In the morning, Jennifer feels as though she's come out of a dense fog into bright sunlight. When she sees Andrea before breakfast, hair still mussed from sleep, an adoration comes over her that is so intense it takes her breath away. And when Andrea sees her and smiles--
It should frighten her, these feelings, this want. But her heart feels full and calm the way it never has before, never except the moment she knelt for God in a vine-filled barn.
"Feeling better?" Andrea asks, knowingly.
"So much," Jennifer admits. She can't help but reach for Andrea, and Andrea takes her hand, holds it. "Andrea," she breathes, hopeful, nervous, eager and afraid.
"Oh, Jen," Andrea sighs, and she pulls Jennifer into her embrace.
Jennifer holds her back and is intensely aware of the press of their bodies against each other, of Andrea's arms and her breasts and her belly, of her soft hair against Jennifer's cheek. It's been so long since she was allowed such intimacy, since she allowed herself to feel--
The memory of her father's belt makes her tense and pull away.
"Jen?" Andrea asks, concerned.
"I'm all right," Jennifer insists. "Just-- Bad memories."
"We have too many of those," Andrea says, sadly. She offers her hand and Jennifer takes it. "Come. Let's eat and-- We'll talk?"
"There was a girl," she admits. "We found each other somehow, we both-- But father caught us. And after that--" She swallows. "My father believed that sin must be cleansed through suffering. And my sin was very great. After that-- He always kept me close, to ensure I would never sin again."
"You were his prisoner," Andrea says, understanding.
"In all but name," Jennifer says. "He could have married me off, but-- I think he was afraid that a husband would not--" She doesn't finish, she can't. So much of this she's barely admitted to herself. She knew no other life than the one fixed for her. No matter what desires she might have--
She takes strength from the touch of Andrea's hand in her own, from Andrea's gentle understanding, her acceptance.
"Perhaps that's why--" Jennifer continues. "To go from one prison to another, from one-- Cruelty to another-- There is a kind of-- Peace in-- Simply surviving. Enduring. Tom and I were taught most of all to endure."
"I wish we'd had more time together," Andrea says. "The three of us-- I saw much of you in him, I think. The same-- quiet determination, the same need for-- Gentleness, in a harsh world."
Jennifer does need that. She needs it so much.
"Tom never knew," Jennifer says. "Father was so ashamed of me. I think-- He sent Tom away sooner than he should have to keep him from me, as though-- My sickness would taint him."
"You're not sick," Andrea says, firmly. “Or tainted.”
Jennifer doesn't want to argue. "We're twins, Tom and I. Not identical, obviously, but-- We shared our mother's womb, we shared-- We were desperately close as children, especially after mother died. When Tom was sent away, we wrote so many letters to each other. I always kept him in my heart, and he kept me in his." She grips at her locket, back around her neck where it belongs. She wasn't wearing it when she was taken and she's grateful for that. If she had they would have taken it, recognized Tom from the photograph inside when he came to save her.
"Can I see?" Andrea asks. Jennifer nods, and Andrea opens the locket. She looks fondly at the photograph, then between the photograph and Jennifer. "Twins," she says, with a smile. She closes the locket again.
"If he'd lived," Jennifer asks, because she must.
"It wouldn't change the feelings I have for you," Andrea insists. "The two of us are here together and that's what's important."
"You're right," Jennifer says, smiling for her. Her eyes flick to Andrea's mouth, her lips a light pink without her usual lipstick.
"Would you like to kiss me?" Andrea asks, knowingly.
Jennifer blushes terribly. She bites her own lip, hesitant. But yes, she wants that desperately.
"It's all right," Andrea says, softly. She reaches up and brushes back a curl of Jennifer's hair. "We're safe. No one will hurt us here."
Jennifer's chest tightens and aches, and she leans forward, halting, wanting. Andrea meets her, steady and calm.
Her lips are soft and warm. Jennifer kisses her hesitantly, barely allowing herself what she's been so-long denied. And then like her heart, her desire opens in her, and she kisses Andrea with all her desperate hunger. Andrea takes it, welcomes it, returns it, until Jennifer breaks it, sits back stunned by her own actions.
"Well," Andrea says, flushed, her lips darkened. She's pleased. Her eyes are darkened, too, desiring.
The sight of her makes Jennifer shiver. She wants to kiss Andrea again, she wants-- She wants so much it frightens her and overwhelms her and-- "Perhaps we could, um--" she starts. She looks to the doorway, thinking of-- The sitting room couch--
She's not ready yet for-- Everything that she wants. But she wants more than just to kiss Andrea. And she sees Andrea wants more than kisses, too.
But it's been so long, and she's afraid. Even this is so much, setting every nerve in her body alight.
Andrea is wonderful, is-- She's wonderful. She's soft and warm and perfect and Jennifer can't get enough of her no matter how much she kisses her, no matter how much their hands hold and stroke and tentatively explore. Andrea's sweetness opens Jennifer up, and she kisses away the tears of joy and release.
When they calm, they lie together, spooned and entangled. Jennifer never wants them to move from this spot ever again.
"Lovely," Andrea murmurs, nuzzling her from behind. "Beautiful."
Jennifer blushes terribly at her sweet words, despite everything they just did, despite the solid weight of Andrea's arm around her waist, Andrea's leg between her knees. Jennifer's body is hot and awake and languid and-- She feels like a flower finally opening after a long and bitter winter.
"You're beautiful," Jennifer protests.
"We can both be beautiful," Andrea teases, and kisses her neck. Then she sighs and snuggles closer, though they're already so close.
"Tell me something," Jennifer says, stroking idly at Andrea's wrist. "I've been talking about myself all morning."
"That's not all you've been doing," Andrea says, slyly.
Jennifer laughs. It feels good to laugh. She feels light. "Yes, but-- Now that we're-- Together-- I want to know you better." She turns her head to look back at Andrea, to show her how much she means it.
"You've decided, then?" Andrea asks.
"Yes," Jennifer says, and it feels good to say it. "I have feelings for you, Andrea. I might-- I think I'm falling in love with you and-- I want to fall. I don't want anything to catch us."
"We'll catch each other," Andrea promises. She strokes back another loose curl of Jennifer's hair. "I think I'm falling in love with you, too."
They kiss again, slow and sweet. The sofa is starting to feel-- Too narrow. There's a hunger in Jennifer's belly, a low fire that's starting to burn hot. But she wants words as well as touch.
"Tell me," she says again.
It's Andrea's turn to be shy, or perhaps simply-- Embarrassed? "It may not surprise you to hear I was very rebellious when I was young."
Jennifer laughs. "It doesn't surprise me at all."
"Well, I was," Andrea continues. "People were always telling me not to do things, and all that did was make me want to do them more. I was endlessly in trouble."
"And you loved it," Jennifer guesses.
"I loved it," Andrea agrees. "I would dress as a boy and sneak out and do everything anyone ever denied me. Including, ah, kissing other girls.”
Jennifer can’t help but imagine it. “Did they know you weren’t a boy?”
“Most of them did,” Andrea admits. “Perhaps all of them, but the fiction was— Useful.”
“I can’t imagine anyone mistaking you for a man,” Jennifer says, daring a lewd look.
“The right clothes and a hat cover many sins,” Andrea admits.
“Nothing about you could ever be a sin,” Jennifer insists, certain.
"I used to think my father hated me because I was a girl," Andrea says. "I had this notion that-- If I could make myself a boy somehow, learn a trade-- I had a fantasy of changing so completely I would even be able to take a wife. But eventually I realized-- My father couldn't stand to look at me not because of what I was, but because of who I wasn't. I took my mother from him and he never forgave me for that."
"I'm sorry," Jennifer says, though the words feel inadequate.
"After that I gave up my disguises," Andrea says. "I still insisted on learning a trade, from my uncle, but-- I was tired of-- Being wrong. I gave up my love of women and learned to be one instead."
"How did you end up on the island?" Jennifer asks.
"Father was arrested," Andrea recalls. "He was a passionate revolutionary, and an atheist, if you can believe it. None of my family had love for the church or the state. I thought it hilarious that my father ended up being in charge of both. Though the way things went--" She sighs. "He was being transported by ship and there was a storm. The prisoners broke free. My father, Quinn, and Frank were the only ones who made it to the island. According to them, once they found the goddess and she began to provide for them-- People just started to show up there, as if called somehow. My father and Quinn took charge and began to organize. They sent for their families, including me." She sighs again, and tightens her hold on Jennifer. "Erisden used to be-- Something hopeful and good. A chance to start the world over and do things right. I helped my father write his book, and-- That was one of the few times in our lives that we were happy together."
"So what went wrong?" Jennifer asks.
"What always goes wrong," Andrea says. "Greed and fear. Quinn wasn't a revolutionary like my father, he was a brutal monster, and Frank-- He didn't have the strength to lead. When the crops began to fail, everything broke down, and my father's dream of-- Equality and peace-- You saw what became of it."
Jennifer thinks of the way the vines would flush with life and then shrivel again. "Quinn called God a machine," she recalls. "I think-- Perhaps it went wrong from the start, when they captured her instead of-- Worshipping her."
"Perhaps you're right," Andrea says. "It hardly matters now."
Something in Jennifer feels like-- It still matters. Logically it shouldn't. Erisden burned until nothing remained. The followers who escaped all scattered to the four winds, chased by their shame.
"She blessed me," Jennifer admits, suddenly needing to share this. "When I was first brought to her, when we were alone-- She told me I was meant to be brought to her, that Thomas was meant to come. I gave myself to her and-- She accepted."
"What does that mean?" Andrea asks.
"I don't know," Jennifer says. "But it felt--" She rests her hand over Andrea's heart. "It felt like how it feels to fall in love, but-- More. If I could have given her everything--" Even the memory makes her tremble. She’s tried not to think on that day, afraid of the grief it would bring her, and yet-- What she feels most is yearning. For something forever lost to her, for something she can never have. But she felt that yearning for Tom before he came back to her. She felt that yearning for Andrea before she confessed her feelings.
But God died screaming in Erisden. A lost brother is one thing. A dead God is another. And Tom is dead, too, she saw the life ebbing from him, his blood soaking his clothes--
Jennifer buries her face against Andrea, caught unprepared by her grief.
"Oh, Jen," Andrea sighs, holding her, petting her hair.
"I miss him so much," Jennifer sobs.
"I know," Andrea soothes. "But I see so much of him in you, as I saw you in him. As long as you remember him-- He'll live always in your heart."
"It hurts," Jennifer admits. It hurts so much to think of Tom now, worse than it did when they were first separated, worse than it did when he was lost to them. The place in her heart for him feels like a ragged wound, agonizing at the slightest touch. How can she hold anything in her heart when it's shattered?
Andrea holds her and soothes her, letting her mourn and mourning with her. They shift until Jennifer is the one holding Andrea from behind, clinging to her needily. They rest from talking for a while and just hold each other, taking comfort in their shared embrace.
Andrea tells her not to fight it. Let the tears come, let them fall. They won't chase her away. And despite Jennifer's fears, Andrea proves herself true. Perhaps she's trying to atone for her own part in Jennifer's losses, however small. Or perhaps Andrea simply loves her. Strangely, Jennifer's grief makes her love Andrea more. She doesn't feel like she's falling in love anymore. She simply loves.
It takes days for the black tide to ebb, but she starts to feel as though-- The ragged wound is starting to scab over, starting to heal as much as such a terrible wound ever can. Despite their long separation, Tom was the other half of her, as he always was. And though she knew God only briefly--
She will be God's forever. She still feels that, knows it now that her grief no longer hides that truth. Her faith may have nowhere to go, but she offers it anyway. That faith is like a small, bright light in her heart, and she thinks of Tom asking her to be his light, guiding him to eternity, and-- She feels Tom in her heart again, too. She will pray for him.
"You're looking better today," Andrea says, checking her over with a doctorly air.
"I slept well in your arms," Jennifer admits shyly. Andrea hasn't left her side at all, not even for sleep. It hasn't driven the nightmares away, but when she wakes up and feels Andrea beside her, it settles her, calms her enough that she can sleep again. Andrea makes her feel safe the way only Tom and God ever have. Jennifer hasn't admitted that yet, it feels-- Too huge. But she feels it anyway.
"I'm glad," Andrea says, and gives her a sweet kiss. "I thought perhaps we could go out, get some fresh air. We could go to the market."
"I'd like that," Jennifer says, and is glad she can smile for Andrea again.
They clean up, dress and go outside. They dare to hold hands, and thankfully that small connection is something no one thinks to look twice at. If they were to share a passionate kiss, the kind of kiss they share behind closed doors--
If they truly mean to be together, Jennifer realizes, they will need to tread carefully. They've already spent their lives as prisoners of one kind or another. They have no desire for that to become literal.
"I was thinking," Jennifer says, as they head back, baskets full of fresh fruits and vegetables and bright flowers. "My father's estate is mine now. I've always wanted to travel, to see the world. Perhaps-- We can find somewhere-- More suited for us."
Andrea is pleased by the idea, and by the 'us'. "Yes," she agrees. "We shouldn't rush, you need time to heal, but-- We can start to make arrangements, plans. Perhaps-- Paris, or Berlin?"
"Have you ever been there?" Jennifer asks, startled and excited by the mere idea of living in such exotic places.
"I went to Paris with my father once, for one of his revolutionary meetings," Andrea says. "We'd be safe there. And it's a beautiful city."
"Then it sounds perfect for us," Jennifer says, and dares a wink. Andrea laughs, and Jennifer laughs, too.
When they return home, they air out the house. They put the flowers in vases and admire them, and make a snack of fresh fruit and cheese. After days of grieving, it feels good to brighten things up, to make everything alive again.
"If we went to Paris, I'd have to learn French," Jennifer tells Andrea, when they're lying in bed together that evening. "Do you know any French?"
"En peu," Andrea says, showing her pinched fingers. "That means 'a little.' I can say-- Bonjour. Hello. Merci beaucoup. Thank you very much. Oui. Non. That's yes and no. And je ne parle pas très bien français."
"What does that mean?" Jennifer asks.
"It means, I don't speak French very well." Andrea grins.
Jennifer gives her a playful slap on the arm. "You're impossible."
"Vous êtes impossible," Andrea says, her grin even wider. She nuzzles Jennifer and kisses her, and then the kiss goes on for long enough that Jennifer forgets about learning French.
"Andrea," Jennifer sighs, between kisses.
"I want to--" Jennifer falters, then tries again. "I want us to-- Be together."
Andrea pulls back to look at her, then realizes what Jennifer is saying. "You're sure?" she asks.
Jennifer nods. "I want you," she confesses. "I want you so much, and-- I'm ready." As ready as she'll ever be, she thinks. Her stomach flutters with butterflies. "I've only ever been with-- The one girl. And we didn't--" Father caught them before they could go as far as they wanted to. And then after that she was his prisoner.
"I'll teach you," Andrea says, clearly pleased by the chance to do so. "I'm a little rusty myself, but-- I don't think anything's changed." She has a hand on Jennifer's belly, and she slides it lower, lower.
Jennifer takes in a sharp breath as Andrea's hand slides between her thighs and cups her through her nightclothes. She sees Andrea's eyes darken again, her cheeks flush with want, and Jennifer feels herself respond in kind.
"Teach me," Jennifer breathes, and Andrea kisses her for that, deep and hungry.
They start where they've already been, lying together in their clothes, kissing and rubbing their bodies against each other. They kick back the blankets, bodies quickly warmed. Jennifer feels the shape of Andrea's breasts through the fabric and wants them bare.
"Can I?" she asks.
Andrea rears up onto her knees and pulls off her nightshirt, leaving only her knickers to cover her. She tosses the nightshirt to the floor and sits back on her heels, waiting for Jennifer to come to her.
And Jennifer does, eagerly. She rises to her knees and bows her head over Andrea's lovely breasts and cups them, touches them. She kisses a nipple, feeling daring, and then Andrea urges her to suck.
"Mmm, just like that," Andrea moans, as Jennifer nurses on her, fondles and toys with her breasts. Jennifer likes the way Andrea moans, she likes it very much. She likes the way Andrea's hands muss her hair and guide her where she wants her to go.
Jennifer explores further. She kisses and tastes Andrea's soft belly, rising and falling against her mouth. She finds the soft trail of red hair that leads down under her knickers. She caresses the soft, unmarred skin of Andrea's back, and then finds the scars on her arms.
"We match," Jennifer admits, feeling-- Relieved. Emboldened. She never thought she would be grateful for another's scars, and yet she is.
"I gave as much as I could," Andrea says, a little sadly. "Not that it made a difference, but--"
"It did," Jennifer knows, somehow. "She knew. If you’d only met her-- She would have loved you as I do."
Andrea's breath catches, and she looks down at Jennifer tenderly. Jennifer takes her arms, holding them out to show the countless thin scars from years of bloodletting. She strokes them, gives them the adoration they deserve. She kisses them, and it feels like-- Some fragment of God is still inside her, small and stubborn and hungry to grow. She wants it to grow.
"Can I see yours?" Andrea asks.
Jennifer could simply push up her sleeves, but she knows Andrea means more than that. And Jennifer wants this. But the butterflies flutter stronger than ever.
"I already know how beautiful you are," Andrea reminds her, kisses her. "Let me show you." She takes hold of the hem of Jennifer's shirt, then waits for her nod before easing it up, up and then--
Jennifer has never been this bare before for anyone. She wraps her arms around herself, so afraid to show her ugliness. Andrea urges her to sit back and then sits with her. She pulls one arm from Jennifer's defensive curl and strokes the scars there, adores them as Jennifer adored Andrea's.
"It's all right," Andrea soothes, promises. She kisses each scar. There's not nearly as many as Andrea has, not on her arms at least. She does the same with the other arm, and Jennifer starts to ease again. Andrea kisses her, touches her face, her hair, her shoulders, but not her back. She pushes Jennifer to lie down.
"All spread out for me," Andrea murmurs, and cups one breast, flicks her thumb across the nipple. Jennifer makes a small gasp, so Andrea does it again. She bends over Jennifer and feasts on her, exploring and teasing until Jennifer is liquid again. Then she lies over her and kisses and kisses her, their breasts pressed against each other, Andrea's thigh between Jennifer's legs.
"So lovely," Andrea coos, caressing, rubbing. It all makes Jennifer's head spin. She feels as though her whole world has narrowed to Andrea's lips, to Andrea's hands, to Andrea's breasts and thighs. Forget Paris; she would move to this world and live in it forever if she could. She rouses and takes more of Andrea, all that she can touch. They roll together, heads full of each other, bodies inseparable, and Jennifer falls even more deeply in love.
Jennifer finally dares to tug at the hem of Andrea's knickers, wanting to chase that trail of fine red hairs to their end. Andrea encourages her, and then she's naked, fully bare, and it's so much. Her beauty is so much for Jennifer, after a lifetime of drought. She hardly knows where to start, and so Andrea helps her, guides her hand down to the soft, trimmed curls.
"Like this," Andrea says, guiding her fingers into warm slick folds. "Like you touch yourself?"
Jennifer nods. "It's different, touching you," she admits. "I don't want to hurt you."
"You won't," Andrea says, confident. "You never have."
Somehow that's the right thing to say. Before they can go any further, Jennifer takes off her own knickers, so they're fully bare together. Andrea cups her again as she did before, but this time there's nothing in the way of her searching fingers.
"Oh!" Jennifer gasps, as Andrea opens her.
"So sweet," Andrea purrs. "Spread yourself for me?"
Jennifer spreads her thighs and Andrea lowers herself between them. Jennifer's stomach jumps with nerves, but the press of Andrea's fingers, of her lips and tongue between her folds-- In no time at all, she's moaning and writhing, completely at Andrea's mercy. And it seems Andrea has little mercy when it comes to pleasure.
"All these tiny cries," Andrea purrs. "Come, my quiet little mouse. I want to hear how loud you can be." She lowers herself again and feasts, her tongue probing and lapping as her fingers pluck with knowing ease. She draws Jennifer's body taut and then--
Jennifer cries out, and the erotic moan pulled from her is like no sound she's ever made. Her body clenches around Andrea's fingers, hungry for them, and then Jennifer slumps, sated and shaken.
Andrea looks extremely pleased with herself. "If I'm your little mouse," Jennifer says, when she can muster words again, "then you must be my kitten. The cat that ate the cream."
Andrea laughs and kisses her. Jennifer tastes herself on Andrea's lips and tongue. She wants to taste Andrea, and to make Andrea moan and shake, and to make Andrea taste herself on Jennifer's lips and tongue. She wants everything.
"I want everything," Jennifer says, starving now that she's had a taste.
"Then take it," Andrea says.
"I love you," Jennifer says.
"I love you, my little mouse," Andrea says, smiling.
"You're really going to call me that?" Jennifer says, shyly.
"Do you hate it?"
"Never," Jennifer admits. "I like being yours."
"And I like being yours," Andrea says. "I like it very much."
Jennifer blushes and buries her face against the bed. Andrea laughs and kisses her cheek.
"You are like a cat," Jennifer insists, pouting. "Curious and stubborn and-- Elegant and beautiful."
"There's that word again," Andrea teases.
"Because you are," Jennifer says, softening. She strokes Andrea's mussed hair. "You're so beautiful it makes my heart hurt."
"And how do you think mine feels?" Andrea asks.
Andrea gives her a fond look. "It feels like it's been given a gift. Perhaps one it doesn't deserve, but-- It wants the gift anyway. It wants to cherish it, to help it know just how beautiful a gift it is." She touches the scars on Jennifer's arm. "How every imperfection only makes it shine brighter." She moves her fingers higher, up Jennifer's arm, up to her shoulder, and then-- She presses her spread hand over the ugly scars that weave across Jennifer’s back.
Tears leak from Jennifer's eyes. She can't even bear to touch her own back, and yet Andrea--
Andrea kisses her, hushes her, and then pulls her to lie on her front, to bare her back completely. And Jennifer surrenders to her, trusting her, and--
Andrea caresses her back, kisses the scars one by one. An ugly sob forces its way out of Jennifer, and Andrea pauses, but Jennifer reaches back for her. Andrea takes her hand and squeezes it, and then leans over her back again to adore it. It should be impossible for anyone to adore such ugliness, and yet--
"Beautiful," Andrea murmurs, caressing her.
Instead, she dreams of Tom.
He's on Erisden, in her dream. He's sitting in a small church made of stone and living trees. In the dream, she approaches the church and kneels at the entrance, then walks inside.
"I miss you," she tells Tom. She wants him back so much.
"I miss you," Tom replies, and she can see that he does. She can see that his yearning is the same as her own.
She sits down across from him, matching his posture. There are strange markings on his face, dark veins that look familiar. Where has she seen them before?
"I don't know how I'll live without you," Jennifer admits. "Even when you were far away, you were always in my heart."
"As you are always in mine," Tom says. "I'm waiting for you, Jen. God is waiting for you. We're sorry we took so long to reach you, but-- We had to heal, and-- So did you."
"We?" Jennifer asks, curious.
"God and I," Tom says. "But Malcolm, too. Bring Andrea. I'm so happy for the both of you. We all deserve to be happy."
It's only a dream, Jennifer knows that. And yet it still shocks her. "You know?"
"God showed me," Tom says. "I've learned so many things, seen so much. God wants to share all of it with you, too."
"She's alive?" Jennifer asks, filled with sudden hope. Could it be true? Could God and Tom and Malcolm still be alive?
"The old woman’s name was Oilell," Tom says. "She gave herself back to the earth. But God is here with us." He touches his chest. "As it is with you."
"With me?" Jennifer asks, touching her own chest. She feels something inside her, something small and pure.
"Come back to Erisden, Jen. Please. We're ready now. All of us.”
"We'll come," Jennifer promises. And she knows somehow that when she wakes from this dream, she'll remember her promise.