Jennifer grew up holding fast to her belief in the divine. But like her brother, she lost her faith when God left her to suffer.
They grew up in a God-fearing household, she and Tom. It was their father's faith, passed down to them in harsh lessons. Their father believed that the world was impure, corrupt; that it must be cleansed by a righteous faith, a true faith to save the world from the hell it had become. And most of all, their father believed that there could be no true faith without hardship, without payment to God in tears, sweat, pain, sacrifice.
The power of his resurrection lies in the touch of his suffering.
Their roles in life were as fixed for them as their faith. Tom was raised to be a missionary, to travel and spread the good word to a heathen world. And Jennifer's role was to stay at home, to live humbly, to be a good daughter and serve her father until she found a suitable husband to serve instead. And both of them fulfilled those roles as best they could, until both of them failed.
Tom came back to them a broken man, faith and soul shattered. As his body healed, they lost him to laudanum and to pain no poppy could numb. And Jennifer? Her failure was a different kind. A worse one by far, in their father's eyes: to love women instead of men, and to refuse her duty as a good Christian woman because of the impure corruption in her soul. She bears her own scars for her failure, her back striped not from a fiery cross but their father's belt.
She prayed to change, to be what she was meant to be and not how she was born. But God did not save her any more than God saved Tom. All they had was each other, as it ever was, until Tom disappeared and they feared him dead. Until strange men came and dragged Jennifer to God.
She didn't recognize God at first. How could she? God was nothing like she expected. God was not a young, bearded man but an old woman, and bound not to a cross but to a tangle of vines. But the first night after she was brought to the island, when she and God were alone inside the vine-tangled barn--
They fed God Jennifer's blood, when they brought her to Erisden. They cut her open and pressed the wound to the old woman's mouth, and she fed, nursing on her flesh. It made Jennifer sick at first, the perversity, the corruption, and then--
And then it felt-- Strangely right. But the moment passed, and she was so afraid.
Revelation did not fully reach her until that night. When the men were gone, when they were alone together, she looked at the old woman and no longer saw her earthly shell, the flesh that bound her. She saw God, shining clear and true.
"My daughter," God said, in a strange tongue Jennifer somehow understood. "Oh, how I've waited for you."
Everything in Jennifer yearned to lay in God’s embrace and surrender to her, surrender everything and all she was. But she too was bound, her ankles and wrists and arms tied and secured by a length of chain, short and strong. The best she could do was struggle to her knees in awe, in worship, and offer up the sacrifice of her heart.
"I accept your faith, my daughter," God said, pleased. The vines around her flushed with green leaves and flowers, as they had when God drank Jennifer's blood.
"Please help me," Jennifer begged. The men who took her were cruel and heartless, she feared for her safety, her chastity, her life.
"It is you who will help me," God told her. "But we must be patient, daughter. We must wait for your brother."
"Tom?" Jennifer asked, startled. "We have feared him dead for months."
"He will come," God promised. "You must hold strong, keep him in your heart."
"I always have," Jennifer said. "I always will." She thought of Tom intensely, prayed for him and to him. She thought of his purity, his love for her, the deep, true faith he lost and longed to have again. He could have it here with her, with God, if he came here. She didn't understand this place, what was happening there, and yet-- In her blood, her bones, her heart, she knew this was where she was meant to be. Where they were both meant to be.
God's vines flushed again, as though Jennifer's very thoughts were feeding her. The sight sustained Jennifer. This was the divinity she had always prayed for, as deeply in her heart as Tom had prayed in his.
God looked down upon her, divinity shining through her battered smile. "My blessing is upon you now. You shall suffer, but you shall not be harmed."
"Thank you," Jennifer said, eyes filling with tears of gratitude.
The days that followed were her darkest, but she held fast to her faith. She kept Tom always in her heart, silently praying for him to come, to find her, to find God and give himself wholly as she yearned to. Scars accumulated on her arms as they fed her to God again and again. Her clothes and hair became dirty and ragged. She endured hunger, cold, exhaustion, the cruelty of so many. But God spoke true. She suffered but she was not harmed.
And then at last, Tom came for her. He found her, endured for her, and then--
And then he died for her.
She grieves for him now. She grieves at having left him behind, at not being able to bury him with their ancestors. But what meaning does a Christian burial have for either of them now? What purpose did their trials have if it all ended in fire and grief and God's death-scream bursting from the very rock itself? Away from the island and its madness, heartbroken by her brother's bloody death, Jennifer's faith fails yet again, and she feels ashamed.
Perhaps she should not call Malcolm kind. He was just as responsible for her abduction as Frank and Quinn. As the days went on with no ransom, his desperation grew even more obvious. But he was God's chosen, her instrument despite her enslavement, and Jennifer saw in him a kinship that was lacking in the others. She saw his faith, though it wavered, was the same as her own. He bled willingly for God, as Jennifer did despite having no choice but to bleed.
The people of Erisden all bled for God, and every day they prayed to her, and yet-- There was no true faith in their worship. Eventually Jennifer realized they did not know God at all, only Malcolm and his pride. He loved God, yet he claimed God's glory for himself, and that was Erisden's undoing.
Yet he protected her. He fended off the worst cruelties of Quinn and his thugs, men who were violent and saw faith only as a tool for their selfish ends. After weeks passed with no response from her father, Quinn wanted to let his men use her and then kill her, grind her up and feed her to God. Frank was passive, his silence accepting, empty. Malcolm was the only one who stood in the way of that monstrous end. For that she was grateful.
Jennifer knows her feelings are wrong. That truth was beaten into her, and yet--
Andrea was more than just kind. She was beautiful, she was-- Awake and caring and strong in ways Jennifer had always yearned to be. She defied the bullying that the rest of Erisden embraced. She tended to Jennifer's wounds and gave her extra food and blankets and laudanum to ease her. The laudanum made Jennifer think of Tom and how they lost him, but she took it anyway, grateful.
Andrea was beautiful. She's still beautiful, maybe even more now that they're safe. But Andrea is grieving, too. Quinn killed Malcolm as surely as he killed Tom.
"We should go back," Jennifer says, one night over dinner with Andrea and her uncle Henry. "For the bodies. We should bring them home."
"After everything you two went through?" Henry asks, concerned. "You must continue to rest, let your health recover, not-- Go back to that blighted island." He softens his words with a smile. "Doctor's orders."
"Uncle is right," Andrea says. "You went through so much, and--" She looks guilty. "If I let you risk your health now, I'd never forgive myself." And then she--
Jennifer wants to believe that there's meaning in the way Andrea looks at her with flashes of-- It couldn't be longing. Andrea is nothing like Jennifer, with her wrongness, her ugly scars. Andrea saw the scars when she tended to her, saw their age, their layers, and wondered with her eyes but never voiced the questions of who, of why. They were never alone to share such intimacies before, and now—
It hardly matters. If Andrea had feelings for anyone, it was for Tom. Jennifer tries not to feel jealous of her brother, tries not to be angry with him for once again having something she never could. It's not as though they had a chance to ever act on whatever feelings they had. Tom was there to save Jennifer and he died doing so. To be envious of him now feels churlish at best. She's grateful for her survival and her escape and to have Andrea's company at all. She could never ask for more than that.
After dinner, Uncle Henry returns home, and Andrea stays.
"You don't need to stay," Jennifer says, as she has several times before. "I'll be all right on my own."
Andrea gives her a patient look. "Do you really want me gone that much?"
"Of course not," Jennifer protests. The last thing she wants is for Andrea to leave. But how could she keep her?
Something in Jennifer's face softens Andrea's. She closes the distance between them and takes Jennifer's hands in her own. "I'm not going anywhere," she promises. "This is where I want to be."
Is it? Jennifer wonders, but doesn’t dare ask aloud.
Perhaps it's wrong for Jennifer to be glad now that her father's mind is gone. But she is. And yet-- To lose her father and her brother and her faith all in one cruel blow--
Nightmares plague her, terrors of men with knives and spears, taunting children, everything burning--
She refuses any more laudanum, even to sleep. She somehow wakes without a sound, her screams still stifled in her throat after weeks of desperate silence. She pulls on her robe and creeps quietly downstairs.
Not for the first time, she finds Andrea already there, sitting by the fire, staring into it as if searching for answers. When she sees Jennifer approach, her expression softens and she gives a crooked smile.
"We must stop meeting like this," Andrea jokes.
Jennifer smiles back, matching her, and takes the other chair, as has become their strange little custom. Neither of them asks about the other's nightmares. It feels-- Unnecessary.
They sit in companionable silence, watching the fire. Andrea puts on a fresh log and sends a shower of bright sparks up the chimney. Jennifer wonders if she will ever stop thinking about Erisden when she sees fire. If not, she will think of Erisden forever.
"Did you ever meet her?" Jennifer asks, one of the many questions waiting deep in her heart finally working its way out. "The old woman." Such a simple way to describe something beyond description.
"My father tried very hard to hide her from me," Andrea admits. "I think he was always ashamed about-- The truth of what he did."
"But did you meet her?" Jennifer asks again. It feels important somehow, even though-- She died. God died. The grief of it feels too huge to accept. How can this world continue, the sun rising and setting every day, when God herself has died? It should be impossible.
"I saw her," Andrea says. "I wanted to understand-- Why things were going wrong. But she was always guarded."
"That strange man," Jennifer says. "Who was he?"
"I don't know," Andrea admits. "My father and his so-called brothers had many secrets. I used to wonder why a loving god would result in such a cruel religion. When I found the cave, I realized-- It was their religion, not hers."
"The cave?" Jennifer asks, curious. She didn't see much of Erisden beyond the barn, the town square, beyond places of captivity and public shame.
"It was old," Andrea says. "It showed us what she was capable of, how she could help us. Drawings painted on the walls centuries ago. I studied them, but--" She gives a bitter laugh. "My father hid so much from me. I wanted to save everyone, but I was blind to the truth. Of Erisden, of my father--" She closes her eyes and tears leaks out. She wipes them away. "I'm so sorry, Jen. If I'd confronted him sooner, if I'd made him tell me the truth-- I could have stopped him from taking you, and Thomas--"
Jennifer reaches out for her, across the small gap between the chairs. "It wasn't your fault."
Andrea takes her offered hand and grips it tightly. "I'm trying to make myself believe that." She pauses. "He always blamed me for my mother's death."
"Malcolm?" Jennifer asks.
Andrea nods. "He couldn't look at me without seeing her. He loved her so much, and yet-- He had so much anger for me. As though it was my choice to be born, as if given the chance I would not have traded my life for hers."
"You mother would never have wanted that," Jennifer insists. "If she was anything at all like you, she wouldn't have wanted that."
Andrea gives her a grateful smile. "Thank you," she says, rubbing her thumb against the back of Jennifer's hand. "You're only the second person to tell me that, after my uncle."
"Then everyone else is a fool," Jennifer says, her own passion surprising her. But to hear any cruelty against Andrea-- She can't bear it. "He had no right to treat you that way. He should have-- He should have cherished you." A swell of emotion makes her flush, and she looks away. But she still holds on to Andrea's hand.
There's a long pause, and then--
"As your father should have cherished you," Andrea says, quietly.
Jennifer looks back at her, startled and betrayed. Who could have told her?
"No one told me," Andrea says, answering the unspoken question. "But I used to help my uncle in his surgery. You're far from the first I've seen with such scars. Even in Erisden--" She gives another bitter laugh. "But perhaps that should not be a surprise, that fathers can be cruel to their children everywhere. What happened to Ffion--" Her hand grips tightly to Jennifer's. "I failed her, too."
"You can't blame yourself for everything that happened," Jennifer insists.
"When she told me she was pregnant, I should have known she was in danger," Andrea insists. "I should have made her and Jeremy leave right then and there. But I believed in my father's words, in his dream--"
"I wish you had met the old woman," Jennifer says. "Truly met her. She was--" She trails off, unable to find the words. "God was everything to my father. Or that's what I thought. Now I see-- God had nothing to do with what he believed, if his god was ever real at all. Perhaps he was, once, and then-- He died, like Erisden's god died."
There's a large crucifix on the wall. Andrea sees her looking at it, and looks at it, too. "Death and rebirth."
"I don't feel reborn," Jennifer admits. "I feel-- I don't know. Caught in-between. Not one thing or another. Maybe I'm simply nothing at all."
"I know that's not true," Andrea insists.
"I always wanted to do more than just-- Stay home and serve," Jennifer says. She's never talked about this to anyone, ever. She never dared. But she dares now. "I was so jealous of Tom for traveling the world, for being--" She falters.
"For being what?" Andrea asks, gently.
Tears leaks from Jennifer's eyes. Tom is dead and their father is all but gone. Even God has been lost to them. The only thing holding her back is her fear, and she is so sick of fear. "Normal," she says, voice trembling. She dares to meet Andrea's eyes.
"You seem very normal to me," Andrea says, honestly.
Jennifer gives a bitter laugh. "My sickness is invisible," she admits. "Though I suppose my father scarred me to make it plain to anyone with eyes."
"You can tell me," Andrea says. "Whatever it is, I won't judge you."
It's hard for Jennifer to believe that, no matter how compassionate Andrea is, no matter much much they've been through together, no matter how long Andrea has stayed here with her, sharing her life, by her side night and day.
But perhaps this had to happen, the truth coming out. There's no one left to speak it anymore except her. And every day with Andrea makes it harder to keep her feelings hidden. When she knows--
She'll leave. And Jennifer will be alone, truly alone, and then-- She doesn't know what she'll do. But Andrea will be free of her, free to live her life and be happy, and surely that's what matters most.
Jennifer braces herself for rejection, for disgust, for Andrea to pull her hand away and slap her and never look back.
"I feel no desire for men," Jennifer admits, the admission unfamiliar on her tongue. "But for women-- For you--"
She didn't mean that last part to slip out. But it's done, the cut sharp and clean. The pain will surely be terrible when she feels it. Perhaps she should accept the laudanum after all.
She eventually becomes aware that Andrea is still holding on to her hand. That should be impossible, and yet--
She looks up, and Andrea is-- Smiling?
"I had hoped," Andrea admits, then starts again. "The way you look at me, and I felt--"
"But my brother," Jennifer protests.
"I did have feelings for him," Andrea admits. "But he's gone and-- I've had feelings for you since-- I'm not sure exactly, but-- I'm afraid I helped you out of more than simple human kindness."
Jennifer stares at Andrea as her entire understanding of their time together is completely overturned. "But you never--"
"How could I?" Andrea asks. "You were our prisoner, and then-- You lost so much. And even if I suspected--" She takes a breath. "I feel desire for both men and women. And it's been easier to deny half of myself for the sake of-- Fitting in. But I think-- After what we both endured-- We should seek our own rebirth as-- Who we wish to be, and not what was decided for us."
Jennifer feels overwhelmed, completely unprepared for this-- Acceptance. "But-- How can we?"
"I don't know," Andrea admits. "But I'm tired of lies, even my own. And I-- I quite like you, Jen. I think you're wonderful and brave and-- Lovely, and--" She blushes and it makes her even more beautiful.
"You're so beautiful," Jennifer admits, the confession sudden and unexpected. She blushes, too. "I don't deserve you."
"We both deserve to be happy," Andrea says, firmly. "All our lives, we've suffered because other people have chosen for us. We have the chance to choose for ourselves. We're free, Jen. To be together, to love each other if-- If that's what we wish. I know that I-- I want to take care of you, to share my life with you." She sobers. "I know all of this is-- Sudden for you."
"It is," Jennifer admits.
"If you don't want to be with me, I understand," Andrea continues. "But-- Tom's last words were for us to live. If you have feelings for me-- Know that I will accept them, if you’re ready to give them."
Jennifer nods, feeling lightheaded with shock.
"Let me take you back to bed," Andrea insists. "You need to rest."
Jennifer nods again, and lets Andrea guide her back to her room. It feels much more intimate now, them being together here, alone, in only their nightclothes. It makes Jennifer think so many shameful things. The scars on her back seem to burn knowingly.
Andrea pulls up the blanket, tucking her in, and Jennifer reaches out and takes her hand before she can pull it away.
"I need to think, but-- Please don't go," Jennifer asks, fearful that she could lose this chance now that she knows she has it.
"I'm not going anywhere," Andrea promises. "This is where I want to be."
And this time, Jennifer believes her.
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.