When Isabella first met her, she thought it was cruel and unfair, some ugly kind of irony. Because Violet was beautiful. And it wasn’t the pretty of all the girls flocked in the halls in groups of twos and threes, all noble, royal, or of some other importance. Violet was porcelain skin, sapphire eyes, fine hair like golden silk. She was soft features and perfect poise, delicate mechanics and polished silver hidden under gloves. In the end, she was everything Isabella was supposed to be, everything she wasn’t, and one more glaring reminder that she was nothing, no one, amongst the girls in the school. It was so heartbreakingly unfair that someone could have everything Isabella needed and not even appreciate it herself.
And now, daydreams trailing over three months gone by far too fast, all Isabella could think was that her first judgement had been so right, and so very wrong. Violet was still lovely, prettier with everyday she learned to loosen her smile, her hair, the tight set of her shoulders. But Isabella knew now that where she had been mistaken before was the bitterness, the greed and jealousy over something Violet had worked hard for. This life hadn’t been handed to her, and the cost of it was steep, just as in Isabella’s own story. Loss had bred Violet’s circumstances, had pitched her life in a new direction, and Isabella knew, all the way down to her core, what that felt like.
Still, even through their time together, Isabella still believed Violet was unfair. Not for her natural grace, her chivalry, or any of the enviable aspects of her. No, it was only her—Violet. Because she was nothing if not a devoted Doll, and that meant she went only where her clients called her, and Isabella had nothing to keep her with now that her own training was drawing to a close. But it was for the best, she told herself, because someone so lovely didn’t deserve to be dragged down in chains. It was only a feeling, but Isabella thought she had probably spent enough of her life fighting her way out of them, trapped by expectation, by war and grief and trauma. Still, Isabella would have held tight, held on, if only she had something to hold to.
The white fabric hung up on the wardrobe was her very last hold on Violet. One dress, with long pretty skirts, all draping and lace. One suit, matched with a gorgeous tailed coat and gold buttons. The perfect pair, finely tailored and more expensive than Isabella could even dream of.
But, then it would all be over. Heels would be stepped out of, fabric would slide over shoulders, and the night would end just like every other, with stardust in the sky and morning just a dreaded sleep away. And that was all Isabella had left before her life changed forever. Just a night, a dance, then one more sleep. The dream was nearly up, sand in the hourglass running thin.
Carefully, Isabella slipped her glasses down the bridge of her nose and folded them, setting them down gently. She liked the room better this way, softened and hazy around the edges. Flickering lantern light cast a soft glow through the space, catching and glinting in some of the finest metal Isabella had ever seen. Still at her typewriter, Violet wrote with her ever trained precision, though the individual movements all blurred together. Even still, Isabella liked watching her work, especially with her gloves laid aside on the table as they were. There was something beautifully mesmerizing about the soft click of mechanics, the warm shine of candle light on silver.
“Violet,” Isabella said, mused, the name hanging still in the air. She hadn’t even known what she wanted when she said it, only that it fell off her lips in the rush of a breath when she should have kept quiet.
In a moment, Violet had stopped in her typing, turning back to face Isabella. Sapphire eyes were clear and attentive, something a little kind warming across her features. It was the smaller moments, like these, where Isabella knew there was something profoundly special in Violet. When she met Isabella’s gaze without bias or prejudice or appraisal. When she made even the mundane into something so much more simply by being.
Isabella’s heart was a little sore with the well worn realization. There was something of a carved space in the surface of her heart just for Violet, like a walked path through the trees and undergrowth. It was always the path most travelled that was worn down to nothing, in the end.
“Come to bed,” she breathed, not a demand or order, hardly even a request. It was really just a whim, a want. Her voice broke just a little over the words, too airy and brittle.
For a moment, Violet looked like she was considering. Long, dark lashes fell to rest against pale cheeks, for a beat. And everything about her just... softened. Her posture, attentive and rigid at her typewriter, fell away to something more relaxed, less proper. The slight focused crease between her brows smoothed. And maybe it was only a trick of the light, a flickering lantern, but Isabella thought she saw something like relief, like ease, wash through Violet’s eyes. It was nice, even if it was imagined.
“Okay,” Violet assented lightly.
Already sitting on the bed, Isabella slipped beneath the blankets. And as she did, she watched Violet move through the room with an easy kind of grace, blowing out the last lantern still left glowing. Darkness washed over the room, only blotted out by patches of moonlight that filtered through the glass panes of the window. Isabella had originally left it open, the slight cold sting of a spring night reminiscent of days long gone past, just a fading echo of a frozen house with the warmest memories. Violet only shut it when the coughing had come again, aching in her lungs and ripping up her throat. It was probably for the better.
Now, gently, Violet slid into her side of the bed, stardust glimmering across her cheek, through the fine silk strands that spilled down her shoulders. For just a moment, she caught Isabella’s gaze and held it, eyes bright even with the delicate weariness lacing the edges. And in that moment, she wasn’t a Doll, or a teacher, or even a friend. She was so, so much more. She was everything—the night sky and constellations narrowed down to a single point of blue, of gold, of light.
Isabella wanted to say something, wanted to reminisce over their last three months together, wanted to confess her nerves about the dance tomorrow and her dread about losing the only person other than Taylor she had ever cared about, or at the very least wish her goodnight, but that gaze was too much. It was so open and raw and real, genuine down to the core, that she could hardly do more than hold it, spellbound and entranced. Longing filled her lungs with trembling breathlessness, ate out her bones to something hollow, turned her stomach over to free beating butterfly wings into her throat. Sparks skipped across her skin, humming on the surface and aching deep down, all with that look she never thought she would get to see grace Violet’s features.
If never before, she felt like she understood heartbreak and lovesickness now. Because emotion had never felt so visceral, so physical, so real.
With the words torn from her, like script from a page, Isabella was left to merely look back, so sure her own love would pull her apart. So wholly, Isabella loved Violet, in a way she would probably never reciprocate or even understand. And that was fine. She didn’t need anything in return, didn’t raise her expectations to anything above the friendship they had already crafted. And yet...
A soft sigh filtered past Isabella’s lips, a measure of the butterflies spilling out with it.
Then, she did something even she hadn’t been expecting of herself. With a steady hand, steadier and more sure than it had been in a long time, she reached out. Fingertips threaded lightly through Violet’s hair, starting at her temple and combing all the way through to the ends. And when her hand came to rest gently at the side of Violet’s face again, Isabella leaned in, eyes fluttering closed, and kissed the only friend she had ever known.
For an eternity, or merely an instant, Violet was startlingly still. The fragile bubble of hope in Isabella’s chest felt close to bursting, trembling and brittle. But, light swelled in its place when Violet slowly warmed to the advances, gently moving to reciprocate. Still, it was only a stolen moment away from reality before the cold came stealing in with a clockwork hand on her shoulder, pushing back. Precise mechanics clicked softly and Isabella yielded under the pressure, all sorts of heat rising to dust something rosy across her cheeks.
Lingering affection mingled with the hot burn of shame, of embarrassment and rejection. Even when she eased back, Isabella didn’t open her eyes; she only squeezed them tighter against the world, wishing to block it out a while. Hands darted up to cover her face, and whether it was to hide the blush or the upset frown curving across her lips, she didn’t now. Either way, it seemed easiest to hide from Violet, rather than face her now. If anything, Isabella was glad for the darkness cast across their room.
Only, careful hands laced fingers with hers, gently peeling them away from her face. Caught a little by surprise, Isabella blinked owlishly at Violet, held hands warming the chilly unease in her heart. And instead of rejection, betrayal, or any other equally unpleasant slant in her eyes, all Isabella found was her usual calm expression. The only difference was the slightest curious tilt to her brow.
“This isn’t something friends do,” she said, a statement more than a question, but still one searching for confirmation.
Quietly regaining her composure, or piecing together what was left of it, Isabella gave a slight shake of her head. Delicately, she ran her tongue over her bottom lip, the floral flavor of Violet’s tea still lingering. Then, to stop herself, control herself, she bit down on that same lip, hands falling to curl in loose fists at her sides. “No,” she answered, the simple word seeming so loud, so final.
“If it would make you happy, I can oblige-“ Violet began, quickly heading down a route Isabella didn’t want to entertain. A world in which she was indulged, pacified, only to have the dream torn from her in the end.
“No, that’s alright,” Isabella cut in. And with that, she let a breath out. She let the emotion and longing dissipate, and when it didn’t want to leave that hollow in her bones, the whole of her heart, she buried it there. Deep enough that it could be ignored. Because Violet wasn’t hers to keep, not a bloom plucked and pressed between the pages of some romantic novel or a songbird locked away in a cage. And if she didn’t want this, something more between them, with all her heart, than neither did Isabella.
However, the wanting humming in her skin wasn’t so easily persuaded. Carefully, she slipped one hand free of Violet’s, reaching out for silk blonde hair again. Because that was easy, safe; it was something she had brushed and braided and tied up countless times. The rhythmic motion, too, soothed what was left of the jittery heat that had bloomed under her skin. Violet seemed lulled by it, too, something much more at ease coming across her expression than the careful, guarded consideration she had worn before.
It was enough. Running a thumb gingerly across her temple, working down through the soft strands, smoothing out any knot or tangle from the day. It was still that contact that Isabella craved, that grounding anchor that kept her from drifting off somewhere she didn’t want to be. And in the quiet, the dark of the room, it was calming. If it weren’t for the knot of nerves in her chest, about the dance and the future, Isabella guessed she would have fallen asleep with the careful movements.
It was enough.
It was enough.
Only, Violet raised a ginger hand, swept a thumb across her cheek, and when she pulled back, the metal glimmered with moisture when it caught the moonlight. Isabella hadn’t even realized she was crying. But now, she blinked, tears slipping down her cheeks, and felt her throat clog with emotion. Something like panic seized her heart for just a moment before she pushed it down in resignation. She was already crying; it was nothing she could hide, nothing she could try to smooth over. Instead, she just tipped her head in, tucking it under Violet’s chin so she couldn’t see any more than she already had.
“Isabella?” The word sounded weighty in the quiet, only disrupting Isabella’s muffled cries. And Violet sounded just as kind and careful as always, wondering, worried.
Only because she couldn’t help herself, couldn’t stand the growing ache hollowing her chest, Isabella wound her arms around Violet, clutching in the soft fabric hanging loose on her frame. “I’m fine,” she breathed, shaky and broken, and she knew it wouldn’t convince anyone. Not herself, and certainly not Violet, who knew how to tear down her carefully constructed walls like they were made of paper. She stepped right into Isabella’s heart and made a home like she had always been there. And Isabella couldn’t handle knowing that after tomorrow, that would all be ripped away from her.
“You’re not,” Violet asserted quietly, a hand combing to rub gentle strokes down her back, just like she did whenever Isabella couldn’t stop coughing. And it worked. Just in a handful of months, her body had learned to soothe under Violet’s touch, and the thought of going without that made her stomach twist.
Still, the only answer Isabella could bring herself to give was a weak nod, trying to stifle her tears. Though, when Violet shifted away, just for a moment, just to readjust, Isabella’s heart seized with the loss. That was the truth of it, cut down to the core, exposed and vulnerable. “Please don’t leave me,” Isabella whispered. Weak. Selfish. Horrible. But she didn’t want to be lonely anymore. A life without Taylor was only bearable because she knew they had both earned safer lives for it. But a life without Violet was just a hole cut out of her heart, because everyone she ever loved took a piece of her with them when they left, and they always left.
It was a long time, or felt like it, before Violet spoke up again. And when she did, all Isabella felt was her fondness melting down into something scalding, something to burn with. “I’m sorry.”
The worst part was Isabella could tell that she meant it. She really was sorry.
“Yeah,” Isabella said, voice all broken and syrupy, but the tears had slowed. “Me too.”
And whenever she found it in herself to ease back from Violet, she found worried blue eyes meeting hers, glimmering with something so genuine and kind. She knew this love wasn’t going anywhere, then. It wasn’t one that would dissipate in the days after Violet left. It wouldn’t fade to memory in the years to come. And even if it was only her burden to hold, Violet with her own heavy love to carry, that didn’t make it any less valuable. Even if it hurt, she would treasure that love with all her heart. Because Violet was worth it.