It takes several minutes to settle in.
When the feeling finally comes, it creeps, tiptoes really, like it too doesn’t want to wake Phoenix from where he’s sleeping on her breast: an echo of guilt. Little more than a whisper, a thought that at first doesn’t mean much at all.
I’m getting better at this.
She doesn’t mean the sex, although that’s true too. They’ve both improved there, and while the first clumsy fumbles were still incredible simply by virtue of who they were with and what they meant, now Iris feels less embarrassed of herself in bed. More confident that, at the very least, Phoenix loves what she’s doing. So long as that’s true, and so long as she enjoys it too, she doesn’t feel bothered anymore over not being especially ‘good at it’, though even then she has no idea to what standard she judged herself. Just that it was higher that she could reach.
(It’s a familiar uncertainty.)
I’m getting better at this, Iris thinks as she stares up at the ceiling of Phoenix’s room, and she means being happy. Being in love. Being in the moment and refusing to worry about anything outside of it. She means that she wasn’t insulting and blaming herself the entire time they made love, like she did the first few times. She forgot all about that; she gave herself over entirely to Phoenix. His kisses, his touches, his complete earnest adoration – and returned it in kind without further thought.
She’s been laying here, breathing in the scent of sweat and pleasure, gently petting her boyfriend’s hair, for at least fifteen minutes, and only now is she remembering that it’s all a lie.
He makes it too easy to believe it’s not – because, from a certain perspective, it isn’t. He really does love her, not the sister he’s barely even met. He may have been attracted to Dahlia but he loves Iris. And she loves him. She surprises herself often with just how much, because she never expected to feel anything but guilt and pity for him. But the pity quickly faded, admiration and honest like took its place, and then were unseated entirely by a love like nothing she’s ever experienced before. Something sweet and fumbling and nonetheless completely certain.
She’s getting better at fooling herself.
The peace of the moment is starting to slip away, with that thought. Suddenly his weight on her is smothering rather than comforting, there’s a slow shiver of revulsion up her spine, she wants to leave before she can finish thinking the words…
Iris slides her fingers through his hair, again and again, tries to breathe in time with the motion. Swallows down the nausea – and even that is better, more the suggestion of bile than the sick overwhelming burning in her throat that had her retching into the toilet and swearing to herself never again, that first time.
He loves her, though. Obviously it’s a betrayal, but she makes him happy, and as long as he feels that way he’s not going to expose Dahlia. He might be a loose thread in an otherwise perfect stitch, but Iris has sewed enough to know that a kiss of fire often works as well as a pair of scissors. Even if she’s doing wrong by him, she’s doing what she can for Dahlia, her other better half. Even if she’s constantly lying to him, it’s better than hurting him – and again, it’s not all a lie, not really. Just her name, just her history and her class schedule. Those are small things, compared to the whole of her personality, the sweater she knitted, the daily walks and meals together, her first kiss and first touch and first everything. She can even tell herself that Dollie is a nickname, like sweetheart or love; or that it might not be but it’s still hers because the real Dahlia would never allow someone to call her a diminutive.
She’s getting so much better at this… it almost seems believable.
It almost seems like she can keep this.
Iris knew from the start this wasn’t sustainable. She’d only wanted to save Dahlia from having to kill another person. Phoenix hadn’t even come into the picture until after, and then she’d told herself well, she could save him too. String him along then dump him for his own benefit. A broken heart was better than what her sister had planned.
(Burns linger, but so does the thread –)
But now that it’s her heart on the line, she’s gotten selfish. She’s become a better liar, under Dahlia’s tutelage at first but it’s become scarily natural lately. She’s started playing both sides.
She could take the necklace off of him right now. He’s asleep, his neck is right there within reach, she could smash it on the floor and get rid of the evidence and just tell him it was an accident after. He’d believe her. She could make sure he believed her. She could get him a new necklace, if he wanted.
(She could get him a ring.)
It’s impossible. Dahlia would never let her sustain the charade once the threat of the necklace was gone. There’d be no reason to, they’re already pushing their luck at seven months of this. Sooner or later someone is going to realize Dahlia is seen too often around campus, someone is going to tell Phoenix his girlfriend was in a class at the same time they were on a date.
If her twin ever found out about this… She actually does shiver at the thought, physically trembles to think of what would happen if her sister ever learned that she’s been sleeping with Phoenix for weeks now, has had plenty of chances to end all of this and deliberately chose not to take them. It would be as terrible as if Phoenix found out who she really is, why she’d started to date him. He’s too honorable to let something like that go, however much he loves her. Dahlia is too determined to keep herself safe. She has to keep telling them both what they want to hear, or whichever outcome, she’ll lose them both.
The motion disturbs him; he shifts, mumbles, starts to turn away. Iris surprises herself by clutching at him, too tight. He wakes with a grumbled, “ow…” as her fingernails dig into his scalp.
“Sorry,” she says sweetly. Bends to plant an apologetic kiss to his temple.
“No, ‘s fine,” Phoenix’s eyes are drooping, he’s yawning around the words: “Didn’t mean to fall asleep…”
“It’s okay. You’ve been studying hard.”
It shouldn’t be possible, he’s already so relaxed, but everything about him softens at her words. His smile lodges in her heart, and it’s only the tiniest bit painful, so long as she focuses on forgetting why it would ever hurt.
“Have I mentioned that I love you, Dollie?” he asks. (Like he didn't moan those very words just half an hour ago, rocking so sweet into her and kissing from her ear to her lips and gasping on the word love.)
Iris has gotten so good she doesn’t even know what’s worse anymore. How can it be wrong to love him back? How can it be better to hurt him, to leave him, how can she even know that Dahlia will be satisfied with that? Why should she torture herself over giving him what they both want so much? Why not ignore the consequences? When he smiles at her like that, she lets herself think maybe she can make it so they never come.
“I love you too, Feenie,” she answers.
(It’s only the tiniest bit painful.)