“We’re so excited to have you join the cast,” the intern babbled, “I’m a big fan- A huge fan. I loved you in The Glass Maiden.”
“Thank you, that’s very sweet,” Lisa replied, her voice slow and her long legs barely matching the intern’s quick pace.
Lisa glanced towards the creme walls stretching down the long hall; golden frames encasing men with furrowed brows and wide grins, an array of awards stocked behind each.
(She watched their teeth, sharp and white. She wondered how they would eat the world).
The intern’s cheery voice piped up again. “I heard playing a gay character is the hardest thing an actor can do, and you played one so well in The Glass Maiden-”
A soft cherry color bloomed in her cheeks as she tore herself away from Lisa’s gaze.
“Of course you played one well-” she paused and she released a breath that left her nearly trembling. “It’s why you won all those awards. It’s why the director wanted you for the role.”
Lisa’s lips twitched slightly before smiling. “Every role is a challenge, but you’re right, pretending to love women like that was quite the challenge.”
The intern’s head bobbed up and down as she pulled her notepad closer to her chest. She thought cameras wouldn’t be able to catch even half of her beauty. She sighed, so much of it would have to be buried within her eyes.
“But, I am an actress. It’s what we do,” she added with a soft wink.
(Lisa giggled softly when the intern yelped quietly and quickly spun her head to face the ground).
The intern led her into a plain room, a simple desk sitting in the center with two chairs. Across from it a coffee maker and not a cup in sight.
“The lead should be here soon, I heard she’s never late.”
Lisa nodded as she sat in the chair. “A punctual lead?” she sighed softly, “we might actually have to work.”
“Not a worker?”
“Not a particularly hard one,” she said with a quiet laugh as she brushed a stray hair behind her ear.
She nearly frowned when the memories of Beidou came flooding back. Always an hour or two late to set and always first to leave. Lisa didn’t mind her lax attitude towards working hours, but her nose crinkled at the scent of booze that always manages to linger across her skin. Lisa could come to an easy conclusion: it wasn’t her.
Keqing. A horrid workaholic. She shivered just at the idea of the working hours.
Her eyebrows furrowed as she sat straighter. Unless they plan on pulling Ganyu out of that director’s chair, who else could it possibly be?
A short yet powerful knock grabbed Lisa’s attention, she looked up from the table to see the intern smiling wildly.
“Oh! She’s here!” the intern chirped as she swung the door open.
“Mrs Welker, hi!” the intern greeted as a long leg stretched through the doorway.
A long cream-colored coat spiraled around her frame, she towered over the intern as endless grace seemed to spill down her hands.
Lisa’s smile faltered and stumbled, her lips fell downwards into an unraveling frown.
“Hello,” she echoed with a polite smile, her voice steady and calm and infuriatingly kind.
“Regarding my name, I kept my last name in the marriage,” she corrected softly, her eyes as blue as they were in those faded memories.
“Oh I’m so sorry,” she apologized, her face reddening as Jean waved the mistake away with a soft smile.
“It’s quite alright, It’s a common mistake, really.”
“Well, Mrs Gunnhildr I’m sure you’ve heard of Lisa Minci, she starred in The Glass Maiden last year, she won best actress for her role.”
Jean’s eyes shot open as she choked on a breath suddenly turned loose. “Minci?”
The intern nodded. “I remember that your role in Wolvendom by The Sea was also in the nomination pool-”
“-I’m sure Mrs Gunnhildr remembers that night well, so there's no need to go over old losses,” she purred with a wink.
“Jean, darling,” she called out and Jean felt the familiar slither of rose branches across her skin. She let out a steady breath before turning to face a remnant of her past.
The intern nodded, happily unaware of the erratic thumping beats in Jean’s chest and the fact that Lisa had a sudden and almost carnal desire to fill her lungs with smoke.
“I’ll swing back around here when the director calls for you two,” she said before leaving the room.
Lisa patted the desk softly as she swallowed that artificial-tasting grin. “We have some catching up to do, don’t we?”
Lisa spotted the dull golden band wrapping around her ring finger. A sparkling diamond sitting atop like a lighthouse, a siren, a manifestation of a plump fruit hanging off a branch that just barely brushed against her fingers.
(She could be desired, but never had, never enjoyed).
“Married.” The word lit aflame in her mouth.
Her entire body rejected the idea, the institution. It was holy and it was clean, it was protected by armies of popes and priests wielding golden crosses and leather-back bibles. And yet she couldn’t help herself from wanting to rip it apart with crimson-stained teeth.
“I read about your wedding in the paper, then Kaeya informed me of your reception. I heard it was beautiful,” Jean recalled in a weak attempt at small talk. Her ring finger twitched before she pulled her hands off the table.
(She wondered how many scars were golden, how many shackles shined in the light?).
Jean continued as her eyes shut softly. Kaeya’s voice still fresh against her wounds. “Dandelion and rose bouquets. You were always a fan of symbolism.”
She hummed sweetly. “Dandelions are always gorgeous in the spring, imported, of course, you can find roses in Liyue but you could die before finding a single dandelion.”
“It’s a coincidence then?”
“His nickname was never dandelion,” she answered with her lips pressed firmly together. Her wedding band was beginning to weigh on her.
(Gold felt heavy. It shouldn’t have felt this heavy).
Her eyes met Jean’s, and they stared back at each other’s shared grief, a rope woven of responsibility, of a career on the line, tied tightly around their necks.
“Happily?” Lisa asked after a steady pool of silence.
Jean glanced away with a slight look of disbelief that quickly chipped away.
Lisa swallowed applause and another prestigious award, she expected nothing less from an award-winning actress. But even she knew those shining golden awards would do little to deter the pack of grief and melancholy from circling her; they watched with oil dripping from their jaws.
(They, unlike most predators, jump straight for the kill. Grief doesn’t believe in waiting).
Jean’s eyes had returned to her, hollow and resounding. Her tongue ran over her teeth, searching for scraps of Lisa’s name within the sharp edges and perfect curves. And somewhere amongst the mess of olive green eyes and roses that always dug too deep, was the truth.
“No,” she answered finally. “But what marriage has ever been happy?”
Plenty, Lisa wanted to say. She wanted to say so many people were just drowning in yellow, eye-straining, lung-combusting happiness. She wanted to say there were more sparkling gold bands than there were stars in the sky, and the sky was infinite.
We would, she wanted to say, letting the words pool and allowing her tongue to wade in the sweetness. We would be happy, and the moon and the stars would explode out of envy .
If we could, she swallowed, a rush of bitterness settled across her tongue. If we could.
She swallowed her confession; beating it back so she wouldn’t foam at the mouth with a desperate longing and desire that she knew would only set Jean aflame.
“Are you happy?” Jean asked and Lisa didn’t have to look to see her pull one leg atop another, her hands placed perfectly across her lap, her fingers splayed only as far as beauty would let them.
Lisa laughed softly as she slumped slightly into her seat. A quick puff of air between her lips and the answer still hadn’t become any lighter on her chest.
Jean didn’t want Lisa to dig her teeth into her grief’s scruff, she didn’t want to see the bitterness settle on her tongue as it had with her.
Jean frowned slightly, the growing curiosity had crumbled in her chest. “Unfortunately that seems to be the nature of marriage.”
Her eyes drifted from the coffee machine to Jean’s unfaltering adherence to the rules. She sighed. “If it was the nature of marriage don’t you think the divorce rates would be higher in Mond?”
An unbearable coldness flashed across her eyes. “Perhaps, but the divorce rates are terrible enough amongst Gunnhildrs- I’m sure you’re already aware.”
Lisa thought that could be accredited to Frederica Gunnhildr’s violent love of the applause and the growing numbers at the box office. As beautiful as she was, Lisa thought even she would struggle to love a woman so infatuated with arrays of gold and silver.
“And the rates amongst Welkers, is it an improvement?”
Something rippled across her jaw, Lisa stood still to feel the fury twist and accumulate in the air, but found none. Jean’s posture remained as poised and stiff as ever.
She gulped before speaking like she was holding onto something. “It’s enough.”
Lisa’s fingers drummed against the table as she leaned forwards. “You know, this doesn’t seem to be a problem that plagues our dear friends in Liyue.”
Jean’s eyes narrowed sharply, her lips curling in slight distaste. She had heard of the alleged romances that frequented Liyue Harbor, but that didn’t mean she would so blatantly indulge in gossip.
“Those are rumors.”
“We can be rumors too,” Lisa’s voice bobbed gently in the air, a tempting lure. Jean was sure if she was any younger she would’ve swallowed it whole.
“We’re not like them,” Jean’s voice hardened, but her jaw trembled ever so slightly.
Lisa’s hand swept across the table, her fingers brushed against Jean’s.
Her voice calloused and beaten. “Don’t.”
It was a double-sided warning; one side duller for Lisa, a harsh reminder that a love like theirs would only end up with them dead, and if not dead they’ll wish they were.
The sharper side was for herself, a deep wound to remind her to never get lost in those forests that pooled in her eyes or in the laugh that devoured the air in her lungs again.
(This time she’s too old to survive something like that. This time she’ll just drown).
“What?” Lisa’s voice cracked through the air like a tight whip, “they don’t count?”
“You know they don’t,” Jean sighed as she moved out of her chair. “I’m happy with my career- you know that.”
“Happy with your career, but unhappy with your marriage,” she scoffed.
Jean pulled back; her face sharp and clean, tight muscles rippled across her rigid jaw while her chest caved in.
“I don’t have a choice,” she said simply before correcting herself, “we don’t have a choice.”
Lisa watched as the cameras panned away, as the makeup smudged and the constant influx of coffee dwindled.
(A hundred years of fleshy grief split within her eyes. Lisa watched what must’ve taken years to perfect crumble in only seconds).
Her biting tone quickly dissolved. She shot out of her seat, her arm stretched across the gap. Her grip was loose, it begged without saying . Stay, don’t leave.
Jean shuddered underneath her hand; waves of warmth rose and swept off of Lisa and crashed into her. Every nerve jump-started before they quickly drowned in endless heat.
Over the years her hands had become paler and colder to the touch. Her body must’ve known nobody was going to touch her hands the way they had years ago. No one would hold them and beg her not to go.
“Darling.” Her voice treaded softly, golden thorns dug into Jean’s skin. She shut her eyes, gold faded and chipped. She held her breath, her lungs burning and crying out as they became filled with roses.
A sudden knock came at the door and the two tore apart like they were caught mid-sin like Lisa was holding a knife and Jean was bleeding out on the floor.
Lisa’s hand moved into her pocket as Jean moved across the room; placing a more than comfortable distance.
“Come in,” Jean called out as she began to mess with the coffee machine.
Her fingers turned knobs and pressed buttons before she spotted the unplugged wire hanging above the ground. Damn.
The door opened and the intern’s head popped from outside. She grinned. “The director is ready to meet you both.”
“We’ll be right there,” Lisa swallowed her grimace.
She nodded and left.
Jean didn’t turn back, she made sure to not turn back.
Lisa kept her confessions tied and thrown into the back with the rest of her memories and old apologies that were never sent, but often visited.
Months had gone by and confessions were beginning to cloud her body.
She watched Jean from a distance, her eyes drifting from their co-stars in between scenes. She considered it a blessing that their characters found it impossible to not clash every time they saw each other.
Their characters fought enough that Lisa often left the set with lavender and blue crawling up the soft curve of her spine. Her fingers found a home within the throbbing ache that settled across her back.
Although, that was nothing compared to the scars Jean carried back home. Her character lived every day with rage gnawing on her bones, her fists heavy with experience, and her skin scarred to hell and back.
She winced at the memories of Jean hurtling her fists through glass and wood. The others watched from behind the camera with praise dripping from their maws. Lisa hated method acting, but she hated it even more when it ended with Jean picking herself off the ground with blood pouring over her fists.
Kaeya turned away, his hand pulling tightly across his face. He looked back one last time, Jean took a shaky step off the ground, bruises forming underneath a sea of red and a golden award between her teeth. His lips contorted, the stone that had allowed him to survive years of flames began to chip. His grimace gained in-depth as the camera swiveled behind him and as a chorus of cheers rang.
Their eyes met as Kaeya passed by her. “I just don’t think everything should be praised.”
Lisa nodded weakly as she downed another cup of tea. Rolling flames spread down her throat and she prayed it would engulf the roiling sickness settling at the bottom of her chest.
He said not everything should be praised, what he meant was that he had no intention to watch a martyr die.
The quiet tap of porcelain against wood pulled Lisa from her book. She yawned as her eyes traveled up the weary frame of her lead.
Swirls of wispy heat curled from the cup. “Tea,” she said simply. “Your favorite.”
Lisa knew she should’ve said thank you, but she didn’t think she could forgive herself if she let those bruises walk away unkissed.
“Just because your character beats herself to death doesn’t mean you should too.”
Her knuckles flashed raw shades of beaten pink and battered shades of violet. Lisa felt nausea swirl in the back of her throat as her finger hovered over hollow bone.
Jean’s hand swayed underneath hers, bones trembling and flesh crawling before she flinched. In one swift fold, her hand had been tucked behind her.
Her words followed after her hands, always honest and clean, because Jean was sure that some part of her really had meant it. “You worry too much about me.”
(Maybe it was a warning, maybe it was a scolding. Jean couldn’t tell. She never could).
Lisa sighed softly as she pulled the cup closer to herself. “Thank you Jean.”
“Of course, a hundred times over.”
Jean’s character would burst into the room, Lisa would look up from her scheme, her plan was foiled but she would try again, and again.
Lisa would feel herself collide into the wall, Jean’s hand wrapped around her throat with the other raised. Jean’s character did love Lisa’s, but not in a way that either understood.
(Lisa didn’t think the writers intended for love, but it was love, she was sure of it).
She would choke and cough. The words across paper said thrash against her grip, fight even though losing is the only fate, so she did. Her hands dug into Jean’s forearm as her character hurtled insults and cheap digs that would only make her more hated amongst fans.
(The writers didn’t care).
The cameras paused and Jean’s hand fell flat against her throat as an intern rushed in and dripped fake blood from a busted lip. Her tongue ran along her teeth as Jean ignored the burning sensation coiling around her arm.
She fluttered through the cracks. Her snarl collapsed into rubble and all that remained was concern pooling between her hand and Lisa’s throat.
“Are you okay? Did I throw you too hard?”
Lisa cracked a smile as crimson ran down her chin, “I’m fine, and not at all,” her hand raised from her side and pointed into the camera. “It’s just acting, none of this is real.”
(Jean wanted to frown. She wanted to press ice against the blossoming blue across her lips. She wanted to dab away at the blood and tell her it was nothing. There was no blood, there was no blue and there was no lavender).
The lights dimmed and Lisa swore she could feel a warm puff of air brush against her collarbone.
(She ignored it. She shouldn't have).
She smiled softly instead, swallowing golden desires that would’ve pulled her into the depths. “You’re a very talented actress.”
“Oh Jean, there’s no need to flatter me, I’ve already signed on for the season.”
Jean’s eyes would always find a way to her, and for a second her entire face would melt into a softened mess, her character’s constant frown would be kneaded into a gentle smile.
(This always lasted till the camera panned back to her).
She sighed as she leaned against the wall, her fingers twisted and a small flame erupted from spinning silver. With one quiet breath, a whirlwind of smoke erupted from between her lips.
There was the flicking of flint against steel, the heavy rain that barely missed her skin, her slow exhales, and the distant spinning of cameras and flipping of pages. She looked up at the sound of quick footsteps.
“I finished all my scenes, you can’t scold me for avoiding work today darling.”
“I had no intention of doing so,” she replied, her hand clutching an unopened umbrella. Golden hair was plastered across her forehead as she shivered.
“I thought you quit smoking.”
Lisa looked up from the flickering embers with a smile. “Are you worried?”
“It's horrible for your health.”
Frustration coated every rigid line across her face, a few droplets ran down her cheeks and over her jaw. Her shirt hung heavy with the cold and pressed along her body.
“The smell of smoke makes me sick.”
Lisa glanced towards the slight crinkle of her nose and the overuse of her mouth to breathe. She didn’t hesitate with dropping the slender cigarette onto the ground, the rain was quick to kill the reddening ashes.
“Do I smell like smoke?” she asked as her foot pressed onto the bud.
Jean stood next to her, the umbrella unfolded within her palm and with the gentle push of a button, the metal claws sprung outwards. With one smooth swoop, she pulled the black fabric over their heads.
“Fortunately not anymore,” she answered as they stared across the street together.
"You know, you're not the greatest liar," Lisa said with an airy laugh.
Jean sighed, she didn't know why she bothered lying, Lisa could always tell. She glanced towards her smiling face and the droplets of rain that ran down her cheeks. "I just needed a reason to be here."
Lisa stared back at the ink bleeding into the paper, the roses cast a dark shadow across her lung-tearing confession. She breathed softly, her heart thumping from the back of her throat.
She sighed quietly before folding the card and gently tucking it between two roses. She had torn out so much of herself and stuffed it into that card she thought it would be leaking blood, and if not bleeding then gagging on months of tangled-up confessions
Lisa wiped the sweat off her forehead as she raised a cup to her lips. She heard the familiar sound of cameras swiveling, the hushed arguments between the producer and the director.
She turned away from the snack table and watched the interns and crew members rush past her, Jean’s name fresh on their lips, with a story of sent roses following quickly after.
“Who sent that?” somebody asked from the right.
Her ears perked as she turned to see Jean drowning in vermillion roses, a few petals fell and circled around her before being crushed by a few curious co-stars.
She gripped onto her cup; if she hadn’t sent her heart inside that card she was sure it would be dangling from her ribs.
Jean glanced at the flowers with hesitance. Her lips pulled into a flickering smile as dipped her hands into the crimson bundle to fish out the white card.
The card unfolded in her palm and Jean felt her smile splinter, slivers of it spiraled down with the petals before she quickly yanked it upwards.
I despised award shows, the lights gave me headaches, the wine never tasted that good. But you made those lights your own, that was reason enough to go.
You were the sun revolving on stage. The gold never mattered much to you, did it?
A shuddered breath left her jaw trembling. She felt a breeze brush against skin she swore wasn’t exposed before she shoved the letter into her pocket.
Jean looked up from her twitching hands and to the small crowd surrounding her, their eyes begging for answers, for a tidy and clean ending. She wondered if they could see the dread creeping into her veins, or the sudden cold paleness spreading across her body.
She pressed her shaking hand flat against her thigh.
“Well, who sent it?”
“My husband,” Jean answered, “who else could it be?”
She pushed the roses to the end of the table; the crowd had splintered and the incessant whispering had faded away.
She would be drowning in a thick silence if it wasn’t for the sharp buzzing ringing in her ears as she looked away from the flowers and to the only person still standing in the rubble.
Jean had seen Lisa bloody and battered, with violet bruises blooming all over her body as sticky dark blood poured out of old surgery scars.
There were nights where she watched strained croaks and final wishes slip from pale lips and it had Jean wondering if it was the end, like the end hadn’t happened before and then again.
Those tear-stained nights meant nothing now; rings of red circled around Lisa’s eyes as she looked back at her with shredded grief hugging her sides.
There was a painful absence of purple, but there didn’t need to be any.
Saturated shades of bluish misery were painted across her face; there wasn’t any blood, but Jean felt like there should’ve been.
(Purple could be fixed, ice and bandages and a few days later Lisa would forget how her entire chest looked like it was colored in with a purple crayon).
Blue meant broken, it meant shattered. Blue meant already gone.
“You’re quiet today,” he noted softly, the sounds of metal sliding across a plate and nearly silent chewing wafting in their apartment.
Jean glanced out to the balcony, the blueness of the sky washed over the greyness of the endless buildings. Her eyes wandered downwards and sharp hues of red flowed vibrantly beneath the two; the roses seemed to wave to her as they blew in the wind.
She looked to her husband, her eyes widening, “Hm?”
“You’re quiet,” he repeated, not any harsher. His eyes pooling with concern.
“Just admiring the flowers,” she forced a grin, watching his concern dissolve into a soft smile.
“Where’d you get them from?” he asked while swirling his glass.
“I bought them from a florist after shooting,” she answered, forcing her eyes to scrunch slightly. She knew he loved it when her eyes squished together.
(Lisa did too).
He nodded. “They’re pretty.”
(Lisa must’ve thought so too).
“I didn’t know you liked roses,” he said after a few minutes of silence, “I never really thought you were the type.”
Jean felt the truth becoming warped at the base of her throat.
She cleared her throat, she needed this lie to be delivered clean, without the taste of Lisa on her lips, and without guilt and fear.
Even though roses were rising from her lungs with their thorns sinking deep into her tongue. Her mouth had to be clean.
“I’m not, they were the only ones left,” Jean lied with a smile, her mouth full of blood-covered petals and the bitter aftertaste of not having Lisa’s name always lingering on her tongue.
“So she doesn’t like you?” Kaeya asked, a slender cigarette in-between his fingers, a flickering shade of red amongst colorless ash. “At all?”
“Well she told everyone the roses were from her husband,” Lisa explained with a huff of pearl-colored smoke. “She couldn’t even lie and say I gave them to her as a gift- God, she’s lucky she’s cute.”
Kaeya chuckled as Lisa’s frown deepened. “She’s pretty- But going after her was a bad move, she’s been happily married for almost half a year now.”
He continued. “You know, rumors say they’ve been married even longer, hitched around three years ago, and had a quiet wedding somewhere in Inazuma.”
Kaeya nodded. “No, I agree. Inazuma is a stretch, the Gunnhildrs have plenty of money they could’ve gone to Fontaine. I heard it’s beautiful during the spring-”
Lisa dramatically flung her hands and groaned, “No! Kaeya- She told me, she told me she was unhappy.”
An eyebrow raised in the dark, the moonlight poured over his eyepatch. “That’s… That’s interesting.”
His hand rose to his mouth, reading Kaeya had always been difficult but Lisa knew that the slight rise of his eyebrow and the shuddered puff of air afterward all meant that even Kaeya couldn’t have expected this.
“Regardless.” His free hand tapped against the table. “She’s pretty and nice, I get it. But if you came with me to parties you’d see there are hundreds of her- Here, come with me next time and I’ll find you a Jean Gunnhildr lookalike.”
“I can’t promise they’ll have that Gunnhildr brick wall charm, but they’ll have her eyes and in the right lighting they might even have her nose,” he smiled, his teeth shined in the silver moonlight.
He was right of course, Jean Gunnhildr was a staple in the beauty world and it wouldn’t be hard to find hundreds more like her.
(But desire does not starve. Desire still has room to choose).
“I can have anyone,” she huffed, a faded weariness flickering in her eyes, “I have crowds cheering my name every time I go outside. I have Ningguang sending her secretary to my house with out of print books worth thousands.”
“All I want is that darling brick wall,” she sighed as bluish gloom flooded from between her lips. “She’s unfortunately cute and even worse, she’s a good person.”
She drifted off to somewhere else. Somewhere beyond the weddings in Liyue and Inazuma, the award shows in Mondstadt were left empty without her. She shut her eyes softly as the distant rhythmic beeps of a machine filled her ears again.
She ran her free hand through her hair. “I can’t put it anywhere.”
“I care about her, I worry about her, and I have nowhere to put it- It’s not something to be proud of, I can’t put it on my mantle.”
“Someone will want it,” Kaeya leaned back in his chair, his eye catching the pink scar across her chest that her shirt didn't hide. He swallowed a sea of bitterness that should've belonged to her. “Someone will take all of it, even the scraps nobody wants.”
You have a husband, she thought.
He’s not beautiful, the same voice interjected, a quiet whine behind her shaking tone.
Then find a beautiful husband.
I don’t want a husband-
You can’t have anyone else. Her voice solid and unshaken, but dripping with endless grief. Grief of a life lived full of hesitant hugs, and nausea-inducing kisses in front of cameras and crowds.
(She pulled herself away from the red carpets and for a second the nausea felt bearable).
She glanced towards her phone; the poster of their new show had been plastered all over the internet. Jean stood in the center, her male lead to her left. He had a dashing smile, he was tall, and when he wasn’t angry his tone could be mistaken for being soft.
He was beautiful in a numerical way. Jean could easily rate him a nine out of ten, it was an easy conclusion after seeing the way women tumbled over each other for a scrap of his voice. A few of her costars blushed when he passed their way, they fought for his attention, they envied her hands for being touched by his skin.
She couldn’t remember the name of the man who caught Lisa’s character’s attention. He was taller than most, strong and his smiles were never even on each side.
After her character left Lisa bleeding out in empty hotel rooms he would sweep onto the set. He got to pick her off the ground, it was his hands that wiped the blood off her face, it was his hands that were able to hold her close.
(The writers said it was love, so it was love).
She glanced at her bandaged hands and empty arms and she burned.
And she thought it. And she admitted it. And she confessed it. And she wondered when she’d be punished for it. It should’ve been me. I wanted it to be me.
Jean’s favorites were scratched onto the back of a receipt for a meal Lisa couldn’t remember.
They were tucked behind some foggy memories and old recipes she learned from her mother, and then placed under some childhood memories of a small white dog and a white dress sticky to the touch.
(That dress was a memory that stretched halfway out of a grave she couldn’t remember digging).
And amongst all those memories and those tiny wisps of a future she couldn’t predict; she never saw a future where Jean stood next to her like she used to.
(Mona looked up from her cards, her finger pushed a card across the table. A skeleton on a horse, upside down.
“That doesn’t look great.”
“Well because it isn’t,” Mona answered sharply and as precisely as ever. “Someone’s afraid,” her eyes cut into Lisa’s. “Someone’s roses are burning.”).
Her hand waded through a sea of memories folding and unfolding with each wave. Her fingers twirled around blonde silk while a sweet voice spoke dreams that both knew would fade before the night was over.
(She whispered and created paradises to blow across the ridges and mountains of beaten purple and tarnished red.
Her voice trembled when she saw the tubes and wires. Do you hear me Lisa? Let’s go to Fontaine, I’ll find time I promise. I want to see the stars with you. I want to know what you think of the stars).
The fantasies never lasted long. The nurse would usher her out the second her mother appeared in the doorway, and just like that their dreams of grassy fields in Fontaine would be tucked away with the scalpels and syringes.
“Jean,” she breathed, her name easily leaving with a gust of air. “It’s about time you treated me to dinner.”
She laughed lightly as a waiter beckoned them to follow after him. “I’ve always found it difficult to find free time when shooting starts.”
“You’re lucky that I find it difficult to hold things against you.”
Lisa smiled. “Do you think I’d let anyone else reshoot a scene ten times?”
Jean looked towards her and she chuckled. “No, I don’t think you would.”
The waiter led them down an array of tables with golden candles and leather-back menus. They stopped at the end of the building, a door smoothly slid across the wall and the scent of freshly poured wine and baked bread came floating out.
Lisa’s eyes widened as Jean stepped through the door. If there was anything Jean knew it was abstinence, and this room could be easily full of every earthly desire. Wax dripped across gold, and some of the most prized dandelion wine sat open on the table.
She put the thought aside as she sat across from Jean, and instead wondered if the roses were still burning.
Jean used her fork to push a stray cut of meat back to the center of her plate. She glanced upwards at Lisa’s hand slowly rubbing at a familiar handprint around her throat. Her fork dropped onto the plate with a quiet clatter as she sucked in a tight breath. Her hand slid across the table, thin fingers lining up to the swirling red that was being kneaded away.
Guilt’s teeth ran down her spine. She should’ve been gentler, but the applause rang heavy in her ears as she threw Lisa against the wall. She should’ve been gentler. She should’ve.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out, her words and all their interwoven meanings quickly fell onto the table with a thump.
Her eyebrows furrowed as she set her fork down. “For what?”
Jean gulped, forcing a list far longer than she would ever like to admit back down her throat. Sorry for the scar on your left knee that you got when Kaeya pushed me into you. Sorry for the book I gave back with a torn page and a battered edge. Sorry for never understanding. Sorry for never coming. Sorry for the scar across your chest. Sorry for all the bruises you had to take home.
Sorry for always swallowing my words.
The sharp edges of everything beaten and strangled poked into the roof of her mouth. Her jaw fluttered. Lisa. Forgive me, but don’t make it easy.
“I’m sorry that she hurt you,” she choked out with a thousand other apologies sinking back into torn-up flesh. “I told the writers that choking you wasn’t necessary, we could’ve done it another way. But they said it meant something, I don’t know what though.”
And of course, it was never what she thought, but what she said because she couldn’t wear Jean Gunnhildr’s skin if there weren't a thousand things better said hidden behind her ribs.
“That’s why I wanted to see you, I wanted to apologize-”
Lisa’s fingers draped across her lips as she roared with laughter, Jean froze.
“Is that really it, or did you just want to see me more often?”
Jean stared back at her with wide eyes.
“Darling, I told you already it’s just acting. Besides, you’re really overestimating your strength,” she said as she leaned back into her seat, laughter coating her entire body. Jean’s wide eyes and look of complete terror only incited more laughter from the other side.
Jean stiffened as she cleared her throat. “We shoot together for eight hours every day. When I drive home I see your face on every billboard. Then when I get home it’s your face I see on tv, they’re always playing The Glass Maiden, and it’s always that scene of you kissing-” her rant came to a sudden stop when Lisa’s raspy chuckle met her ears.
Her hands rubbed at the hints of pink rising in her cheeks. “I see you more than I see my husband.”
Lisa smiled like she had all those years ago and Jean’s blush faded when her eyes finally pulled away from the roses blooming across her throat.
She felt the air tighten in her chest; it was as if someone tore the most faded page out of her oldest memory, her skin still lightly kissed by the sun and her eyes as green as the forests in her old stories.
(She was still there. Jean had grown older and outgrown those sparkling blue eyes and long lashes, but Lisa’s voice, her hair, her skin, and hands. It all still fit. It was all still her).
“Well if you’re a fan you could’ve just said that darling,” she laughed and began to reach for a pen, “where would you like your autograph?”
Jean smiled to herself while watching the yellow lights dance and tumble down Lisa’s face as she raised a fork with a piece of lettuce to her lips.
“I did enjoy your work in The Glass Maiden,” she mentioned softly, the lie gentle on her lips.
She hadn’t enjoyed it, she lost an award to The Glass Maiden. Every morning she passed by an empty spot on her shelves, and despite it, she could never bring herself to resent Lisa for winning. She had done a good job, that was a fact none could deny.
“Did you?” Lisa asked with a quiet crunch, “I didn’t realize you were a fan of experimental films.”
She sighed lightly as she broke off a piece of bread. “I’ll admit I only watched it because I saw your face on the poster.”
“So you are a fan?” her head slowly rolled to the side and Jean’s smile stretched wider because she was. She had always chalked it up to friendly rivalry, but none were quicker than her when it came to snatching a ticket to her movies, she was the first to defend her, the first to pull a long line of strings across Teyvat to take down malicious articles.
The first to congratulate her on her marriage, and the only one that wasn’t invited to her wedding.
(She told herself she disliked weddings, the partying and the sappiness was unnecessary. But that failed to explain why she could never bring herself to abandon Minci when calling for her. It was always Lisa and then Minci, the pause between her name swift and unfaltering, never allowing for any others to slip in the gap. Although, there were nights when she imagined Gunnhildr resting softly between the two).
“You are a good actress Lisa- Objectively of course.”
“Of course,” she echoed. “Well, how about subjectively?”
Soft shades of red bloomed across her cheeks. Jean gulped quietly before speaking. “I think you deserved every one of those awards.”
Lisa leaned in slightly, the shop crumbled away, the sounds of mundane conversations and pans clattering faded. The lights panned to her. Jean felt her hand grip the table.
“I loved seeing you at the award shows, I think I won those awards only so you could see me get them,” Lisa admitted quietly.
“After your tenth… Those awards can become more of a burden than a gift, I’m sure you understand.”
“Absolutely,” Jean murmured in awe. “Those awards were always so tacky looking- My mother hated having them around.”
“I’m sure,” Lisa chuckled softly as she leaned back, her hand raising a cup of tea to her lips. “So, what do you have planned after this season?”
Jean never found it difficult to find new roles. Getting a Gunnhildr to star in a drama was considered a guaranteed win when award season came around. Then of course having a Welker was a luxury that only few directors were able to enjoy.
“I’m considering a psychological thriller,” she said before raising her fork to her lips. “The screenplay was written somewhere in Inazuma, and the director has a reputation for always delivering.”
"I'm in the mood for a story."
Jean placed her fork down and gently moved the towel across her hands as she spoke. “A doctor arrives at a hospital known for its innovative research, and she’s instantly pulled into a new and lucrative offer by an older doctor. From there she does terrible things, illegal and inhumane research for an end goal that she isn’t even aware of. It’s a story about morality, a ‘what would you do?’ type of situation.”
The quiet hum of machines wove into Jean’s voice, her story sinking into her bones. Lisa gulped softly as she tried to ignore the whispering static that was beginning to eat away at Jean’s facial features. Her nose chipping away and her cheekbones sliding down as a nauseating shade of blue flushed over her clothes.
(She trembled, she didn’t think Jean noticed).
“That sounds dreary darling… I thought you hated hospitals,” she mentioned with a cough, sweat pooled at her scalp.
“I do, but it’s dark and gloomy and sure to win a few awards. My mother starred in one like it before, it wasn’t the role that brought her fame, but it made people realize she was serious about acting,” Jean explained, her eyes had been whisked away. They sat within the skull of a doctor terrified of what she had done, her sense of justice rotting away in her back pocket.
“I think I’ll visit Sumeru before shooting begins. I’ll need some experience-” Jean continued.
“-You’ll have to excuse me,” she cut in, far sloppier than she intended. Her hands were consumed by a subtle tremor, scalpels and needles fell between the spaces of hands.
“Oh,” Jean looked up, a fragment of hurt being quickly tucked behind her typical politeness. “Take all the time you need.”
Lisa staggered away from the table, her vision swirling as she tried to distinguish the shifting wood walls from sterile white brick. She pushed against a door and found herself stumbling into a, luckily, empty bathroom.
She didn’t want to think about the hundreds of articles that would’ve cropped up the next day if anyone had caught her, going out with Jean was risky enough.
Her hands gripped the sides of the sink as she glanced into a slightly smudged mirror.
She looked aged, withered, and tired. Her eyes moved slowly, approaching each feature with delicate care. Her bones stretched through her skin, her cheeks horridly gaunt. Her bones clicked as Jean’s startled expression began to form around her like a fog.
Sumeru wasn’t the flames that Kaeya had spent an entire lifetime avoiding, and it wasn’t the director’s voice booming across the set that sent everyone running to their places. Sumeru was just a building with white brick walls and nearly thirty floors. Populated by white coats and blue scrubs and a sea of tiny bodies attached to IVs.
(But she remembered it the way forests remembered flames).
A shuddered breath slipped through her gritted teeth. Somewhere a little girl sat within a bed two times her size, a nurse would drop a slice of pumpkin pie onto the table and leave. Lisa knew this story, she knew how it ended, she remembered how it felt.
The little girl would fall asleep with an ache in her chest that she wasn’t sure would ever go away, blood followed, it always did, and then the IVs and the sterile sheets.
She looked back at the mirror. A girl much smaller than her rippled across the glass. She smiled, her teeth a bit sharper than the general public would like, so they would be shaved down when she turned twenty. Her hair had a gentle curl at the end that she would eventually spend every morning straightening out. Lisa swallowed back a wave of nausea, despite her curls and perfectly shaped teeth she was still that girl. This time without the IVs, without the machine plugged somewhere into her chest.
Her jaw tightened and the girl smiled wider and she could already see the words forming at the tip of her tongue. Jean.
A quiet knock came at the door before it opened with a creak. “I’m sorry to intrude- I got worried.”
Lisa turned back, only Jean’s hand made it past the door, her head remained strictly outside the hall.
She blinked and then again while swallowing all the air she could. It ran along the scarred flesh that made up her lungs and a deep cool echoed through her.
Her lips trembled as they framed a weak smile. “Come in.”
Jean took a hesitant step inside, she glanced around before settling next to Lisa.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I should’ve been more mindful, I don’t know how it could’ve slipped my mind-”
“You… You forgot?”
“Just at that moment, Lisa I swear by all the archons I didn’t forget entirely."
The smell of artificial pumpkin clung to her skin. She was a woman, then she was a girl, and then she was a patient. A blue gown pushed out of the flesh her shirt failed to cover, IVs sprung out of her veins and hooked to the wall. Jean’s name became warped at the base of her throat as blood cascaded over an old surgery scar.
The walls were white, the machines sang the ballads of a dying heart, and Jean still wasn’t there.
“I shouldn’t have mentioned it, I’m so sorry.” Jean’s voice a murmur amongst a storm of static and hums from a machine. Her tongue stumbled on the words.
(When she had awoken Kaeya sat in a chair across from her, his one eye lax as he slurped on a hospital slushie. “Before you ask, no she isn’t here.”).
Her crumbling voice felt like punishment. Jean flinched as a quiet rasp stretched across the freezing porcelain.
“I remembered,” she swallowed and her throat felt dry.
Olive-green flicked to the pale vulnerability that made a throat. She chuckled, her laughter bitter and sharp against her tongue. “I remember why you got that scar, I never forgot.”
Jean’s eyes widened as a finger rubbed against the edges of the bandaid stretching across her neck.
(Lisa wanted to laugh, temptation and fury felt similar. Aged betrayal pooled next to her spine, temptation danced across her fingers while fury hammered a war song in her chest).
Lisa leaned across the gap, her finger drifted across the bandaid. Her palm hovered above Jean’s glistening throat.
Jean felt the blood in her body rush into her neck and pool underneath Lisa’s finger. Mangled nerves flared underneath old scar tissue, blazing heat erupted from Jean’s throat and licked at Lisa’s fingertips.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated, gasping softly as her fingertip slid off her throat. Her voice a shaking prayer, a thousand pleas by a thousand blood-soaked hands. “I’m so sorry.”
The room fell silent as Lisa’s hand came back to her side. She wondered how Jean always managed to crawl out with a halo embedded into her skull. What ancient prayer had she murmured to guarantee she would always come out the better person?
Her fingers picked at the edges of her bandaid. “I’m sorry,” she said too honestly like she meant it, and it made Lisa want to tear her apart.
(She had apologized another ten times on the way back home. Lisa thought it was stupid, stupid to keep on asking for forgiveness. She had already forgiven her, she always had).
Lisa was tired of the apologies, tired of Jean’s eyes avoiding hers, tired of feeling like a kid in a hospital bed. So she kissed her, she kissed her and made her dirty.
Her eyes shut as Lisa explained how her husband wouldn’t be home, how he’d be gone another two weeks because of some trip, the details she couldn’t explain because she couldn’t be bothered to remember.
Her house was empty, Jean knew this. Their husbands were out of the picture, Jean knew this. They wouldn’t be shooting tomorrow, Jean knew this.
(So she walked into Lisa’s house and pretended to not see the wedding photos on the wall).
She sighed as she fell onto a chair in Lisa’s dining room. Her mother was right, as she always was, there was nothing the devil loved more than idle yearning hands.
Lisa’s hands fell onto hers as to say. These are yours.
She pressed her lips against Jean’s and waves of heat swept across her face. She murmured something about devouring into her lips, something about being able to eat the world whole. Jean didn’t think she understood.
So Jean didn’t kiss her again.
Jean closed her eyes, her head resting in the soft curve of Lisa’s shoulder. She listened to the song beating within her chest, the quiet thumps and whooshes slowly convincing her heart to dance to the same beat.
The small fruit rolled in her left hand, the sweet smell of mandarins wafting towards her nose.
She looked down at the fruit, splotches of orange were painted across her hand, her fingers smelling of sharp citrus.
She began to peel, bright orange falling back to reveal a softer shade. She pulled at a slice and raised it to Lisa’s lips.
Her smile sugary and smooth. “You remembered?” She ate a slice and then another, her smile stretching as an amber-colored drop trickled to a little below her bottom lip.
If only you were easy to forget, Jean wanted to say. But she swallowed words better forgotten while her thumb gently brushed against her lip, the drop of citrus pressed into the pad of her finger.
“Of course,” she said instead, ignoring the quiet stream of wind fluttering past the window.
Her hand came to a sudden stop near her lips, thin fingers wrapped around hers. Lisa took the slice from her and brushed it against her lips. A sacrifice- No, an offering.
She hadn’t said a thing, but her voice filled her skull like clouds. Let me.
Jean swallowed the fruit whole, wasting no time on chewing. She didn’t understand, she never liked mandarins, but with Lisa’s soft smile coaxing her to take a bite she thought there wasn’t a fruit she could’ve loved more.
Moonlight poured into Lisa’s bedroom, draping their bodies in silver and white. The stars hung low in the windows as Mondstadt began to close its eyes.
Underneath a thin sheet Jean’s hand wrapped around hers. Blonde hair spilled across the pillow, her famous ponytail undone only for Lisa’s fingers to weave through her hair.
Jean told her she loved terribly, she loved her so horribly it made her a monster.
(Monsters are good, she wanted to say, monsters can be homes to exiles and beasts, and no one knows love better than beasts).
Lisa wanted to kiss her pearly fangs with crimson stains and the long claws that burrowed so gently into the spaces between her fingers. She wanted to press the softest kiss against the heavy horns that sat atop her head.
“I love horrible things,” Lisa admitted with a soft laugh as her lips drifted across her cheek. “I do.”
Jean never considered herself a crier.
The phantom of her mother’s hand wrapped around her shoulder, her free hand stretched beyond her and pointed at the black lense watching her with divine curiosity.
She told her that tears bubble when the love interest catches a bullet between his ribs and what was once unspoken suddenly fills the room. When blood pours over shaking hands and staggered breathing comes to a deafening stop.
Her mother explained that there was nothing the award committee loved more than pearly tears dripping onto bleeding wounds. A few golden awards only at the cost of eternal damnation.
(She wanted to ask her now. What do you do when the love interest has damned you both? ).
Her fingers pressed against the spaces between her ribs and then tapped against her sternum.
A mush of names spilled out of their tv and across their living room floor, and she wondered how many times they would repeat Welker instead of Gunnhildr.
(How many times would they mistake the sun for the stars?).
Her phone rattled against her thigh as quiet footsteps sunk within the endless static.
She watched a man explain what would’ve been a love story, she watched years of bottled away affections spill down his teeth, like it was easy, like love like theirs could be explained.
“It’s okay,” he whispered as he pulled her into his chest. “Everything is going to be okay.”
Jean never stopped looking at the tv, or the man announcing the death of her career with a shining smile, or the red banner cheerfully telling the world that she had failed.
[EXCLUSIVE]: Actresses Jean Gunnhildr-Welker and Lisa Minci rumored to be dating.