“It’s 1922, a new age for opportunity!” The porter shouts excitedly over the bellowing of the train, or, as excitedly as he can lifting the sum total of Mithian’s possessions. She doesn’t have much in the way of things that aren’t books, but the books that she could save from her old estate she takes everywhere with her. Even if said books include half a set of French encyclopedias.
The porter, his nametag labels him Gili, continues to babble on about New York and the riches to be had in a city that never sleeps, never stops moving and devouring. He seems to take it as a personal affront when he hears her final destination is Colorado.
“You’re headed the wrong way, Miss, everyone who’s anyone is making their way into the city.”
Mithian shrugs him off using the level glare her Grandmere has taught her needed to be in every woman’s facial arsenal, and had proved immeasurably useful for skirting around using her choppy English. The whistle for the train sounds and Mithian climbs on board. She moves her luggage into a blessedly empty compartment and watches the city shrink into the distance as the train picks up speed, roaring out westward towards the sunset.
Mithian still has very vivid dreams of riding in the ambulance, and faceless soldiers with clammy, bloodless hands staining her white nurse’s uniform red. She jerks awake in the dark of the compartment, not sure where she is until she feels the train roll under her. It’s the middle of the night and Mithian knows she should rest, but she can still feel the slick sensation of blood on her hands and knows she won’t be going back to sleep any time soon. There’s a pen and some paper in her bag though, and Mithian’s been meaning to compose a reply to Arthur. She has a stack of their letters in her trunk, but his latest letter is tucked inside the breast pocket of her coat for easy access, and she’s read and re-read it enough times to memorize the contents; Arthur’s meticulous description of Gaius’s country house, his badly hidden excitement for the greenhouse Merlin is building, the relief he feels at being out of reach of his father and Pendragon manor. She traces a finger over the round lettering, imagining Arthur smiling and relaxed, the doors opened towards a garden and a breeze ruffling the curtains, Merlin’s wide smile the first thing he sees ever morning when he wakes up, and the last thing he sees every night before he goes to sleep. She imagines a peaceful house filled stone to stone with the love and contentment that comes with not having to hide.
You can find that too, her mind whispers, you can have a garden, and a lover to make breakfast, and a quiet house of stone. But for now concentrate on filling that emptiness in your chest; don’t let it swallow you whole.
And with this advice in mind Mithian writes. The sun comes up, the train shudders ever onwards, and Mithian writes and writes and writes.
Two days later and Mithian emerges onto the flat pastures of Denver. She imagines Denver fancies itself a proper city, and indeed there are a few bars, a smattering of motels and a postal office. However, Mithian had grown up knowing every stone in Paris had a story, and she remains distinctly unimpressed. There’s no history here though, and that’s ideal for anyone looking to make a fresh start. Mithian posts her letter to Arthur and hails a cab.
Mithian was under the impression she would be staying at Annis’ boarding house. House turns out to be the wrong word though; more like sprawling ranch on the outskirts of town. Everything in Colorado is so flat you can almost see across state lines. There’s nothing but fields as far as the eye can see, sometimes dotted with cows, or struck through with telegraph lines, in an ocean of dusty brown stretching out to the horizon. In the midst of all this is a mismatched wooden house with peeling shutters and a bevy of rooms that had obviously been tacked on as the house expanded. The garden in front needs weeding, and there are a few stones missing from the walkway, but Mithian notes that despite its distinctly disheveled appearance the house seems clean and sturdy.
Mithian takes a deep breath, nervous for the first time since she had pitched the idea to her father back in New York. She stalls for a moment by whipping out a compact to dust her nose, which her Grandmere would have chastised her for doing in public, but the cabbie has definitely seen worse. Her hair isn’t a complete travesty, thank God, still neat and elegant in high chignon, and while her clothes are rather plain they’re at least clean, if a little rumpled from her stay on the train. There are the beginnings of some dreadful bags under her eyes that Mithian had tried valiantly to hide before disembarking from the train, but she can pass those off as road-weariness with no problem.
The cabbie helps her set the bags out on the curb, fluttering nervously around the hatboxes when Mithian’s attention is drawn to a figure emerging from the porch like a particularly underfed shadow. Mithian can’t see her face through her long, dark hair, and the shadow of a girl darts back inside before Mithian can call out, screen door banging shut behind her.
Huh. Mithian isn’t one for superstition, but that does not bode well. She squares her shoulders and marches up the drive.
The mailbox on the pathway reads Mrs. Reine, and Mithian smiles sadly to see it. Annis may have stopped using her married name after the deaths of her husband and son, but she hadn’t gotten rid of the ‘Mrs.’ She hasn’t seen Annis in years now, and memories come bubbling to the surface of summers spent riding and shooting, of being outdoors so long that her skin burned red and Annis had to lend her a special lotion that soothed the itching and peeling. The memory pulls her through the front door and into the house.
It’s quiet for a place already housing four boarders, is the first thing Mithian thinks. The second thought is cut off abruptly when Annis enters, and a wave of nostalgia threatens to overwhelm her as Annis opens her mouth and lets out a flurry of French. Mithian hadn’t realized just how much she missed hearing it spoken. She’s become accustomed to slogging through with her mangled English, and a minimum of communication, but a dam breaks in her chest to hear it, and she can’t hold back the babble of words as she talks more than she has in the past two weeks. Her words are muffled by the work smock Annis is wearing, and Mithian isn’t sure when they moved, but she lets Annis squeeze her tightly and they sway back and forth in the entryway, talking over each other in a crescendo of words.
It’s completely different than the hug her father gave her on the doorstep in New York, tired and feeble. Annis is obviously in excellent health, her strong arms nearly lift Mithian off the floor, and she feels the breath crushed out of her in all the best ways.
After what seems like an age Annis releases her and steps back to take a good hard look at Mithian.
“Oh Cherie,” she tuts giving Mithian a once-over. “So thin, we’ll need to get you fed up right away.” Her words come out a little rough around the edges.
“I have every confidence you will,” Mithian says fondly.
“How are you doing though, honestly?” Annis says quietly. Mithian had forgotten how sharp she is. And while she really can’t bring herself to talk about it with anyone but Arthur, she thinks if anyone in the wilds of Colorado will understand the knot in her throat choking her ever since she set foot on Ellis Island, it would be Annis.
“I’m coping,” is her honest answer, and Annis seems to read that in her face as well because she nods decisively and turns the conversation to other, less fraught topics. They’re busy discussing the travesty that is American fine dining when there’s a crash and a shriek from the dining room.
“That will be the other boarders,” Annis mutters and strides towards the noise.
Mithian abandons her bags and follows, catching a quick glimpse of a small sitting room with an upright piano, and a small staircase she thinks must lead to the boarder’s rooms, when they spill into the dining room and she comes face to face with the shadow girl from the porch.
“I’m-excuse-sorry,” Mithian blurts out, her brain jumping back and forth between French and English. She tries step backwards out of this mess when one of her heels break, and she’s falling into a pair of arms much lighter than Annis’ and whose hands wind around her waist before gently tipping her upright. Mithian turns her head and gets a face full of blonde hair before she’s hit with the overwhelming smell of cows.
“Hi,” says her rescuer.
Mithian wrinkles her nose and the girl mirrors her. They’re within kissing distance, and Mithian hasn’t moved from where she’s folded into the girl’s arms. It’s not her most auspicious first impression. The kitchen is silent.
“Elena, I’ll help Freya and Vivian get the kitchen sorted, why don’t you show Mithian to her room?” Annis says. It comes out more of a command than a question.
“Right, yes, sorry,” says Elena, breathlessly depositing Mithian firmly on the ground and holding out a gallant hand as if Mithian might go toppling over again without notice.
“Non, I’m okay.” Mithian slips her shoes off, the heel dangling sadly where it snapped on the left one. She sighs. Maybe it can be salvaged- the only ones judging her shoddily cobbled shoes here would be the cows.
They head out of the kitchen back to the entryway to grab Mithian’s luggage, and Mithian takes the chance to get a proper look at Elena. She’s about Mithian’s height when Mithian takes off her shoes, and her flyaway hair looks like she got dragged backwards through a hedge. (Her clothes support this theory; her trousers are muddy from the knees down, and Gods, she’s wearing trousers.) Her face is kind though, even if her generous mouth is twisted at the corners with what Mithian realizes belatedly are nerves. Shit. Where are her manners? She must have left them on the train.
“Thank you,” she says and holds out her hand. “Je suis Mithian. Nice to meet.”
Elena looks nonplussed but takes her hand. “Nice to meet you Mithian. I’m Elena. Well, you already know that I guess. Um, Salute?” She scrubs her hand across her neck, a bit bashful, but not as nervous as before. Her hair is truly tragic. Mithian is reluctantly charmed.
“You speak French?” Mithian doubts it; her accent is too thickly American.
“Haha, no, but maybe you can teach me? We’re going to be sharing a room, so…” She trails off as she takes two of Mithian’s suitcases and hefts them up the stairs with relative ease. Mithian watches in fascination as the muscles in her arms bunch and contract. She clutches the hatboxes and wonders why her mouth is suddenly so very dry. Travelling does strange things to people.
The room, when Elena ushers her in, is on the smaller side. All Elena’s things have obviously been shoved up into her side of the room in hasty stacks. Despite the mess there isn’t much in the way of decoration; a hazy oil painting of the coastline, a picture taped to the mirror above the armoire, a bandana tied to the bedpost.
“It’s a bit bare,” Elena says apologetically, “so you’re welcome to put up anything you’d like, I don’t really mind. We don’t really spend a lot of time here, I feel like I should warn you- it’s planting season, so we’re outside pretty much all the time now.”
Mithian nods- that was part of the deal. When Annis had cabled to tell Mithian she was welcome at the boarding house, she’d added, “You’ll have to be willing to work. I love you dearly Cherie, but I don’t have room right now for hands that are not helping.” And Mithian had replied that work was what she needed, so if Annis helped Mithian keep her head and her hands busy it would be Mithian who was in her debt.
“Okay if I rest now?”
It’s been a long journey, and just looking at the bed laid out for her Mithian feels the weight of all her sleepless nights and the cramped confinement of the train descend upon her all at once.
“It’s going to mess up your sleep schedule,” Elena warns, “but I’ll come up and wake you for dinner.”
“Mmm, okay yes thank you,” Mithian mumbles shimmying out of her skirt and barely managing to lay down on the bed before she’s asleep, Elena’s startled laughter the last thing she hears before she drifts into unconsciousness.
It’s the best sleep she’s gotten in months.
When she wakes, it’s to an evening slant of sunlight and Elena’s hand shaking her gently awake for dinner. Mithian says something rather rude in French, reluctantly untangling herself from the mess of quilts. She heads to the mirror to quickly fix her hair and her eyes are drawn to the photo taped in the corner. A girl, younger Elena, Mithian presumes, is grinning ear-to-ear in a dress a size too big for her, and is carried bridal-style in the arms of a handsome young man. His hair is long, maybe as long as Elena’s, and he matches her grin with ease. It’s silly and happy and almost certainly taken before the war.
“Your brother?” she asks. There’s something familial about the photo, both of them so obviously comfortable with each other. Elena isn’t wearing a ring, and surely if this man was her husband she wouldn’t be in a boarding house, laboring on a ranch in exchange for meals.
“More or less,” says Elena tightly, which is no answer at all. Mithian doesn’t press any further, and they head down to breakfast in silence. The kitchen, in contrast to Elena’s room, is tightly scrubbed and absolutely pristine. There’s a frizzy-haired girl wearing an apron standing who's standing on a stool so she can stir a large pot, and another complaining loudly as she collects dishes from the cupboard.
“-and so I asked her how long it would take to grow back out, and she said a month. A month! Can you – oh.” She stops when she notices Elena and Mithian in the doorway.
“It really isn’t noticeable,” Elena says, “if you hadn’t said anything I would never have guessed.”
The girl snorts. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t exactly take your word for it, the bramble patch on your head don’t instill me with great confidence.”
Her eyes sweep over Mithian. “Tell me honestly, how bad are my bangs?”
Mithian pinched her fingers together. They’re lopsided, but nothing a few pins can’t solve.
“Little bit. Can fix.”
“Oh thank God. I’m Vivian, by the way.” She waves her hand towards the girl in the apron, “that’s Sefa, our chef for the night. You,” she points to Elena, “can make yourself useful by setting the table. You,” here she points to Mithian, “please save me. I can’t go into town tomorrow looking like a fool.”
By the time Mithian’s finished demonstrating how to use bobby pins, Vivian’s given her at least three people who she swears up and down can repair Mithian’s heels, and Sefa is ringing a bell affixed to the doorway signaling that it’s time for dinner.
The table is a bit too small to hold everyone at once, meaning Mithian finds herself pressed up against Elena, knees knocking under the table whenever she moves. Annis leads the table in a quick prayer before ladling out soup to all, complimenting Sefa on her cooking and being every bit the gracious host Mithian remembers her as. The girls clearly adore her, though Mithian counts them and come up one short.
She leans deeper into Elena to whisper, “where is,” and makes a fluttering motion with her hands, “the girl from earlier?”
Elena shivers, although she can’t possibly be cold with all of them packed around the table like sardines in a tin.
“Freya is a bit…well she finds newcomers a bit stressful. You’ll meet her properly later on. Don’t worry,” she adds at the look on Mithian’s face, “it wasn’t anything you did. Freya’s lovely, she was just surprised, and needs a bit of time to adjust is all.”
Mithian nods, thinking of soldiers who had come back from the frontlines with such symptoms, and trying not to think of why a girl as young and fragile-looking as Freya would manifest them.
Around her the conversation ebbs and flows, Vivian loud and boisterous, Kara laughing at whatever story she’s telling, and Annis refilling everyone’s bowls. Mithian stays where she is, leaning into Elena, and thinks how naïve she was in assuming Colorado was some idyllic land untouched by violence. Elena watches her out of the corner of her eye and says nothing.
Mithian feels like she’s only just closed her eyes when Elena is shaking her awake and herding her down to the kitchen for breakfast. Each of the girls is assigned a different task by Annis, who is dressed in riding clothes and announces over coffee and eggs that she’s taking Sefa with her to water the cattle, and that Elena and Mithian are in charge of the washing. Freya will tend to the chickens.
The morning is spent hunched over a wash bin, a familiar enough position from her time as a nurse that Mithian knows the basics and can drowse her way through with a few supplemental cups of coffee, only needing Elena to correct her hands once or twice when she stacks shirts in the wrong piles. Elena, on the other hand, cannot seem to wash so much as a sock without washing herself as well, so by the time they’re halfway through she’s completely drenched and has soap in her hair. Mithian teaches her the best way to blow bubbles with her hands, and they spend the afternoon puffing and giggling and pinning sheets to the clothes line that hangs in the backyard.
Freya’s on cooking duty tonight, so once they’ve finished the washing Mithian gives Freya her space and retreats to the sitting room. Elena slumps over the settee in a graceless tangle of (very pruney) limbs, and while Mithian would love to stretch out and relieve her aching back, she pushes back the cover on the old upright piano and runs her fingers over a couple of keys. It’s better than she was expecting; only a little out of tune and none of the keys stick. Elena peers over her shoulder when she’s played a couple major scales.
“I didn’t know you could play. Vivian’s father gave that to Annis so she could continue her lessons. She never uses it though.”
Mithian hums in assent. “It’s easier than English.”
She tries Clair De Lune, faltering and restarting until the first few measures play smoothly. Elena reaches around her shoulders until her hands bracket Mithian’s. She copies the movements of Mithian’s fingers across the keys in an odd echo of the original melody, and Mithian can feel rather than see her smiling.
When she’s done she leans back into Elena, who hasn’t moved an inch from where she’s more or less embracing Mithian.
“Do you know any Chopin,” she asks, because one of them has to break the quiet. Mithian has strict rules for herself in regards to falling for women who already have fiancées abroad or pictures of handsome men who are not their brothers taped to the armoire. The rules being a flashing sign that simply says ‘don’t do it.’
“I might know how to play Chop-in-sticks?” Elena says, and then breaks into laughter at her own terrible pun, and Mithian laughs with her because it was just that awful.
That, and Elena is beautiful when she laughs, and Mithian looks at her and has to remind herself to be careful with her heart.
Time speeds up on the ranch.
Mithian learns a million new small things, things about vegetables and rain and repair and common sense, everyday things she only ever knew got done somehow, but wasn’t quite sure how. One of her very first lessons is that while she considers herself a quick learner when it comes to books and arithmetic, farm work takes a different skill set than the one she’s cultivated in a nursing tent or a Parisian finishing school. And in the wake of this realization, she turns to Elena for help.
Elena is the one who shows Mithian how to garden, and how to tell if certain produce is ripe or not, and how to brush down a horse. And through it all Elena puts up with her disjointed English, and patiently answers questions, leaving Mithian struggling to keep coming up with good reasons not to fall in love with her. It’s made worse with the fact that Elena isn’t perfect; there are mornings were she is cranky, days when she’s angry for no reason or takes stupid risks, and innumerable times where she’s too loud or too much and Mithian has to excuse herself and go hide in the bathroom just to breathe. The morning Mithian asks her how to makes pancakes they start a small fire in the kitchen because Elena won’t admit that she’s every bit as stumped as Mithian is and Vivian swoops in to take over with a look of deep disdain.
Those instances are dwarfed by the number of times Elena helps Mithian practice her English by giving her stories to read aloud. She particularly likes an old collection of children’s fairytales, and so Mithian will stumble though stories of witches and dragons until neither of them can hold their eyes open, and she falls asleep dreaming of them as princesses in a far off land. When she finishes that book, Elena persuades her to unknowingly read several rather raunchy romance novels, and Mithian exacts her revenge by asking her to explain words like ‘heaving bosoms’ and anything preceded by the word ‘throbbing.’ It’s a recipe for mutual destruction, leaving them both pink-cheeked and a little short of breath, hyper aware of just how close they’re sitting.
A couple times Elena asks Mithian to read something to her in French because she likes the way the words sound. On those occasions Mithian will pick a book at random from her trunk and settle back against the headboard, Elena a warm weight against her side. It’s those nights, when Elena falls asleep on Mithian’s bed after a chapter of the Three Musketeers or The Little Prince, a smile on her face, that Mithian’s wonders how in the space of a few short months she came to be so very, very fucked.
“Non, non, non!” Mithian shouts at the chickens and jumps back when one of them tries to take a stab at her ankle. “None for you, biting the hand that feeds you!”
The chicken doesn’t seem to grasp this, and Elena sits unhelpfully on the fence laughing at her as she swears a blue streak and tries not to kick the chicken in the head.
“Not funny,” she pleads, “big bully chicken.” Which is, of course, when the chicken gets in a lucky shot and pecks her hard enough that she shouts and almost drops the chicken feed on the ground. Elena is off the fence like a shot, whipping off the sun hat she’s wearing and throwing it down over the chicken’s head. The chicken stops attacking Mithian to be confused, and the sight of it drowning in Elena’s straw hat would be hilarious is she weren’t also bleeding.
“And that, is why you should wear trousers like me,” Elena says and disappears into the chicken coop to gather eggs. Mithian deposits the feed and huffs off back to the kitchen. Like it was her fault she didn't know- she can stitch a man back together, she can remove shrapnel and amputate limbs, but oh, it’s her fault for not knowing shit about chickens.
Freya’s in the kitchen humming along to the wireless when Mithian bangs her way through the screen door, muttering darkly under her breath. Freya doesn't even bat an eyelash, just sets the kettle on and reaches for the box of gauze kept in the cabinet near the sink. About a week and a half into living at the house Freya had apparently decided that she was comfortable enough with Mithian to putter around the kitchen with her in the mornings, and re-join everyone for meals, as if Mithian had always been a fixture in the house. Since then Mithian has gone out of her way to be extremely attentive to Freya, and they've struck up an odd friendship mainly consisting of them drinking tea in calm silence and an appreciation for jam on pancakes that no one else in the house seems to share.
“You’re bleeding,” says Freya opening a jar of dried mint leaves and putting them in the tea strainer.
“How do you feel about eating chickens tonight,” Mithian grumbles. Freya laughs. Mithian is always struck by how seldom she hears it, and vows to make Freya laugh more often. The kettle whistles and Mithian has just finished tying up the gauze on her leg when Kara flies in, panting for breath looking a bit wild around the eyes. She starts speaking so fast that Mithian can’t track what she’s saying and Freya has to get her to slow down and get her to start at the beginning.
“Last night- the southern part of the fence got knocked down, and we had a couple cows get out. Annis is patching the fence as best she can right now, and we’ve gotten most of them back but there’s still a calf wandering around out on his own. We need to get him back before the storm from moves in, so if you could call Elena in-”
Over her shoulder Mithian can see a dark sheet of grey in the distance. A storm is definitely coming, and this one looks particularly menacing, or maybe Mithian is feeling reckless today, which is why she says “let me go.”
“I can go, not Elena.”
“Mithian,” Sefa says with a frown, “I know you want to help, but Elena is the fastest rider-“
“I want to be useful,” Mithian says over top of her. “Please. I can ride side-saddle, I can ride like a man, I can hunt and track. I will be useful.”
She turns to appeal to Freya. Freya has been in the house the longest, is the only one of the boarders with her own room, and in Annis’ absence she makes the decisions. Freya considers for a long moment before nodding slowly and adding, “if you aren't back in an hour we’re sending Elena after you.”
Mithian stands up straighter, trying to convey confidence with the slope of her shoulders.
“Keep my tea warm, I will be back before you know,” she says, teasing.
I will be useful.
And if it sounds like she’s trying to convince herself now more than Freya or Sefa, well. Neither of them call her on it.
Mithian wasn’t lying- she can ride, and ride well at that. Annis had taken her on hunts at the old estate, and she’d done her fair share of tracking. What she neglected to mention was all of that took place at least six years ago, and that when she and Sefa arrive at the southern gate, the gate furthest from the ranch, she’s more than a little frightened.
“Annis has probably gone to alert the neighbors,” Sefa shouts, waving to where the tear in the gate has been jerry-rigged to hold until actual repairs can be made.
“I’ll take the Western side, you take the Eastern side. Okay?”
“Okay,” Mithian shouts back, and heads out into the fields.
She rides for what feels like hours, the wind howling in her ears as the storm approaches, stark against the yellow landscape. The missing calf is nowhere to be seen, and Mithian feels the atmosphere around her shudder with the first spray of rain from the looming clouds. Her horse is getting restless. In the distance there’s a rumble of thunder followed by a sharp burst of lightening.
For a moment, Mithian finds herself back in a war zone. She sees the flash of a grenade go off and hears the roll of gunfire, and when she looks up it’s grey and bleak and wet. A second, closer, lightning strike brings her back to the present, and illuminates the missing calf hunkered against a garden shed a couple hundred meters away.
The hole in her chest, which has been receding rapidly these past few months, feels like it’s been filled entirely.
She can hear shouting as she nears the gate.
Sefa’s black horse comes into view, and fuck, she must have been out well over an hour because Elena’s grey and Annis’ squat brown mount round the gate only minutes later. Annis rides out so she can take the calf and berate Mithian in French for taking stupid risks at the same time. Sefa heads back to begin brushing down the horses and leaves her with Elena, who looks like she tried to dredge a lake. She’s sopping wet and shaking, fists clenches at her sides, determinedly not looking at Mithian until Mithian tries to offer her her coat and then Mithian can see that she’s not cold, she’s furious. She’s never, ever seen Elena this angry, and she takes a step forward, only to have Elena push her right back.
“Not only were gone for over an hour, you were so far out we couldn’t see you. You realize you could have been seriously injured, right?”
Her voice is rising higher and higher, and Mithian can’t tell if it’s raining on her face or if she’s crying. She feels sick to her stomach.
“You could have gotten yourself killed, riding out in the middle of a storm like that, of all the stupid things-” Elena is shouting now. Her voice breaks a little on the word ‘killed.’
“You should have come to get me. You should have never gone in the first place. You can be useful without being stupid and reckless.”
“You would know,” murmurs Mithian and Elena catches it, her face crumpling.
“I do know. Mithian, I know that you can’t do that, please don’t do that- don’t go out there and not come back.” And suddenly it feels like they’re talking about something larger than storms or cattle, and Mithian remembers the picture on Elena’s mirror, and the handsome young man just old enough to go off to war.
“Just take me with you, okay?” Elena asks, and she’s definitely crying now. Mithian reaches for her and Elena wraps her arms around her middle tight enough to suffocate.
“I’m sorry,” Mithian says, over and over until the sound of thunder gets close enough that they absolutely have to move. Even then they only break apart long enough for Mithian to attach the reins of Elena’s horse to hers and swing across the saddle, and then Elena’s arms are around her again and they set a slow, steady pace back towards the house.
All the lights are off when they get to the back door, the only light a flickering tea candle in the window. It’s a struggle to open the screen door with her left hand, since her right hand is firmly tucked around Elena’s waist and Elena refuses to move the hand that is twined around hers.
They drip into the dining room and down the hallway until Vivian pokes her head out of the sitting room to give them a nasty look.
“Are you trying to make an indoor swimming pool? Strip! Off with the clothes!”
“I- does that means something different in English than it does in French?” whispers Mithian.
Elena free hand is already undoing the buttons to her ugly plaid work shirt, and Mithian feels like she’s entered a parallel universe.
“You too! C’mon, hand them over. Don’t look at me like that Mithian, we’ve got the fireplace going since the electricity’s kaput, and you need to dry out that blouse or prepare to lose it forever.”
Freya and Sefa are sitting in a pile of blankets on the floor in front of the fire, wearing nothing but their underthings is what Mithian assumes is solidarity since neither of them are as soggy as she and Elena. They do have a deck of cards out though, and Mithian thinks distantly that she might be able to handle Elena lounging around in a negligee if she can beat everyone’s collective asses at canasta.
“I saved you your tea,” Freya says mildly, and while Mithian realizes that this is code for ‘you have been very stupid and made me worry about you,’ she also thinks that she’s been forgiven. The tea isn’t poisoned, at any rate.
“You are a goddess,” Mithian allows, and settles down next to the fire to get warm. It’s a bit of a shock when Elena drops down next to her, but she looks so exhausted and worried that Mithian says nothing and pulls her close so that she can rest her head in Mithian’s lap. Her fingers are cold where she wraps them around Mithian’s ankle, where the gauze is still tied from this morning but might as well be a lifetime ago.
Mithian is happily drunk, one hand tangled in Elena’s hair and the other holding what is probably her fifth glass of wine. She’s lost track. It was somewhere around the eighth hand of canasta when Vivian had stood up asking why she wasn’t drunk for this, especially as Annis had long gone to bed and wouldn’t be able to raise objections to a small raid on a wine cellar. Mithian had said something like “You have a wine cellar?” and Vivian had magically appeared with a bottle of terrible cooking wine that Mithian had just shrugged at and said “why not, it is too terrible to even use on food,” and popped the cork.
The fire has dimmed, and Sefa has the lone tea candle in front of her as she tells them all, slurring and slow, how much she loves living in the house, and how much she loves them, and how working in a factory had nearly drained her soul and crushed her spirit. Sefa, it transpires, had always been poor, and rather than join the armed forces as a nurse like Mithian, she had taken on one of the many factory positions that opened up as men across the country left to fight and die in Europe. Once the war was over she’d found herself displaced and poor once more, and though the mercy of the gods ended up on Annis’ doorstep not long after Freya had arrived.
Vivian, taking this story as a challenge it almost certainly wasn’t, chimed in with tales of growing up nouveau riche out in California, Freya and Sefa throwing in details that Vivian couldn’t be bothered to remember in a tale that evidently been told a thousand times before. It did explain a lot, not least how Vivian had ended up at the house after her father had caught her with the stable boy—“I thought it was that golfer” says Freya, “no, you definitely told me he was a street magician” said Sefa, “both, you’re both right it was all three of them,” Vivian says waving her hand—prompting him to seek out a discreet all-girls boarding situation run by a lady of bearing who had somehow missed hearing about his daughter’s quickly growing reputation. Annis, who had immigrated just after the opening salvos took the lives of her husband and son, was protected from her eccentricities by her wealth and widower’s status. Vivian’s father was under the impression he’d sent her to some sort of French manners school. He was not to be told about the farm work at any costs.
“Besides,” said Vivian with the air of one confiding a profound secret, “I rather like working with my own hands. Tell anyone I said that and I’ll deny it.”
They all swore not to tell.
“What about you,” Sefa asks Elena from where she’s sprawled over the settee. “I don’t think we’ve heard yours.” They don’t ask Mithian- she feels a small bloom of relief that her story is obvious enough they won’t pry.
Elena is barely conscious. As if she weren’t on the brink of exhaustion when they came in, one glass of terrible, terrible wine had made her even more pliant and sleepy. Mithian was probably going to hell for the images her mind conjured up seeing Elena like this, but she kept her hand tangled in Elena’s hair, Elena making a soft protesting noise every time she tried to take it away.
“S’not that great,” Elena yawns. “It was this or jail. I like it here a lot better than jail.”
Freya, who’s more or less sober, is making the same gaping face Mithian knows she must be making. Vivian, ever pragmatic, asks the important question.
“What would they have sent you to jail for?”
Elena hums thoughtfully. “I guess I broke a lot of shit. Yeah, vandalism? Plus I couldn’t pay the fines. So, Jail.”
Vivian and Sefa laugh, something about Elena being clumsy, and Freya stands up to usher everyone to bed saying that it’s late, and they should try to get a little rest before the flurry of inevitable work tomorrow.
It takes three of them to get Elena up the staircase, mostly because Vivian keeps stumbling and giggling and isn’t really helping at all.
Mithian tries to deposit Elena on her bed, but they’re a bit too intertwined and Elena makes awful distressed sounds when Mithian tries wiggle free. If Elena is upset about it tomorrow, Mithian will just have to deal with it then. She’s too tired all of a sudden to deal with much of anything at all. And when she crawls under the covers and Elena wraps her arms around her waist, head resting in the crook of Mithian’s neck, it feels like she made the right choice.
The storm lasts for two more days, during which time Freya improves dramatically at canasta, Sefa teaches them how to make homemade bread, Vivan mends everyone’s stockings, and Elena and Mithian are decidedly Not Awkward. Their hands will brush as they both reach for the sugar bowl, and Elena will stammer and Mithian will blush. Mithian will catch herself rubbing circles on Elena’s back, or Elena will realize she’s draped her arm possessively over Mithian’s shoulder again. Either way, a physical barrier dissolved between them, and Mithian can’t help but feel like they’re standing on the brink of something huge and exciting and new.
Vivian makes the drive into town and arrives back with a trunk full of items needing to be restocked since the storm, along with a handful of letters.
“Mithian! You have a letter from across the ocean, an Arthur Pendragon. My, he sounds dashing.” She gives Mithian an exaggerated wink as Mithian snatches the letter from her hand and uses a butter knife to tear it open right there at the kitchen counter.
“I- I think I’m going to lie down for a bit,” Mithian hears Elena say as if from a great distance. “I’m not feeling so well.”
Mithian devours the letter, hungry for Arthur’s opinion on all her stories of the house, the girls, and most of all Elena. His words are encouraging, and despite not being quite up-to-date with recent events he advises her to talk with Elena, telling her that ‘if what you’ve relayed me is true, I have every confidence you’ll get a positive response.’ Mithian can’t help the smile that spreads across her face at the words. The idea that she could have her own happy ending, here in a house that’s not exactly the one she’s imagined for herself, but more real and loving than that of her daydreams- and that it wouldn’t be another Guinevere disaster, but something reciprocal-
“Where’s Elena,” she asks, smile dimming only slightly.
“She went upstairs. Wasn’t feeling well,” Freya answers. Her words are oddly clipped, and her gaze narrows on the letter.
Vivian, who’s very unsubtly trying to peek at the letter, looks disappointed to realize it’s all in French.
“I’ll be right back,” Mithian says and fairly sprints down the hall, taking the steps two at a time.
“Elena,” she says swinging the door wide. Elena is curled up on the bed, knees drawn to her chest. When Mithian enters she draws herself impossibly tighter.
“Elena,” Mithian says softer, “what’s the matter?”
She puts her hand on Elena’s forehead to gauge her temperature and Elena bats it away.
“You should say yes,” she mumbles into the pillow.
“What on Earth are you talking about?”
Elena rolls over to look Mithian in the eyes, and she looks so upset that Mithian finds herself searching back frantically for what she could have done to upset her, and can come up with nothing.
“Your Arthur, the one you’re always writing letters to. Didn’t he propose yet?”
The absurdity of it startles a laugh out of her, and Elena’s face shutters. Before she can turn away Mithian catches her hand, so that she can see Mithian’s face clearly when she tells her “Arthur didn’t propose to me. And it’s probably because he doesn’t love me, and I don’t love him.”
Elena frowns. “But—the letter-“
“Do you want me to read it to you ’Dear Mithian, I’m so glad that you’ve settled into the house well! Your descriptions of the other girls remind me of some of the men in my platoon—“
Elena interrupts, “wait I don’t understand. If you don’t love Arthur, then why-“
“Arthur is the only person I’ve ever met who is like me.”
She remembers Merlin, tearing the medical tent apart after hearing news that Arthur’s unit had taken heavy fire and thinking he must be insane to throw everything away and go AWOL for a love that could never be realized. She remembered her and Gwen closing the bed curtains so that the entire ward wouldn’t see Arthur crying when he woke up to find Merlin at his bedside, and their subsequent reunion. She remembers Uther Pendragon storming in with internal affairs agents who had come looking for Merlin, and Merlin looking up at her from his cramped position in the medicine cabinet asking her why she didn’t just turn him in.
“I might be a little personally invested in your happily ever after,” she’d said. Merlin had raised his eyes to ask, and she’d nodded at Gwen, who stood radiant in the face of Uther’s red-jowled fury, inviting him to get the fuck out of her hospital, and Merlin had nodded back because in that moment they’d understood each other with perfect clarity.
“The only other person who’s like you?” Elena asks back in the present. Mithian tries to tread carefully here.
“We both love someone we shouldn’t. Which is to say, I do love someone, but I don’t know that she loves me back.”
She takes a deep breath, willing Elena to understand, and sees the moment when it clicks and her eyes widen.
And slowly, in case she’s reading this completely wrong, she brings her hand to cup Elena’s cheek.
“In that case,” Elena says, “I think you should hurry up and kiss me, because I happen to love you back.”
“Not your, ‘not really brother’ on the mirror,” Mithian asks, just to be thorough.
“Not even a little. Gwaine is my Arthur,” she says, and her smile is like the breaking dawn when she takes a fistful of Mithian’s shirt and reels her in for a kiss that starts chaste and warm, and almost immediately becomes hot, wet, and messy.
“I think,” Elena manages between gasps and the kisses Mithian lays on her throat, “that it would be a gross oversight to do this in a room with two beds and not make use of either of them.”
Mithian swears heartily and pushes Elena further up the bed, hands already flying to divest her of clothing and coming to rest on the vee of her thighs.
"I am so angry at you for wearing pants right now," Mithian says- shit was that French? she can't tell anymore. Elena groans and tightens her fingers in her hair.
"Keep talking," she says, and Mithian tells her all the things she thought about doing to her since she first fell into her arms in the kitchen. She's not sure how much of it gets through to Elena, but there's no mistaking the tone and once she removes the pants the intent becomes fairly clear.
Mithian is busy sucking a series of bruises up the inside of Elena's spreadlegs, just to hear the noises she makes when she hears footsteps outside on the landing.
Elena, who is making quite the racket now that Mithian stops to think about it, tugs on her hair and makes a noise along the lines of 'why did you stop.'
There's a knock on their door, then Sefa says, "Jesus, did you guys catch the plague," and Vivian's voice frantic, "Sefa! Oh my god, no, stop it, I'll explain downstairs-" and the sound of retreating footsteps. Elena bursts out laughing and Mithian, despite feeling like her face is on fire, does the same.
"Once more, with feeling," Elena says cheerfully, and Mithian tackles her back down to the bed, where they are both non-verbal for quite some time.
They lie together, just breathing. The window is open a fraction and curtains flutter gently in the breeze, flickering their skin with afternoon sunlight. It's not quite the image Mithian had on the train; quiet stone house, a garden, a lover to cook breakfast for. Their house is never quiet, the garden is fields and fields that she'll break her back harvesting, and Vivian will insist on cooking breakfast because somehow Mithian will manage to screw it up, Freya watching, amused from the sidelines with a cup of tea and Annis and Sefa trying to persuade her that jam belongs on toast and not pancakes. Elena's face will be the first thing she sees in the morning, and the last things she sees before she goes to sleep.
And Mithian wouldn't trade that for the world.