That was a development, Eve thinks.
Eve is currently getting stuffed into her evening gown, the maid behind her yanking the strings of her corset tight until her ribs creak from the strain. She’s a sweet thing, Elena, with kind eyes and a bright smile when she’s lucky enough to see it, and has become something of a confidant that Eve can turn to. But when it comes to preparing Eve for social occasions, Elena puts their friendship on the backburner to wrestle Eve into the too-tight dresses and layers that are required of a lady.
However, the pain was barely registering in Eve’s muddled brain, her thoughts held captive by the odd stranger that had literally flung herself at Eve’s feet.
A very pretty stranger at that.
She had very delicate features, Eve muses. Her eyes were catlike, wide, but alert. Skin is smooth, and bright. Long neck, full lips. A lost look in her eye, focused, but almost entirely inaccessible.
It should be unsettling, how quickly Eve had raked her eyes over the stranger and committed her features to memory. Even more so that she had become Eve’s latest coping mechanism, despite the briefness of their sole meeting. But it had been the woman’s words, her hushed breath in the shell of her ear, that had set her ablaze.
Wear it down.
“Miss Park? Ma’am?”
Eve jolted from her daze, turning to her faithful maid.
“Yes, Elena, my apologies. What were you saying?”
“I was just asking what you would like me to do with your hair tonight, miss.” Elena replies, before shooting a playful grin. “When you didn’t reply, I thought I had pulled your corset too tight!”
Eve allows herself a chuckle, smiling softly.
“Not to worry, I’m alright.” Her thoughts drift back to blonde hair, and hushed whispers. Eve suddenly feels very hot under her dress.
“Elena, do you think we could leave it down for tonight without causing too much of a stir?” Eve asked tentatively.
“Oh yes miss! I think we have some oils that’ll do well for those curls.”
It takes much less time to run flowery smelling oils through her hair, than it is to pin it into uncomfortable shapes, Eve concedes to the mystery woman in her head. Elena has left, summoned by Niko to trim his mustache, and Eve is grateful for the sweet silence that follows.
She hates dinners like these. Too many aristocratic bigots crammed into a room, droning on about the most inconsequential, boring, of matters. She hates their eyes, the way they examine her features as if she were a specimen in a petri dish, then look through her to ask Niko where he ‘picked up’ such a woman.
Eve digs her nails into the heels of her palms, and relishes the sharp pain that follows. It’s her comfort, her silent rebellion, and reminds her that Niko can’t control this dark part of her that she keeps hidden. It’s all hers, the only thing she truly owns, and it feels magnificent to swim in its depths for just a moment.
She turns to her reflection in the vanity, and she almost doesn’t recognize herself. Her hair is dark, almost wild, framing her face and tumbling down her shoulders in black silk. The neckline of her navy blue gown is low, just enough to be proper, but certainly not conservative. She feels seen, alive, and Eve feels the memory of hazel eyes roam over her. It’s obsessive, borderline parasitic in the way this stranger has burrowed her way into Eve’s brain.
But Eve can’t bring herself to stop.
The dinner really couldn’t have gone any worse.
It had been Niko that brought up the whole damned thing, just when Eve was beginning to get comfortable with hiding the evidence of her chronic panic attacks.
He had been boasting to his friends, ‘good investors from Boston,’ that as soon as they arrived in New York, he would marry Eve within the week . Eve had immediately paled. She half-listened to Niko’s loud voice as she felt the world tilt on its axis, as what little stable ground she had left was ripped out from under her feet.
She thought she had more time, before the inevitable day came. At least a few more months of tracing her maiden name into the night sky before it would be ripped away from her forever. To do the ceremony so soon would mean that Eve’s last days of freedom would be here, on this god forsaken ship.
“And you, Miss Park? How are you feeling with these… sudden arrangements?”
Eve’s head snapped up, eyes wide. Carolyn Martens, one of the most powerful investors in the United Kingdom was speaking to her. She had a steely look about her, reddish hair cropped short, her posture ramrod straight, with expensive looking furs draped over her shoulders. Carolyn isn’t accompanied by a man either, something Eve did not fail to notice. Not to mention she was doing an excellent job ignoring the blanched look on Niko’s face, since she had dared to address Eve directly.
“I-I don’t really-”
Eve's voice breaks, feeling her heart pound higher into her throat. Everyone’s eyes are on her, waiting for her to respond with something coherent, but she can’t get the words out, why won’t they come out?
“Well, Miss Park?” Carolyn prods. Her eyebrow is quirked, eyes never leaving Eve’s. She’s challenging her, Eve realizes. She wants to know if she’ll actually do it, throw societal expectations to the wind, and resist.
“She’s enthralled, Carolyn, why wouldn’t she be? Besides, I’m sure she’s more than ready to start having children as soon as we’re married, we can’t waste any time-”
Niko’s sentence is cut short as Eve quickly stands, offers a quick ‘ excuse me ’ and bursts out the doors of the dining hall into the open air. She can’t handle their eyes, the pressure, the feeling of pure panic rising in her every passing second she’s in their company. She pretends she doesn’t hear Niko’s nervous ‘ah, feisty aren’t they ?’ and runs across the deck, her hands half-bundling her dress as she makes it to the stern of the ship.
It’s cold out, and the frigid temperature bites at the exposed skin of Eve’s shoulders, her breath visible in small puffs. But the stars are beautiful and bright, and Eve feels as though she could cry with how innocent they look, twinkling down at her.
She can’t do this anymore. She can’t. She’s 37, trapped in an engagement that will most certainly kill what’s left of her spirit, with no other options. There’s nowhere to go. No one to save her. The last of her freedom stripped away.
Eve peers over the railing, into the dark, churning water below. She could save herself the misery of bearing the children whose father she despises, a life that can barely be considered that at all. She could. She can.
Eve feels herself place her foot on the first rung, then the second. The heels of her shoes clink against the bars, and Eve soon has herself over the railing, her hands gripping the top rail behind her.
She feels free here.
Just as she’s about to step off into an icy grave however, she hears the same voice that’s been haunting her all day.
“I really wouldn’t do that, if I were you.”
For the second time tonight, Eve almost gives herself whiplash with how fast she snaps her head around.
It’s the woman. With her long legs covered by the same comfortable trousers, and the loose button-up with the top buttons undone, showing a lovely expanse of collarbone. From the looks of them they’re well-worn, yet she wears them with such confidence, it's like she just walked out of a fashion boutique. It’s not like Eve hasn’t seen women in trousers before, she’s seen plenty. It’s just that this woman makes them look good.
“Don’t come any closer! I-I’ll jump!” Eve shouts back shakily. For the love of god, she just wants to be left alone for once.
“Are you sure? It will be very cold down there,” the woman replies with an air of nonchalance, as if Eve isn’t one motion away from ending it all. Her hands are comfortably tucked into her pockets, and her face impassive as her eyes pierce into Eve’s.
“How would you know?” Eve grinds out, turning to look back down into the churning water below.
“I have had a few close calls,” she replies, and begins rolling up her shirtsleeves, giving Eve the distinct impression that if needed, she’ll haul Eve off the railing with her bare hands.
“If you take one more step, I’ll jump,” she spits out, feeling exceptionally proud of herself for throwing politeness to the wind in her final moments. The woman is unfazed, looking past Eve into the wide expanse of ocean and cracking her knuckles.
“I know you would,” the woman says, meeting Eve’s gaze. She pauses, as if she’s mentally weighing all her possible responses before adding, “You wore it down?”
“Yes, thank you for the suggestion.”
“It’s very pretty.”
Eve huffs out an exasperated laugh, and tries not to think about how nice the word ‘pretty’ sounds on her stranger’s accented tongue.
“And what if I do jump? What then?” Eve says evenly.
“Well, I suppose I will just have to jump in after you,” the woman says matter of factly, and proceeds to yank off her boots just to prove the point.
“I’ve done crazier.”
“You’ll drown with me.”
“Ah, how romantic,” the woman smirks. Eve doesn’t respond, pushing the warm feeling that’s heating in her chest down to her toes.
“You want to know about my close call?” the woman asks, shifting the smallest bit closer.
“I was ice fishing with my brother when we were very young. We were on the lake, and we thought the ice was thick enough, but I fell into the water. Russia is very deceiving, no?” she chuckles.
“It was the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. It feels like knives, that is how cold the water gets. I could not even move to swim to the surface, I was paralyzed. Luckily enough, my brother was able to drag me out, but I could hardly breathe for a while after. Not fun,” the woman says, as if a near death experience was just another day at the office.
“You’re from Russia? Explains the accent,” Eve breathes out, starting to feel woozy from looking so far down off the rail.
“Born and raised,” she replies.
“What’s it like there?”
“Cold, very snowy. Sometimes we have dung throwing,”
Eve laughs at that, and the woman grins.
“Is this your way of telling me you smell like shit?”
The woman barks out a laugh. It’s kind of harsh sounding, not at all ‘lady-like’, but it fits and Eve likes it.
The woman takes a beat before responding.
“I really do not want to jump after you, it will be ice fishing all over again. Plus, you are very sassy and have nice hair. Please give me your hand?”
She smiles hopefully.
As much as she hates to admit it, Eve likes her. She’s funny, gorgeous, just a little bit charming, and is completely willing to fling herself after Eve if she lets go. Not to mention that she has made Eve feel the most like herself in years, and is already one of the most interesting people she’s ever met. She wants to know everything about her, and that alone is enough for her to reach out and place her hand in the woman’s warm, calloused one.
“Hi,” the woman says softly.
Wow she's pretty.
“Hi,” Eve breathes. “I never got your name?”
“Villanelle Astankova. You?”
Villanelle. Like her laugh, the name fits her.
“Eve Park. It’s nice to meet you,” Eve says.
Villanelle grins the most dazzling smile Eve’s ever seen in her life.
Eve wasn't normally a woman to swoon, but the sound of Villanelle saying her name just did it for her. Who was going to blame her? The way Villanelle’s accent curled deliciously around the ‘r’ of her last name was enough to make any woman go a little jelly-legged.
Which was problematic, as Eve soon lost her footing on the railing.
She let out a scream as Villanelle’s grip on her hand went from gentle to vice-like, as she dangled precariously over the edge. Eve felt one of her heeled shoes drop into the waves below, and looked up to see Villanelle’s wide eyes and a panicked expression flashing across her face.
“Eve! Hang on!” she yelled, and Eve could only nod in response. She was going to die here. She was going to drown in cold, icy water, with only hazel eyes and blonde hair to comfort her as she sank to the bottom of the ocean.
Just as she was preparing to plummet into the North Atlantic, she sees Villanelle Astankova grit her teeth, reach out her other hand, and lift her back over the edge, her arms quickly wrapping around Eve’s waist.
Eve tumbles over the railing, and proceeds to land on top of her rescuer, letting out a soft ‘oof’ as Villanelle’s back hits the deck. They stay like that for a moment, soft puffs of air filling the little space between them, both processing that Eve literally almost died .
At least Eve has earned her own near death experience.
She lifts her head and meets Villanelle’s eyes, drowning in gold and flecks of green, her hand coming up to instinctively rest on the woman’s chest, as Villanelle reaches up and brushes an errant curl behind her ear.
“Eve! What the devil is going on here!”
And just like that the moment is broken, both Eve and Villanelle snapping to their feet as Niko and an officer come charging across the deck.
“Niko, I can explai-”
“Officer, arrest that woman!” Niko points at Villanelle, who huffs impatiently as the officer begins cuffing her arms behind her back.
“Niko she saved my life!”
Niko freezes, and gives Eve a look that could kill. It’s apparent that he wasn’t expecting Eve to speak, much less challenge him.
“Eve," he says, even and measured, "look at her, she’s was-”
“I was looking over the railing when I slipped, I thought I saw uh, um, a dolphin, and Miss Astankova was passing by and helped me,” Eve said quickly, silently hoping that Niko really was as boneheaded as she thought.
Niko scowls and turns to Villanelle.
Her hands are cuffed and she’s being roughly held by the arm, but she stands tall, jaw clenched, and is looking at Niko like she’s contemplating 101 ways to skin him alive. Gone is the softness Eve witnessed, replaced with a cold fury that chills Eve to the very bone.
A tiny Eve in her brain whispers that she wouldn't mind if Villanelle decided to skin Niko one day.
“I suppose I owe you some thanks, Miss Astankova,” he grinds out. “For saving my, ahem, clumsy fiancée.”
“No thanks necessary,” Villanelle drawls. “I was in the right place, at the right time.”
“Niko, she deserves a reward,” Eve interjects, “She saved your future wife, it’s the least you can do," as she flashes him a little smile.
Before Niko can even protest the idea, Villanelle interrupts him.
“Thank you, but I’m not going to take your money,” she says. “Rewards really aren’t necessary.”
Eve turns to see Carolyn stalking purposefully towards them, her eyes set on Villanelle.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your discussion during my nightly walk, my apologies. If this young woman has saved your lady, Mr. Polastri, it would be only proper to invite her to dine with us tomorrow evening, at the very least,” Carolyn declares. She turns to Villanelle.
“I’m sure you’ll be joining us, won’t you?”
Villanelle nods quickly in response, and Eve swears she hears Villanelle mutter to herself, ‘ she’s the real boss, isn’t she?’
Niko is fuming beside her, and Eve couldn’t be happier with how the night has transpired.
“Perfect, now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to retire for the night.”
With that, Carolyn orders the officer to uncuff Villanelle, and the three exit the deck, but not before Niko tells Eve that she is expected in her quarters at half past 10.
Eve turns back to Villanelle, seeing the woman shove her boots back onto her sock-clad feet. This woman saved her, literally pulled her from the edge of death, and asked for absolutely nothing in return.
“Thank you, Villanelle. I’m so sorry about Niko, he’s-”
“Shh. It’s fine Eve. I’m used to it,” Villanelle smiles at her, wiping her hands on her trousers. The softness is back now, as if it was something only Eve could pull out of her. She moves closer, and notices that Villanelle smells lovely.
This woman is going to kill her.
“I should get back to my quarters,” Eve says softly, knowing that when she leaves the deck everything will go back to the way it was, and she’ll go back to the same gilded cage she was trying to escape.
“Don’t look so sad, Eve,” Villanelle grins, her hand reaching out to brush softly against Eve’s knuckles. “ I’ll see you around soon.”
In a reflection of their first meeting, Villanelle saunters off, and leaves Eve to her thoughts.
The next day, Eve is a woman on a mission.
Niko was out playing bridge, so she was left to her own devices for the better part of the day. With that in mind, she set herself to finding the mysterious Russian who had saved her life in the dead of night.
Eve tries to rationalize that the reason she’s seeking her out is because she wants to give her a proper thank you, face to face before dinner, but even Eve knows that it’s bullshit. She’s infatuated to the point of no return, despite that they’ve only interacted twice, and they’re from two completely different social classes.
Oh, and she’s a woman to top it all off.
A woman who made Eve feel alive again.
She repeats that mantra to herself as she weaves her way across the deck, looking for a flash of blonde hair, when she hears soft whistling to her right.
Villanelle is on one of the benches, her shirtsleeves rolled up to expose toned forearms, and sketching in a folder that’s propped on her crossed leg. In the daylight, Eve can fully admire her tall stature, the sharp angle of her jaw, the concentrated expression on her face and the long fingers that she just knows are strong. She whistles a soft little tune, one that Eve sometimes hears the sailors sing to themselves as they make their rounds.
Villanelle looks up from her sketch, a bright smile crossing her face.
“Eve! How wonderful to see you, please sit.”
Eve takes her seat next to Villanelle, and glances over to see what Villanelle is sketching.
It’s the mother from the pier in Southampton before they left on the Titanic, and it’s incredibly accurate. Villanelle has captured the lines of her face, the stilled motion of her arm reaching out to clean her child’s nose, and it’s almost like Villanelle was there with a camera, capturing the moment for eternity.
“Do you like it?” Villanelle asks her, as Eve strains to see over her arm.
“Oh, I’m sorry, it's just really good,” Eve replies softly, her eyes never leaving the lines that Villanelle has traced onto paper.
“I wanted to thank you, personally, for last night,” Eve begins. “You not only saved my life, but you didn’t mention anything to Niko. I am grateful for your… discretion.”
Villanelle raises her eyebrow and smirks dangerously.
“My discretion? What sort of things have we done to require discretion?” she murmurs, the suggestive tone not lost on Eve's ears.
Eve feels her face go red.
“No! Not like that! I mean, not that I-I’m sure-” she breaks off, as Villanelle howls with laughter. She's bent over on the bench, tears leaking from her eyes and she giddily slaps her knee.
“I’m sorry Eve, it was just - ha! It was just too good not to tease! Your face is so red, like a tomato!”
Eve sighs, and tries to hide the smile that is slowly creeping onto her face. It's nice to be teased by someone, and it almost feels like she has a friend.
After she wipes the last tear of laughter from her eye, Villanelle turns to her and says,
“Would you like to go on a walk with me?”
Eve tells Villanelle everything.
She tells her about her childhood, how she would spend days not knowing if there would be food on the table, her Korean father unable to find work due to anti-asian sentiment in the United States.
She tells her about how she was devastated when he passed away from tuberculosis, leaving her with a mother that only thought of her as one more mouth to feed.
She even tells her about Niko, who was studying abroad for his masters when he had met her at the tea shop, and proposed only to prove that he was the new social pioneer of the century. Armed with his wealth, reputation, and good family name, her mother was more than willing to let the British gentleman sweep her away.
And Villanelle listens.
Better yet, she doesn’t say anything at all.
Villanelle is silent, nodding her head and softly touching her shoulder when the words get difficult to form. Never poking, never prodding further than what Eve tells her. She holds her hand when she talks about how Niko acts when he has too much brandy. And she doesn’t hesitate to brush her thumbs over the bruises that pepper her wrists.
Eve feels like the weight that’s been on her shoulders is lifted with every pass of Villanelle’s fingers.
Villanelle is just as interesting and Eve knew she would be.
She apparently speaks five languages, lived in Paris for the better part of two years, is an excellent poker player, and is infuriatingly only 27 years old. She’s been everywhere in Europe, and doesn’t hesitate to tell her about the cathedrals she’s seen, or poetry she’s read. When she does, her eyes light up with a vibrancy that speaks to Eve’s very soul.
Despite this, Villanelle doesn’t talk much about her family. The only information she discloses is that her father died when she was young, and that she and her mother never got along. She doesn’t tell Eve why she left Russia, or if her family is looking for her, or even why she absolutely refuses to speak in her native tongue. Where she was vibrant before, she’s muted as she offers vague details about her home, never giving up too much information to be pieced together.
It adds to the mystery of her, Eve supposes.
Villanelle does tell her about the man she came with, however. His name is Konstantin, and he had helped her get out of ‘a situation’ while she was leaving Russia. In return, she offered to carry out his business whenever it was required, and the two had become inseparable ever since.
“So, what kind of business does he have?” Eve asks her as they round the bow of the boat.
Villanelle stops walking, her face stony. It's a juxtaposition of her usual self, and Eve finds herself worried over the younger woman.
“What is it?”
“I am afraid if I tell you, you will not enjoy my company, Eve,” she says softly.
“Villanelle, we’ve been walking this deck for almost two hours. You saved my life, and you listened to my story without judgement. The least I can do is listen to yours.”
Eve tilts Villanelle’s chin up from where her gaze had fallen, and meets her eyes. Her fingers on Villanelle's skin spark with electricity, and against Eve's better judgement, she shifts her hand to gently cup her cheek.
Villanelle freezes like a newborn deer, wide eyed and nervous, before slowly relaxing and leaning into Eve's hand.
“I promise I won’t run off,” Eve tells her.
Villanelle closes her eyes, takes Eve's hand from her cheek, clasping it between her own, and says,
“Konstantin had his hands in everything, everything that wasn’t legal. I would run blood money, drugs, guns, anything he needed me to. When he needed someone to fill a boxing spot, I boxed. When he needed someone to steal medication for his weak, stupid heart, I stole it for him.”
She pauses, collects herself. Her grip on Eve's hand tightens.
“I saved him when it all went to shit, when he could not pay off his debts. When we had so many people on our tail. I knew that we needed to get out of Europe, so that’s why I took a chance on some cards, and won these tickets."
She looks down.
“We are even now, I think.”
It’s silent for a moment, as Eve processes her words. It scares her that despite this woman's past, her affinity for the darker things in life, Eve still wants to know everything about her.
"I know I've done bad things, Eve. But I don't want to do it anymore," she finishes.
She squeezes Villanelle's hand, and runs her thumb over her knuckles. They're scarred, physical evidence of the fights Villanelle has endured to survive.
“This is your fresh start, isn’t it?” Eve asks her.
Villanelle gives her a soft smile.
“I’d like to think that it is, yes.”