'Cause I can recall when I was the one in your seat
I still got the scars and they occasionally bleed
Anna woke to an arm draped over her side and had to fight the instinct to flinch away. She stared at the faded green canopy of her bed, taking a deep breath to steady herself. She was in her flat, which was a good thing. She couldn’t count the number of beds she’d woken up in with no memory of how she’d got there, the night before only a blurred memory of hands, silk dresses, and whisky burning down her throat.
Yes, the fact that she was in her own bed was definitely a good thing.
She turned to see who her companion was, the details of the last night coming into greater clarity. Anna had been at a mundane salon. There had been a charming piano player and a great deal of bourbon. She couldn’t recall much after that.
The woman in the bed beside her was clearly a mundane, with blonde hair as thin as cornsilk tangled against the white of Anna’s pillows.
For a long time Anna had stared at the various women beside her and willed herself to feel enraptured by the curve of their sleeping mouths and their peaceful countenance. Her mother had once told her that you knew you were in love with someone when you could watch them do nothing for hours with endless fascination. Because it’s them, because they’re the one who makes it fascinating. Her mother had said, earning a soppy look from her father that had made Anna wrinkle her nose at both of them.
The words had stuck with her though, enough that she’d convinced herself she was in love by staring at the closed eyelids of a girl and simply wishing to feel something meaningful and permanent. Those flings always ended with the women more hurt than Anna had ever intended.
She’d learned eventually, that you couldn’t force love, even when you felt so alone that you felt like you were drowning. So she didn’t entertain that sort of nonsense anymore. Better to fill the aching void in her chest with the press of skin on skin and a hot mouth against her own. Physical pleasure could make her forget and, if pleasure failed, there was always drinking and smoking herself into a haze.
She deftly removed the blonde woman’s arm from around her waist. The light pouring through her window spoke of afternoon, laying golden bars across the scuffed floor of her bedroom. Her fingers itched, the itch spreading into her throat as she crossed the room to shrug on an emerald silk dressing gown. By the Angel she needed a cigar.
Her lacquered cigar box was in the other room, perched on the mantelpiece. Anna plucked up a cigar and a match, about to take up her usual smoking spot at her window when a knock came at the door.
Anna frowned. She wasn’t expecting anyone that day and Matthew never knocked, only let himself in with a swirl of brightly colored waistcoat. With a sigh she threw open the door.
When she recognized who it was Anna cursed her sleep addled brain. She could have had the foresight to put on actual clothes and not just a dressing gown. She could have at least brushed her hair.
Ariadne Bridgestock stood in the hallway, looking composed as ever in rose pink silks. Anna tried to ignore the way a dark lock of her hair had escaped her chignon, curling softly against her cheek. She closed her hands into fists as they twitched almost of their own accord in an attempt to tuck the curl behind Ariadne’s ear. Her skin was buzzing, the blur of her hangover betraying her, making her body forget that Ariadne was not for flirting with.
And besides, she shouldn’t even want to flirt. Ariadne was off limits.
Off limits and very much standing in front of Anna’s door.
Anna banished thoughts of unbrushed hair and assumed a practiced air of bored amusement. “What’re you doing here?”
Ariadne’s thick eyebrows went up. “Good morning to you too.” Something about the tone of her voice made Anna think that she wasn’t fooled by the facade. “Or should I say good afternoon?”
Anna swallowed, words sticking in her throat. She was hardly ever left speechless—a talent she prided herself on—and somehow even being around Ariadne was enough to make her grasp for the right words. It was even harder to think of what to say when Ariadne looked like that , appeared like an angel in silks in Anna’s hallway.
She shouldn’t be comparing her to an angel.
Anna glanced away, unable to look for even another moment, and realized that someone had left roses on her doorstep, complete with a card that had Harlot scrawled on it in red lipstick. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary but as Ariadne followed her gaze to the card Anna felt blood rush to her face. She never blushed, certainly not over something as trivial as a card from a jilted admirer. What was wrong with her?
“That’s very rude!” Ariadne exclaimed, bending to snatch up the card. Indignation colored her voice and Anna felt a burst of fondness that she would be upset on her behalf before she quashed the sentiment viciously.
“It happens.” She said casually and Ariadne paused, mouth working as she considered her words.
“That doesn’t make it not rude.” She said finally, ripping the card in two. “Anyways, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here on a social call.”
Anna felt her heart give a traitorous jolt. “What?”
Ariadne’s mouth quirked up at the corner. “You heard me.”
Everything seemed very bright all of a sudden. “I meant, why?”
Ariadne’s tone was cheerful, not betraying a hint of her real emotions on the matter. “Because I have nothing better to do today and I’ve never been to your flat before.”
Not many people in the Enclave had and Ariadne knew that. The fact that she was making an attempt to make their acquaintance seem casual filled Anna with mixed gratitude and frustration. Gratitude that Ariadne wasn’t going to push her. Frustration that anything between the two of them could ever even have the appearance of something casual.
She swallowed, a reckless abandon she hadn’t felt in years coursing through her. “Yeah, okay.” She stepped aside in an invitation to enter, gesturing to the coffee table in front of the fireplace.
Ariadne looked mildly stunned; she really hadn’t expected Anna to agree. The thought that she had expected to be sent away filled Anna with an unspeakable regret. Ariadne seemed to recover her composure quickly however, stepping carefully over the threshold and into the room with a rustle of skirts.
Anna set the cigar she’d been holding down on the mantelpiece before flinging herself into a chair, legs sprawling lazily in front of her. Her thoughts were racing, the words I will win you back echoing through her mind in frantic repetition. Why had she ever visited Ariadne when she was dying? Why couldn’t she have left her alone?
And yet there was a part of her that was clamoring at her mind to shut up, to take what Ariadne was offering her, even if every part of her that she’d trained into thinking love was a weakness was recoiling. Something in her blood was pounding in time with the beginnings of a headache. Anna couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so self conscious around a woman, the urge to run her fingers through her tangled hair every few seconds was almost overwhelming and extremely irritating.
Ariadne settled herself delicately on the settee, looking vaguely uncomfortable as she drew off her gloves. Her eyes moved around the room, taking in the assortment of daggers on one side table, the fading green wallpaper, the various crystal decanters half filled with assorted alcohol. Her gaze ended up on a woman’s brassiere that had been flung over a chair and she looked away quickly, biting her lip. Her discomfort at being in the flat twisted something inside Anna, the fundamental wrongness of Ariadne not belonging in Anna’s home.
Not that she wanted Ariadne to belong there.
“So.” Anna said finally, unable to bear the silence any longer. “How are you?” She cursed the clumsiness of the question as it hung in the air between them. How are you? She might as well have been seventeen years old again.
Ariadne brightened though, and all of Anna’s internal worries vanished. “Oh I’m actually doing much better! Sometimes my old wounds act up, but nothing serious.” She paused, clearly considering whatever she was about to say. “I don’t mind not being engaged to Charles anymore either.”
Anna’s breath caught. She’d known Ariadne hadn’t loved Charles, would never be able to love a man, and still the thought of her engagement had been an unique form of torture. Every time Charles had been able to dance with Ariadne at a ball, every time he’d pompously said the words my fiancée at an Enclave meeting, every time Anna had seen them together in public she’d died a little inside. To hear Ariadne speak of their cancelled engagement with relief was like a breath of fresh air after being locked in a cell for two excruciating years.
Which probably wasn’t a normal feeling to have when you weren’t in love with someone anymore, but Anna dismissed that.
She cleared her throat. “I don’t mind you not being engaged to him anymore either.” It came out much more flirtatiously than she’d hoped.
Ariadne dimpled adorably, forcing Anna to focus instead on her hands, the short oval fingernails on slim brown fingers, the black of her voyance rune curling over bare skin.
On second thought, maybe her hands were just as distracting as her dimples. Anna jerked her gaze back to Ariadne’s face, sure that the look on her own was betraying her.
Ariadne either didn’t notice Anna’s lack of composure or was pretending not to. She said, “You know Grace?”
That got Anna’s attention. “Of course. What about her?” She had mixed feelings about Charles’s soon to be child bride. One was indignance on her friend Cordelia’s behalf, because Cordelia’s fiancé James was in love with Grace. Second was pity at the poor girl for being under Tatiana Blackthorn’s no doubt horrific care all her life only to escape it by entangling herself with Charles. Third, and probably the most shameful feeling of all, gratitude that it was Grace and not Ariadne that Charles had decided on marrying.
Which, now that Anna thought about it, was an odd choice on Charles’s part. Ariadne was the daughter of the Inquisitor, a politically powerful person for Charles to attach himself to. Grace was beautiful, but she was also fifteen, and it was not as if Ariadne herself was unpleasant to look at. Grace, with no family or political weight to speak of, was an extremely odd choice since Anna was certain Charles did not love her.
Ariadne leaned forward slightly with the look of someone enjoying imparting interesting gossip. “Well, as you know she’s been living with us, but it’s very odd. She does her level best not to interact with anyone and the few times I’ve tried she’s been most aloof.” She sighed. “I feel bad now actually, I’m sure she just doesn’t know how to talk to people given her upbringing. I should probably be more understanding.”
Anna shrugged. “She could just be a bitch.”
“Anna!” Despite the supposed shock in her voice Anna could tell that Ariadne was trying not to smile. It was hard not to feel absurdly pleased.
“What? And don’t tell me it’s improper, you know improper is my favorite adjective.”
Ariadne wrinkled her nose in mock disapproval. “I was going to say that it seems wrong to make fun of someone so young. It’s like making fun of Lucie.”
“You’re absolutely right. Let’s make fun of Charles then, shall we?”
That earned a golden smile that made Anna smile back. “I have no objection to making fun of him.”
Anna spread her arms in mockery of someone about to give a speech. “Anyone with the middle name Buford deserves it.”
Ariadne laughed, a sound that sent butterflies fluttering wildly around Anna’s stomach against her will. She couldn’t help but stare at the woman sitting across from her, the completely unselfconscious laugh reverberating through her bones. She was so beautiful, resplendent in the afternoon light, sitting in Anna’s living room as if she’d been there a million times before. Somewhere in their conversation the awkwardness had melted away, leaving Anna feeling quiet in a way she hadn’t in a long time.
Their eyes met and Anna forgot how to breathe. Suddenly she was thrust back into the dim hours of the dawn, staring into the dark pools of Ariadne’s eyes like her life depended on it, the sheets wrapping them the only protection from the world they were going to get. Her heartbeat increased.
Someone cleared their throat behind her.
No. No, not now. Please not now.
Anna watched Ariadne’s eyes flick past her, expression going perfectly blank and indifferent, whatever familiarity they’d created between them gone as quick as it’d come. Cold horror spilled through Anna’s veins as she turned and stared at the blonde woman who had just emerged from her bedroom.
She was a lot shorter than Anna had initially thought, with narrow shoulders under the dressing gown she’d clearly borrowed from Anna. Her sleepy eyes gave Ariadne a lazy once over before she snatched up the brassiere on the chair and disappeared back into the bedroom with a shrug.
Anna turned back to Ariadne, fumbling for words. “I’m sorry about that. I—”
Ariadne stood up hurriedly, smoothing the front of her skirts. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you had a guest.”
Anna felt the tension between them like a pinch in her chest. “She’s not a guest.” The blank look on Ariadne’s face sent panic washing through her. “Well I suppose she is, but she’ll be gone soon.” She realized that she’d stood up without noticing. Her hand was outstretched as if she could keep Ariadne from leaving and she let it fall back to her side.
Ariadne opened her mouth, then closed it with a snap. “I can leave.”
“No!” She couldn’t leave. Anna schooled herself to calmness. “I’m not about to ruin the first real conversation I’ve had with you in years because of someone whose name I can’t remember.”
If she’d thought it was the right thing to say, it wasn’t. Ariadne’s mouth flattened to a hard line. “You can’t even remember her name?”
Anna paused, arrested. It had never really seemed like a problem to her before. Plus, she was sure the blonde woman didn’t remember her name either. “Uh—”
Ariadne turned towards the door. “Forget it.”
“Wait!” Anna had taken several steps before she even registered them, her hand closing on Ariadne’s shoulder. For a second all her brain could register was that the silk of Ariadne’s dress was warm from the heat of her skin, that a strand of black hair curled softly against the side of her neck, that she still smelled like orange blossoms after all these years. Anna whipped her hand back, meeting Ariadne’s dark eyes levelly as she turned towards her incredulously. “Don’t go.” She whispered, backing towards the bedroom. “I’ll sort this out just—please don’t go.”
The blonde woman was fully dressed when Anna came in, brushing out her hair in front of the mirror. She looked up and gave a crooked smile. She really was quite pretty. At another time Anna might have considered letting her stay another night but at the moment all she could think of was Ariadne waiting in the other room. Or perhaps she wasn’t waiting. Maybe she had decided to leave anyway.
“Don’t worry.” The woman said, beginning to pin her hair up. “I’ll be gone soon. I have no desire to interrupt a lovers quarrel.”
Anna spluttered. “We’re not—”
The woman gave her a pitying look in the mirror that made Anna flush in embarrassment. The fact that a perfect stranger had been able to see whatever was between them—however complicated—was humiliating.
“What’s your name?” She asked instead, desperate to change the topic of conversation. Something about Ariadne’s voice when she’d said You can’t even remember her name? had left her feeling surprisingly ashamed. Which was silly, because Ariadne had no experience in the matter and Anna shouldn’t even be worried about what she thought.
Although she had the sinking feeling that she would always care what Ariadne thought.
The woman stood up and pulled on her gloves. “Marion.”
Anna ran a distracted hand through her hair. “I’m Anna.”
Marion gave her the same crooked smile as she walked to the door, her heels clipping the hardwood. “Well then, thank you for making my night enjoyable Anna.”
And then she was gone, the door closing behind her with a click. Anna heard the murmur of her voice and the sound of Ariadne’s voice answering. She waited for the telltale sound of the front door closing before she went back into the drawing room, pausing in front of the mirror to flatten her cowlick.
Ariadne was still standing where Anna had left her, one finger tapping absently against one of her wrists. Anna could see the tension running through her, could feel it in the air between them like one of her brother’s bombs about to go off. She stopped a few feet away and waited, waited for whatever Ariadne was working up the nerve to say.
When Ariadne raised her head and met Anna’s eyes steadily Anna told herself she could bear whatever it was that came next.
“I don’t know why I’m here.” Ariadne said simply.
Anna didn’t know what she’d been expecting, but it hadn’t been that. Hadn’t Ariadne said she was going to win her back? Wasn’t that what she was there to do? Had Anna wrongly assumed Ariadne’s intentions for the thousandth time?
She stared, not bothering to hide her own confusion. “I thought you were here to apologize.”
Ariadne’s expression froze over. “Right, because I’m the only one who needs to apologize.” Sarcasm dripped from the ice of her voice, along with an undercurrent of hurt that Anna desperately wanted to make better even as anger rose up inside her.
She crossed her arms over her chest, heart pounding. “Why are you here then?”
Ariadne blinked at her, the same awful expression on her face that made Anna’s chest ache. “Because I thought—”
Anna didn’t let her finish, couldn’t let Ariadne imply what she was about to. “Well you thought wrong.”
“Then you shouldn’t have begged me to stay!” She was yelling now, her voice echoing off the thin walls of the apartment. “What was I supposed to think?”
Please don’t die. Words spoken in the oppressive dark of the infirmary, a plea to gods she didn’t believe in to not take Ariadne away, not when she was already so far from her. Anna felt tears press against the back of her throat and eyes. She didn’t usually cry when she argued, but now it was an effort not to.
“I should have known better than to ask you to stay.” She snapped. “You’ve never been very good at it.”
She knew immediately she’d gone too far. Ariadne’s expression shuttered shut and Anna felt something twist violently inside of her. Good. Part of her thought. Better that she hates you.
When Ariadne spoke again her voice was trembling with barely contained rage. “Not all of us have the luxury of wallowing in self pity.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Anna felt as if she were watching the scene from a distance, a humming layer of hurt blurring everything around the edges.
Ariadne met her gaze with glittering eyes. “I mean that you have everything in the world and you don’t even seem to want it.”
Anna felt her breath lodge in her throat. Her chest felt like it was wrapped with bands that were getting progressively tighter. She couldn’t think through the haze of anger surrounding the both of them. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I?” Ariadne’s voice was rising again, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “You can live where you want and love who you want because your family loves you enough for it to be unconditional and they’re rich enough and important enough that people are forced to respect you anyways. You can dress how you want because you’re English and don’t have to worry about trying to blend in for safety’s sake.” She paused and took a deep breath, hands clenched at her sides. “And you seem perfectly content to sit on your high horse and lecture me about staying when you’ve never even had to worry about leaving.”
Anna stared at her, a roaring in her ears. The worst part of Ariadne’s words was that they rang true, striking like daggers through Anna’s carefully protected heart. She could suddenly see herself as Ariadne must see her and shame coursed through her as her blood pounded. She knew her face was burning with embarrassment and it only made her angrier, the hurt and shame welling up unrelentingly.
They had both started crying, tears running hot down Anna’s cheeks as if they might never stop. Her head hurt. Her heart hurt as she watched glittering tears drip down Ariadne’s chin and splatter the silk of her dress. A sob was building in Anna’s chest, waiting to tear her apart.
“Get out.” She choked, tears blurring her vision, gesturing jerkily towards the door with a hand that didn’t seem to belong to her anymore. “Get out!” It came out as a scream torn brokenly from her throat.
Ariadne’s hand was already gripping the brass doorknob. “Fine!” She shouted, and her voice broke, the line of her mouth wavering even though icy rage was still burning in her tone.
“Fine!” Anna yelled as the door slammed shut behind the whirl of pink skirts. She spared a brief thought for her landlady, who hated any racket caused by Anna’s parade of jilted lovers, and who would certainly object to Anna entering into a screaming row.
The anger inside her crested to a shattering roar in her ears. Anger at Ariadne, anger at herself, anger at the world for being so warped that you could only survive by twisting yourself into something unrecognizable. There was a crash, a burst of sharp red pain, and Anna was pulling her hand back from the windowpane. She stared at the smear of blood on her knuckles, bright in the afternoon light, the saturation turned all the way up. Pain throbbed through her, dull somehow against the pain the memory of the look on Ariadne’s face brought her. The fact that Anna had caused that expression only intensified the pain until it was sharp and cutting something deep inside of her. It was like she’d swallowed knives.
How had she gotten it so wrong?
Blood pattered to the floor, fat like rose petals. Anna wiped her nose on her sleeve as a jagged sob ripped its way out of her. She sank to the floor next to where Ariadne had been sitting, eyes fixing on the pair of white gloves that were lying forgotten on the seat. The world was brighter and shining through her tears, the edges running together. Anna pressed the gloves to her face, curling in on herself, ignoring the snot and tears staining the fabric. Pain throbbed through her hand but she barely registered it.
She could almost imagine that she still smelled orange blossom perfume.