cheeks burn with a rush of heat. Marianne’s touch lingers everywhere on her body, her skin is still warm and sensitive in places she had barely paid attention to before that night. She smiles wider, the toothy smile of a child who was surprised with candies, and right afterwards bites at her bottom lip, suddenly shy about displaying her happiness with such exaggeration.

But Marianne is smiling back at her, casually running her fingertips up and down Héloïse’s side as if she had spent years touching her so intimately, and the happiness Héloïse feels can hardly be contained.

“You could,” Héloïse says,  feeling the flush spread to her ears when the surprise in Marianne’s eyes gives way to a mischievous glint.

“Would you want me to?”

“Maybe.”

Héloïse shrugs with a small laugh, but as she entertains the thought, she finds herself unable to sustain Marianne’s gaze. Even as they lie naked and pressed against each other, the idea of posing nude for Marianne makes her feel timid just as much as excited.

She distracts herself touching the dip between Marianne’s collarbones, and her heart thumps just a bit faster as she remembers kissing that spot and lower, putting her mouth on Marianne’s breasts and growing bolder with every sound Marianne had let out.

“I loved touching you, too,” she confesses quietly. When she glances up at Marianne, she finds her eyes even softer than her touch. “Did you enjoy it?”

Héloïse has asked this question before throughout the night. More than once, and every time, the vulnerability that comes with waiting for Marianne’s answer is always the same.

“Yes.”

Marianne’s answer, too, is always the same. Patient and honest and reassuring. So reassuring even during Héloïse’s initial, clumsy attempts and later, when Héloïse’s fingers were warm and damp and her breath quivering harder than Marianne’s body.

“Yes,” Marianne repeats with a soft smile, and Héloïse presses closer to her, threading her fingers through her thick, dark hair. Watching Marianne release it from the bun she always wore had felt as sensual as watching her take off her clothes. Her Sister Superior would always tell her that having beautiful hair was a curse of the Devil, a temptation to lead men to sin, and that once Héloïse would take her vows, she would personally chop off every sinful lock. When she had pushed her hands into the dark mass of Marianne’s hair while their mouths fit together, Héloïse had understood what a sad fool the Sister was for thinking this a sin.

“You’re smiling,” Marianne says, and Héloïse feels her own lips stretch further. She leans in for what she meant to be a quick kiss, but she yields to the warmth of Marianne’s mouth and keeps kissing her. It’s gentle and languid but Héloïse’s mouth still opens a little, and her tongue touches Marianne’s lip, and Héloïse’s heart swells in her chest because Marianne lets her kiss her like that without ever trying to restrain her delight. Héloïse is grateful to her. So, so grateful.

They break apart in a quiet burst of laughs when a yawn suddenly pushes out of Héloïse’s mouth, surprising her just as much as Marianne.

“We should rest,” Marianne suggests, stroking Héloïse’s cheek, and Héloïse wants to say no but her eyelids are heavy and with the way Marianne is holding her, sleep promises to be as delicious as the efforts that left them exhausted.

Héloïse nods and shifts a little from Marianne to stretch her limbs under the blanket. All her muscles unwind one by one, the gentle ache turning into a pleasant numbness that makes her sigh out loud. She closes her eyes and grins when Marianne nudges at her cheekbone with her nose.

“Are you okay?” Héloïse hears Marianne ask, and the question makes her laugh. She nods again, just to reassure Marianne, but she is so much more than okay. The word is unfitting, completely insufficient to describe the utter serenity Héloïse is feeling.

She thinks about the little she knew about sex, the assumptions she had based on what she had read or the hushed comments she had extorted, and she wants to laugh again.

“I really thought it would hurt.”

Marianne kisses the corner of her mouth, then her cheek, her temple.

“I wasn’t going to let it happen.”

Héloïse believes her. She has never felt safer and further away from anything that might hurt her. She rests her head on Marianne’s chest, breathing in harmony with her.

She is at peace like this. No pain can touch her.

Héloïse stumbles through the main door of her house. The thick fabric of her dress entangles her legs, making her almost collapse to the floor, but she regains her balance at the very last second.

She doesn’t feel any more stable. Her legs feel wobbly, her clothes tight and heavier than usual, keeping her from breathing properly, and her head keeps pounding with one of the worst aches she has ever felt. She did this to herself, when she had scoured Marianne’s pantry and drunk all the wine she had left behind. It had numbed her body but done nothing for the excruciating pain in her chest that had started torturing her since realizing Marianne was gone.

Her vision blurs again at the thought, and maybe it’s just the alcohol because she doesn’t think she has any tears left in her body with how dry and sticky her eyes feel.

Marianne is gone. Again. Forever this time, and the pain should have killed her but it didn’t, and Héloïse hates knowing that it won’t. She will survive, just like she survived everything else in her life, but this time the knowledge is so horrifying that she struggles to breathe.

She trips again on her next attempt at walking and a valet is immediately next to her to help her.

“I’m fine,” she says, pushing herself away from the unwanted touch. She doesn’t want to be close to anyone, let alone a man. “Where is—”

Héloïse gets the answer she was looking for before she can even finish her question because Julie suddenly appears from a hallway. Even in her intoxicated state, Héloïse doesn’t miss the way Julie’s eyes fill with surprise and worry as soon as she sees her.

“Madame?”

The young girl’s voice is tinged with the same concern, but Héloïse ignores it.

“Bring me wine to my reading room,” she slurs out, walking away without waiting for an answer. She staggers up the stairs and through the main hall, dropping her cloak in the middle of the corridor. She doesn’t feel any lighter, that choking tightness in her chest remains just as intense as before, making her wish she could tear her clothes off her body, and then her skin, just to be able to take a single, full breath.

Her room feels hostile to her when she walks inside. A place she had built to preserve old memories and to create new ones, now seems designed to hurt her in the most cruelly ironic way, because everywhere she looks, she is reminded of Marianne. The harpsichord next to the wall, the table she sat at the first time Marianne came to her house, the books that she had told Marianne had given her so much comfort. A choked hiccup escapes from her throat when her eyes set on her own portrait, hanging on the wall and staring back at her. It had been an equal source of love and sorrow throughout the years. Now she wants to tear it to shreds, just like she did with the most recent image of herself.

“Julie!”

Héloïse shouts out the maid’s name just as the girl walks in, carrying a bottle of wine and a glass in her hand. She freezes for a moment, startled by the unexpected yell, but quickly collects herself and walks up to Héloïse. A pang of guilt goes through Héloïse’s stomach when Julie places the objects on her table keeping her eyes downcast, but the alcohol already in her system clouds her thoughts and the type of pain she is feeling selfishly demands all her focus.

“Is there anything else you need, madame?” Julie asks quietly.

“No. You can retire.”

Héloïse flops down on the chair and fills the glass, her hand shaking and spilling drops of wine across the table surface.

“Madame, are you sure you’re—”

“I said you can go, Julie,” Héloïse cuts her off with a harsher voice than she has ever used. She downs the wine without looking at Julie, only her hushed steps and the sound of the door closing tell Héloïse that the girl has left.

Héloïse re-fills the glass, gulps down the wine and fills it again. Over and over, she keeps drinking. The burning in her throat and the increasing queasiness at the pit of her stomach do nothing to stop her. With each glass, she welcomes the physical distress she is inflicting on her body, hoping that eventually it will grow so intense as to drown out the pain that’s gnawing at her from within. She only feels worse. No merciful numbness takes over, but instead she feels as hollow as filled with an anguish so overwhelming it shouldn’t fit inside her body.

Her eyes find her portrait again. Memories she doesn’t want push themselves on her to torture her. She doesn’t want to remember Marianne nuzzling her cheek while she was mixing the colors on her palette, her playful smile, the sadness that had suddenly darkened her eyes. Memories from years ago that blend into new ones, similar but with much sharper teeth to tear her open.

“What future can we have, Héloïse?”

Héloïse wants to look away, she needs to look away, but she can’t. Her gaze is stuck on the painting. She hadn’t lied to Marianne when she had told her she liked it, she could see herself as much as she could see Marianne in it. But now she despises every image of herself, and the more she stares at the portrait Marianne painted of her, the more Héloïse feels like it’s taunting her with the truth of her fate: her life frozen in a moment, enshrined in a beautiful coffin, stuck forever.

She hates Marianne. And she hates herself. For walking away so fast without trying to find a solution, for giving Marianne an ultimatum based on feelings and not reason. Aided by the wine, insidious thoughts about possible alternatives start swimming inside her mind and with each of them Héloïse feels sicker, closer to reaching that breaking point she had kept at bay all these years and to sinking into a dark hole of nothingness. It’s only pain and anger that keep her afloat, battling for which is going to lay claim to her.

Héloïse’s hand tightens around the glass, her fingernails creak against the crystal surface. She wants to be angry, anger has always been an ally of hers throughout her life. But her senses cling to Marianne as if she was still there—the smell of her hair, the warmth of her skin in the morning, the taste of her mouth—and Héloïse feels her absence as if someone had carved into her and ripped out a vital organ. The agony of that absence overpowers everything else.

She doesn’t know when she has started crying, but her cheeks are wet and burning. She grips the glass harder, clenches her teeth together with even more strength, her jaw hurts with it. Stop crying, she commands herself, but tears only streak her skin more hotly.

And suddenly, the flash of a memory. The taste of Marianne’s tears on her lips, salt mixed with the sweetness of her mouth and her hot breath as their hands tug and grasp to feel each other under their clothes.

The glass gives in under the pressure and explodes in Héloïse’s hand.

She jumps, more startled by the noise than anything else. Fragments of glass fall on the table and it’s only when she sees the crystal pieces stained in a dark red that she realizes she is bleeding. A shard has sliced through her palm, a long cut that throbs and burns, demanding to be treated. Héloïse only stares at it. She watches the blood leak down her forearm and squeezes her hand into a fist. The pain is so sharp her eyes sting.

She squeezes tighter and looks at the portrait. The only woman she ever loved cut through the pulsating tissues of her heart worse than the glass that gashed her flesh.

Shock gives way to blind rage. Pushing off the chair, Héloïse grabs the bottle and throws it with all her strength at the portrait. It misses it, shattering against the wall in a burst of glass and wine. She screams, a sharp, hoarse cry that hurts her throat.

Anger makes her rabid, she wants to destroy as much as she was destroyed from within. She moves frantically, almost running across the room to reach the chest of drawers next to the couch. Her shaking hands pull open the smallest drawer at the top so hard she almost yanks it out entirely. Her vision is blurred by tears but she doesn’t need to see properly, there is only one thing inside.

Throughout the years, she had handled the old book with the utmost care, cherishing her most precious possession as if her life depended on it. Now, she hastily pulls it out and digs through the pages until she finds the one she is looking for.

Héloïse stills for a moment, staring at Marianne’s drawing and breathing more and more raggedly with each second. Her chest is so tight she feels nauseous with the pressure. She knows every line, every minute detail, she had traced it and kissed it and drawn comfort from the warmth of those memories. She looks at it now and only feels the cold of the room Marianne emptied. She made her taste life and freedom again only to inject ice into her and disappear.

Héloïse crumples the page into her sane hand and closes her eyes. You hate her, she tells herself. No one ever hurt her as much as Marianne did. She appeals to that pain to fuel the hate she wants so desperately to consume her. But as the faintest sound of paper starting to rip reaches her ears, Héloïse opens her eyes and freezes.

“Do you want an image of me?”

“Yes.”

“Which one?”

Héloïse has no doubt, because Marianne has never been more beautiful than in that moment. If she can only keep one image, that’s the one she wants to remember forever.

“That one.”

She cannot do it. She slams the book shut and drops it on the floor, pressing her fists to her face. She can’t, even when everything inside her tells her to lay all blame on Marianne and find relief in hating her, she cannot do it. She can’t stop loving her. But there isn’t enough room in her chest for the pain of still loving her and not having her anymore.

Héloïse’s eyes snap open when she hears the sound of the door creaking open behind her, immediately followed by a quiet gasp. She turns around and finds Julie, standing on the threshold and staring back at her, paralyzed.

The shock is evident in the young girl’s eyes, fixed on Héloïse as she takes in every upsetting detail, from the tears to the blood. That insistent gaze is a torment to Héloïse. The sudden self-consciousness she feels because of it acts like a vise, squeezing around her and threatening to suffocate her, and Héloïse finds herself having to lean against the chest of drawers with the wave of dizziness that hurtles through her.

“Madame…” she hears Julie say, then the sound of footsteps rushing to her. Héloïse has closed her eyes, she feels so deprived of energy that even staying up is an effort, but still, she shakes her head.

“I’m—” Héloïse squeezes her eyes tight against the pulsating pain in her head and hand. “I’m fine Julie, just go.”

Her voice is as trembling as her body feels, right on the verge of cracking open and letting all her despair out. Julie ignores her words, though, and quickly moves by her side.

“Madame, what happened? You’re… you’re injured. You need care, you—”

Héloïse shakes her head again, squeezing her eyes even tighter to try and collect herself, but all she manages is to push out another tear from the corner of her eye.

“I said go, Julie.”

“Madame…”

Héloïse flinches violently when she feels Julie’s hand brush against her arm.

“Madame, please—”

“I told you to go, didn’t you hear me?!” Héloïse opens her eyes and yells, loud enough to startle the young maid. Héloïse can barely see her face, so puffy and full of tears her eyes are, but any attempt to stop crying only breaks her further, splintering her open from the inside and baring every raw, vulnerable part of her that was ruined by the destruction of everything she had hoped in.

“Leave!” she cries out again, her voice even more broken and wavering than before, and her chest grows impossibly tight when Julie refuses to obey. Her throat burns with how hard she is trying to hold back the sobs, and when Julie lifts her hand to touch her again, Héloïse pushes her arm away with a snarl that only sounds desperate.

“I said—”

Héloïse pushes herself off the bureau but she trips on the second step. Her weak legs give out underneath her and she feels herself falling forward.

She doesn’t hit the floor. Julie catches her before she can collapse on the ground. The young girl is shorter than her, smaller, and the sudden momentum almost makes them both tumble down, but Julie holds on and wraps her arms around Héloïse.

With the sudden contact, Héloïse goes almost feral, instinctively trying to push herself off. However, Julie doesn’t let go and only tightens her hold around her, even when Héloïse starts screaming again.

“Let GO!” Héloïse cries out so hard her throat hurts with it but Julie shakes her head.

“Please, madame,” she whispers with a concerned, quiet voice. Héloïse tries to push at the maid’s shoulder, but with every second that goes by, she feels her energies and anger melt away, replaced by the need to give in to her overwhelming despair and just fall apart into pieces.

“Héloïse…”

Her name, whispered with so much sorrow and care, shatters her for good.

Héloïse stops flailing around and lets her body sag into Julie’s. Her hands, rabid and violent until a moment ago, cling to the young girl’s body, and abandoning every restraint, Héloïse succumbs to her pain and starts crying into Julie’s neck.

She cries and sobs so hard that her chest expands to the point of hurting with the violence and raggedness of her breathing, as if with every sob she was also pushing out a broken part of herself. It doesn’t get any better as the seconds go by, there is no liberating feeling. The pain simply becomes more all-consuming, and as Julie holds her and tries to soothe her, Héloïse can only think about how much easier death would be than all this, and she hates herself for not wanting to die.

Her soul feels tattered irreparably, her heart gouged open by the one person she had entrusted it to.  And Héloïse would give it back to Marianne and let her squeeze it and rip it apart again if it could bring her back. But it won’t. Marianne is gone, and Héloïse has never hurt more.

 


 

Everything is quiet. A still silence that seemed impossible with how inconsolable Héloïse was. She still is inconsolable, but at some point, the tears had stopped coming, and Héloïse had surrendered to the care of Julie, allowing the young girl to take her to the bathroom to treat her wound.

They sit in front of each other, next to a small table with all the items Julie has set up to medicate Héloïse’s cut. Now that she has calmed down, Héloïse is much more aware of the pain and throbbing that propagates from her palm in waves. Julie is gentle with her, though, holding her hand and carefully cleaning the wound with a wet cloth. It stings, the sensitive skin at the edges of the cut feels like it’s sizzling with each pass of the cloth, but Héloïse doesn’t recoil, keeping her arm slack as if it didn’t belong to her. Still, her expression must have given her away because Julie murmurs an apology and proceeds to be even more gentle.

No other words are spoken between them, not since Julie started taking care of Héloïse. The young girl hasn’t asked any questions about the state she found her in, and Héloïse is deeply grateful to her for it. An act of kindness more than of respect of authority, because more than a maid, she has always considered Julie a friend and confident, and she can confide her sorrow to her without having to say a word.

“It’s not deep,” Julie says while cleaning the blood around the cut. “It might take a while to heal, but I don’t think it will scar.”

Héloïse is indifferent to her words of reassurance. She has much deeper, more indelible scars inside her that make the gash on her hand insignificant to her. Watching the raised edges of raw flesh around the dark red of the cut, she thinks she could have sliced her hand through and through without feeling anything even remotely close to the pain in her chest. She suppresses the instinct to clench her fist again and looks away, setting her gaze on Julie. For the first time, Héloïse notices the streaks of dry blood on her neck and shoulder, where she clung to her, and how it stained the white hem of her dress.

“I ruined your clothes,” Héloïse says, the first thing she said since she stopped crying. Julie looks up at her in surprise and then down at herself, catching sight of the red stains, but she just shakes her head and smiles.

“Don’t worry, madame,” she says softly.

“I will buy you a new dress.”

“Madame, there’s no need. I can wash it.”

“Please,” Héloïse insists. The last thing she wants is for Julie to wear herself out trying to clean a stain she caused and that will unlikely fully go away. “I want to do this. Let me.”

Julie hesitates, the reluctance to accept evident on her face, but after a moment her eyes soften again and she nods.

“Thank you,” she says with a small smile.

Silence fills the room again after their brief exchange. Finished with cleaning Héloïse’s hand, Julie scoops up some cool cream from a small jar on the table and rubs it around Héloïse’s cut. Héloïse is familiar with it, a numbing agent she had used in the past when she hadn’t been able to relax her body enough for her husband and had been left aching afterwards.

She shivers, the thought sits heavy in her mind and makes her headache grow tenfold. She’s going to go back to that life, and if she had managed to grow used to it with the years, after touching hope with Marianne again, the prospect of that dull unhappiness feels more unbearable than when she had first arrived in Milan all those years ago.

“Are you happy here, Julie? With your life.” Héloïse hears herself ask. The question catches Julie’s attention and she stops what she was doing, looking at Héloïse with curiosity in her eyes. “I’m not asking as your mistress, you can speak freely.”

Their bond transcends the social hierarchy that divides them, but after how she treated Julie, Héloïse wants to make sure the girl still feels the freedom to be honest that has always characterized their relationship. And when Julie doesn’t give a quick reply but takes her time to meditate on her answer, Héloïse knows that she does.

“Yes,” Julie eventually says with a nod. “The master is very kind and I love your son. And if I may, you’re the most atypical mistress I’ve ever encountered. I’ve never been made to feel like I am truly an equal by anyone else.”

She smiles, it reaches her eyes in the form of a bright glint that tells Héloïse she is being honest.

“Have you ever wanted more?”

“It’s human nature, I think,” Julie answers truthfully. “To always want more than what we have.”

Héloïse looks away, blinking rapidly against the rising sting in her eyes. She doesn’t want more, she wants what she already had back.

“Do you ever wish to run away? To be free?”

The question is out of her mouth before Héloïse can restrain herself. It’s met with silence. A long silence that grows thicker as the seconds pass and Julie takes a clean gauze and starts wrapping it around Héloïse’s hand.

“No,” Julie eventually says. It only takes one glance at her for Héloïse to know Julie means it, and she only feels foolish for asking. She means to look away again, but Julie suddenly stops what she was doing and stares back at her, with a restrained intensity Héloïse doesn’t remember ever seeing in her eyes.

“But it’s because I don’t feel trapped,” she continues. “My life is simple, but I am happy. If I weren’t, I want to believe that I would chase the freedom you speak of.”

Héloïse feels tears fill her eyes again, and she quickly rubs at them with the heel of her sane hand. She is so tired of crying, a human being should have a limit on how many tears they can shed before being drained for good. She opens her mouth to speak, but no words come to her, she doesn’t know how to convey that any notion of freedom has been stripped away from her, how never in her entire life has she felt so completely defeated.

She shivers lightly when, unexpectedly, Julie rests her hand on her knee and gives a delicate squeeze. It’s a touch that is too close to be appropriate considering their different social statuses, but Héloïse has never cared about hierarchies and the rules of society, she has always only seen them as entrapments. When she meets Julie’s stare, Héloïse finds the girl’s eyes as tender as her touch.

“No matter what, I’ll be here for you, madame. Always.”

It’s enough to shake Héloïse’s resolve, and a single tear finally trickles down her cheek. She feels as reassured by Julie’s promise as she does bereft. It consoled her, and reminded her that consolation is all she’ll be able to aspire to from now on. True happiness was locked out of her grasp for good.

They don’t say more to each other and after Julie finishes bandaging Héloïse’s hand, Héloïse lets her go for the rest of the day and goes back to the reading room. The shattered glass is already gone from the floor and the table, she is sure the stained wall will be clean by the time her husband is back. She ignores the evidence of her despair and walks across the room, to pick up the book from where she had dropped it.

She is careful where she had been frantic before; her fingers skim the pages until she finds the one with Marianne’s self-portrait. The page next to it is marked by drops of blood, but Marianne’s image, although creased, is intact.

She closes the book even more delicately than when she had opened it and takes it back with her to her bedroom. The orange light of the sunset is still shining through the window when Héloïse gets into bed. Exhausted, mournful, she lets sleep take over without putting up any fight. As her eyes close, she hugs the book to her chest.

 


 

My dear Héloïse,

I wish this letter were longer, but my thoughts are clouded and words fail me. We had news from Italy, Giovanni has received my portrait and has agreed to our union. Mother is overjoyed. She spends our time together praising my future husband and our impending life in Milan. She has taken on speaking Italian again, and demands I do the same, even though I have never been as articulate as you were. She is blind to my tears. Or maybe she isn’t, but pretends to be. I don’t know what is worse.

I suspect I only have a few weeks left, and the weight in my chest grows heavier at the thought of my imminent departure. I keep wondering whether mama felt what I am feeling when she married papa, but I am not sure I want to know the answer. I am putting on paper words I cannot speak out loud, for no one has ever understood me as much as you do. And now more than ever, I miss you. I miss you, and I wish you were here with me, that we could run towards the cliffs and pretend to jump and fly away, like when we were little. Do you remember? I don’t think I’ll be able to run in Milan.

Am I mad in feeling so anguished? Giovanni has been described to me as the ideal man, mama keeps saying we are lucky he chose me as his wife, that he could have picked any Milanese heiress to his liking. He should have, I want to tell her, but I don’t say a word. I will not say a word. This letter is the most honest I shall allow myself to be, because it’s destined to you. I cannot even be fully honest with myself.

You have always been stronger than me. I don’t have a spirit as indomitable as yours, and even with all the trouble you got us in when we were children, I have always admired your fire. This is the first time I also envy it. Maybe things would have been different, if I had been more like you. Maybe everything would be the same. I will never know. Never lose that fire, Héloïse.

I wish I could see you again. Outside of our confinements, that we could stain our clothes with sand and seawater, that we could laugh as loud as we want. If I close my eyes, I can hear your laugh. Keep me in your heart, please. You are in mine.

I love you, little sister. I’m sorry.

Forever yours,

Isabelle

Héloïse reads her sister’s letter yet another time. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed, her chest still goes tight with the pain of grief. She embraces it, it’s the only thing she has felt against the hollowness that has swallowed her since Marianne left. Days blended together, she doesn’t know how many, the passage of time only marked by Julie coming to her room to bring her food that she mostly left untouched.

The inertia that has taken over her is so consuming she can’t remember what she did for most of the time. Lying in bed, staring out of the window, sitting in the bathtub until her body was ice cold and numb, that emptiness followed her everywhere.

Not even in that is she fully free, not anymore. Even her numbness must come to an end because her husband has sent news of his return, as she found out from Julie the day before. She re-reads the letter again, and for the first time, she truly understands that deep sense of resignation arising from her sister’s words, one she had always perceived but had never really felt on her skin, not even on the day of her wedding.

She is back in a cage, deprived even of the solace of memories. Whatever purpose she had resolved to find in her life, now it seems no longer attainable, killed in its inception by any comparison to the life she could have had with Marianne and was denied to her.

At the thought, Héloïse closes her eyes and passes a hand over her neck. She can still feel the warmth of Marianne’s lips there, right under her jawline.

“Madame?”

Héloïse opens her eyes, turning her head to the side to acknowledge Julie. She knows what she is going to say before she even says it.

“They’re back, madame.”

“Thank you.”

Her voice is raspy, sounds like glass is coating her throat.

“Are you coming downstairs?”

Héloïse doesn’t answer. She stares blankly at the mirror of the vanity in front of her, her reflection blurred by how unfocused her gaze is. She wishes she could be as shapeless as her reflection looks, intangible.

“I will tell them you feel unwell.”

Héloïse doesn’t reply to Julie’s words, she doesn’t even turn to look at her, but the sound of the door closing quietly is enough to know that Julie is gone without waiting for her confirmation. She thought the news would trouble her, ruin her even more, but she feels strangely unfazed by the return of her husband and everything he represents. She is a stranger in her own life.

Her gaze drops again to the open letter on the vanity, lingering on her sister’s final words, how she had asked her not to lose her fire. The shame that rushes through her is so overwhelming she has to look away.

Staying inside the room, more lifeless than a corpse, doesn’t feel bearable anymore. She gets up and walks out without thinking twice about it. The floor is cold under her bare feet, her skin prickles under the night chemise. She makes her way down the corridor mindlessly, watching her shadow bend and dance against the wall in the dim candlelight. She has almost reached the end when the sound of laughters makes her slow down.

The voices are muffled by the distance but Héloïse recognizes them distinctively: she hears Julie’s soft-spoken, slightly accented Italian, and then, her mother’s native tongue reaches her ears in the form of a deep, male voice. Hearing his voice is enough to almost make her turn away but a sudden small giggle freezes her in place.

She walks slowly, until she is standing at the very end of the corridor and can look down at the entrance hall while hidden by the shadows. And Héloïse sees them immediately.

Giovanni’s tall, imposing figure next to Julie, and, propped up on one of her husband’s arms, Nicola. He has his arms wrapped around Giovanni’s neck, his father’s hat on his small head, reaching past his eyes and forcing him to tilt his head back to look at Julie. He is smiling, Héloïse can see it even from there. She feels so much love for him her eyes sting.

“We were expecting you tomorrow, monsieur,” Héloïse hears Julie say.

“Yes, but this little lion was getting tired of being away from home, and frankly, so was I.”

Giovanni lightly bounces Nicola up in his hold and flicks back the hat with his free hand, exposing his son’s face.

“Am I right?” he asks with a smile. “Are you happy to be back, lion boy?”

Instead of answering, Nicola imitates a roaring sound that makes both Giovanni and Julie laugh.

“That’s a very energetic yes,” Julie says before stepping close, familiar enough to reach out and lovingly squeeze Nicola’s cheeks between her palms. “And I missed your little face so much!”

Nicola grins and fresh laughs resonate through the hall again. Héloïse feels completely alienated from the scene, drawn to it and yet feeling like an invisible wall is keeping her apart.

“Was the journey home good?” Julie asks Giovanni after letting go of Nicola’s face.

Long. We didn’t stop all day and it was—” He is cut off by Nicola suddenly letting out a prolonged yawn. He smiles and kisses the little boy’s face. “Yes, it was exhausting.”

“Do you want me to…?” Julie asks, stretching out her arms in a silent invitation.

“Please,” Giovanni replies, handing Nicola over to her. Once in her arms, the little boy immediately wraps his legs and arms around her, yawning again and resting his cheek on her shoulder.

“I want to show Andrea my new kite,” he says with a drowsy voice.

“You have a new kite?” Julie asks as she pets his hair, receiving a nod of confirmation by Giovanni.

“Yes well, Andrea is with his family in Corbetta,” Giovanni says while taking off his jacket and giving him to one of the valets taking care of their travel trunks. “And all you need to do right now is sleep.”

“Where is maman?”

Héloïse feels a twinge in her stomach when she hears the mumbled question. She doesn’t miss the way Giovanni stiffens, too, how his smile falters all of a sudden. For a moment, she thinks about revealing herself, how she could walk down the stairs, take Nicola in her arms and breathe him in, using him to distill every ounce of happiness she is still capable of experiencing. She doesn’t move, though, and in a matter of seconds, Giovanni regains control of his features.

“You heard Julie before, Nicola,” he says. “Your mother is not feeling well. She’d be here otherwise. So why don’t you go to bed now and tomorrow morning you can show her—”

Giovanni halts mid-sentence when, looking up casually, his eyes find Héloïse. She freezes, just like him, their gazes locked in a tense silence of recognition. It’s too late to hide herself from view anyway, but the thought doesn’t even cross Héloïse’s mind. She stays still, looking back at her husband and watching his eyes darken with the evidence of her lie.

Just like that, the moment breaks. Giovanni looks away and blinks, focusing again on Nicola and Julie and stretching his lips in a smile to hide any trace of his discovery. Even from that distance, Héloïse can see how stiff and forced it is compared to earlier.

“Tomorrow she’s going to feel better and you can tell her everything about the trip at breakfast. And how about we treat ourselves to some canelés?”

“Canelés?!” Nicola replies excitedly, lifting his head and looking at his father with wide eyes, sleep seemingly forgotten.

“Yes, but only if you’re a good boy and go sleep now.”

Héloïse hates Giovanni in that moment, she hates how good he is at distracting and reassuring their son. Most of all, she hates that he is distracting him from her, that she is the source of pain Giovanni wants to protect him from.

“I’ll dress him and put him to bed,” Héloïse hears Julie say, the words that should come from her mouth, not the one of her maid.

“Thank you, Julie. And after you’re done, could you please prepare me a bath? I really need one after all the time on the road.”

“Of course, monsieur. I’ll get it ready for you.”

Giovanni leans in and presses another kiss on Nicola’s head, the boy already dozing off in Julie’s arms despite the enthusiasm of only moments ago. As Julie leaves with him to carry out her tasks, Giovanni glances up and meets Héloïse’s gaze again, only briefly this time. He looks away just as quickly, then he makes his way towards the stairs, in Héloïse’s direction.

Seeing her husband move unblocks Héloïse all at once. She turns around and walks back to her room, twice as fast as she had left it. Once there, she closes the door behind her without locking it and sits back at the vanity, waiting. She knows it’s only a matter of time.

Sitting there, she feels exceptionally vulnerable and yet, at the same time, strangely calm. A mix of trepidation and surrender similar to what her sister’s final words had evoked. Her letter is still open in front of her. Héloïse looks at it intently instead of concealing it. Maybe a part of her really died like Isabelle and this is what it’s like to be finally untouchable. She can’t bring herself to truly believe it, though. Too much pain and anger still inhabit her body for her to be convinced she can no longer feel anything.

She doesn’t have to wait long. As she had predicted, the door opens after a quiet knock and Giovanni steps inside, closing the door again. Héloïse can feel the weight of his stare on her, even without turning to look back. The silence in the room is deafening, tiring. She is so tired.

“Such a warm welcome after we were away for weeks.”

At last, there it is. As cold and bitter with her as he is sweet with their son. Héloïse doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t care that he is displeased with her, he isn’t the one who is trapped. With the corner of her eye, she sees him unbutton his waistcoat and take it off, stepping out of her sight to place it somewhere in the room. She doesn’t follow him with her gaze, indifferent to his actions until he walks close again.

“You could at least spare this to Nicola,” Giovanni continues, and at mention of her son Héloïse clenches her jaw. “He missed you, he doesn’t deserve your coldness.”

She resents him, for speaking like she is the only culprit for the unhappiness in their marriage, and for using Nicola against her as an easy source of guilt.

“Do you remember what you told me,” Héloïse suddenly asks, “the first time we met?”

“No,” Giovanni replies with a sigh.

“You said I was so beautiful you couldn’t imagine wanting anyone else by your side, and you thanked God for allowing me into your life.” Héloïse finally turns her head towards him, finds him staring back at her with a look that reveals his perplexity at her words. It’s that cluelessness, that utter lack of awareness and understanding on his part that doomed everything from the beginning. “So really, you thanked God for the death of my sister.”

At that, Giovanni lets out a loud groan and shakes his head.

“I just came back, Héloïse,” he says, pacing across the room while removing his cufflinks. “If you want to punish me for words that were meant to be affectionate, you’ll have to wait tomorrow morning.”

“Isn’t that why you’re here?” she asks, dripping cold sarcasm. “To punish me for my wrongdoings?”

Instead of answering, Giovanni sighs again, a softer sound compared to earlier, tired rather than annoyed.

“I don’t want to punish you, Héloïse, I want to understand you.”

The sincerity in his voice catches Héloïse off guard. It would be easy to scoff at his words, to dismiss his attempt as void of any meaning. But after the one person she thought understood her abandoned her, she struggles to do so.

“I thought about our marriage during these weeks apart,” Giovanni continues. “I tried to think about my faults as husband. What I could have done different, better. I don’t know if I was too absent, or too stifling. It was all done in the desire to be close to you, but I don’t want to be blind to my mistakes if you believe I wronged you in some way.”

He walks slowly up to Héloïse, until he is standing right behind her and she can see his reflection in the mirror. She keeps her gaze fixed right in front of her, refusing to look up or turn around and meet his stare. There is too much kindness in his voice, and she hates feeling so fragile that her body reacts to it, a lump forming in her throat that she forcefully swallows back to keep her eyes dry and her heart detached.

“I want to make you happy, Héloïse. Whether you believe it or not, that’s what I want. But I need your help to know how.”

Héloïse’s brows scrunch up in a frown. As genuine as she knows he is being, he wants something she cannot give him. She cannot tell him how to make her happy because he is the reason true happiness was stripped away from her. He could give her all the love he is capable of, it would still be the wrong love because she didn’t choose it, she didn’t want it. But who she chose and still loves didn’t choose her back.

“Héloïse.”

The corner of her mouth starts twitching and Héloïse bites at her bottom lip to stop the nervous tic. She does her best to suppress any thought about Marianne leaving her, but it’s beyond her control. She feels caged, doomed to unhappiness in her desire to cling to something she can no longer have.

She shivers when she feels Giovanni gently push her hair to the side, exposing her neck. When he leans down and kisses her there, his lips are even more delicate than his fingers. The soft, hesitant kiss somehow brings tears to her eyes. It’s the wrong kind of softness, but for a moment, she wishes she could want it. Everything would be easier, if she could want what she has. Would the pain lessen then?

Giovanni pulls away after a moment, letting out a long sigh at her lack of response, verbal or physical.

“Fine,” he says with a defeated tone. “I’ll let you rest.”

He steps back and turns around to leave the room, but before he can walk away, Héloïse grabs his wrist. They both go still with the action, she surprises herself as much as she surprised her husband, but after a moment of indecision, she gets up and turns towards him.

It’s the first time Héloïse is looking at him directly since he entered the room. She takes in the details of his face, the disheveled dark hair, the square jaw locked, his grey eyes studying her silently as she observes him. Even with how tall she is, he towers over her, something she had always hated for how small it made her feel. She knows other women would feel protected, safe.

She takes a step closer to him, watching how his body visibly tenses. There’s barely a few inches separating them.

“Héloïse?”

She doesn’t say anything. She leans in and kisses him.

The shock of what she is doing shoots from her brain down to her spine in the form of a violent shudder. The last mouth she kissed was Marianne’s, and the comparison makes her stomach tie into a knot, but she forcefully rejects the feeling.

It only lasts for a couple seconds. Giovanni sharply pulls back and looks at her with his mouth slightly agape, confusion and disbelief written all over his face. There’s a question in his eyes, one that will get no answer, because Héloïse cannot tell him why she did it. She cannot even tell herself without feeling shame burning deep in her chest. She is ashamed that the pain she is feeling makes her want to give up her resistance. She is ashamed of wanting it easier, of wanting to want the life she is stuck in, the man she is tied to. But she does. Because the pain Marianne left her in was so unbearable she barely survived it for a few days, to spend the rest of her life with it promises to be agonizing in a way that terrifies her to her core.

So, before Giovanni can say anything, Héloïse kisses him again, longer and harder than before. Her intentions are unmistakable, even with all the confusion her actions provoked, and her husband’s restraint only goes so far. Surprise gives way to desire and he kisses her back, wrapping his arm around her and pulling her in. Maybe for the first time since they married, Héloïse responds.

She cups his face and deepens the kiss, squeezing her eyes shut and trying to force herself to enjoy it. She cannot trick herself. His lips though not harsh or demanding, feel rough against hers, the skin around his mouth, despite being shaved of any trace of beard, is coarse, it scratches at her face, and Héloïse finds herself closing her eyes even tighter when she feels his tongue against her own.

She keeps going even when everything inside her is rejecting what she is doing. She feels detached from it, and yet incredibly present at once, feeling her own body and Giovanni’s with an almost upsetting intensity. His palms are hot against her back, pressing her even closer to him as they continue kissing. Her response is to move her hands to the button of his shirt. He sighs her name against her mouth when she exposes the top of his chest, mistaking her despair for eagerness.

A gasp escapes from Héloïse’s lips when, without warning, Giovanni picks her up in his arms, holding her at the waist and under one of her thighs, making her wrap her legs around him. He hurriedly carries her through the room and sets her down on the bed. That’s when the reality of what she is doing hits her, triggering a sudden moment of panic that only grows more asphyxiating when Giovanni presses her down with his body and gets on top of her.

She blinks and breathes through her teeth when Giovanni’s face appears above hers, his breath warm against her mouth. He holds himself up on his arms, but Héloïse still feels his weight on her, the heat radiating off of his body even through the clothes. She can feel how much he wants her, and she has no idea how she is supposed to like it when her body only seems to lock and freeze in response to the feeling. Despite her control, her mind goes somewhere else, doing exactly what she was trying to avoid: she suddenly remembers Marianne on top of her, kissing her in the morning while their movements were still slow and lazy with sleep. The comparison can only torture her in that moment.

Héloïse tries to fight back those memories when Giovanni kisses her again, but this time the feeling only makes her go more rigid. He leans down to do so, pressing his chest against hers and making her feel like he is crushing her lungs with his weight. She knows the feeling, she has known it for years, but trying to make herself enjoy it only makes it more unbearable.

Her hands move despite her aversion to everything that’s happening. She slides them under his shirt and up the wide plane of his back, digging her fingers into the strong muscles. He gasps in response to her touch.

“I’ve wanted this for so long,” he suddenly whispers, before kissing his way down her jawline and latching his lips onto her neck. It’s the worst thing he could have done. Marianne kissed her neck far too many times for Héloïse to be able to suppress the memory of how those kisses made her feel, how her body would shiver and open up to Marianne while now she is struggling with even tolerating Giovanni’s touch.

He mimics her movements, moving his hand up her body and cupping her breast while he kisses her neck and collarbone. Everything about it feels wrong. No matter how much she touches or kisses him back, she feels no intimacy, no partnership. His hands are too rough, his body too bulky. She could have spent her whole life kissing Marianne’s body, touching her skin or even just letting herself be held by her. Now, she feels the burning need to push Giovanni off of her, to put a stop to something she had started in her despair.

It’s only now that she is stuck under him that she realizes just how utterly foolish she had been in thinking it would work, that she would manage to trick herself into unloving Marianne. Tears sting behind her eyes when Giovanni moves his mouth to her breasts, cupping them and kissing them with an avidity that makes her want to cry. Her stomach twists and she can’t bring herself to participate anymore. She hates herself for thinking about Marianne but it’s beyond her control. She remembers her excitement at seeing the painter naked so vividly, how good it had felt to have her lean body on top of hers, to touch her and be touched by her.

She squeezes her eyes shut but still, a tear escapes and trickles down her temple. She doesn’t want any of this, she wants Marianne back. She wants her now more than ever, more than anything.

Pretending is impossible, the more she tries, the more she is overpowered by the enormity of her loss. Her heart doesn’t care about her resolutions, all she can think about, all she can feel, is Marianne, and whatever she was trying to achieve only made it worse because she has never felt so broken in her entire life.

It’s all too much, her body rejects it, her soul rejects it, and when Giovanni tugs the fabric of her chemise up her thigh, Héloïse covers her face with her palms and finally lets out the sob that was choking her at the back of her throat.

The effect is immediate, Giovanni freezes on top of her when the sound reaches his ears, but Héloïse doesn’t care. After the first sob breaks free, another one immediately follows, and then another. She hears Giovanni call her name but she doesn’t respond. She just keeps crying, sobbing against her hands so hard her body is racked by light spasm.

It continues even when Giovanni pulls away and his weight disappears from her body. She just can’t stop, not knowing where to put all the hopelessness she feels.

It’s a while before sobs turn into silent tears. Even longer before she opens her eyes, wet and hurting with how hard she cried. Her vision is blurred, fresh tears fall down with every slow blink. She fixes her gaze on the top of the bed frame above her, until her sight clears enough that she can make out the engravings in the wood again.

The room is deathly quiet but for her uneven breathing, but the mattress is dipped next to her leg, and she can sense the weight of Giovanni’s presence even if he’s not uttering any sound. He is sitting next to her, hunched forward with his elbows on his knees.

“I don’t know what I’ve done,” Héloïse hears him say, “to make it so hard for you to love me.”

Héloïse doesn’t say anything, swallowing back more tears and exhaling shakily. She doesn’t look at Giovanni when she feels him stand up. She wants to be alone, she feels too drained to even move.

“This can no longer be, Héloïse,” Giovanni says with a sigh. “We need something. I’m tired of the unhappiness that inhabits these walls.”

Héloïse closes her eyes again, rubbing at them to get rid of the residual tears. She would laugh if she wasn’t so exhausted. The unhappiness he feels isn’t just in the walls of their house, it sits deep inside her bones and there is no way to free her from it, especially for him. She doesn’t tell him that, though. She doesn’t want a quarrel, she wants him to go.

“A second child will do us good.” Héloïse’s eyes snap open. “Even if you don’t see it yet. It will be good for us, it’s what we need.”

His words feel like a jet of ice-cold water. A reminder of how every choice about her life was stripped away and keeps being denied to her. She was sad, then desperate, then exhausted. In an instant, it all mutates into a raging wave of anger.

“Tell me again how you want to correct your mistakes!” she screams at Giovanni, pulling herself up on the bed. He was walking out of the room, but her voice stops him in his tracks. When he turns around, his eyes are steel, any trace of softness gone from his face.

“And what was my unforgivable mistake, Héloïse?! Wanting to love you?” he bites back, striding towards Héloïse as she gets off the bed and stands straight to confront him. “I come home after weeks to find you colder than when I left you. I try to understand you and you shut me out. And then you play with my feelings, you provoke me only to reject me.”

Héloïse scowls at that word—provoke—as if her actions were driven by a vicious desire to hurt him and not by a personal anguish.

“Your pride blinds you,” she only says, refusing to explain herself.

“My pride abandoned me a long time ago. You have no idea how a proud man would react in the face of your behavior.”

“The words of a proud man.”

“You are trying to fault me for wanting to be respected!”

“No, I fault you for wanting me to find happiness in what you want. Without having a choice in it.”

The prickling of tears starts again behind her eyes, but Héloïse forcefully pushes it back. Her sorrow isn’t gone, just simmering deep within her, fueling the anger she feels for the unfairness of her fate.

“When all my attempts are met with resistance, what else can I do if not be more forceful?” Giovanni says, lifting his hands in the air in visible frustration. “I am trying to find a way for us to be happy again.”

He doesn’t see it, Héloïse thinks. He doesn’t see that she was never happy with him, nor how what he is doing is the worst injustice he could do to her.

“So am I supposed to be grateful to you? For trying?”

“Yes.”

The blunt answer stuns Héloïse into silence. The wedge between them is too deep, it’s clear to Héloïse now more than ever. No amount of good intentions will ever bring them close, not with the way he wants to possess her.

“You can force me to do what you want,” she says coldly, “but you cannot expect me to love you at the same time.”

“You are my wife!”

The scream Giovanni lets out is violent in a way Héloïse had never heard from him before, not even during their worst fights. It shocks her, and she flinches despite herself when he stalks towards her to stop an inch away from her.

“I swore before God to love you and respect you, and you made the same vow but only one of us is honoring it! I’ve had enough of it!”

Héloïse stares at him without moving, impervious to his outburst beyond the initial feeling of shock. The only effect it had was to make her anger grow, canceling out any feeling of understanding or sympathy that had taken over her after his original tenderness.

She walks around him to try to leave the room, but he steps in front of her, blocking her way.

“Let me through,” she says, trying to push past him, but he doesn’t budge.

“You are not leaving.”

“You cannot keep me here.”

She tries to go around him again but suddenly he grabs her arm and yanks her back, putting his body between her and the door.

“You will stay!”

He lets go of her immediately, breathing heavily and pacing back and forth as he tries and fails to get his heightened emotions under restraint. She can still feel the heat of his hold around her arm, but when he stops in front of her again, she remains solid like a rock. He could unleash all the violence he’s capable of on her, she still wouldn’t bend to his demands. He doesn’t touch her, though.

“Do you know why I wanted to marry you?” he suddenly says, catching Héloïse’s attention. “When I saw your portrait, it wasn’t just your beauty that struck me. It was the intensity in your eyes. I saw a fire there, and I knew I had to have you because I needed to know what that fire felt like.”

He shakes his head, gritting his teeth, and for the first time since he entered the room, Héloïse sees tears glistening in his eyes.

“But it’s not fire I feel with you. It’s ice. I get your silence, and your contempt, and your coldness. Do you know how frustrating it is? When I try to be close to you, it feels like I’m making love to a dead woman.”

Héloïse winces at the expression. Their intercourses have never been about love, not for her, she couldn’t imagine anything further from love than what she experiences with her husband. He is on the verge of crying, but she has no sympathy for his pain, not with how he tries to blame her for her only mechanism of survival. She frowns, scrunching up her features to hold back the tears she feels forming in her eyes, too. His words offend her, but she refuses to feel ashamed.

“I’m tired of this coldness from my wife. A w—”

Giovanni stops all of a sudden, pursing his lips like he is trying to physically keep himself from finishing his sentence.

“Go ahead,” she challenges him. “Say what you want to say.”

Her provocation has the expected effect. Giovanni’s face twists in a flash of anger, then he straightens up and gives her a glare that’s supposed to cover her with disdain.

“A whore would be warmer.”

Words that were supposed to shock her, hurt her, leave Héloïse indifferent. He has never been scornful or insulting, and the offense doesn’t ring true coming from him. It’s a failed attempt at cruelty, one she only finds pathetic. He is towering over her and looking down at her with an air of superiority, but in that moment, when he is trying to make her feel as small as possible, she just pities him.

“And you know everything about that, don’t you?”

At the question, Giovanni clenches his jaw so hard Héloïse sees the muscles tense and release rhythmically under the skin of his cheeks.

“You have no right to shame me for looking for comfort elsewhere,” he seethes. “I wouldn’t need that if it weren’t for you.”

“Then why don’t you throw me out? Free yourself from my gelid presence,” she mocks him.

“Is that what you want? To be thrown out in the streets, alone and disgraced?”

The threat doesn’t scare her. It’s his power to enact it that gets to her, how it’s a given that he could do it because she belongs to him to all effects. It’s what he is blind to, that she could never love someone who owns her.

When she doesn’t answer the question, Giovanni shakes his head again and lets out a sound akin to a growl.

“You know, I felt so guilty after I accused you of having a lover,” he says, taking Héloïse by surprise. “Now I realize that I shouldn’t have felt guilty. I should have felt stupid. For thinking someone as cold as you could ever feel something for anyone.”

She should feel hurt, but his judgement of her is so incredibly wrong that it hardly touches her. It has a different effect though, much more insidious and painful than the one Giovanni intended. She doesn’t care that he thinks her too cold to love anyone, but his words force her to remember the one she did love, the one who still makes her heart ache and throb and pound, and it hurts so much that for a moment she wishes she was as emotionless as he believes her to be. Only for a moment, though.

“You don’t know me at all,” she whispers quietly, refusing to explain herself to him.

“Don’t I? You don’t even realize just how much I know about you.” Giovanni lets out a quiet, cold laugh, and for the first time since the beginning of their fight, the spite she hears in his voice sounds genuine. “Do you really think I’m that oblivious?”

Héloïse frowns at that, suddenly confused by his words. She tries to figure out the meaning of what he just said but she doesn’t have to. Giovanni is quick to explain, his smile gone and replaced by a harsh expression.

“I know the truth, Héloïse,” he says. “I know you weren’t a virgin on our wedding night. I was told there was no blood on the wedding sheets.”

Héloïse freezes. That reveal is something she could have never imagined she’d hear, it comes with no warning or preparation, suspending her in a state of shock. Thoughts immediately start running wild in her mind, she racks her brain trying to remember details from all those years ago, a sign that he could be lying, any clue as to how he could have found out the truth.

And then, she suddenly remembers a face. A maid who was already working at the house before her arrival. She remembers how she would always be around Giovanni, how she wouldn’t even try to hide her clear jealousy towards Héloïse, and how, shortly after their wedding, Giovanni had dismissed her without much of an explanation. Héloïse hadn’t given it any thought at the time, now, she has no doubt about what the woman did.

Her eyes burn, her nose prickles with the need to cry, but she bites the inside of her cheek and appeals to all her restraint. She refuses to cry, for her husband and for someone she didn’t even know and who betrayed her out of spite. The betrayal she feels though, is so profound it threatens her fortitude. Even with everything she did to comply to the life imposed on her, to behave like expected of her even when it was killing her, someone else took it upon them to reveal a truth about her and her past that should have stayed hers only.

“Do you deny it?” Giovanni asks. “Do you deny that you weren’t pure when you first shared a bed with me?”

A single tear escapes and trickles down Héloïse’s cheek as she stares at him, unblinkingly. It’s anger, more than it is hurt, and in that moment, she truly hates her husband. She hates him for speaking to her like there was something wrong with her when the only time she truly felt dirty was after they consummated their marriage. She swallows forcefully against the lump in her throat to steady the quivering in her voice. Then, she raises her chin, standing as tall as possible as she stares at him.

“No.”

Giovanni presses his lips together, breathing heavily through his nose and looking at her with a stern frown. He looks more indignant than self-righteous, like her confession hurt him more than proving him right.

“You admit it and yet you judge my conduct as husband,” he says. “I’ve always treated you with respect, as an honorable woman even when I knew the truth. But you cannot even try to do the same with me.”

“You want something I cannot give you.”

“You’re very generous when it comes to giving to others, though. Aren’t you?”

It’s a bitter accusation and Héloïse remains quiet in the face of it. She knows it’s his wounded pride speaking, trying to make her feel as bad as he feels. She would leave if she didn’t know he would try to stop her again. She feels so on the edge that she isn’t sure how she’d react if he tried to touch her again.

“I married you, vowed to take care of you. All I ask for is your affection, and you deny it to me. You deny me anything.” He passes his hand over his face, sucking in a sharp breath through his clenched teeth. His eyes are red when he looks at Héloïse again. “But you will let yourself be taken by a man who has no qualms about ruining your reputation.”

It takes Héloïse a moment to understand what he is talking about, but as soon as she realizes his assumption, she finds herself wanting to laugh in his face. Truly laugh, because of course he thought it was a man. He couldn’t even begin to conceive anything different.

“Has he consumed you completely, that we were doomed from the start?” he asks, and her silence prolongs enough it makes him venomous. “Or were you as frigid for him, too?”

Héloïse had remained impassive to all his insults and attempts to rile her up, letting his anger and scorn wash over her without being truly affected. But his final attempt at offending her backfires completely, because it doesn’t make her feel ashamed like he meant, it brings all her rage to the surface. And with that one comment, whatever restraint she had left falls apart entirely.

“No,” she says, putting all the fire she has into every word. “I writhed, and I sighed, and I cried out.” She leans in, until there is barely an inch between their faces. “For her.”

Héloïse sees it immediately, the way pure shock overwhelms her husband all at once. His breath catches in his throat as if she had just hit him in the chest, and he stares at her with wide eyes, speechless in his disbelief.

Héloïse can feel the wetness of the single tear that stains her face, her chest is heaving with how hard she is breathing, but for the first time since she was buried into this forced marriage, she feels something akin to power flow through her veins.

“What?” Giovanni finally whispers with a shaky voice, after several attempts at speaking without anything coming out of his mouth. “What are you saying?”

“Exactly what you heard.” She keeps her stare on him, burning and proud. “She taught me what love is. And she didn’t take anything I didn’t want to give her.”

At the thought of Marianne, a second tear runs down the same wet path left by the first one. Remembering her only makes Héloïse miss her more desperately, but the pain of the loss, of the abandonment too, doesn’t tarnish her memories. The love is there, rooted inside her indissolubly, and in allowing herself to speak truly about her feelings for the first time, Héloïse’s heart beats harder with it.

“I wanted her. Like you want me.”

Colors drains from Giovanni’s face, and Héloïse spots tiny drops of cold sweat form at the line of his forehead. He stumbles back, muttering words Héloïse cannot hear. He looks completely lost, shaking his head as if it’s going to stop the truth from reaching him.

“You’re lying,” he says, staring at her with an almost pleading look in his eyes, but Héloïse is unflinching. When she denies him the reassurance he was searching for, Giovanni looks away again, fixing his gaze on the floor as his body is shaken by tremors so tense he is.

“It’s… preparation,” he says, nodding repeatedly as if to convince himself. “That’s what it was. I know girls can initiate each other to sex so they’re prepared for their husbands—”

“It wasn’t preparation for you!” Héloïse cuts him off with a yell, letting out her frustration at the absurdity of what he is trying to insinuate. “She had my body, and she has my heart, and when she touched me I felt the kind of pleasure you’ll never be able to give me.” She takes a step forward, sucking in a sharp, trembling breath as she stands tall where he is cowering. “And I touched her, too.”

“I don’t want to hear this.”

Giovanni shakes his head and starts pacing back and forth, no longer able to sustain the conversation, but Héloïse doesn’t let up.

“I touched her, like I’m never going to touch you.”

“Stop it.”

“And I loved every second of it.”

“SHUT UP!”

Giovanni’s scream is so loud it overpowers Héloïse’s voice and makes her finally go quiet. It’s not a victory by any means. No matter how angry he is, how physically imposing, he doesn’t scare her. She stares at him in silence, watching him lose his temper more and more, completely not prepared to deal with the fire she had kept hidden from him for so long. What he had always wanted to touch now threatens to destroy him completely.

He breathes raggedly, repeatedly clenching and unclenching his fists so hard the skin of his knuckles turns white. His chest puffs out with each strong pant, his muscles visibly tensing under his shirt as he tries and fails to restrain his rage.

“You want to humiliate me,” he eventually hisses.

“And you want to hit me,” Héloïse replies, nodding towards his hands. “I can see it.”

He looks down at his own hands and his features twist until they’re almost unrecognizable, as if he hadn’t realized what he was doing until she pointed it out. Héloïse knows he has enough strength that he could break every bone in her body if he wanted, and she knows that he knows, too. She doesn’t recoil, though, she just keeps staring at him until he slowly unclenches his fists, distending his fingers until all the tendons of his hands are taut and visible.

“I swore I would never do it again,” he says in a low voice before looking up and meeting her gaze with an accusatory glare. “And I apologized.”

Héloïse only scoffs.

“You absolved yourself between my legs.”

He grimaces at her comment, squeezing his eyes shut and rubbing them with his fingers hard enough that Héloïse imagines he must be hurting himself. She feels that anger herself, that exhaustion, she has known it for almost six years.

“Who is she?” Giovanni suddenly asks, dropping his hand and staring at Héloïse again, but she only shakes her head.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says, feeling a pang of pain go right through her heart. “She is a ghost, from a past life.”

“I want to know.”

“You can’t,” she simply says with a shrug. “You cannot reach her. And neither can I.” She diverts her gaze from him, suddenly feeling again the weight of the weariness she had forgotten during their fight. Her body sags with it and she leans back against the bed column for leverage .Just days before, she was leaning against Marianne’s body, surrounded by her smell and her warmth and her softness. The truth is infinitely simple in its ruthlessness. “Neither of us can get what we want.”

A deafening silence falls between them. Neither of them moves or attempts to say anything, they’re both taken by their own feelings, feeling the emotional repercussion of what transpired between them in very different ways. Héloïse didn’t know elation could be followed by such all-consuming emptiness. The strength she felt in speaking out her truth is muted by the knowledge that she will never get to live again that love that had filled her with pride and fueled her spirit as much as her body. Her fingers dig into the wood of the column. She’d give anything to be able to touch Marianne again one last time.

Minutes pass in that thick silence. Giovanni stands still, looking at nothing, not moving. When he recovers enough to talk, his voice is as blank as his eyes.

“You will not speak of this again,” he says, finally looking at Héloïse. “Do you hear me? Ever.”

Héloïse doesn’t reply, there is no point in it. She told him the truth about her feelings, she told him something any other man would consider an ultimate transgression, and still, nothing is going to change. She closes her eyes, feeling the pressing need to fall asleep and never wake up again. Because if she does, when she does, she is going to wake up to the same cage.

“You will behave in a way that is fit for a woman of your status. And you will fulfill your role of wife, as I of husband. I don’t need to remind you that we are bound. By God, and by law.”

Every one of his words feels like a vise, slowly tightening inch by inch at the level of her stomach. She does or says nothing to fight it.

“I was supposed to go to Turin next week. To see doctor Torrisi.” Héloïse opens her eyes when she hears the name. “I will move up the trip to this week. To give us both time, and space.”

His voice is flat, completely detached. He talks as if he is managing a deal for his business, and Héloïse doesn’t understand how he can sound so devoid of emotion after what happened. 

“I’ll take Nicola,” he unexpectedly says and Héloïse can’t help but lift her head and look at him. He has his back to her, in the process of collecting the clothes he had taken off when he had arrived. “He wants to see his friend Andrea and the Rovida are spending time in Corbetta. I’ll take him to their estate on the way to Turin. It will do him good to spend some time there.”

Héloïse doesn’t know if he is doing it on purpose. If taking Nicola away is meant to be a threat or if she is seeing evil where there is none. She thought she was ready to make the sacrifice of leaving him, but the possibility of having her baby forcefully taken from her as a bargaining chip makes her feel sick.

She doesn’t have time to dwell on the chilling thought because Giovanni turns around and finally faces her. He looks as exhausted as she feels.

“I’ll be back with the doctor,” he says, “and we’re going to start trying.”

They’re back to the imposition that had started it all, the one demand Héloïse refuses to submit to, now more than ever.

“I don’t want another child with you.”

Giovanni inhales deeply and then shakes his head, once.

“It’s not up for discussion.”

“If I resist, will you push me down and force yourself on me?”

He looks at her like her question insulted him and caused him a wave of repugnance. Despite that, he doesn’t say anything that would negate that possibility.

“You’re a wife, Héloïse,” he says instead quietly. “And a mother. We all have duties in life, those are yours.”

Those words cut through her much more sharply and painfully than any offense he tried to throw at her during their fight. Her whole value as a person, reduced to roles she never wanted and was forced into.

“I will honor you by forgetting everything you told me tonight,” he says. “But from now on, you’re going to start honoring me, too.”

She has cried so much her eyes don’t even hurt anymore when tears well up again.

Giovanni sees them, Héloïse knows he does because a look of deep sadness takes over his face. He doesn’t say anything, though. He turns around and heads for the door as Héloïse watches him. Before he can cross the threshold, he stops.

“I still want your happiness, Héloïse.”

It’s the last thing he says. Then, without waiting for a reply, he opens the door and leaves the room.

There is no relief in being alone. Héloïse lets herself sink to the floor, staring emptily in front of her as she lets the tears fall. She is sure, in that moment. Happiness has abandoned her life.

Chapter Text

The cold of the marble floor seeps through the fabric of Héloïse’s chemise and settles deep inside her body. She sits there long enough that light tremors start running through her, raising the fine hairs on her limbs in chilling waves. She doesn’t move.

The sound of hooves galloping away on the cobblestones of the entrance walkway reaches her ears through the window and she knows Giovanni has left the house. Still, she doesn’t move. She feels no shame in realizing how deeply she envies her husband, how he can remove himself so easily from what hurts him, how freedom is something he takes for granted like the air he breathes. She doesn’t even know how to ride a horse.

Light grows dim after a while, she knows it won’t be long before the candles fully die out and darkness engulfs the room. She could stay there, immobile, as it happens. She could fall asleep on that cold floor, or remain still until her muscles are as rigid as the wood of the bed column she’s resting against. She feels like one of those candles, a stiff stick with mollified insides, destined to die once her fire has petered out.

But her fate isn’t to die, it’s to be smothered, to be deprived of oxygen until she is lifeless and submissive. This is what Giovanni wants for her when he claims to want her happiness, an existence in which she is no more. The fire flickers inside her at the thought.

Her joints hurt when Héloïse pulls herself up. The floor is so icy it stings the soles of her feet, sending painful shivers all up her legs. Her head spins a little, before settling into an aching throb. She lives, still.

She doesn’t want to stay in that darkening room, but there isn’t a place she can take refuge in that’s going to give her the relief she really needs. With every safe place, every source of comfort dismantled, she makes her way to the one thing in her home that makes her heart beat a bit faster.

She walks quietly down the corridor. It’s not a long journey, just a few rooms away. A pang of concern coils her stomach at the thought that hers and Giovanni’s yells might have woken him. She worries for nothing. When she opens the door and peaks inside Nicola’s bedroom, she immediately sees the little boy in his bed, sound asleep.

Héloïse slides inside the room and closes the door behind her, careful not to make any loud noise. She exhales, deeply and quietly, and lets her eyes rest on her son. Her heart swells at the sight, melting away much of that cold that had taken root within her. Nicola is sleeping on his side, close enough to the edge of the mattress to induce a mix of tenderness and motherly worry that he might fall. A little foot sticks out from underneath the crumpled sheets. His face, half-covered by a few, messy blonde locks that have fallen over, is serene, untouched by any tension or distress. He is a tiny ball that makes Héloïse feel warm and liquid, and she wishes she could keep him like that forever.

As her gaze drifts down and away from her son for a moment, Héloïse spots something on the floor, a lion-shaped rag toy lying next to the bed. She has no trouble imagining what happened, countless times she has tucked Nicola into bed with his favorite toy only for him to drop it in his sleep.

She walks to the bed and picks up the toy from the floor, placing it under the sheets next to Nicola’s back. Her knuckles brush against his shoulder, warm and soft under his night shirt, and she finds herself lingering, unable to pull away. She meant to put the toy back and leave the room. Instead, she sits down on the bed next to her son.

An ache grows in her chest as she looks at the little boy, the love she feels for him weighed down by a melancholia she has never been able to get rid of. Her fingers move from Nicola’s shoulder to his face, gently pushing his curls out of the way to caress his cheek. It’s soft, so soft, she remembers being addicted to feeling that softness against her skin when he was a baby and she would hold him to her chest.

He’s a thing of absolute good, she thinks, pure and vulnerable like anything untouched by evil. In the silence and loneliness of the room, she allows herself thoughts she would never dare to speak out loud to anyone. She loves him with all the love she is capable of, but she tries to imagine whether she would love him more, if she could separate him from the evil that has touched her.

The most unrealistic desire embeds itself in her heart and mind, and she finds herself picturing a life in which she could have a baby with Marianne, raise him with her, wake up every morning to the two people she gave her heart to. Her hand stills on Nicola’s face and she feels her eyes water. It’s not a certainty, it’s a maybe, but a maybe is enough to fill her with thick shame, because wondering whether she’d love her son more if she had had him with Marianne, she can’t bring herself to say no.

Not a bone of blame inhabits her son’s body, to this day she is surprised that she can love him as much as she does even when he wasn’t born out of love, no matter how many loving words Giovanni whispered as he tenderly raped her.

Héloïse withdraws the hand at the though, sighing heavily and clenching her fingers into a fist. She watches Nicola sleep, watches how his mouth has fallen slightly open, how his small body moves with each breath, and wishes she could bask in all that beauty and preciousness without being poisoned by thoughts and feelings so dark. She will never know what that feels like.

Standing up is harder than she thought, her body feels almost heavier than when she forced it off the icy floor of her bedroom. She heads towards the door with no plan or idea where to go next. She makes it halfway across the room.

“Mamma?”

When Héloïse turns around, Nicola is staring at her. His eyes are only barely open, his eyelids droopy with the sleep she interrupted. Still, he is clearly awake.

“Chéri, why aren’t you sleeping?”

“You woke me up,” Nicola replies in French, his voice scratchy and small. Héloïse feels immediately guilty for her negligence.

“I’m sorry,” she says with a small smile. “I wanted to see you.”

“Julie said you were feeling bad.”

The corner of her mouth twitches, remembering her lie, but she doesn’t let her distress reveal itself on her face. She doesn’t want to disturb her son’s quiet any more than she already has.

“I feel better, chéri,” she furthers her lie. “Go back to sleep, I’m going. Tomorrow you can tell me about the trip.”

“Are you sad because of me?”

Héloïse freezes.

“What?” she whispers, unable to keep the quivering out of her voice. Nicola doesn’t answer. He silently stares at her, his eyes much brighter and awake than they were only moments ago. The innocence of childhood allows him a frankness against which Héloïse has no defense.

“Why do you say that?”

“Papà said you’re sad.”

Héloïse wishes she could crawl out of her skin, or that she could rewind time and drag her tired limbs anywhere but in her son’s room. She is pierced by a rush of anger towards Giovanni, for having dragged the little boy into their conflict. But even more than anger, she is suddenly seized by a pang of fear. The last thing she wants is to hurt her son, and the smallest misstep on her part could lead exactly to that.

“I’m not sad because of you.” She walks back to the bed and sits down again next to Nicola. She threads her fingers through his hair as he turns on his back to look at her, and her heart clenches in her chest with how soothing such a small thing can feel. “You only make me happy, my love.”

“But you’re still sad.”

Héloïse stares at him in quiet astonishment. Her skin prickles, she feels the need to squirm but she doesn’t move, she only presses her lips together, at loss for words in front of her child. She feels a failure as a mother, that her son’s acumen has to go towards something as miserable as detecting her pain. She can’t protect him, not even from herself.

“Mamma?”

“It has nothing to do with you,” she says, with all the conviction she is capable of. “You need to know that, okay? Here.” She leans down over Nicola and presses her fingers to his temple. “And here.” She moves them to his chest, right over his heart. “I love you and you’re the best thing in my life.”

Nicola looks at her like he is studying her, his eyes revealing an intelligence uncommon for children his age. Then, after a moment, his gaze softens and his lips stretch in a smile that turns his cheeks into two rosy apples.

“I love you too, mamma.”

Héloïse sucks in a deep breath, releasing it shakily as a broken smile. It is as broken as it is real, the first real moment of happiness since Marianne abandoned her, and as marked as it is by the pain she can’t get rid of, she clings to it, carving a space for it in her heart and allowing it to comfort her. She bends her body and kisses his cheek, lingering with her lips against his skin and reveling in how she feels his smile widen and break out into a dimple.

“Can I help?” Nicola asks after Héloïse pulls back. She looks at him questioningly and his eyebrows knit together in a small, focused frown, a seriousness that clashes with how cute and adorable his little face is. “Make the sadness go away. I can be a better boy.”

Her heart throbs wildly in her chest, and a small laugh pushes out of her mouth like a hiccup. She kisses him again, unable not to in the face of such pureness.

“You are the best boy I could have ever wished for, my love,” she says, meaning every word. “I wouldn’t change a single thing about you.”

“Mamma?”

“Yes?”

“Why are you crying?”

It’s only with the question that Héloïse becomes aware of the tears that have welled up in her eyes. She brings her fingers to her face, they brush against her lashes and come away wet. It’s as surprising as it is predictable, there is not enough room in her body for all the sorrow she feels, she has to keep pushing it out, even beyond her control.

She licks her bottom lip and digs her teeth into it, blinking once to get rid of the tears that had accumulated in her eyes and try to put a stop to them. It’s harder than she thought, there’s a wet knot in her throat that grows tighter, urging her to keep crying without caring for who is witnessing her pain. She never meant to do that to her son, to put on his small shoulders the burden of being her source of comfort.

“Can I ask you something, Nicola?” she whispers. “A favor?”

Nicola nods and Héloïse lets out a throaty sigh. She feels more vulnerable than the baby she brought into the world when she asks, “Can I sleep here with you tonight?"

She smiles through the tears after Nicola says, “Yes.” Her movements are hurried and clunky as she shifts on the bed to lie down and get under the sheets, but it’s only when her head rests on the pillow that exhaustion really hits. True exhaustion, going far beyond the tiredness in her body.

She forcefully ignores the awareness that sleep won’t help her, that she is going to wake up just as drained and miserable, because Nicola cuddles close to her with a yawn and tucks his head into her chest like when he was a baby, and Héloïse feels her heart expand like it wants to break out of her ribcage.

His body is warm from sleep and his soft hair tickles the skin of her neck and she can’t help but wrap her arms around him and press a long kiss on top of his head.

“Not so tight, mamma,” he whines sleepily, and Héloïse immediately loosens her hold on him, pulling back just enough to cup his face and kiss him again.

“Sorry, chéri,” she smiles softly, caressing his cheek and then running her finger on the tip of his nose. It twitches in response to the touch and Héloïse freezes the image in her mind, committed to preserving even the smallest moments with her baby.

“Here.” She reaches around blindly and grabs the toy that had gone abandoned on the bed behind her. “Your friend had fallen on the floor.” She gives it to Nicola who immediately puts it under his arm before snuggling up to her again.

She hugs him again, gently, just tight enough to keep him close to her, and buries her face into his hair, breathing in the smell of her son, the one she knows she is never going to find anywhere else. They are tangled together, she can feel how Nicola’s body melts and easily succumbs to tiredness against hers. Rest, she wants to say, but she doesn’t make a sound, too afraid to disrupt this momentary solace.

Beyond her control, Héloïse imagines a slender arm wrapping itself around her and Nicola, engulfing them both in a warm hug. Marianne’s breath tickling her ear as she whispers tender words.

“Don’t be sad, mamma,” Nicola mumbles against her chest, his eyes already closed. “I love you.”

Silent tears wet Héloïse’s face.


She hardly sleeps that night. She gets a lot more rest and comfort from watching Nicola, from feeling his body against hers. Her eyes have been closed for maybe a couple hours when sunlight starts seeping through the window curtains and Julie knocks quietly on the door. Héloïse sends her away and waits for Nicola to come out of sleep on his own time. He yawns and wiggles uncoordinatedly and presses his forehead against her breast. His blonde hair is a ruffled mess and his toy is back on the floor.

There is no news of Giovanni. Héloïse is only informed that he hasn’t returned and she asks no more. Her day is all for Nicola. She dresses him and has breakfast with him, listening intently to his excited account on what he saw and did in Vienna while he stuffs his face with canéles. She grins  until her cheeks hurt watching him focus extremely hard to say Tiergarten Schönbrunn. At his young age, he has already experienced more than she has throughout her life. The realization is bittersweet only in part, she wishes him the fullest life he can possibly have.

Héloïse spends more time with him than she has in months. They play in the garden, she cheers for Nicola while he runs around rolling his hoop, and when the dog start chasing after him, the little boy rolls himself in the grass with the happy animal in a fit of squeals and giggles. He has green and dirt everywhere by the time he gets up, but Héloïse doesn’t care. She tells Julie she is going to wash him and spends the rest of the afternoon reading with him.

She loses him as soon as Giovanni comes back.

Nicola springs away from her and rushes to his father the moment he walks through the main door.  He greets the little boy with the usual warmth and affection, like nothing happened, and any question about where he was is forgotten the moment he tells Nicola he is going to take him to visit his friend. He looks at Héloïse after relating the news, a silent gaze from across the room that brings back every threat and promise from the night before. In that moment, Héloïse feels the acrid desire to hurt him. Actually hurt him, like she hasn’t done with anyone, and hates him more for triggering that desire within her, for forcing her to feel something so distant from who she is.

It’s never clearer to her than in that moment. Her life doesn’t belong to her, she only has fleeting moments, even with her son. It is an existence that’s going to destroy her in the end, her and everything she loves, she has no doubt about it.

She doesn’t face her husband when he later comes to her room. “Whatever it is you want, you’re going to have to take it by force,” she says without looking at him. She can feel his presence, how he lingers on the threshold. Giovanni doesn’t push further, thought.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” he says quietly and she doesn’t protest. Then, he closes the door behind him, leaving Héloïse to her loneliness, and true to his word, by next day’s luncheon they are ready to go.

“Why don’t you come too, mamma?” Nicola asks her as they say goodbye to each other.

“Not this time, my love. You have fun, okay?”

She pets his hair and smiles down at him, taking in his happy look, so innocently oblivious. It’s just a goodbye for him. For her, it’s the second time in her life she wishes she could freeze time and stretch a moment into eternity.

It’s only when he turns around and trots towards his father that Héloïse’s serene mask cracks.

“Nicola?”

There’s a trembling hitch to her voice when she calls out her son’s name, just barely quiet enough to hide the despair lurking below from the little boy. He stops and looks at her as she walks to him and crouches down, getting to his eye level.

For a moment, Héloïse just looks at him. She knows every detail of his face, every mole on his skin, every speck in his eyes. Yet she knows that one month, one week from now, her boy will have changed and will keep changing. She looks at him with the most purposeful gaze she has ever used, forever burning into her memory what she can see, to build on it what she won’t.

“This,” she takes his hand and guides it over her heart, “is yours.” Her voice wavers on the word, the pressure of tears has never been more demanding. She doesn’t give in, putting on a smile where she wants to wail. “It’s always with you. Always.”

Wrapping her fingers around Nicola’s small hand, she moves it over to his chest, pressing down with her own. She can feel his heartbeat against her knuckles.

Nicola looks at her with the little frown that Héloïse has seen him get whenever he is studying a situation or trying to understand something. When Giovanni’s voice resonates in the background, calling for him, they both ignore him. It’s a moment that belongs only to them, and when Nicola’s face relaxes and he smiles, Héloïse knows he understood the truth of her words, even if he didn’t understand their meaning.

“I know,” he says with a shrug, like his mother’s love is the most obvious thing in the world to him. Héloïse squeezes at his hand and then can’t help herself. She pulls him into a hug, clenching her eyes closed to feel everything of her little boy with her senses.

Nicola laughs against her neck at the overtly emotional display of affection. His breath sends a tingling through her skin and Héloïse inhales sharply without releasing any air, afraid that the exhale will turn into a sob.

It takes every ounce of strength and bravery she possesses to ease her grip and break the embrace. It’s like ripping off a limb. She has been there before, on the other side of this agony, but letting go is infinitely harder than being let go. She does it smiling, with a tender gaze in her eyes, for her baby.

When he turns around, she doesn’t stop him. She stays on the floor and watches her son walk away, until the valets close the door behind him and Giovanni and she no longer can. Still, she stays on the floor, letting her tears run down, free. Hers is a quiet implosion. There is no logic, no plan, she just knows, in her heart more than her head. She lets him go. And herself, too.

Chapter Text

There is a storm coming. A rising wind from the west pushing forward banks of clouds that blot out the sun. They don’t carry rain yet, but they will, Héloïse knows it by the way air prickles her skin and feels sharp in her lungs whenever she breathes. It’s the type of weather that excuses staying inside all day, basking in the warmth of the fireplace and letting the hours go by leisurely. That’s what she would have done with Marianne and Nicola. Instead, Héloïse sits outside in her yard until her fingernails are blue and Julie all but forces her to come back inside to avoid getting sick. She complies only after that appeal to reason. She can’t get sick, not with what she plans to do.

The word still doesn’t sit right in her head, plan. She has no plan, just a visceral awareness: she isn’t going to stay. She can’t, not anymore. She’d rather live with no certainty and in dishonor but live than being the rich specter her husband wants to turn her into. And after he walked away with Nicola, she knew: loving her son and not having him would be agonizing, but it would be a fire that would never die out. She would take the pain of burning over becoming indifferent to what once made her heart throb again and again.

It all takes concrete shape when Héloïse tells Julie, “I’m going to go to the countryside villa.”

She blurts out the words, they are raspy after a day spent almost entirely in silence. They come as a surprise to the young maid.

“With this weather, madame?”

She is the only one in the house who allows herself to question her mistress’ decisions, Héloïse has always loved her for it.

“I need to be away from the city for a while.”

The uncertainty is still evident in Julie’s eyes, but still, she nods.

“When?”

“Tomorrow.”

The young girl makes no attempt at hiding her surprise. Héloïse doesn’t blame her, she is surprised with herself too in a way.

“I will arrange for the carriage and prepare everything for the trip,” Julie eventually says when she realizes Héloïse is being serious. “Do you already know how long you wish to remain there? So I can give instructions to the house staff while we’re—”

“You are not coming, Julie. I will be staying on my own.”

The silence that spreads is thicker this time, in the way that comes with unspoken understanding. Julie’s stare is so intense that Héloïse finds herself wondering just how deep her understanding goes, if she can merely sense that something is going on or if she knows.

“I’ve always accompanied you,” Julie says quietly.

“I know.”

“But not this time.”

“No,” Héloïse confirms, swallowing heavily. “Not this time, Julie.”

The young girl goes silent again, looking at Héloïse in a way that makes her feel naked.

“Are you sure, madame?” Julie asks after a long pause.

“Yes.”

The thin veil of tears that starts glistening in Julie’s eyes is more explicit than words could ever be.

“I understand,” the young girl says, blinking away the dampness in her eyes. She nods again, but this time, a tenderness takes over her features, a gentle look far more suited for a friend than a mistress. “I’m still going to be here for you. For anything you might need.”

Their conversation from only a few days earlier comes back to Héloïse’s mind, how Julie had made the same promise with such compassion for her pain. The support she had offered in her entrapment, she is now offering it in her pursuit of freedom.

The thought tugs at the corners of her mouth, putting a small smile on her face. The first, since Giovanni took Nicola away. She would worry about being so transparent if she were standing in front of anyone else. She would steel herself and make sure no real emotion would emerge. She would worry about being betrayed and having her intentions revealed to her husband, condemning her to an even more constrictive imprisonment. Not with Julie. Trust has marked their relationship from the very beginning. She wouldn’t even have a chance if it weren’t for that.

“Thank you,” Héloïse whispers. “Julie, I—”

The words die in her mouth when Julie unexpectedly lifts her hand to stop her, shaking her head with a smile.

“What I don’t know, I cannot disclose.”

Tears well up in Héloïse’s eyes. There is so much she wants to say to Julie, too much she is grateful for, but words feel insufficient. An apology itches at the back of her throat, too, she never wanted to put the young girl in a dangerous or compromising situation. What reassures her is knowing that, with all his faults, Giovanni is not going to direct his anger at her. It’s a small comfort, though, and the most irrational, selfish part of Héloïse craves to ask Julie to come with her. She mutes that desire, like she did when it came to leaving Nicola.

“I’ll get everything ready,” Julie says. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

It’s all in what’s unsaid, and Julie’s willingness to help is so sincere and generous that Héloïse’s heart aches with it.

“You will know,” she answers, the most candid answer she can give in a moment where the only thing certain is uncertainty. She knows by the way Julie looks at her that she had no trouble understanding.

“Very well, madame.”

“Héloïse,” Héloïse whispers after a moment, biting at her bottom lip to stop it from quivering.

“Héloïse.”

Héloïse hugs her, then, to tell her everything she cannot say out loud. It’s not desperate like the last time, when she had clung to Julie’s body to keep from collapsing under the agony of her loss. It’s a gentle embrace, as sweet as it is sorrowful, and Julie responds to it just as softly. Héloïse doesn’t know how long it’ll be before she trusts someone else enough to hug them and be hugged like that.

“Don’t forget your book,” Julie says against her neck.

Héloïse hugs her tighter and lets one tear fall.


Julie was right. The weather only grows worse, carrying a biting chill that raises goosebumps on Héloïse’s skin even through her clothes. She doesn’t care about the cold, she leaves the curtain of the carriage open throughout the whole journey and lets the wind whip at her face. It keeps her mind sharp, and distracts her from the ache in her chest.

Grief mostly spared her while she prepared to leave the place that was her home for almost six years. Collecting her things wasn’t a challenge, only a handful of items held any real meaning to her; the Ovid’s book, her sister’s letter. She forced herself to stay away from Nicola’s room, though, willfully restraining herself to avoid triggering another wave of pain. She was collected throughout the whole process.

It was only after saying goodbye to Julie and stepping out of the house that the reality of what she was doing hit her, leaving her with her chest so tight she had to stick her head out of the window and let the wind force some air into her lungs.

Her face has gone red and mostly numb by the time they reach her destination. She fixes behind her ears the messy strands of hair that had fallen out of her bun, but the way the coachman looks at her after she gets off the carriage tells her it’s of little use. She cannot see herself, but she imagines she must look as unladylike as possible for a member of aristocracy. She couldn’t care less.

She makes her way down the garden path, the coachman behind her carrying her bag with the few things she brought with her. It’s been years since she has been to the villa, a modest property Giovanni inherited and never had much interest in using. She had always liked it, reminded her of her home in Brittany. To no avail had she told so to her husband, his response had been to educate her on how much more beautiful her Milanese house was.

She will get to enjoy it one last time, even if not for long. It’s its position that she cares about the most now, close to four different posting stations and twice as many roads, branching out intricately enough to make following her a living nightmare.

She’s only halfway through the path when she sees the door of the villa open and someone rushing towards her. A small smile appears on her face when she realizes who it is.

“Amelia.”

The housekeeper’s hair has gone grayer since the last time Héloïse saw her. Her short, sturdy figure has stayed the same, much like her kind face.

“Oh, Signora Colonna!” The older woman is out of breath by the time she reaches Héloïse. “Why didn’t you warn me you were coming? I would have arranged to have the staff ready for your arrival.”

“It wasn’t needed,” Héloïse replies with a smile.

“The house is hardly ready. I keep it tidy, you know that, but you never come here and with such short notice…”

“There’s no need to worry, Amelia,” Héloïse interrupts her. “Let’s go inside, it’s cold.”

They walk side by side, with Héloïse slowing down her gait to let the shorter woman follow her easily.

“How is your family?” she asks as they cross the threshold. The happy yelp that comes out of Amelia’s mouth is heartwarming.

“My Bianca just had a baby! A beautiful girl.”

Héloïse’s smile widens, immediately affected by the woman’s unrestrained joy.

“Congratulations,” she says, taking the woman’s hands in hers and giving them a gentle squeeze. “To her and to you. You’re going to be a wonderful grandmother.”

“It’s like being a mother again but without all the hard work. I can already hear Bianca telling me I’m spoiling the little one too much.”

She laughs out loud, putting her hand over her mouth in a weak attempt at moderating her joyous outburst, and Héloïse cannot help but laugh with her. Amelia shakes her head after a moment and takes a deep breath to calm herself, but the grin remains plastered on her face.

“Will the master and the little Nicola join you?”

Héloïse goes rigid. Her smile falters, turns into a forced grimace. She inhales sharply through her gritted teeth, her body locked in the attempt to keep her pain inside, unseen.

“They won’t,” she eventually says.

“So you’re completely on your own!” Amelia cries, oblivious to Héloïse’s struggle. For once, she is glad of it. “This cannot be. I’ll find out who is available and—”

“Amelia, please.”

Her voice is firm when she cuts off the older woman, almost too firm, she realizes after a moment. She swallows hard and forces herself to lose some of the tension that had taken over her body and her face, regarding Amelia with the same gentleness the woman gave her.

“You don’t even want a cook?” Amelia asks.

“Is there any food in the pantry?”

Amelia nods.

“Then I’ll be perfectly fine. My life in France was mostly solitary. I learned to provide to my needs early on.” When Amelia looks at her with a small, confused frown, she explains, “I can cook.”

Amelia’s eyes go wide with surprise, in a way that almost makes Héloïse smile again. She is well aware she is an anomaly, most of her high-aristocracy acquaintances would struggle with boiling water for tea.

“Well, if you’re sure, I won’t push further,” Amelia says. “If you were to need anything, my house is down the road. You remember how to get there, right?”

Héloïse nods.

“Good. Then I’ll go and let you settle. You must want rest after the journey.”

“Thank you, Amelia.”

The older woman smiles at her again. They wait for the coachman to carry Héloïse’s chest to the bedroom and leave, then Amelia bids her goodbye.

“Do you already know how long you’re going to stay?” she suddenly asks on the threshold.

Héloïse takes a moment to reply.

“Not long.”


My dearest Nicola,

It will be a long time before you read this letter. I’m not even sure you’re going to read it at all. I wish I could write something that could offer you immediate solace, but I know it’s not possible. The pain I’m causing you with this choice is something that I’m going to carry with me forever, much like my love for you.

I understand if you hate me

Héloïse stops writing and crumples the letter in her hand. The afternoon light is fading outside the house. This is her fourth failed attempt, each more painful than the one before. She thought nothing would match the torment of letting her son go, but trying to put that abandonment into words is just as excruciating. It triggers thoughts she doesn’t want to have, images of her little boy in tears that she cannot bear even before they’ve become a reality.

All of a sudden, she finds herself thinking about her sister. She never would have imagined she would be in a similar situation as her — she would never be able to do what Isabelle did, even after coming to terms with it. But she can’t help but wonder if the pain and grief she is feeling now, having to address someone she knows she is going to hurt, is something her sister felt too while writing that last letter to her. She grimaces at the thought and prays to be wrong, not wishing any more suffering for her.

She lets out a deep sigh and rubs at her tired eyes. Her supper lies unfinished on the table in front of her, her stomach clamped down and refused to accept any food after she started thinking about her letter for Nicola.

She is hurting him. The certainty of it is suffocating. A violent wave of nausea lurches through her at the thought that she might be killing her son’s love for her. Her eyes are wet and sting when she opens them again. It’s harrowing, no matter how much she tries to rationalize her choice, but nowhere near as unbearable as staying and letting that kill her love for him.

Héloïse pushes herself up from the chair, far more violently than needed. She is lacking air in a way that won’t be solved by opening a window. Being alone with her thoughts is torturous, they infect her body as well as her spirit, keeping her from eating or resting and spreading a pounding ache behind her eyes.

It’s without thinking twice about it that she decides to step outside. The air is crisp compared to the warm inside of the house, it makes her shiver despite the thick fabric of her cape. Looking up, she only sees grey. An immense expanse of grey and black clouds that completely hides the sky from sight. By all means, she should go back inside, she can all but smell the rain that’s about to hit. Instead, Héloïse walks around the house and makes her way down the small, unpaved road on the back.

The walk is longer than she remembered but she doesn’t mind. Dead leaves crunch under the sole of her shoes, her cape feels heavier on her shoulders as it absorbs more and more humidity. It’s all a welcomed distraction, and when she finally reaches her destination, a small, relieved breath instinctively escapes from her lips.

The water of the lake is perfectly still. The wind stopped blowing a few hours after her arrival to the villa and now, no ripples are there to disturb the surface, flat and smooth like a dark mirror.

Héloïse walks further, until the thick tufts of grass near the edge of the lake tickle her ankles. Her movements are slow. She unknots the laces of the cape and lets it slide on the ground, the fine hairs on her forearms immediately stand up in the cold air. Her shoes follow, kicked away with little care, then the top of her dress and her skirt. The corset isn’t hard to remove, she loosened it already  when Amelia left and she remained alone in the house.

Once her thin chemise is the only thing left covering her body, she steps forwards and dips one foot into the water. It’s as cold as the sea in Brittany. There, the violent waves had crashed into her body. Here, everything is immobile. Even her anguish is much less turbulent than the one that had lured her to the sea all those years ago.

She walks a few steps, ignoring the way her calves seem to have turned to ice, and stops again right where the water becomes inscrutably black. She knows the lake is deep, just how much, she has no idea. It doesn’t matter, it’s deeper than any bath or plunge pool she trained in through the years.  She is sharply aware of how dangerous what she is doing is. Still, she doesn’t hesitate. She leaps off the ground and dives into the blackness.

The cold is a shock to her system. Her body screams. From feet to scalp, thousands of fine blades pierce her skin. She kicks her legs, presses her fingers together and makes her palms into two stiff boards like she was taught. Then, she pushes, willing her body up through the water. It’s like swimming in black ink.

The water breaks above her head much sooner than she expected. The momentum propels her forward and she rises to the surface all the way to her breast. She gasps, the air burns in her throat and lungs, and she keeps moving her feet frantically to stay afloat. She is a wild thing compared to the stillness of her surroundings. It’s the most alive she has felt in days.

It takes her a moment to overcome the shock she had forced onto her body. She closes her eyes and breathes deep again, focusing on how her chest expands and deflates under the surface. There is no current to fight against, it’s just herself and still waters and it’s not long before she realizes she doesn’t need to exhaust herself so desperately to keep from going under. She wills restraint onto her movements, the wild spasms of her limbs become gentle strokes.

Even the air doesn’t seem as cold anymore. She moves her body back and forth, wiggling around until she is stretched on her stomach and her tilted chin grazes the water. She retracts her limbs towards her torso like a spring. Then, she pushes them out and her body is thrust forward.

Pull and push, pull and push. She glides through the water leaving a trail of ripples around her. It takes energy, her muscle flex under her skin and start burning very rapidly, not used to being required such effort. She could slow down but the pain only makes her swim harder, putting more and more strength into her strokes until she has stretched her body’s limits. Cold is quickly forgotten, and eventually she has to stop and catch her breath.

She swam in circles, mindful of not pushing herself too far away from the bank. She has no intention of drowning there.

She is too tired to move again just yet, but she doesn’t want to get out either, so she arches backwards and lets the water bring the rest of her body to the surface. She closes her eyes, then, and lets herself be lulled gently by the lapping motion she caused with her strokes.

Her ears are right under the edge of the water, every sound is muted but for her heartbeat. It pounds violently. Her muscles throb and twitch. Her skin stings. Every part of her body feels responsive, wide awake. It’s as uncomfortable as it is relieving, in the most acute way possible. Feeling alive demands a degree of pain. She welcomes it. She lets herself feel everything, and after a moment, warm tears trickle down her temples, forever lost in the vastness of the lake.

A drop suddenly hits Héloïse’s eyelid. She blinks rapidly and open her eyes, surprised by the unexpected impact. She instinctively brings her hand to her face, and after a second, another drop hits her fingernail. Then another, right below her cheekbone. She looks up at the sky, dark and blurred, and watches through squinted eyelids as the rain that was predicted for so long finally falls on her.

It’s gentle at first, pattering delicately on the water around her. There is almost a musicality to it. Then, a violent flash of white illuminates the clearing, immediately followed by the deafening roar of a thunder.

There is something captivating about it, floating weightless while nature unleashes its force around her and cleanses her. She knows better than to stay there and get lost in it, though. She has read enough to know about the dangers of being in the water during a storm.

She swims towards the bank and drags herself out of the lake just as another flash of lightning burns her pupils. It illuminates the area around her, helping her collect her clothes as quickly as possible. She doesn’t re-dress. She simply wraps her cape around her and picks the rest of her things in her shivering arms.

It’s only a matter of minutes before the storm reveals itself in all its power. The soft trickling from before becomes a violent downpour. Water beats down onto Héloïse, soaking through her already wet clothes and hindering her movements. By the time the back of the villa appears into sight, her body is frozen to the bone and her whole face is shaking with how hard her teeth are chattering.

She strides quickly around the house, eager to get inside, but right on the doorstep, something makes her stop. She squeezes her eyes into slits to try to see better, and even through the gushing rain, she spots a shape at the far end of the walkway. A person. Curiosity sparks up inside her. Hardly anyone comes there, even less during a rainfall.

She brings a hand to her forehead to protect her eyes and make out who it is, but it’s to no avail. The rain is far too thick and the damp mist blurs out every silhouette.

When the person starts walking in the direction of the house, Héloïse realizes it must be Amelia, come to check up on her because of the storm. Or her daughter. She hopes it’s Bianca, that she didn’t let the old woman go out with a weather so horrible.

Shaken by a sudden tremor, Héloïse hurries back inside. The warmth of house is like a soft embrace around her chilled body. She drops her clothes carelessly and grabs a blanket from the sofa. Then she rushes to the fireplace and strips herself naked, wrapping the blanket around her and curling up in front of the fire as close as she can without getting burned. The relief is immediate, quickly followed by the prickling and itching of her skin as blood rushes back to her numb extremities.

She stays there just long enough that her body stops trembling and her hair, hanging free, stops dripping water. She could have fallen asleep on the spot, but she settles for that short relief and walks to the bedroom, rushing to find a gown to wear and make herself presentable.

She has just slipped into her spare night gown when a loud knocking on the door resonates and attracts her attention.

Amelia, she tells herself, and a wave of concern for the woman’s health seizes her.

She grabs a candle from the top of the fireplace and walks up to the door.

“Amelia, you shouldn’t have come out with this weather. I’m—”

A gasp kills the end of her sentence after she opens the door. The candle falls from her hand, its flame dies out on the wet floor.

She cannot move, cannot speak. She can do nothing except stare at a face she thought she’d never see again. Even saying her name is impossible. She can only stare at Marianne, breathless.

It would only make sense if it were a dream, but the floor is cold under her bare feet, and there is a pressure in her chest so intense it hurts, and Marianne’s shaky breaths are too loud and real to be a figment of her imagination.

It’s not a dream, it’s real.

And then, Marianne is kissing her.

Before Héloïse can make sense of anything, before she can ask, before she can yell. Marianne’s hands cup her face and her mouth is on hers, and she is kissing her with even more despair than during their broken goodbye.

Héloïse stumbles back with the force of Marianne’s movement, but otherwise, she is completely immobile, wide-eyed and stunned into stillness while Marianne’s kisses are tattered by sobs. Her hands are gelid against Héloïse’s cheeks, her lips cold and wet. The smell of rain and dirt sticks to her body. Her breath, though, is warm, familiar in a way that makes Héloïse’s heart pound wildly against her ribcage, and with a will of its own, her mouth closes around Marianne’s upper lip, responding to the kiss.

She wrenches herself away a moment later.

Marianne’s eyes open in response to Héloïse’s distance, her head instinctively tilted forward to chase after her lips. Héloïse recognizes that hunger, she cannot believe she is witnessing it again with her eyes, feeling it with her lips.

Héloïse looks at her, unable to do anything else as the shock of her presence refuses to fade. A shiver runs down her spine as she takes in just how wretched Marianne looks. She is soaked to the bone, slick strands of hair have escaped her drenched bun and are plastered against her forehead and temples. There’s a rising flush on her cheeks and neck that clashes with the terrible pallor of her face, gaunt and exhausted and marked by dark circles around her eyes. Her clothes are worn out, torn in some spots. She isn’t even standing straight, Héloïse realizes, leaning most of her body weight onto her left foot.

There is so much Héloïse wants to ask, too many questions she needs an answer for. She only manages to utter one.

“How?”

Her voice is hoarse, so small she hardly recognizes it as her own. Her second attempt isn’t any better.

“How are you here?”

“Julie told me where to find you.”

Hearing Marianne’s voice again is just as affecting as seeing her. She frowns hard, to suppress the sudden sting behind her eyes. So overwhelmed by everything she is feeling, she hardly registered what Marianne actually said.

“Julie.”

Marianne nods, frantic almost.

“But how are you here?” Héloïse swallows hard, her throat hurts as she pushes out the words. There is nothing she can do to mask all the suffering attached to them. “You were gone.”

Marianne’s features twist. She blinks away the wetness in her eyes that has nothing to do with the rain. Then, the faintest smile appears on her face.

“I came back.”

The smile cracks as quickly as it formed, replaced by a fresh wave of tears, and she walks, limps, forward.

“I’m sorry, Héloïse. I’m so—”

She doesn’t finish the sentence because Héloïse flinches away, drawing back and looking at her like a wounded animal ready to attack. And she is wounded. Down to her very core, Marianne carved her open and left her bleeding. Guilt and sorrow are written all over the painter’s face, but it’s not enough to Héloïse. It’s not even close to enough.

“You left,” she whispers, a raspy accusation that carries all the pain Marianne inflicted on her.

“I wanted to come back as soon as I did. I just—” Marianne tries again to reach out for her but Héloïse only recoils further back. There is a warning glare in her eyes, one that makes Marianne stop for good.

“I told myself not to,” Marianne eventually confesses, sucking in a shaky breath and releasing it through her teeth. “After your ultimatum, I told myself that it would be better this way. That in the end, you would be happier.”

A whimper almost slips out of Héloïse’s throat at that word, so absolutely distant from the horrid pain she went through. She forces it back and hardens her features, refusing to shed any tears.

Marianne cannot do the same, and her chest spasms visibly with a barely choked sob.

“But every day that I traveled further away from you was agony.” She rubs at her eyes and exhales heavily, trying to regain a presence of mind that is simply not possible in a moment so fragile. “And I thought about you, and what I was doing to you by leaving. Everything you told me came back and I—” She meets Héloïse’s gaze again, and a tear trickles down her cheek. “I realized just how selfish and stupid I was, for thinking I knew better than you.”

Marianne speaks her faults out loud, unreservedly, and Héloïse should feel comforted but she isn’t. Her soul is stretched between relief and torment, because she cannot help but think about how pointless all the pain she went through was, how it could have been avoided, for both, if only Marianne had listened to her. It’s not pride that restrains her, it’s vulnerability.

She observes Marianne without saying a word. The painter’s body is visibly shaking, straining to close the gap between them. She doesn’t move, though, taking instead a deep breath and rubbing the tears away with her fingers.

“I would have come back much earlier, but I was stuck in Susa for days,” she says quietly, her voice slightly more collected than before.

It takes Héloïse a moment to register one specific detail.

“Susa?”

“Yes.”

Héloïse’s stomach twists uncomfortably at the thought of just how close to the French border Marianne was.

“I was ready to come back, but the storm broke out and it flooded the roads and they stopped all post chaise travels,” Marianne says. “I didn’t have enough money for a private carriage to take me to Milan. Being stuck there, knowing what I was doing to you was just…” She shakes her head and frowns, her frustration evident in her voice as much as her expression. She sighs again, though, deeply, and looks at Héloïse. “I couldn’t. So I walked back.”

Shock seizes Héloïse once again. It’s so extreme she cannot wrap her head around it. And yet, she doesn’t doubt for a second it’s the truth. Even Marianne’s limp suddenly, tragically, makes sense now.

Héloïse sees her, walking for days under the pouring rain, pushing forward even after having drained her body of all its energies. She imagines the exhaustion, the dangers, the amount of love required to do something like that.

“I found a ride only when I was close to the city,” Marianne explains. “But once I got to your home, Julie told me you were gone already.” She hesitates, then, looking at Héloïse like she is itching to ask something she isn’t sure she has the right to. Eventually, curiosity wins. “What are you doing here?”

The question acts like a harsh punch to Héloïse’s chest. It brings back all the affliction and grief and pain that led her to make that choice. The loneliness she had felt after saying goodbye to Nicola has dug its claws so deep into her that she isn’t sure how she is meant to recover from it, if it’s possible even. Because Marianne is the only other person she gave her heart to, but she is so hurt and sensitive that if she touches her, it will feel like salt on raw flesh.

“Leaving,” Héloïse hisses. Then, with an even colder voice, she adds, “On my own.”

Marianne’s body stiffens and tightens in response to her words. Her mouth moves like she wants to say something, words of comfort maybe, but she presses her lips together and only nods instead. Sadness and regret are glistening in her eyes.

“You were right,” she says. “It’s your choice, your life. I’m sorry it took me so long to understand that.”

The stinging pressure of tears builds up again. Héloïse’s throat hurts with it, her eyes and nose prickle. Trying her hardest not to cry only triggers reactions she has no control over, and the corner of her mouth twitches once, twice, before she clamps her teeth on her bottom lip to put a stop to the tic.

“Is that supposed to be enough?” she croaks out. It’s the most fragile she is allowing herself to be in words. She cannot speak of her pain, evoking it is all she can do without falling apart.

“No,” Marianne replies, shaking her head. “I never meant to hurt you, but I did. You don’t have to forgive me.”

She falters, letting out a staggered sigh. Her hazel eyes have turned fully green with the brimming of tears.

“You can hate me if you want to.” Her voice is strained and quivering, carrying even more pain than her eyes do as she forces herself to accept that possibility. Everything would be much easier, Héloïse thinks, if she could hate Marianne for what she did, but she never will. She doesn’t owe her reassurance either, though. “But let me help you.”

Héloïse frowns and her body tenses at the unexpected suggestion. She is as confused as she is wary, her ability to trust was lacerated by the same person who is now making the most selfless proposal.

“I will help you run away,” Marianne says, firm and confident in her offer. “Get to Paris, or wherever you want to go. Whatever it is you want, I’ll help you get it. We don’t…” She wavers, Héloïse watches the bobbing of her throat as she swallows hard and makes herself carry on. “We don’t have to be together. But I will help you. Just let me fix this.”

Silence envelops them, there is only the roaring pour of the rain outside the open door and the staggered rhythm of Marianne’s breath. Héloïse is so rigid her body feels on the verge of buzzing. There’s a pressure building and expanding under her bones and flesh, demanding space for whatever burning emotion is going to prevail and burst out in the open.

She looks at Marianne, how her eyes glimmer and her body trembles as she waits for an answer. There is patience in her quietness, and desperation in her eyes. She waits for an answer, but there are no words, none that Héloïse can speak. An answer would signify a clarity of thought, of emotion, but Héloïse’s feelings are more tempestuous than the storm raging outside.

Marianne’s silence is a plea. But Héloïse remembers the chilling silence of the room Marianne had stripped and abandoned, and she remembers her own choked pleas in that same room, how they had been soothed with a kiss and ignored in the same breath.

She remembers, and one single emotion overwhelms everything else, gnawing at her insides with cold, sharp teeth. Anger.

“Leave.”

Her voice quakes and a tear trickles down her cheek, but Héloïse doesn’t care. She doesn’t even blink in the face of the anguish that takes over Marianne’s features.

“Héloïse—”

“I said. Leave.”

Marianne’s mouth falls open, her lips and jaw twitching like she is trying to form words, but they both know there is nothing she can say. The little rush of blood that had colored her cheeks with the temperature swing drains away entirely. Despair gives way to hopelessness. Héloïse knows her, she knows that she is stubborn and resolute enough that she is craving to resist, to say or do something that is going to make Héloïse change her mind. But doing that would mean going against her promise not to ask Héloïse for anything.

Héloïse waits for it, she craves it, so that she’ll be able to accuse Marianne of being nothing but selfish, of wanting to take and take like everyone else in her life has done with her.

But Marianne doesn’t protest. A clear line of tears runs down her pale face, but she says nothing. She lowers her head instead, her shoulders shake lightly and a quiet snivel reaches Héloïse’s ears. She’s an image of quiet brokenness and Héloïse’s heart clenches painfully in a way she can’t control, in a way that upsets her because her feelings aren’t as clear-cut as she’d wish them to be, her rage isn’t as all-consuming.

And then Marianne nods. Once, without looking up, she makes it final. She doesn’t look up even when she turns around and limps towards the door, dragging her exhausted body like a lifeless carcass. Héloïse watches her and the hot pressure of tears burns behind her eyes. She frowns to suppress it, so hard her that her vision blurs, and stomps behind Marianne, just to do something with her body and distract herself from the need to cry.

Everything seems to slow down when Marianne steps out into the downpour again. She stops then, careless of the rain beating down on her, and finally turns around and looks at Héloïse. Her eyes are red, her face stricken with tears. Only the threshold is separating her and Héloïse. A thunder roars in the far distance, but Héloïse still hears Marianne’s whisper.

“Héloïse.”

She slams the door shut.

She shuts Marianne out and breaks herself in doing it. A choked gasp pushes out of her throat and her chest heaves violently. In the privacy of loneliness there is no need for restraint. She presses her back against the wooden door to try and calm the spasming of her body, but it’s of little use. Everything inside her twists and throbs and she is at the mercy of emotions too intense to fit politely inside her body.

Marianne came back. She came back and her love is so loud and purposeful and fierce that Héloïse doesn’t know how to deal with it. The tears she forced herself so violently to hold back finally spill free, hot and angry. Why couldn’t Marianne love her so fiercely when she begged her to? Before hurting her like no one ever did?

The wound is still there, pulsating painfully and pulling more tears from her. It should be easy after what Marianne did, to abandon love for hate. But the mere thought pulls acrid bile from her stomach and makes the back of her throat burn.

She knocks the back of her head against the door, then a second time, harder, looking for clarity of mind in pain. The impact only makes her dizzy, and she clamps her eyes shut, whimpering quietly on her next breath.

It’s the second time she is in this position, separated from Marianne by a door. All those years ago, she watched as it closed and Marianne slipped away, leaving her in the dark, shattered. She shut it this time and no matter how much her brain tells her she is right, she feels she just made herself into her own executioner even more so than of Marianne. Because as furious as she is, as angry and resentful and hurt, seeing Marianne felt like having life finally flow through her veins again.

She opens her eyes again and presses her fist against her chest. It hurts of a different kind of pain, one Héloïse knows far too well and that pulls a choked sob from her lips: loss. A loss so profound it takes the air out of her lungs. It’s only more unbearable because self-inflicted.

Her gaze suddenly snaps to the table on the side of the room, fixes itself onto the crumpled letter still lying there. She chose to leave her son. For herself and for him, to live as fully as she possibly could, and to keep loving him without letting anything taint that love.

She resolved to do it alone, thinking that was her only option. But Marianne came back and gave her a choice and she let resentment win.

A fresh tear rolls down the wet path on her face. Her hurt and anger are overpowering forces, they are embedded into her, they helped her survive. She knows she has a right to them. But she can taste Marianne’s lips and feel her hands on her cheeks and logic means nothing because there’s a bleeding hole in her chest that only Marianne can fill and she is about to lose her again.

A strangled sob escapes from her throat. She has never wanted a solitary freedom. She has never wanted to be alone. She wants to love, and to hurt, and to feel, everything a human being can feel. She wants to live. She is in love with Marianne and she wants her.

She wrenches the door open and runs out into the storm. Rain drenches her in a matter of seconds, sticking her chemise to her body like a second skin. She doesn’t care. Her heart hammers violently inside her chest when she sees her, her lean figure limping along almost at the end of the walkway.

“Marianne!”

She hears her. Through the howling of the storm, Marianne hears her and turns around.

Héloïse runs to her, faltering and slipping on the wet mud with her bare feet, but she doesn’t slow down. She runs, and Marianne does too, as fast as her injured foot allows her to, and when they collide, Héloïse’s lungs spasm violently pushing out a sob that gets lost in the storm.

They collapse into each other, held up only by the strength of their embrace. Héloïse tightens her arms around Marianne and holds on to her like her life depends on it. And it does, because Marianne is wrapped around her and her heart is thudding against her chest and Héloïse feels alive again.

“I’m sorry,” Marianne sobs against her neck, and Héloïse grips her tighter, unable to let go. She is blinded by the tears and the rain in her eyes but she doesn’t care. She is surrounded by Marianne, she is everywhere in her senses, her slender fingers around her ribs and over her back, her skin under her lips. Héloïse buries her face into her neck and breathes her in, crying and tasting her own tears mixed with the taste of Marianne’s skin. They hold each other as tightly as they can, like they want their bodies to merge together.

Héloïse pulls back only when Marianne’s body is shaken by a violent sob. She can recognize the tears on her face even with the rain falling on them, they squeeze out of her glossy eyes every time she blinks.

“I’m sorry,” Marianne whimpers again, and Héloïse cups her face and kisses her.

It’s messy and wet and broken by their stuttered breaths, but every time their lips slip or their teeth knock together, they press their bodies closer and fit their mouths together again. They kiss out in the open, incautious and fearless, and Héloïse never wants to stop. She wants to keep kissing Marianne until the storm melts and molds their bodies and makes them become one.

They move back inside in a chaotic push and pull, a frenzy of tugging hands and sucking mouths. The warmth of the house feels now scorching against their heated skin, but Marianne presses Héloïse against the wall, latching her lips onto her pulse point, and Héloïse would rather burn alive than pull away.

They end up on the floor, their clothes taken off hurriedly and then it’s just skin rubbing against skin. Marianne’s weight on top of her is so familiar and soothing it makes Héloïse well up again. She cradles Marianne’s face with both hands and pulls her down for a deep, sucking kiss that makes her moan.

Marianne’s leg slips between her thighs, Héloïse hook hers about Marianne’s waist. They share the same hunger for each other, the same need to take and be taken, to feel and be felt.

Héloïse’s soul is full and her body is alight and even with tears still wetting her face, she recognizes the beautiful ache of happiness.

“Forgive me,” Marianne begs between kisses. Her mouth is as insistent as it is reverent. “Forgive me,” she whispers again, against Héloïse’s cheeks, against her lips, her breasts. Héloïse does. Immediately. She always will.


“I destroyed our painting.”

Héloïse’s voice is lazy, heavy with the same delicious tiredness that has taken over her body. They made a nest of furs and blankets in front of the fireplace. Marianne is draped around her like one, kissing delicately the back of her shoulder, her neck, everywhere her mouth can reach.

“I’ll paint you another one,” she promises. Her thumb rubs gently under the swell of her left breast, over her heart. “I’ll paint you every day.”

Héloïse closes her eyes and breathes deeply, melting into the warmth of Marianne’s embrace. Every day sounds like forever. Nothing is certain and everything is temporary, but it’s more than she has ever had and she is going to have it with Marianne.

Her heart throbs calmly. She feels alive.

Chapter Text

The house is pulsing with energy. A flurry of heels clacking and gowns fluttering on the marble floor, the laughs and chatters of the guests mix with the lively tune of the violins that accompanies the party. Agnese observes the scene from the threshold of an empty room. It’s as beautiful as it is overwhelming.

She takes a deep breath, lets go of the fabric of her dress that she had crumpled in her hand and smooths it out. Her back stands straight. Still, her nerves don’t ease up, stopping her from stepping into the scene. She knows maybe half of the people in the room, something she isn’t sure should reassure her or trouble her even more.

Her eyes search the room, looking for the only person she cares about.

“Are you hiding from your own party?”

The sudden voice behind her makes Agnese jump. She turns around and her startled expression becomes an annoyed frown when she sees the grin on Nicola’s face.

“I told you not to sneak up behind me,” she says, marking her words with a push to his chest. Nicola’s smile widens.

“Maybe I’m hiding, too.”

“Right. Your house has fifty-three rooms. You just happened to pick the one I was in.”

“I know, aren’t I a lucky man?”

Agnese rolls her eyes, but she cannot stop the small curling of her lips. She looks at Nicola and the knot of nerves in her stomach loosens up for a moment.

It cramps back up when an eruption of loud laughs resonates from the main hall. It grips Agnese’s attention and makes her turn to look at the party again.

“Agnese.”

Agnese realizes how tense she is only when Nicola squeezes gently at her shoulder and a light shiver runs through her body. She inhales heavily and meets his stare again. It has softened, his eyes have taken on that calming warmth she is so enamored with.

“Are you okay?” he asks, his voice just as gentle.

“I’m nervous,” she confesses.

“Because of all the people?”

She nods.

“I’m sorry,” Nicola says, clenching his jaw like he always does whenever something frustrates him. “It’s Ettore’s fault. I told him we wanted a quiet celebration.”

Agnese frowns, itching to let out a snappy remark about Nicola’s godfather and his commanding attitude. She says nothing, though, and just shakes her head, drawing closer to Nicola.

“You don’t have to apologize. I know it’s expected. It’s just…” She pauses, trying to find the right word to describe what’s troubling her so much. “Intimidating,” she eventually settles on. “And this is just the engagement party. At this rate, Ettore is going to invite the whole city to our wedding.”

“He won’t.”

“You know what he’s like.”

“I’ll make sure of it,” Nicola insists. He cups her cheek, rubbing softly at her skin with his thumb. “It’s our wedding,” he says. “Our wedding.”

Agnese closes her eyes and leans into his hand, instantly soothed by the familiar warmth of his touch. She wishes it could be just this, just the two of them together. No noise, no rules, no expectations.

“Some of them are just here to talk,” she hears herself whisper. The slightest twitch runs through Nicola’s palm at her words. It’s barely there, but she still feels it, and immediately regrets saying anything at all. When she opens her eyes, she finds Nicola staring at her. His eyes are as focused as they are patient, waiting for her to elaborate even when they both know what she is talking about.

“A woman of a higher status wouldn’t hide from her own engagement party,” she says, more bitterly than she meant to. Other people’s opinions never bothered her much, but the brutality of society’s elite is insidious. She never thought that it would be at the highest of her happiness that some people would try to make her feel so small. But aristocracy is unforgiving, even against itself, and a difference in title meant she became no more worthy than a peasant once Nicola asked for her hand.

“I’m sorry to mention this again,” she sighs. “Especially today.”

Nicola shakes his head.

“Don’t apologize.” He fixes one of her dark curls behind her ear before his hand finds its place again on her jaw. “But I don’t want a woman of a higher status.”

“I know.”

“Let them talk. Let them say whatever they want to say, their words have no weight. They’ll be even more insignificant once we are married.”

“It’s easy for you to say that.”

Nicola grows quiet after her comment. His gaze drifts away from her for a moment, and he furrows his brow pensively, a crease appearing at the center of his forehead. She wants to get on her tips and kiss it, she wants to kiss away all the concerns that have nothing to do with them.

“You’re right,” he eventually says, finding her again with his gaze. “It’s easier for me. And I wish it was easy for you, too.”

Agnese feels her heart swell in her chest. In all the years they’ve known each other, not once has he dismissed her thoughts or feelings. She wishes she could make him understand, deeply, viscerally, just how rare that is.

Suddenly, Nicola smiles.

“My offer still stands,” he says. “Just say the words, and we’ll get out of here. We’ll go to the hermitage of Santa Caterina and it will be just us and God.”

He is grinning, a happy, almost childish smile that makes his eyes glimmer. Agnese is entranced by it.

“We don’t need a big ceremony, especially if it bothers you.” He takes her hands in his and brings them to his lips, gently kissing her knuckles. “I just want to be with you. And to make you happy.”

Agnese feels the prickling of tears behind her eyes. She is overwhelmed again, but this time, she welcomes the feeling. She bathes in it and lets it engulf her, because Nicola shows her every day, but she is never going to get used to the honesty and tenderness of his love.

She frees her hands from his delicate hold and cradles his face. His lips are soft when she kisses him, warm and delicate, and she cannot help but close her eyes and linger, addicted to the feeling. Nicola is just as unhurried. He pulls her in, his fingers curl around the back of her neck, and Agnese still quivers like the first time he kissed her.

Her heartbeat ticks up at the thought of their wedding night, and every night afterwards, when their kisses no longer have to be so chaste, their touches no longer hidden and fleeting.

When they break the kiss and he opens his eyes, the green in his irises has darkened and his longing stare makes her want to take off her dress and ruin her reputation right there.

“What was that for?” he asks after a moment, a faint blush rising to his cheeks.

“I don’t need a reason.”

“Right,” he laughs. “Well, you know I’m at your service, my lady. For anything.”

He makes a small bow and she nudges at him again, laughing with him. A fond smile lingers on her face as she looks at him. She pushes his hair out his forehead, messy even on a night like this, and rests her hand on his cheek.

“You’re so good, Nicola,” she whispers, only more certain of her words when she sees the surprised and immediately tender expression that appears on his face. She hesitates, but after a breath she says, “Your father would be proud of you.”

A flash of hurt darkens his eyes, grief and something running deeper, unresolved.

“I’m not so sure about that,” he says with a sad smile. “We stopped seeing eye to eye long before his death.”

“I am,” she insists. “Any father would be proud to have a son like you. And I’m proud of you, too.” She holds his face in her hands, making sure he looks at her and sees in her eyes how truthful she is being. “I’m proud of loving you.”

Nicola holds her gaze, soft and reassuring, and slowly, the sadness fades away from his eyes. A grateful smile tinges his lips, and he covers her hand with his, caressing her down to her wrist.

“Let’s do this together.”

Agnese smiles and nods. She steals one brief, final kiss and takes Nicola’s arm. As they step into the room, her nerves remain, but Nicola steadies her.


The party grows only more lively and vibrant as the hours go by. Nicola and Agnese are greeted by cheers and applauses, and then it’s a swirling of people coming and going to personally pay tribute to them. Nicola is courteous and amiable with all of them, his joviality is infectious and soon Agnese finds herself relaxing.

“Who were they?” she whispers to Nicola once a pompously dressed couple who spent over twenty minutes conversing with them walks away.

“I have no clue,” he shrugs. They glance at each other and it’s a challenge at who does the worst job at holding back giggles. Agnese inches her hand towards his, searching. Their fingers brush and intertwine for a moment. Then, another group joins them and they pull back into the confinements of appropriateness.

They get a break once the dancing starts, the guests too busy enjoying themselves to focus all their attention on the couple. It is Ettore who interrupts their momentary privacy again, drunkenly dragging Nicola away before either can do anything about it. Agnese chuckles at the distinctly desperate look Nicola throws at her before disappearing into the crowd.

Left to herself, she stands by the wall, drinking wine and observing the guests from the comfort of temporary invisibility. The orchestra starts playing a known tune and she closes her eyes, letting the music transport her.

“Do you enjoy the suite?”

Agnese’s eyes fly open again. She turns towards the sudden voice and finds a woman is now standing next to her. She is of advanced age, Agnese cannot imagine her younger than fifty, but her features, though marked by the lines of time, are more striking than those of any young lady in the room.

She is taller than most women, too, Agnese has to tilt her head to be able to meet her stare. Blonde hair made lighter by thin, silver streaks, piercing green eyes veering towards grey. Stunning, in that way that brands itself into one’s mind. Agnese has never seen her before but there is something familiar about her face.

It’s only when one sharp eyebrow quirks up, inquiring, that Agnese remembers she was asked a question.

“Greatly. Do you know it?”

The woman nods.

“I do. Handel’s music speaks to the soul.”

Her Italian is thick with a French accent.

“Nicola adores him, he is the one who introduced me to his music. I fell in love with it right away.”

Something flickers in the woman’s eyes, a glimmer of an unspoken emotion that Agnese can’t get a read on. She says nothing, though, and silence stretches between them until Agnese feels compelled to break it.

“Are you enjoying the party?” she asks. The woman blinks and her expression changes entirely, just as hard to decipher.

“I keep to myself.” She tilts her head, stares intently at Agnese. “A bit like you.”

Agnese stiffens. She feels exposed, having the truth spoken so bluntly to her, caught doing something she shouldn’t have. Her mouth opens, she itches to deny it, but an amused smirk grazes the woman’s lips and it’s enough for Agnese to realize how pointless it would be.

“Is it very noticeable?” she asks instead, turning fully towards her. There is something relieving about not having to pretend.

“The only thing they’re noticing is how beautiful you are. That’s what they care about.”

“Then why do I feel I’m being evaluated?”

“Because you are. Your beauty is out of question so they must judge you for something else.”

Agnese frowns, not used to such frankness. It’s nothing she hasn’t told herself before, but she has never heard her own thoughts spoken back to her so directly.

“It’s a cynical way to look at the someone come to celebrate you.”

“Cynical, yes,” the woman concedes. “But you aren’t opposing it.”

Few times in her life has Agnese found herself speechless, lacking words or thoughts to form a cutting remark. Any thought that fills her mind is too in line with what the other woman just said, whether she wants to admit it or not, it’s what kept her hiding in a room for almost one hour.

She should be worried, about how perceptive this foreign lady is, but she strangely isn’t. She is challenging in a way that doesn’t feel threatening.

“It’s frustrating,” she hears herself confess. She wasn’t wrong in her judgement because the woman’s eyes grow unmistakably understanding.

“I know, but it doesn’t have to be.” She nods towards the guests. “They will study you, the way you move, the way you speak, but they just won’t see you. Free your mind from them because you aren’t in theirs, not really. An image of you is, but it isn’t you anyway.”

It’s the strangest, most perceptive and honest type of reassurance Agnese has received, and the most effective too, she realizes as the woman’s words sink in. She possesses outstanding intelligence, Agnese is sure of it. She has been around enough obtuse people presuming themselves clever to be able to recognize real intelligence.

Tension leaves her and she finds herself smiling.

“Does this wisdom come with age?” she asks. The woman’s eyes glow and she nods.

“And with happiness.”

She smiles, unrestrained. Her sharp features soften all at once, a decade disappears from her face. It’s the smile of someone who touched real happiness, and Agnese wonders if, once she reaches that age, she too will be smiling like that. Nicola’s face fills her mind at the thought, her heart thumps a bit fast.

“My apologies, I should have asked already, but I don’t think I know your name.”

“Isabelle.”

She doesn’t add a last name or a title and Agnese doesn’t care to ask.

“Isabelle. It’s a pleasure to meet you. We haven’t met before, have we?”

Isabelle shakes her head.

“I’m a friend of Julie Cadieux.”

“You know Julie?!”

“We keep a correspondence with each other and she informed about the wedding.”

Agnese’s smile stretches wide across her face.

“Oh, I adore Julie! She made me feel so welcome when my family moved next to Palazzo Colonna.” She puts a hand over her mouth to hide her laugh. “I pestered her so much to teach me French so I could understand what Nicola was saying to me. I thought he was making fun of me at first.”

Her eyes roll at the thought, but then she inhales deeply and her expression softens, a warmth from within awoken by a sudden memory.

“Je t’aime.”

“Why don’t you say it in your language?”

“Because it will be louder. Real.”

“Don’t you want it to be real?”

“More than anything. I hope, but I don’t dare speak it.”

Agnese kisses him, tastes his trembling sigh.

“I love you, too.”

She smiles, tracing her bottom lip with the tip of her fingers. She can still feel that kiss.

It takes her a moment to remember she isn’t alone. She blinks away and goes back to looking at Isabelle.

“I never made much progress anyway.”

“Don’t be harsh on yourself. Le français est une langue très compliquée.”

Agnese chuckles with a nod, remembering very similar words spoken by Nicola’s governess.

“That’s true. But Julie was the most patient teacher. She has always been so kind to me. And to Nicola, of course. He loves her dearly.”

Something shifts in Isabelle’s expression. Her eyes are affectionate, but there is something deeper, too. Agnese recognizes it even while unable to put her fingers on it.

“She is a wonderful woman to have in one’s life,” she says, with a tone that Agnese would deem melancholic, if it made any sense.

“Indeed. We were both saddened she couldn’t come. She promised she will be at the wedding, though.”

“She wouldn’t miss it. In her last letter, she expressed her desire to be here for you. But she wants to celebrate you without her heart burdened by concern for her family.”

Agnese nods, suddenly serious with the severity of the matter. She remembers how worried Nicola had been when Julie had told them she would have to go back to her home country.

“How are things in France?” she asks. “Forgive my ignorance, but not many news arrive from across the border.”

“They are…” Isabelle pauses, pondering for a moment. “Uncertain,” she eventually says. “The terror of the past two years seems to have faded, but power corrupts even the most righteous intents, and a lot of innocent people end up paying the price.”

Agnese looks down, awkwardly running her fingers on the rim of her glass. Isabelle’s words leave little doubt in her mind that she is in favor of the Revolution, or at least was. The majority of the people in her caste spoke of it as an atrocity, she never dared do more than entertain alternative thoughts on it.

“Were you in any danger?” she asks timidly.

“I have no title to tempt the radicals. But it’s ‘Liberté, egalité, fraternité.’” She moves her finger between Agnese and herself. “We are always in danger.”

Agnese stares at her, stunned into silence. She is sure she has never met a woman quite like her, and she cannot help but imagine what it would have been like to have her in her life, speaking so bluntly about things others don’t even dare to whisper.

“This is terribly grim for an engagement party,” Isabelle suddenly says, shaking her head and smiling gently. “I wasn’t in any immediate danger, no, but I still made some significant adjustments to my life.”

“How so?”

“I relocated in Switzerland, at least for the time being. I moved my school there, too. It’s been a few years now.”

“You have a school?” Agnese asks, her eyes going wide with excitement.

“For young girls. I run it with a partner. She teaches art, I teach literature.”

“Do you like it?”

With the way Isabelle’s face lights up, Agnese knows the answer before she even speaks.

“It’s immensely fulfilling.”

“Oh, I wish I could visit it. Would you want me to? Maybe Nicola and I could come sometime after the wedding.”

Isabelle’s eyes glimmer. She pulls her bottom lip between her teeth between releasing it with a shaky breath.

“Maybe,” she just says, smiling softly. Agnese smiles back, brimming with happiness at the possibility. She has no doubt Nicola would love it as well.

She turns around at the thought, looking for him in the crowd and frowning when she fails to find him.

“So you came all the way from Switzerland for us?” she asks, resuming her conversation with Isabelle. “I wish I had the pleasure of meeting you sooner, but I’m assuming you know Nicola?”

A long, unexpected pause fills the space between them before Isabelle answers. When she does, there’s a trembling hitch to her voice that wasn’t there before.

“I knew him when he was a boy. I wanted to see his happiness on this day, and I wanted to meet the person he’s going to share his life with.” She inhales a deep breath and takes a step closer,  smiling. Her eyes are fixed on Agnese, they observe her face carefully, and the young woman is surprised to realize that they have veiled with a shiny layer of tears. “He could not have chosen a woman of more value.”

The praise takes Agnese aback. There is something about it that starkly separates it from any other compliment she received that night. It feels too honest, too personal to be driven only by courtesy. She knows next to nothing about her, but she can feel the authenticity of her care. She has always been able to distinguish true affection from falsity, especially in regards to Nicola and the people in his life.

The uninterrupted string of meetings with all the guests exhausted her, but now she cannot wait to snatch Nicola away from his godfather and have him talk to Isabelle.

“You must meet Nicola!” she says enthusiastically. Isabelle’s face twists and she opens her mouth to say something but Agnese ignores her, turning again to look for Nicola. She sees him finally, at the other end of the room. Their eyes meet and she waves her hand, gesturing at him to join her.

“He will be so happy to know you’re here. He never forgets a face. I’m sure once he sees you, he’s going to—”

The words die in her mouth, the smile frozen on her face, because as she turns, Isabelle is no longer there.

Agnese frowns, utterly confused by the sudden disappearance of the woman. She searches the room with her eyes and eventually, she spots golden hair and a tall silhouette, one moment before Isabelle vanishes behind the exit.

“I’m so sorry.” Nicola’s voice behind her attracts Agnese’s attention. “Ettore wouldn’t let me go.”

He steps next to her and squeezes gently at her arm. Agnese looks at him, takes in the smile on his face, but her eyes quickly move back to the spot where she last saw Isabelle.

“I’m here now. Who were you talking to?”

It takes Agnese a moment to reply, still troubled by the sudden disappearance of that woman who’d made such an impression on her. She blinks rapidly, resigning to the fact she is not going to come back, and finally turns to Nicola.

“A friend of Julie.”

“Of Julie?”

“Yes. She said she knew you.”

Nicola frowns.

“I’m not sure I know any friends of Julie that you wouldn’t recognize.”

“She was French, like her,” Agnese says, looking at the door again. “Very beautiful. Very smart. She told me she knew you when you were a boy.”

She turns towards Nicola again and a small gasp leaves her mouth. Nicola’s face has dropped. Color has drained from his cheek, his entire body stiff as a block of wood.

“Nicola,” she calls anxiously.

“Did she tell you her name?” he whispers, his voice just as strained.

“Isabelle.”

“What did she look like?”

“Nicola, what—”

“Please,” he chokes out. “What did she look like?”

Agnese cannot remember ever seeing him so distressed. She doesn’t know why, but she cannot bear to see him like that.

“She was blonde. Tall. She had green eyes. They were like…”

Tears fill Nicola’s eyes, a crystal veil that makes them turn fully grey, and Agnese recognizes them. She recognizes them and she understands, she understands it all.


Héloïse strides down the street. She walks as fast as she can, rushing to put as much distance between herself and Palazzo Colonna, between herself and Nicola. The agony of being so close to him and not reaching out was so searing she could not prolong it for another moment, another second. And the terror that seized her when the possibility of meeting him became reality was twice as intense.

Tears sting in her eyes at the thought. Looking at him in the eye, touching his skin. She couldn’t do it and keep herself together, she couldn’t without falling apart completely under the weight of grief and guilt and pure, absolute happiness.

She quickens her pace, walking as fast as the skirt of her dress allows. She leaves the main road and makes a short cut through a dark, narrow street. She is alone, the heel of her shoes clack against the cobblestone. The possible danger of such a path doesn’t even cross her mind, she just aches to be home as quickly as possible, before the pain in her chest expands and consumes her completely from within.

“Arretéz!”

Héloïse freezes. The shock petrifies her completely, even her breath is stuck between her lungs and her throat. If she attempted to breathe now, she would only manage a choked hiccup.

The sound of steps she hadn’t even noticed rushes closer to her, until silence surrounds her again. It’s thicker than before, marked by a heavy, quivering breathing that doesn’t belong to her. The most terrified, cowardly part of her tells her to keep walking, to ignore the voice and disappear into the darkness of the night. She cannot do that a second time. Not to herself, not to him.

Turning around is the most difficult thing she has done in twenty years, but she does.

And he is there, standing right in front of her. Real, tangible.

“It’s you,” he whispers in French. “Isn’t it?”

Héloïse’s vision blurs with tears but she blinks hastily and forces them back, desperate to take in as much of her son as she can, in the short time she has.

She dreamed him for years, and her heart clenches painfully in her chest with how much her imagination paled compared to reality. He looks like Giovanni, and nothing like him. His mouth is hers. His eyes are hers. She saw him smiling at the party, and she knows that the tenderness that softens his features comes from her, too.

“You’ve become so handsome, my love.”

She takes a step towards him but Nicola flinches away, staring at her with his eyes red and glassy, his features locked in a harsh frown that calls forth his father’s face. It could very well be her frown, too. It took her years to let go of the pain of her married life, for her face to stop carrying all that tension and hardness that had been her shield.

“After all these years,” Nicola says, “you choose today. Of all days.” The crease between his eyebrows grows deeper and he clenches his teeth. “Have you no shame? No heart?”

Nothing Héloïse could say would make it better, she has lived with that awareness for two decades. Still, she aches to reply, to find a way to tell her son what he is never going to believe, that her heart is there and never stopped pulsing for him.

He doesn’t give her the time.

“Julie told you, didn’t she?” he asks, shaking his head before Héloïse can even reply. “Of course it was her. I always knew she knew something, but she never betrayed you. She was the only one who spoke kindly of you after you ran away.”

Héloïse closes her eyes for a moment, wincing at the spite dripping from his voice as he reminds her what she did.

“Please, don’t take it out on Julie. She has no blame in this.”

“You don’t have to tell me that,” he hisses. “I don’t blame her. I listened to her like a fool, trying to cling to an image of you that loved m—”

He stops abruptly, biting hard on his bottom lip and frowning to keep the tears at bay. Héloïse recognizes that forceful attempt at holding back pain. She has done the same, even the mannerisms are similar.

She wishes he didn’t have to, that she could take his suffering onto herself and make him forget he was ever hurt. It would be the simplest form of atonement. There is nothing simple about their circumstances, and any apology she could try to formulate would only sound empty, or worse, fake.

“I left a letter for you,” Héloïse says, swallowing uncomfortably around the lump in her throat. “Did you—”

“I didn’t. Father tore it to pieces and burned it.” His face twists, an attempt at cruelty that only breaks Héloïse’s heart for how out of place it looks on his face. “I’m glad he did.”

The words cut through her like a blade, not because they are true but because she can tell Nicola wants them to be true. What hurts her even more is that she has nothing she can offer him to make it better, nothing to comfort him or to soothe the pain she caused. She can only be there, no matter how unbearable.

“Do you know he died?” Nicola asks suddenly.

“Yes.”

“Did you mourn for him?”

Héloïse looks at him, holding his hard, challenging gaze. What she felt after receiving news of Giovanni’s death is too complex and contorted and nothing Nicola would benefit from hearing. She won’t lie, though.

“No,” she says, ignoring the way Nicola squeezes his eyes and shakes his head. “I mourned for you.”

Nicola’s eyes are bloodshot when he opens them again. They are maybe a meter away but Héloïse feels that distance like a chasm. She wants to close that gap, wrap her arms around him and hold him, feel him, in whatever way he’s going to let her, but she cannot even take a step forward. It’s torture.

“You loved him,” she continues. “And I know he loved you very much.”

“You know nothing,” he cuts her off. “And he loved you, too. How could you leave him, how could you leave your family?”

“Do you want the truth?”

He scoffs.

“Yes.”

The truth is a maze of clashing emotions. The truth has hooks and claws she doesn’t want to sink into her son’s flesh, because as good of a father as Giovanni was, he made her suffer twice as much as a husband, and those two realities co-exist, connected grotesquely forever.

“Leaving him was easy,” Héloïse says. “Leaving you was excruciating.”

“But you still left.” The accusation is wet with unshed tears. “I told myself that I didn’t want to know, that it didn’t matter why, because nothing would justify what you did. But you’re here now.” His voice trembles.  “And I want to know. Why?”

Anger gives way to pain. It’s written everywhere on her son’s face, in the way his chest puffs out with every sharp breath. She’d rather be subjected to his rage, it would be less agonizing.

“Nicola.”

“You owe me this at least,” he insists, angry. Imploring. “Why couldn’t you stay?”

“Because staying would have killed me.”

A tear falls down Nicola’s face, a single one that pulls fresh ones from Héloïse’s eyes. The last time she saw him cry he was a tiny bundle that fit in her arms, she had kissed his cheeks and held him to her breast until his small, soft body had stopped shaking. He is taller than her now, hard and solid, and she cannot even cup his face and wipe away his tears. She lost that right.

The bobbing of his throat is visible even from that distance. He rubs at his eyes and exhales deeply, but more tears spill out.

“I don’t remember you.”

Héloïse’s chest tightens so painfully she is sure her ribs will crack inwards and pierce her lungs. It’s worse than anger, it’s worse than hatred, and the scar on her heart rips open and starts bleeding anew.

“I don’t,” he repeats, sighing wetly. His eyes are fixed on her. “But I remember your absence. I remember what it felt like to look for you in your empty room. To sleep in your bed hoping you’d be there when I wake up.” His body shakes with a hiccup and for a moment, Héloïse only sees her little boy. “How can a mother do that to her son?”

“If I told you I did it because I love—”

“Don’t you dare.”

His is a low growl, threatening for the first time since they reunited, and Héloïse sees the ghost of Giovanni on him, she sees his clueless rage during one of their last moments together. She could talk and talk and give Nicola all the explanations he’s been looking for for twenty years, until her throat is raw and her eyes have run out of tears. And still, she knows she wouldn’t be able to make Nicola understand. Because some things cannot be explained, only lived.

“I did it out of selfishness,” she says. “And out of selflessness. Because I couldn’t stay but you would have suffered more if I’d taken you with me. I couldn’t rip you away from your life.”

“You talk about it so shamelessly. Like it doesn’t touch you at all, like it was so easy for you to—”

“It does touch me,” she cuts him off. “And it hurt me. It hurt more than you can imagine, but relating that pain is irrelevant.”

“Why?”

“Because you want me to say I made a mistake in leaving, and I cannot say that. I won’t.”

Héloïse sees the shock rise up to Nicola’s face, the confusion in his eyes and how he tries to cling to the comfort of anger. She knows that feeling. Her past is marked by anger, it was her armor, her tool for survival.

“You don’t regret it,” he forcefully chokes out after a deafening silence. She knows he is looking to be soothed, he is begging to hear what he wants to hear. A lie would be comforting, but she won’t wrong him by lying. She shakes her head, truthful even when the truth makes her son’s eyes glisten.

“Not even after seeing me.”

“Especially after seeing you.”

She dares to take a step forward, an inch barely, but it feels like a leap because Nicola doesn’t recoil from her.

“You are happy, I saw it.”

“Do not talk about my happiness when you weren’t there to share it. You don’t know what I’ve been through.”

Neither do you.

Héloïse would never utter the thought out loud. She remains quiet, a target for his anger, if that’s all she can be for him.

“Do you know the humiliation father was subjected to after you left?” Nicola speaks again, every word pushed through gritted teeth. “Did he deserve it?” He scoffs when Héloïse fails to answer. “Do you want to humiliate me, too? Is that why you’re here?”

“I don’t want to humiliate anyone,” Héloïse whispers.

“Then you should have stayed.”

He sounds like an angry little boy in that moment. Héloïse remembers flashes of that stubbornness, even when he was a child. Sorrow spreads in her heart but she cannot fault him for it.

“You don’t know what staying would have done to me.”

“Explain it to me.”

Héloïse closes her eyes and shakes her head.

“You couldn’t understand.”

“Why?”

She grimaces, growing more uncomfortable by the second. Thoughts and feelings she needed years to overcome slither through her, twisting at her insides.

“Nicola.”

“Why?!”

“Because it’s something you will never experience, and I thank God every day that you won’t.”

Her voice echoes in the silent alley, louder and firmer than it’s been since Nicola stopped her. She breathes heavily, her heart pounds in her chest. She can tell from Nicola’s stunned expression that he was not expecting such a burst of emotion from her, not of this kind.

Héloïse blinks rapidly to kill the forming of fresh tears in its inception, looking up and away to collect herself. She is tired, fragile. Fragility has stopped scaring her a long time ago, but this, standing in front of her son and letting him see her with all the wounds and scars she cannot explain to him, is terrifying.

“You’re right. I don’t understand,” Nicola says, and the pounding in Héloïse’s head grows, demanding attention. “You speak as though you were trapped but you were far from that. You had a family, father loved you—”

“Do you love Agnese?” Héloïse abruptly cuts him off.

“What?” Nicola asks. “What does this have to do with—”

“Do you?”

He frowns, evidently confused by the unexpected question. He opens his mouth like he is about to protest again, but then stops, keeping his gaze locked with Héloïse. She knows the answer even before he utters it.

“More than anything or anyone in this world.”

Héloïse nods, and a faint smile colors her face, touched by the unwavering honesty of his sentiment.

“You will marry her. You will spend your life with her.” She pauses, struggling to swallow against the sudden dryness in her throat. That brief smile wavers, overcome by a past sorrow. “But imagine that you couldn’t. That she was forced to marry someone else. Someone she doesn’t love, someone she never wanted.”

It was never her intention. She never meant to bring up her past to him, to even let him glimpse at a pain he can’t understand, one he should have never been exposed to. He was a victim of it, too, Héloïse thinks with tears burning behind her eyes, and seeing his face twist into an even deeper frown as he tries to make sense of what she is saying makes the ache in her heart only more searing.

“No, I wouldn’t let that happen,” he says, forcefully shaking his head, with a naivety that makes Héloïse want to kiss his face and protect him from the truth. “I would fight for her, I would—”

“You could do it, my love,” she interrupts him, smiling again, but her lips quiver. “You could. She could not. She would have no way out, she would be…” She falters, her chest tight and full with the ghost of something she never thought she would reveal. Her breath shudders when she says, “Trapped.”

She lays the truth as bare as she can allow herself to, and watches Nicola take it in. She watches the effect it has on him, how his frown distends and his body stiffens, clarity and disorientation mixing together in his eyes, and she is sure that even if he can’t understand what she felt, he at least understood what she meant.

“I don’t expect your forgiveness,” she whispers, as a single tear finally escapes from her left eye and trickles down her cheek.

Nicola is crying, too. His eyes look just like hers in the moonlight. She knows they can carry so much warmth, so much tenderness, even if it’ll never be directed at her.

“You don’t have it,” he says hoarsely, a jagged blade of an answer cutting under Héloïse’s skin even if it was exactly the answer she was expecting. But his voice changes after a moment. It becomes tiny, pleading almost, as he asks, “Will you disappear again?”

A spark of hope lights up inside Héloïse like flame. It’s feeble, unstable, but it’s something Héloïse never even dared to have. Clinging to it felt too selfish, too inconceivable. But now that spark flickers and Héloïse holds her breath until her chest hurts to keep from sobbing.

She reaches inside the pocket of her skirt with a trembling hand and pulls out a small envelope. Her heart on paper is inside it.

“I wasn’t brave enough at the party,” Héloïse murmurs. She toys nervously with the corners of the letter before extending her arm towards Nicola. “You don’t have to read it, especially tonight.”

Nicola looks at the letter in her hand, then back at Héloïse. The rigidity in his body screams wariness, hurt. His resistance don’t surprise her, she did this to him. She wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t take the letter, or if he did and tore it right before her eyes.

Instead, he makes no move. He keeps his eyes on her, studying her. She recognizes that intelligent look, so painfully familiar. It’s the same as when he was a little boy, his face just changed around it.

“Why did you go to Agnese?” he asks, ignoring the letter. “You didn’t come to me but talked to her instead. Why?”

Héloïse withdraws her arm, pinching the paper tighter between her fingers. The answer to his question is as clear in her heart as it is in her mind, but it is one she will never give him. What she was searching for in Agnese is something he will never understand.

“Cherish her,” she says instead of answering.

“You don’t have to tell me.”

“Yes, I do,” Héloïse insists. Héloïse sees the girl’s face in her head, the love in her warm, brown eyes as she spoke Nicola’s name. “You have no idea how rare what you two have is.”

Her words are puzzling for Nicola. They couldn’t be otherwise, for someone who only knew love, but he doesn’t protest.

“Cherish her,” she repeats softly, and after a moment, Nicola gives a small nod that makes Héloïse exhale with a relief she cannot put into words. If this is the last she ever sees of him, her heart is at peace. She doesn’t expect anything else from him.

“Father used to say I was too much like you,” Nicola says, wincing with the pain of a memory Héloïse wasn’t there to witness. “He’d compare me to you, when I couldn’t even remember you. He said I ought to be different. From you.”

Héloïse says nothing. There is nothing she could say, nothing he would want to hear. She says nothing but her eyes prickle because she was made into a thing to hurt him and she knew, when she left, that it could happen. That it would happen.

Nicola’s eyes are glistening anew when he looks at her again.

“Do you know how much easier this would be,” he says, “if I could hate you?”

He takes a hesitant step forward and extends his hand.

Everything inside Héloïse feels alive, so alive it hurts. She wants to sob, and she wants to laugh.

She stretches out her arm again, and Nicola takes the letter. Her finger brushes against his skin.


Marianne sits on the windowsill, perilously stretched out as much as she can without losing her balance and falling over. She is only vaguely aware of the danger of her position, too focused on catching as many details as the dim light allows. Two old women sitting by each other, chatting and laughing about something Marianne cannot hear. They were sitting in front of each other, by the door of their respective house, until one dragged her chair across the street to sit next to other one.

Marianne dips her paintbrush into the pink on her palette and adds forms and details to the silhouettes on the painting board. She squints when one of them pulls out a small book and shows it to the other woman. She leans out even more, trying to read the title on the cover, but she fails and pulls back, squeezing her eyes closed and rubbing at them. Years of looking at the finest, most minute details and reproducing them on canvas in spite of the light conditions have taken a toll on her sight.

Everything is a bit blurrier when she opens her eyes again, and she has to blink several time before her vision goes back to normal. She glances at her half-finished painting, and then back at the women outside. She wants to capture that liveliness, that innocent, almost banal glee that nobody bothers to put on canvas. The night is dark, though, and the candles in the room only provide a soft, warm light, so she makes the sensible choice for her eyes and stops, content with just observing the scene.

The woman with the book reminds her of one of her students’ mother, and Marianne feels a sudden pang of nostalgia. They have been away for only a few days but she already misses home. It always happens, whenever they travel. They leave and come back and she falls in love with their domesticity all over again.

The sound of the door creaking open catches Marianne’s attention and makes her turn around. She smiles when Héloïse walks in. Her heart beats a bit faster, it’s something that hasn’t changed in twenty years.

“How did it go?” she asks fervently. She steps down the windowsill and walks up to Héloïse, eager to receive news. “Did you see him? Did you give him the letter?”

The outcome is equally important to her, simply because of how important she knows it is for Héloïse. She caressed her back and kissed the frown on her face as Héloïse wrote and re-wrote the letter for Nicola, throwing her failed attempts across the room and deeming it all pointless.

“I can’t, Marianne.”

“You can. You’re the only one who can. I am with you whatever you choose.”

She hardly saw her as scared and nervous as the day they arrived back in Milan.

Héloïse doesn’t answer her question. She isn’t even looking at her, Marianne realizes, her eyes fixed on a distant spot on the floor. Marianne tries to give her time, waiting patiently. She had never been a patient person, she was patient only with art, never with people. She learned it with Héloïse.

She waits, but with each second that Héloïse remains quiet, she grows more and more restless, wishing she could pry Héloïse’s mind open and find the answer.

Héloïse isn’t looking at her but her gaze isn’t blank either. A whirlwind of thoughts and emotions glimmers in her green eyes, and whatever it is that happened, Marianne is sure that something happened.

“Héloïse?” she asks gently again, and finally, Héloïse blinks slowly and looks at her.

She has cried. Marianne can tell from how red and puffy her eyes are, from how the lines underneath them are deeper, darker. She instinctively reaches for Héloïse’s hand, feels the faintest tremor running under her skin, and her chest tightens with concern.

Still, she waits. She won’t force in a minute something that was years in the making. And eventually, the answer she was looking for arrives. A nod, almost imperceptibly small.

“Yes,” she whispers. Her voice is scratchy, like it gets whenever she has held tears back for too long. “I did. I…” Her bottom lip quivers hard, she clenches her teeth to stop the involuntary movement. Her voice is even smaller when she manages to continue. “I talked to him.”

“The letter?” Marianne asks, anxious. Héloïse nods again.

A tiny, wet noise gurgles at the back of her throat and Marianne knows what is going to happen before it does. Héloïse’s eyes well up with tears, she frowns so hard her features scrunch up in the attempt to stop it, but it doesn’t work. It almost never works.

When she cracks, it’s loud. And messy, and heartbreaking. The first sob pushes out of her mouth forcefully, as if her body is trying to expel a disease. Tears follow, squeezing free as she clenches her eyes and wetting her face, and then, she is crying so hard that her body heaves.

Marianne’s own eyes sting at the sight. She immediately wraps her arms around Héloïse and holds her. She doesn’t know, and she won’t ask, not yet. She makes her body into a harbor, a safe place for Héloïse to fall apart, whatever the reason may be, and Héloïse’s body responds, crumpling and leaning into her.

Her hands grasp Marianne’s back, fingers dig into her skin through the fabric of her night gown. Marianne can feel all the emotions seeping from Héloïse, how each sob and violent shake of her body seems to carry a different ache, a different relief. She suddenly lets out a laugh, hoarse, choked, and buries her face into the arch of Marianne’s neck.

Marianne squeezes her harder and threads her fingers through her blonde hair, an invitation to take her time, to take refuge against her for as long as she needs.

She isn’t surprised when Héloïse pulls back and kisses her.

Her mouth is wet and insistent, her hands urgent as they tug at the fabric of Marianne’s gown. Her need is clear and Marianne gives herself over completely.

They undress each other and press together again. Their bodies have changed throughout the years, and with every change, they have re-learned one another, the awe of the first times replaced by an intimate devotion to every part of each other.

Sex has dwindled with time but their desire has stayed the same and Héloïse’s hand between her legs still sets her alight after twenty years. Their touch is a language no one but them can speak.

Afterwards, they lie in bed under the covers, spent, sated. It’s always been Marianne’s favorite part, this absolute serenity after the height of passion. Their limbs entwined as one, Héloïse with her head on her chest, small and tender like nobody would imagine her to be from the solemnity with which she walks the world. Marianne has seen her solemn, and confident and silly and delicate. She loves every version of her with equal intensity.

They breathe in unison, it always happens when they lie together for a long period. The rise and fall of Héloïse’s chest against Marianne’s is a steady pressure, warm and comforting. She holds the hand Héloïse has splayed across her stomach, rubbing her thumb over the fine, white line that runs across her palm. Héloïse never told her the story behind that scar.

“We talked.”

Héloïse’s breath tickles Marianne’s skin. Marianne instinctively holds her closer to her. She knew it was only a matter of time, that Héloïse needed to feel everything first, before being able to talk about it.

“Truly talked,” Héloïse continues. “Like I didn’t think I would ever be able to. He came after me.”

“You didn’t go to him?”

Héloïse shakes her head.

“I couldn’t. I saw him at the party and I just…” She falters and lets out a shaky exhale, heavy with grief, and love, and Héloïse doesn’t elaborate but Marianne understands. “But he followed me. He didn’t let me be a coward.”

“Reminds me of someone.”

Even in the fragility of the moment, a quiet laugh pulls from Héloïse’s mouth. They are safe together, and levity blooms even through pain.

Héloïse pulls back and looks at Marianne, her lips still tinged with a small smile.

“You should have seen him, Marianne,” she says. “The energy he radiates. He draws everyone’s eyes to him.”

Marianne has never met him but she has no difficulty imagining him. He is his mother’s son, and the way Héloïse is describing him is not far from how Marianne feels about her.

“He is confident, and magnetic, and charming.” Her eyes gleam. The smile is still there but when she blinks, a tear remains trapped in her eyelashes. “He is happy.”

Joy and sorrow mix together on Héloïse’s face. Marianne understands that clashing blend of emotions, the relief of knowing her son happy against the sadness of not having been there to witness it. She says nothing, her comfort cannot come through words, not with this. She gently cups Héloïse’s face and captures with her thumb the tear at the corner of her eye. Héloïse leans into her touch, sighing quietly before resting her head on her chest again.

A comfortable silence engulfs them, there is just the sound of their breathing and the light whoosh of Marianne’s fingers through Héloïse’s hair.

“And she is happy, too.”

Marianne looks down at her.

“Agnese, Nicola’s fiancée,” Héloïse explains. “She loves him, I could tell. She wants him.” She swallows and her voice becomes a hushed whisper. “She wants it.”

Marianne presses closer, stroking her hair and skin with all the tenderness she is capable of. She knows immediately what Héloïse is talking about. Years of imposition and muted pain didn’t disappear in a day, even after running away and being finally free, and Marianne spent countless nights holding Héloïse after she woke up crying from dreams she would not relate.

Even after her wounds healed and she learned to open up more and more, Marianne knows that there are things she didn’t disclose, that she probably never fully will. Marianne will never push. She doesn’t have to ask to know how important it was for Héloïse to see that her son’s future wife wants the life she is going to have.

“I wouldn’t have expected anything different from your son,” Marianne says.

“I would have.”

The reply takes Marianne by surprise. She looks down at Héloïse but her gaze is somewhere else, lost in thoughts Marianne isn’t privy to.

“Not because of him,” Héloïse explains better after a moment of silence. “But because this is how it works.”

Marianne takes in Héloïse’s words, meditating on them as her fingers on Héloïse’s skin become instinctively more delicate. She wanted to reassure her but Héloïse is always uncompromising, always truthful, even when it comes to her flesh and blood. She needs no empty reassurance, and for once, the truth turned out to be more comforting than anything she had imagined.

“They are lucky,” Marianne says, kissing the top of Héloïse’s head, and Héloïse finally looks up. Her gaze is warm.

“They are blessed,” she whispers, and Marianne kisses her, tasting the word on her lips.

“Blessed.”


They doze off, and when Marianne wakes up the sun has just started tinging the sky with pink and blue and the bed is empty next to her.

She rubs her tired eyes and pulls herself up, squinting against the sleepiness and looking around the room. It takes her only a moment to find Héloïse. She is sitting by the window, half turned away from her and staring outside. A warmth settles deep within Marianne’s chest, as it always has since waking up to Héloïse became her normality.

“Good morning,” Marianne says, her voice still scratchy with sleep. Héloïse turns her head and smiles at her softly, and Marianne is hit with a memory. Two decades in the past, Héloïse sitting by the same window, looking at her after having reunited against any hope.

She has changed, and she is the same, and Marianne loves her even more than she did that day.

“What are you doing there?” she asks.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“You could have woke me.”

Héloïse smiles and shakes her head.

“For once that it’s you oversleeping.”

Marianne laughs.

“The sun isn’t even fully up. I would hardly call it oversleeping.”

Their quiet laughters ripple through the room, fully waking Marianne in the most serene way possible.

“Do you want to come back to bed?” she asks. “So we can oversleep together?”

Héloïse smiles but doesn’t move from the spot. A sudden look in her eyes catches Marianne’s attention. It was there since she woke up, Marianne realizes, she was just too drowsy to notice.

“Are you okay?” she asks, sitting up on the bed. She believes it when Héloïse nods, but she can tell that something has taken root within her. A thought or a feeling that was enough to pull her away from the warmth of their bed.

“I woke up thinking.”

“About?”

Héloïse doesn’t answer right away. She looks outside again, breathing deeply.

“Do you think there is a universe,” she asks, “in which we don’t meet again?”

Marianne looks at her, speechless for a moment. After twenty years together, Héloïse still has the ability to leave her at loss for words.

Why? she could ask. Why this question, why now, after a life spent together. But a whole life can be altered by the smallest change. A missed glance, a failed apology. Héloïse’s reunion with Nicola is one of many, the most favorable one, as if the stars decided to give her some respite as compensation for everything she had to endure.

Marianne could ask why, but she has no difficulty imagining it.

Instead, she asks, “How do you think it goes?”

Héloïse keeps staring outside. She doesn’t move, but her gaze is vibrant, filling with the phantoms of the life she didn’t have.

“I don’t see you at the theatre,” she says quietly. “I go back and wait for Giovanni and Nicola to come home. I watch my son grow, I see him become taller than me. I teach him everything I know and learn more, so I have more to teach.”

She speaks the words into open air, lets the faint breeze of the morning carry them away. Marianne listens intently to every single one of them.

“Giovanni dies and I think about you.” The confession wraps itself around Marianne’s heart and squeezes, achingly. “But it’s been too long,” Héloïse continues, turning her head just barely towards Marianne. “I don’t look for you.”

Marianne no longer bears the distance. She gets up and crosses the room to come stand behind Héloïse. She slips her arms around Héloïse’s stomach and presses herself close, her lips against the naked patch of skin of Héloïse’s shoulder.

Héloïse’s body relaxes into the gentle embrace, she rests her hand atop Marianne’s.

“I watch Nicola fall in love. I cry at his wedding and when he lets me hold his newborn baby. I see his joy. His life. It makes me happier than I could have imagined.”

There is a long silence, Héloïse’s breath grows slightly more unsteady.

“I grow old and he’s at my bedside,” she whispers. “And when I die, your name is the last thing on my lips.”

Marianne lets everything she just heard sink in. Héloïse’s words wash over her, like warm waves. They aren’t turbulent, it’s the calmness of that confession that makes it settle so deep inside Marianne.

She wonders for how long Héloïse thought about this. How often she allowed herself to imagine the life she didn’t have, and how much her heart ached.

“It sounds like a rich life,” she says.

“It does.” Héloïse presses herself into Marianne. “But it doesn’t have you.”

Marianne’s heart swells and throbs and she wraps her arms tighter around Héloïse, squeezing her eyes against the prickling of tears. She nuzzles at the back of Héloïse’s neck and breathes her in. She is the most precious thing Marianne ever got to touch.

“I would have been there,” she says into Héloïse’s hair, tickling her ear with her breath. “As a memory. You would have been in mine.”

“That’s what will be left of us eventually. The memory of what we had.”

Héloïse turns in Marianne’s arms to look at her directly. Her expression is peaceful, the lines on her face are lines of a life lived with joy, at its fullest. Marianne traces them delicately with her fingers.

“We had so much,” she whispers with a smile.

“We did,” Héloïse smiles back. “But I’m not done.”

“With what?”

Her eyes beam, alive.

“Building memories with you.”